Final chapter! It takes place two years after the battle at Marineford, right around the time of the Strawhats finally coming back together. I hope you enjoy it.
Disclaimer: I don't own One Piece or any of its characters. Only the OCs are mine.
A lone figure stood at the bow of the old ship that had once belonged to the Whitebeard Pirates. Granted, they had never taken on another name after the death of their captain, but that was because they'd all agreed it wouldn't feel right to be known as anything else. The figure standing on top of the old, sun and sea worn whale head was that of a woman. Her black hair had been cut shorter than she'd ever worn it, to the point of almost resembling a man's hair. No longer did she choose to wear khaki knee-length pants and a black tank top with her sandals. Now, she wore simple black trousers with her boots, and a black halter-top shirt that bared much of her upper back. She had reason for this.
Stretched across her shoulder blades was a mass of discolored, warped skin that she had received from a severe burn. On her right shoulder, there was a tattoo of her late captain's mark in purple ink. Across the scar on her back, in black ink, was ASCE, written in the same styling as "Fire Fist" Portgas D. Ace had worn down his left arm. In the cartilage of her left ear were four gold earrings, designating four people dear to her whom she had lost over the years. She had grown a bit taller, as two years had passed since she'd endured the greatest moment of her suffering: the battle at Marineford. At twenty-three years old, Hotaru was restless to know what would be happening now that Strawhat Luffy, Ace's younger brother, had been reportedly spotted again. But she was bothered by the stories she'd heard.
"Hotaru! What're you doing up there?" Izou asked as he stepped up onto the whale head with her, his traditional kimono flapping behind him in the breeze.
"Thinking about Ace's little brother," she answered, glancing down at the newspaper in her hands. Izou nodded slowly, having heard the rumors of the young pirate captain.
"Something bothering you?"
"These reports don't sound anything like what Ace told me about. And they don't sound like the boy we met at Marineford, the boy who was willing to give his life for Ace. Oyaji immediately took a liking to him, but this guy sounds like a worm that Oyaji would send one of us to knock down a peg or two."
"People change in two years."
"But this just doesn't make sense. I mean, Old Man Silvers disappeared around the same time Luffy did. I don't like coincidences like that. I've just got this gut feeling. I just don't think this guy in the paper is Ace's younger brother. Doesn't sound right."
Izou shrugged his shoulders. "Take it up with Marco. Maybe he'll let you go investigate." Hotaru cocked and eyebrow and gave him a confused look.
"What business is ours if some weakling wants to impersonate Ace's little brother? I mean, yeah, I want to kick his ass, but it doesn't mean anything."
"Whatever you say. By the way, Emile's looking for you. Said something about making that special stew you invented as a kid."
Hotaru tossed the paper his way and walked by with a quick nod. Izou watched after her for a moment with a sad look in his eyes. It'd been so long since Hotaru had seemed truly happy with where she was in life. The blow dealt at Marineford had hit them all hard, but Hotaru was one of those most affected by the loss. With a sigh, Izou walked off and found himself heading for Marco's quarters.
As Hotaru added a bit of Dragon's Flush and sliced carrots to the stew she was making, she heard the door to the kitchen open and it seemed as though all movement stopped around her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw that Marco had entered. He clearly wanted to speak to her and Hotaru handed the ingredients she was working with to Emile before walking out into the galley with Marco.
The blond man hadn't changed much physically in the two years that had passed. He was still the tall, strong man she had always known him to be. But now there seemed to always be a tired look in his eyes. It was more than just lack of sleep giving him this appearance. He was spiritually exhausted, not that Hotaru could particularly blame him. She was as well. Maybe that was why they always got along so well, she figured. They had been kindred spirits, and had understood each other for years.
"What's up, Marco?" Hotaru asked.
"I heard you've got a bad feeling about what the news says about Strawhat," Marco answered and Hotaru immediately thought of her conversation with Izou. It wasn't as though she'd expected it to remain purely confidential—she would have only trusted Marco with that—but she hadn't thought he'd go to their stand-in captain immediately. Rather than feel angry or offended, Hotaru merely shrugged her shoulders.
"I just don't think it's really him. Not a big deal."
"Even so, I want to know if you'll go check it out. If it's not him, put him in his place."
"And if I'm wrong and Luffy really has turned into a little scum?"
"What you do in the field is not up to me. Do as you deem fit."
"Why are you asking me to do this? You can't merely be curious as to whether or not this is Ace's brother. What else is there?"
"You want revenge on Teach and the Marines for what they've done. If that bastard in the news isn't really Strawhat, then I think you'll be able to find the real one. That kid might be your only shot of getting strong enough to accomplish what you need."
"You want me to find Strawhat and, if he's the same good kid we know, travel with him so I can find and kill Blackbeard and some bastard Marines?"
"If you want to. I'm giving you the chance to take that route if you think it'll help. I think it will."
"There's no telling how long I'll be gone," Hotaru pointed out.
"I understand that. Part of me is counting on that because I'll know you're being smart and careful about it."
"I can't pass up something like this, Marco, especially when you're offering it to me."
Marco gave her a lazy smile, to which she could only respond by hugging him around his neck. The legendary phoenix reached behind him and pulled a black leather trench coat from the hook by the kitchen door. Hotaru had taken to wearing it in the past year and Marco knew she would need it where she was going.
"Be careful, Hotaru," Marco said carefully. "I want to see you again, alive and well."
"You know me, Marco. I'll be back, I promise. And when I return, Blackbeard and Akainu will be dead."
There was silence between the two of them for a long moment where time seemed to stand still. As Hotaru stared up at him, she finally understood just how much like a father he truly was to her. Marco cared for her as his own, raised her like he would have raised a child he could have sired, and gave her the liberties she'd earned as she grew older. Just as Anne was her mother, Marco was her father.
"You have that look. What do you want to say?"
"I just want to say that I love you, and thank you for being my father." Hotaru hugged him one last time before making preparations to leave the ship. She would set her course for the Sabaody Archipelago, where Strawhat Luffy was rumored to be. It was time for her to take the helm in her life and follow her own course.
And that is the end. I hope you have all enjoyed watching Hotaru grow from a small child into a young adult as a pirate. Please leave me a review of what you thought of the story as a whole, your favorite part, the ending, whatever. :)