Sometimes Brook thought he was going insane.
It was understandable, he thought, picking at a patch of rotting flesh upon his thumb. Normal people didn't stay awake to watch their body rot away, watching even though the shriveled remnants of his eye had fallen out a month ago. The bodies of the Rumba Pirates were still strewn across the deck which was enough to make any man question his sanity, but Brook hadn't the heart to throw them in the ocean. Then again, he didn't have a heart at all.
There was Barry, arms crumpled forever in an unending jig, and Bertha, and she was leaning over the cello that always looked small in her mighty grasp, and Darwin, who played the tuba and looked absolutely ridiculous doing so, but he was the loudest player and the most quietly cheerful man Brook had ever met. All of them had been so full of life, yet none of them would ever rise again.
Normal men did not have to bear this desperate urge to sob, day after day, knowing that they lacked the tear glands to make it so. He still played the recording, if only to hear the entire song as a whole once more. Brook had always played the accompaniment, had no experience in being the lead, never wanted to be the lead. That was the captain's job and though he had taken on the position, he knew in his heart that he wasn't meant to be the captain of any ship. But he had to get the song to Laboon, so he learned to play the lead. He learned to play the percussion. He learned every instrument they had. What else did he have to do?
After he lost his second eye, he fought a seagull for it. It was completely and utterly irrational and Brook, who had never been the most logical of men even in life, knew this. He could see without his eyes just fine, of course, but it was as if retaining the slightest bit of flesh would remind him what it was like to be human.
But he was human, wasn't he? Regardless of skin or bone or flesh or blood or bile, he was human.
Sometimes, though, he couldn't help but wonder. He spoke to his crewmates long dead. "It would appear that I am talking to nothing," he remarked to the sorry remains of the trumpet player once, "yet how would I know? I have no eyes!"
The body did not respond, so Brook laughed to himself. It made things a bit more bearable, the laughter, reminded him of olden days. He cavorted around the deck chortling all the while, repeating the laugh of Bink's Sake when he didn't have it in himself to truly laugh.
"Yohoho," he practiced. "Yohoho."
A year passed in darkness. Brook dared any man living amongst ghosts to say that he could have remained sane.
After the second year, he stopped keeping track of time. In the permanent distortion of the fog, he couldn't figure out when it was day and when it was night, couldn't see the brilliance of dawn he remembered, nor the elegant sight of dwindling twilight. Sometimes he almost believed that his crew was still alive as he drifted in and out of consciousness, forever dwelling in the hazy state between reality and dreams.
To stop him from believing that they'd come back, he'd play a jaunty tune on the violin. That was usually accompanied by a loud cry of song, and when it didn't come, it didn't make him too sad. It only let him know, yes, they're gone today and forevermore. They died smiling, and so would Brook.
He started to get the hang of laughing and he stopped crying so much. If he sang loudly, sometimes he'd hear the echo of his own voice in his ears which soothed him as a mother's hand soothes her babe. Some days were better than others, full of happy memories and daydreams of some sort of wonderful afterlife so vivid that occasionally he entertained the idea that they were not dreams but recollections and thoughts of Laboon. Thoughts of the sun.
Other days were worse. He'd walk underneath the deck, if not only to try to delude himself, as if there was a family and a sun and song and joy waiting for him on deck. Eternal darkness would make one rather grumpy after a while, Brook mused on those days, and even Hell had fire. Brook was scared of lighting fires. He was scared of a lot of things. Scared of the dark. Of his own reflection, empty holes staring eerily back at him. Of the undead. Of spirits. Of silence.
Brook was not a terribly brave man but pretended otherwise, because that's what a pirate did, and he didn't really have any choice in the matter anyway.
After the tenth year, he began to move the ship around in the darkness and slowly got used to it. The occasional ship drifted in, and he flashed his lamp at them, wasting some of his precious oil.
They were fellow pirates, after all. They shouldn't be afraid of anything let alone a single man. Brook hadn't looked in the mirror for quite a while now; he didn't know how he looked, strings of skin still dragging behind him, bloodstains on his bare white bones and a strangely soulful expression on a face without flesh.
"Hello!" He cried, racing towards them and all but toppling off the deck before steadying himself. Just somebody to talk to, he convinced himself, and he'd be all right until he could get his shadow back. "Stop!" Brook hurled himself to balance on top of the ship, bones precariously slipping off in the torrential rain.
