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Memoirs of a Suicidal Pirate

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"What does this friend of yours look like again?"

Nami folded the maps she'd been eyeing into her lap, satisfied with their designated course before heading to Loguetown. Sanji came in a flurry of staccato beats and hearts, dipping low to offer her freshly squeezed lemonade mixed in with fresh picked tangerines.

"Is she anywhere near as beautiful as our precious Nami-swan?" Sanji crooned, dropping to one knee.

Nami plucked the glass from his waiting hands, turning to where their captain sat in his favorite spot aboard the ship.

The weather was perfect for sailing. Cross breezes just right, sails fluttering with ease, the waters steady and rolling along the ship like someone stroking tender fingers on their side—she almost took it as a good omen for the things bound to come. This would be the perfect start to their journey.

Nami rubbed her newly inked tattoo for luck.

Zoro grunted something in his sleep, tucked against the shade of the Going Merry's figurehead. Usopp was trying to repair his paper hammer, plastering on new slabs of thin tissue and paint with delicate, shaking fingers. The detour was minor and it wouldn't take them too far off their course. Luffy had been adamant about reaching this island only when they were ready to set sail for the Grand Line. No exceptions.

"She won't come with us if I don't have everything ready," Luffy had complained, picking his nose. "It's a real pain. But now I've got all you guys and we're ready to go, so she can't say anything!"

"You said you grew up with her?" Usopp pushed back his goggles, rubbing his chin in thought. "Someone who managed to grow up with Luffy of all people…"

"Yup!" Luffy said cheerfully, swaying back and forth from his seat. His lips stretched from ear to ear, impossibly wide. "We gotta have her! It's gonna be great, you guys will love her!"

Zoro clicked his tongue. "I don't know what to think, coming from you."

"For all we know, she could be someone real weird," Usopp said nervously. "She's not someone weird right? We've got enough crazy people on this ship and even though I'm strong enough—"

Nami made a face. "—to count for five hundred men, you tend to attract—"

"She's a little weird," Luffy conceded. "But she's great!"

"You didn't answer my question," Nami sighed. "It's a pretty fair sized island. What exactly should we be looking for once we anchor?"

Luffy rubbed his chin in thought. His lips pursed and his brows furrowed, a constipated look coloring his features as he stretched his brain a good magnitude to figure out the right words. Zoro squinted up at him.

"Don't hurt yourself now."

"Her hair's super white!" Luffy slapped his fist into his palm. "Like snow—like clouds. Paper! Like lots of paper!"

Sanji exhaled a plume of smoke, leaning back against the railing of the ship as he tucked the tray beneath his arm. "How old is she again?"

"And she's got eyes kinda like," Luffy squinted, eyeing the shifting mass of ocean below him before he pointed to a specific spot where the sun caught off the blue and turned bits of it golden. "Like that. That spot right there. And this really easy to see tattoo right over her left eye like this—it's got a funny smear at the bottom too like someone messed up drawing or something."

Nami considered her captain's descriptions, "How old is she again—"

"And her skin's like this!" Luffy slapped the sun kissed tan of the wood beside him. "Gimme a paper Usopp, I'll draw her for you guys!"

"I don't think that'll be much help," Sanji said.

"Does she even know we're coming?" Zoro questioned.

"Nope," Luffy cackled, looking absolutely pleased with himself as he grabbed his ankles and teetered to a fro atop Merry's head. His grin became blinding and his shoulders shook with mirth. "Oh, man, she's gonna be so surprised."

"White hair and a tattoo around her eye," Nami played with a strand of her own. "That shouldn't be too hard to find. We should be arriving in another hour or so."

Luffy dug his finger into his ear, wheedling anything out. He pulled his finger free and examined it, inspecting his nails before he flicked it over into the ocean.

"She'll probably be trying to kill herself, so she'll be super easy to find."

Nami dropped her glass of lemonade. Usopp ripped a tear into his hammer. Sanji's cigarette fell from his lips and Zoro's head smacked back into a wooden post.

"WHAT?"

"I know," Luffy complained. "What a waste, right?"


? - Years Ago


Trafalgar D. Water Law had too many tattoos.

She stared at the nearly finished body beneath her. Dark, ebony etches of ink across richly tan skin. Gray eyes dark enough to be mistaken for black bore back up at her. His muscles rippled with a sheen.

Law smirked back.