The other boat slowed, and Brook was overcome with emotion. They had skin. They had lives. He could hear their breathing and that was something he hadn't heard in years. "Hello!" He cried again and met them, eye to eye, face to face. "It has been such a very long time since I have seen people again. Do any of you know the folk song, Bink's--"
Screaming met his words, and chaos broke out.
"No, I'm not very scary," Brook said helplessly, "I'm still a human, you see. I ate a--no, that's not the--" He stopped and sat down, his skeletal mouth spread wide in an eternal grin.
They were going in the... wrong direction.
"Hey!" He shouted after them. "That's the wrong way! You don't want to go there! Oi!"
They paddled faster and somehow Brook knew that they were all dead before he had even got to exchange words with them. With a sigh that rattled his bones, he slunk back underneath the deck and dragged his hand over his performance clothes. Afraid of a bare skeleton, were they? Well, Brook couldn't blame them.
He changed into his suit, put on a top hat and smoothed out wrinkles he'd never be able to see in a mirror. "Yohohoho," he said to the still air.
From now on, his personality would match his endless smile. It would only be fitting.
The next year he came across another ship and instead of pleading to them he lit himself on top of their boat and rocked them with music and laughter, back turned so that they could not see his face.
"It's dangerous here," he told them, voice still musical with laughter, "so you should go the other way! Otherwise you shall soon be dead, like me! Yohoho!" He turned and yes, they were struck with horror at his appearance. He jumped off as they paddled in the right direction this time and wandered upon his own ghost ship, now as much a part of these dangerous waters as the fog that shrouded it.
Laughter worked. It kept him happy, made others happy.
After the twentieth year, he was quite sure he had gone insane. He was prone to chatting with himself, to any living creature that dared come near, to the empty mirror, to a skull. The bones of his crew were crumbling underfoot, and this made him sad.
They were not alive, true, but it still felt as if he was losing his dear friends. Brook could recognize each of their skulls, picked them up. Played music on them. Laughed.
He had to take joy in little things, after all, and he threw their remnants overboard. Better than rotting forevermore in this hellish boat. Brook sang. He sang a lot. Every day, he'd wake up singing, every night, he would fall asleep with a song underneath his breath. It was the one part of him that did not change, after all, and simply hearing it ring about the ship kept him connected, kept him sane.
He had to be alive, had to be real, had to be human, had to have had a life to sing the way he did. Nothing lacking humanity could be moved by music. It was his joy in life, was always his joy, and thus it remained.
Sometimes he placed his hands over his eye sockets and listened very carefully. Sometimes he thought he could hear his crew.
After the fortieth year, Brook stopped fighting it and let himself fall into the ocean he felt himself slipping more and more into every year. At times, he thought that it was wrong, that his crew would be disappointed, but his resolve had been slowly torn into. It was just so much easier to cavort around and laugh and play music, as if it would somehow protect him.
He stopped playing Bink's Sake.
He saw no other ships to play it with. As insane as he acted, if there was one thing he understood, it was music, and Bink's Sake wasn't a song to sing because you were lonely; it was a song of crewmates, and Brook didn't have those anymore. He was happy, though, or as happy as he felt he could be. Brook was a fighter and would keep on going on. If that meant laughing when he shouldn't be and hearing things and losing track of time, well,that wasn't the worst that could happen to him. Brook should have been lonely, but he told himself that he wasn't - when he closed his eyes (or lack thereof, which would be noted with a hysterical giggle), he could see Laboon's face as clear as ever. It was stupid, some small part of him told him, depending on a whale like this but when you had nothing you had to cling onto old memories. It wasn't that bad. When the sheer solitude of his situation overwhelmed him, Brook concentrated on hearing his crewmates' voices in hid head. He had the inkling that this wasn't normal but it filled up the silence. He wouldn't have it any other way. Things could be worse.
He could be dead, after all.
Then, after fifty years, another ship sailed in. He leaped in, rocking the boat with laughter, and the boy there did not scream. Some crewmembers screamed, and they fussed, but never did they chase him away. Never did any of them attempt to kill him, though the amusing long nosed boy whose voice sang as loudly as any oboe waved strange items at him. They gave him food, they gave him drink, and an offer he had to refuse.