The commission plastered onto her tablet became highlighted. Her drawing pen hovered in her left hand, poised and ready.

The smirk is too much. She grimaced, touching the eraser icon and going back to the basics. I should make him scowl. If I mess up his face, they'll probably forgive me if I feed into their ship cravings. I'll add the main character in free of charge. Make things spicy.

It was no skin off her teeth at this point anyway.

She tucked dark brown back into the bun atop her head. She narrowed her eyes, readjusting the final sketch and leaning back with a sigh. She could easily reuse one of her older sketches of the show's main character—Luffy, but it didn't sit well with her for the last commission to be some half done piece of shit. Even if that's all she and her work normally were. It had to go out with a bang.

"You can't make a living off a life like this."

Nearly everything in her room had been stripped bare, filed and tucked away into neat boxes and labeled around her. The small apartment was dark save for the single room she now resided in, the water running in the bathroom behind her. Bed sheets had been stripped. Posters ripped off. Items filed, clothes folded, objects given off or sold, and the money from that slipped and sealed into a neat little envelope beside a smaller stack of letters addressed to several individuals.

My hand hurts. She thumbed the pen in her left hand. The easy afterthought but I don't care whispered after, but the after-after thought of that was a secondary I don't care about not caring that just made her tired of it all. Thinking took too much work.

I'm tired.

There was no afterthought.

She fiddled with the sleeve of her hoodie. Her leggings were her comfiest pair too. Everything was right. Just right. Normal. Everyday.

Monotonous.

She glanced to the clock.

Two hours to go before midnight.

I'll take a ten minute break. She pushed herself away from the workstation, clicking save on her final commission's progress so far. She watched Trafalgar Law's face go dark and turned her swivel chair around to face her now barren room.

The boxes of things were stacked high into the corner. Everything but her workstation and the desk had been cleaned off.

I'm not going to miss this room. She stood. That's for sure. There was a voicemail from her mother on her phone screen and one missed call from her sister. They were scheduled to get brunch tomorrow for their weekly meet-up. She'd already disconnected her phone an hour ago.

The water in the bathroom continued to run. The window should be open to let out steam. The smell of her favorite soap came through, cucumber melon.

Honestly? She ran through the sealed and addressed envelopes on her desk one more time, thumbed her finger through the money, and then let her hair loose from her bun and stared at the clock.

It was a normal, simple night.

The perfect kind of night to die.

She clapped her hands together and stood. She'd go check on the bath, her soon-to-be cucumber melon scented deathbed, make sure everything was nice and toasty and she had the desired amount of pills to swallow, she'd do this whole crazy, mind ripping cycle one more time, finish her final fan art commission for a show she barely even watched that she only really did as some last ditch effort to keep her rooted here since everyone always said—ah, you just need to keep doing the things you love, it'll remind you how much you miss it—send it in, transfer the money to her mother's bank account and then finally, finally—

She, age twenty-three, would die.

She turned the music on her phone up to the max, the speaker coming to life as her favorite song played.

Absolutely fucking perfect.

She stood up and headed to the bathroom.

The letters had been thoughtful and sentimental, offering as much comfort with a touch of her own suicidal realism to keep it balanced. Special care taken with the family letters, thought poured into the friends close enough for there to be reason to explain what she was doing to them—because that's what they needed, right? A reason. An explanation. They'd mourn and grieve and spend endless days if she didn't at least give them that because people were always like that.

They always needed a reason.

I don't really have one. She thought idly as she twisted the knob to the bathroom. But that's okay. I'll make one for them.

"Why would anyone want to die?" her sister had said once, when the two of them watched the morning news with cold pizza in their laps about a man who'd jumped off a building and killed someone else below him. "I don't get it. What finally does it to the point that they can't take it anymore? I get if you've got a bunch of debt or you're on the run but..."

"Maybe he was just sad," she had said.

"He should've gotten help," her sister had snorted.

"Maybe he was just... tired," she had said.

"He was a coward," her sister had snapped. "People who commit suicide like taking the easy way out. Life's supposed to be tough. It's always hard. Death is just another way of running."

She had agreed because if she hadn't it would've made things awkward and weird. It was hard to explain to someone with so much vitality that yes, perhaps it was an act of cowardice—but couldn't it also just be an act of utter bravery? Tossing yourself off the tallest building possible because you're willing to face death when so many people cower in fear of it—

I'm sad. I'm tired. Lonely. Sad. Tired. Don't know. Don't know.

Why wait to die?

She had said it'd been shitty that he killed someone because of it. They'd both agreed on that.

Suicide needs to be as clean as possible. She had decided when she'd begun to strip her room bare and sell everything worth selling and without memory so her family couldn't complain. No guns. No guts. No swinging bodies. That's just cruel to the people after. She actually liked her family enough. They didn't deserve that. She even packed and cleaned everything up for them to make it easier. Left them with more than enough to cover funeral fees—she'd checked—and they'd find her body peaceful and clothed, soaked to her cold, lifeless heart, in the tub without any other hassle.

Suicide was a choice done purely by the one who committed it, so in a way, perhaps it was selfish—the aftermath needed to be as selfless as possible.

She was just tired.

She pulled the door open, planning out the color schemes to use for Luffy's addition to the Modern AU she'd been asked to draw. Coffee shop date?

A man she didn't know stood at the center of her bathroom.

She stopped. The stranger stared back.

The window to her bathroom to let out steam had been closed behind him. Her music blasted the entire apartment behind her. He was tall, double her size, a baseball cap pulled low over his head and a thick jacket curled around him. A baseball bat hung at his side and a pouch was clipped to his hip.

Her mother was robbed once. She hadn't been home but had just been pulling into the driveway when she saw him coming out the back with a backpack stuff full and the outline of a gun in his pocket. She'd told them, after the police and everything had been settled and the guy thrown behind bars, it felt like the seconds to realize were hours. It all happens in seconds and before you know it, it's over.

She hadn't made much effort to understand at that time, she'd been too busy scrolling through reasonable funeral services that went along with her family culture.

She kinda understood what she meant now.

"You never expect to be the one getting robbed one day," her mother had sighed. "It just happens."

The news always said odds were that most robbers, realizing you were home, fled. If she ran for the door behind her she could slam the door on him and snatch her phone and call—

Ah, I disconnected my phone.

She couldn't see his eyes.

Her mom always said you could always figure out what to do if you could see someone's eyes.

He raised his bat.

She could still smell the cucumber melon.


I don't want to die like this.

"But you already gave it up."

This isn't how I wanted to die—

"You chose to die. Once you've decided that, I don't think anyone has a say."


There were a lot of emotions that came forth upon the notions of life and death.

They'd both existed for such a long time—it made sense, really. Of course there'd be a lot to say and feel. Anger, resentment, acceptance, peace, sadness, longing, wistful—a wild array of flashing colors, brilliant and blinding. It was enough to make anyone's head pound. It couldn't quite be mustered up into a few words, a phrase or two, there was just so, so much to say.

The world before her exploded into color.

Sounds fell on deafened ears, like distant thuds against the door. Her head throbbed. Her body felt weak, alive, and furious all at once. She could barely move, barely see and understand except for some thin, straggling semblance of consciousness that followed her past the darkness and light and the tumble that had seemed to go on for an entire eternity until—

Light. Light. So much light. It was blinding. I always hated how bright things could be.

She was moving. Shifting. Her heart was thudding wildly in her chest like a bird—alive? Alive. How? Alive.

Something soft pressed to her skin—she felt sticky, clammy. Hot. Everything was burning up and her face felt flushed and her mind was racing. Eyes trying and trying so damn hard to open up just a bit—

"A girl," a voice said hoarsely above her. "She's a girl."

"She's beautiful," a distinctly male voice murmured. She felt fingers prodding along her head, curving over her cheeks and dipping to cup her face. "...can we—"

Her heart came to a stuttering shudder. Bleary, murky eyes prying themselves open as her lips parted in a soundless gasp.

I know these words.

No.

Brilliant, blinding white caught against the sunlight streaming through some opening. It stuck to her face, clinging with sweat and tears. The woman panted, stroking her head and then she pressed a kiss to it, looking to the man beside her.

"Yours fits better."

His smile was impossibly bright. He turned to her, to her, very alive, very real, flesh and blood and a little heart doing its stupid job in her chest and then he opened his mouth—No, no, no!

Her not name fell from his lips in its entirety. Her new name.

NO—

There were many emotions and words attributed to the eternal loops of life and death. Many things to feel. Many things to say and speak and scream, maybe even whisper. There were a great many deal of things to feel, as well, when it came to the realization that one who had tried to escape life within the blur of winding memories racing through her mind and piercing her everywhere it hurt— had been granted the gift of being born once more to live the hellish cycle one more time. From the start.