Brook loved them right away. Fiercely. It was a stronger feeling than he had had in years, to hear it. Looking at their full faces, their cheeks flushed and eyes bright, he could feel the sun upon him once more.
He felt like crying, but he was happier than he'd felt in decades, so he laughed instead. When he laughed, Luffy laughed, and when Luffy laughed, the entire crew groaned in some sort of mocking camaraderie, but they were family, and Brook felt the hum of Bink's Sake rise in his throat once more.
He wasn't a part of this crew, never would be, knew this in his heart. Despite all this, he decided to help.
This--this feeling of camaraderie, still young and bright and warm and alive, this was something worth fighting for.
Amidst his laughter, his admittedly small reserve of sanity peeked its head up and whispered, Yorki would approve.
Brook began singing Bink's Sake again.
He wasn't sure how it happened, but walking across Thriller Bark he felt the familiar melody rise in his throat and escape out of his mouth as surely as it ever did. Maybe it was because he was helping the Straw Hats, maybe it was because such a small show of kindness made him happy again, maybe this was true madness. But really, Brook didn't care. The words tumbled out of him as if they had never left and it was of great comfort to his weary soul.
Then, everything dissolved into something that even Brook called madness, the sacrifice of the swordsman, the terrifying enemies, the fact that they all stuck together and fought when it was more tempting to flee. But as he would soon find out, it worked out in the end. After fifty years of solitude, the Strawhats whirled in, fixed everything, and--
well, they didn't exactly whirl out again. They took him with them. The kindness of it was unspeakable, and for once, he could not hear his old crewmembers' voices ringing in his mind, but the voices of his new crewmates, rising in an off-key harmony to Bink's Sake. He was playing accompaniment again.
He was still quite mad. He was aware of this, too aware, but for some reason, it didn't matter to them how much he laughed, or confused night for day, or screamed when the sun hit his eyes, or sang a tune early in the morning. So that meant they loved him, even if he was insane.
Later, a month later, a time Brook knew not later (for he always mixed things up -was day night and night day? Was suppertime not simply breakfast? Why was there a moon out while he was wide awake?), he sat beside the swordsman, dozing although it was midday. The sun shone through the branches mikan trees, creating a dappled pattern upon his face. He rose a hand and played with the shadows, delighting in this simple pleasure.
"What are you doing?" Zoro asked. Brook didn't answer and pulled Zoro's hair instead. It was green. Zoro swatted his hand away.
"I'm listening to you breathe," Brook replied, honestly. He liked being by the swordsman for that reason. He snored loud enough to wake the dead (like himself! Yohohoho!), but it was a comforting sound.
He grumbled and crossed his arms, squirming a bit to get comfortable. "That's stupid."
"No it's not."
"Yes it is," he insisted. "Everything breathes."
Brook considered this. "Not me."
Zoro sat up, apparently giving up on sleeping while being continuously badgered by the skeleton. There was a note of fondness in his gaze, Brook thought, and it was almost touching, the way this man treated his crew. "Yes you," he said, voice as gruff as ever. "Everything breathes."
"You can hear me?" Brook asked, now even more interested.
"Haven't you been listening to me?" The swordsman snapped.
Brook grinned (he didn't have much of a choice), "Occasionally!"
"Yes, I can hear you! Shut up now. I'm trying to sleep."
They sat in a companionable silence for a while. Zoro wasn't asleep, but he was pretending he was, and Brook pretended he was too. Then, the silence became unbearable. When Zoro wasn't sleeping he was actually quite quiet, Brook observed, and he hated the silence. He tapped a bony finger upon the ground in some insatiable rhythm before saying pensively, "I'm quite mad, you know."
The swordsman didn't even bat an eye. "Yeah, I know."
"This does not bother you?"
"We're all crazy here," Zoro replied, jabbing a thumb in the direction of Luffy, dancing about and badgering Sanji, who in turn was simultaneously batting away his captain and slobbering in servility to the ladies. Quite an odd group. "We all hafta be, to follow that idiot."
Brook saw what he meant. "I see."
Then Zoro slept and Brook listened to his breathing and hummed Bink's Sake. The skeleton listened carefully, and thought he could hear his own breathing too, which may have meant he was quite mad, but that was all right.
Everything was all right, as long as he had these people around him. Everything was going to be all right.