She did the most reasonable thing anyone in her situation could or would want to do.

She cried.

A man laughed, "Healthy as can be!"

She cried harder.


Reincarnation.

It was exactly as she had thought.

Her eyes stared blankly at the thatched ceiling above her. An intricate weaving of wood, heavy palm leaves—bamboo? Intricate pieces were suspended from the roof, a collection of glass and metal and some kind of material she couldn't make out, silver and thread-like. Sunlight caught off them and painted a collection of images along earthen and wood walls, a true hut or shack of sorts. An island version of a log cabin.

Rein—fucking—carnation.

Was this supposed to be some shitty way of life spitting back in her face? Justice? Good fortune? Was that what this was? There were thousands—hundreds of thousands of people right now, getting killed for something they didn't deserve, getting hit by a car, ripped from loved ones, and each and every one of them could have been reincarnated to live another life again and loved it. But no. No, no, no. Wanted to kill yourself? Got tired of living? Sucks to suck, try again.

Live again.

She was tired of that living shit—it's why she was going to quit in the first place.

Her hammock crib swung lightly, a soft ocean breeze trickling into the room. Her mother—mom, was humming in the corner. A rush of emotions seized her small body and she almost, almost started crying again at the thought. She'd loved her mom fine in her past life. Past life, my god. They hadn't always gotten along. She thought her true passions were a straight shot into poverty but she still fed her for crying out loud and—

Well, you didn't love her enough to stay alive, did you?

She bit her lip at that.

It'd taken her a long time to get over that mess of emotions. Of memories that were very much not lost in the entire process of starting over—and she was pretty sure that wasn't how it worked—and trying to come to terms with how to feel. Thankfully, babies had one main job to let people know they were alive, and that was to cry.

She was able to do plenty of that with how she felt.

Her botched suicide-turned-murder had ended her here—in a new life in a new world.

A very, very new world.

She turned her ridiculously heavy head, peering through the woven threads of her hammock. A bit of huffing and puffing and some good intuition on her father's part had landed her a spot by the window. The small hut-island-log cabin was settled on a cliff's edge, a sturdy distance away with a line of palm trees and bamboo, but enough to see that below a winding, sandy path dotted with colorful flora and life, was a village bustling with life.

Patterns and symbols she didn't recognize were etched into the walls and tapestries. It helped too, noticing that her...parents, had very white hair. Blank printer paper white, snowy almost in the way it stood out against their warmly tan skin and made the markings swirling along their bodies pop out. Normal people, unless plagued by something or well within their years, did not have naturally white hair.

Everyone in this village had white hair.

She blew something like a sigh from her lips. Her mother—she didn't think she could ever get used to saying that—stopped humming for a second, shooting her an amused look and then resuming whatever she was working on at a wooden table in the corner. Her husband had left as he usually did during what she was assuming were weekdays to do his own job before returning at night.

She hadn't noticed a single electronic device. Not a glint of keys for vehicles or shiny screens. Strangely refreshing, but it made figuring this world out a little harder. It was still possible she was on some strange native island based on the geography and the people, but that seemed like only one piece of this puzzle.

She couldn't really walk out of the house yet either, so that didn't help. Her knowledge was limited to what her parents allowed her to see and the short trips to the village and markets.

It was almost like... a fantasy, really. The world, at least, not her situation. Maybe for others but not for me. Some tropical island rich with its own lively and vibrant culture. Were they just isolated or was the world just... different?

While her motor skills were limited, she'd keep herself busy with trying to understand this world...her new world. For now.

Just until she figured out when was the right time to sort of... accidentally kill herself without scarring these poor people for the rest of their lives. They were plenty nice and seemed good enough, she wasn't heartless enough to kill a damn baby.

But she was going to get out.

Just you fucking wait life, I'm coming for you.


Artopoki.

It was... a weirdly cute name for the island that served to be her home.

Located somewhere in a hemisphere of the world called the West Blue, she and the rest of the inhabitants were referred to as Pokians, easily told by the sun-kissed tan of their skin, the blank whiteness of their hair—eyes were free game, but the final marker were tattoos inked into the skin by a special ink made only on the island by Pokian hands. A special tattoo was granted to each of them when they turned four and a half, it seemed, since it was some weird milestone to the island's history. The mark was meant to be placed somewhere along the face and be the kind of design parent and child felt would help guide their pathway through life and represent them.

Artopoki was an island rich with culture and history, she could respect that.

It was also painstakingly beautiful. Vibrant colors in every work of architecture. White sand beaches seeping into deeply green meadows. Heavy fruit trees swaying and bobbing, thickets of bamboo and crystal clear waters—truly an island loved by the wild and loved by its people in turn.

The moment she could sit up properly and make grabby motions with her hands, her parents had been sharply pleased with her interest in trying to read. Understanding the language was crucial, but weirdly enough, it'd seemed to be some strange mix of English and...Japanese? But the Pokians had words and a language of their own woven into it all, which made learning everything one hot mess, but hey, she had time on her hands.

Once she could get her stubby fingers to hold a brush or whatever drawing material they gave her and put it to pen, she spent a lot of time drawing too. Skills hammered in by years of work in the past didn't transfer perfectly from the hands of a toddler, but it was still a grand scale better than what she did as a kid before.

It was an old love to break. Drawing didn't hurt anyone.

If anything, it seemed to really make her parents happy. Her mother—Mahina, a lean, fair sized woman with bright blue eyes that held a hint of gold—had looked a bit disappointed by her "talent" but loving still. Her father—Manu, young, taller in stature but where he lacked bulging muscle, there was a sharp, toned promise to his arms and legs—had looked unabashedly proud, beaming and always following her works, praising each stroke and guiding her here and there when he could.

It was weird, at first, being praised for something people had given small smiles and curious hums to in the past. Manu especially seemed extremely taken with her interest in art, and only when she'd finally bothered to explore the house in better detail on wobbling legs did it make sense.

The Pokian culture was so lively and vibrant because it was literally what the culture revolved around. Textual history was hard to come by, stable and fair, but not bountiful since most of their written history seemed to come from an island called Ohara. But what Artopoki lacked in written, it flourished in the etched and drawn. The visual.

Pages of history were told through detailed images drawn by hand, a myriad of colors coming to life. Murals lined the white walls in Pokian ink. Books and books and thousands of scrolls painted to depict whatever needed to be told. Love letters weren't written, they were drawn. Stories weren't just spoken, they were illustrated.

Artopoki's culture had been divided into two subclasses of work and being on the island. Craftsmanship and artists. Every person on the island honed their skill to the one that called for them the loudest. People either took the forges to make the prettiest vases and shiniest swords she had ever seen—explaining the triumphant architecture—or bunkered down and sketched livelihoods in ink and canvas.

The entire island was every art major's dream.

It'd been like a sucker punch to the gut, but she could roll with this. Life could take all the hits it wanted on her, she was still coming for it.

The moment she could walk properly, her father often took her out to the village and let her see every inch of the island. It seemed once the children were old enough to walk, the mothers could return to their passions while the fathers would take over most of the work until it was a shared, even duty. Mahina in particular was a craftswoman—specializing in swords and weapons.

Manu was an artist.

She hadn't wanted to admit it, but not having a dad in her previous life—Manu was a pleasant change. A man who loved the arts with all his heart and soul was always something she could get behind. He was a bit strict, but usually within reason, and he seemed to have big hopes for her with her inherent interest in the arts.

She winced, absently gripping the hem of his shirt tighter. Sorry. You have every reason to hate me in the after life later.

While craftsmen were highly praised on the island, it seemed everyone had a soft spot for the artists. Only explained by the fact that there were so many uses for Pokian ink, and it shined the best used by brush and pen, not by sword or dagger.

Pokian ink—to her weirdly morbid fascination—was made from their blood.

Something ran through the blood of the people of Artopoki. Something strange and unexplainable and apparently normal in this new world of hers. Used at the rawest source—just blood basically—it worked to sharpen blades to the finest edge and polish them, keeping them untarnished and free from the danger of rust. Blood coatings were common and sought after all across the world. The best of the best swordsmen and women were frequent visitors.

But Pokian blood had a strange ability to stain—permanently. She'd seen it for herself when it splashed across the cutting board when Mahina had cut herself on accident and had to throw the entire thing out without a second thought. Periods must be a nightmare then, eh? Its pigment gave it a new quality that could be written onto almost any surface it seemed; wood, paper, dirt, mud—to her sharp and wide eyed surprise, even air.

Manu circled his brush through the empty space in front of them and the blood stayed, the image of a soft flower outside their island log cabin. It looked as though it were floating.

It was something like magic, wickedly cool, but she stamped down any interest.

"Some say if made right," Manu had told her once, "our ink can even be written on the things that burn—amazing, isn't it?"

But Pokian blood, when healthy and well, could also take on color pigments when needed. A simple stroke and seemingly nothing but will power turned once blood red ink into a soft pink hue, a second stroke bringing out a pastel sky blue.

Literally. Every. Artist's. Dream.

Fuck you, life.

Pokian ink, it seemed, was also always in high demand. It was a more coveted export, and the inhabitants didn't seem as willing to give it up to certain buyers, if Manu's curses and shouts were anything to go by. Ohara—okay. People her father referred to under his breath as World trash—not okay.

"They don't see us as humans," Manu had spat. "They see nothing but ink bottles."

"The weather is good today," a shopkeeper called, the market place humming with life as usual. "The festival should be good to go, right on schedule."

A young woman nodded in agreement, tucking snow white hair behind her ear, "It'll be better if we can catch a king or two to feed the whole village!"

"Just toss the little ones out," a man nodded to her and Manu laughed, grabbing her hand as though to reassure her. Honestly though? Being eaten wasn't that bad of a way to go out. Would make sense. My poor daughter, eaten—her parents could forgive her for that, right? What's a king to them anyway? Some kind of monster?

The only problem is where they are. She glanced over her shoulder, the sea's waves lapping in the distance. She shuddered at the sight. Don't care how easy it'd be, I'm not drowning.

If her first life was going to fuck up her suicide, she was damn going to get it right this time.

She was going to choose how she died. No one would take that from her this time.

She eyed a high bell tower at the plaza center. A clock painted with Pokian ink stood proudly, a man seemed to be applying a fresh coat at the top, very, very high up.

Kids always got up into mischief, right?

But maybe not two year olds. She reasoned, glancing to Manu who was chatting amiably with a shopkeeper about a recent work one of the elders on the island had done. There was an entire archive dedicated to the best of the best works. Several treasures locked away in the archives only known by higher ranking officials of the island. Four? Maybe five? That seems reasonable—

"That brother of yours is nothing but trouble," the shopkeeper added, frowning at Manu. "Spouting the kind of nonsense he does... If the entire world new about our greatest pride, well, it wouldn't be our greatest pride anymore then, would it?"

"We ought to do history a favor and put it somewhere where no one can find it," Manu mused, gazing at the man at the bell tower. "Plenty want to treasure it but..."

"An awful lot want to destroy it," the shopkeeper laughed.

She eyed the colorful array of fruits arranged before her. Was there anything toxic on this island? Manu had said something about berries they grew that weren't good for their blood—

"My Goddess, look out!"

A startled murmur rose up from the throngs of people in the marketplace. Surprised gasps echoed out and Manu turned. Her eyes followed the direction of fingers to where the man who'd been working on the bell tower was clinging to the very edge of the clock handle, legs dangling leagues of feet into the air.

"He'll fall," Manu said sharply. The people closest seemed to have the same idea, rushing forward to try and help, but the man's grip on the ledge slipped. The clock handle ticked.

His head smashed into a jutted stone statue, crimson splattered the snowy white walls of the tower.

He fell.

She jerked her head to the side. Manu had already scooped her up into his arms. For all her talk about killing herself, there had been a reason why she'd wanted to go peacefully in her tub. Her options might be limited right now, but still...

"Is he alright?" Manu called. She shot him a look of disbelief. That man had just fallen from a tower tall enough to—

"Not up yet," a woman called back. A small crowd was blocking the man's body from view, murmurs and patient gazes. "Come on now, you're alright."

She gaped. Are you guys insane—

Someone coughed, hacking a few times before they cleared their throat. The crowd thinned, giving the person at the center more room. But there shouldn't have been a need for that because that man was sadly, horribly—

ALIVE.

"I've always been so careful," the man who'd just fallen several stories from a bell tower and landed on the very, very hard concrete sighed. A man who should've been very, very dead. Crimson stained his clothes, splattered all along the ground in a horrific mess that should've been the sight of—of—

What the fuck?

"It's your first one, isn't it?" the woman patted his shoulder. "You'll be fine, shake it off. Be careful next time, you fool."

A few people helped him up to his feet, making sure he was steady and good to go. A few others were already beginning to talk of how to clean the bloodstains from the tower, talking of painting it over and the ground—

What. The. Fuck?

Manu's laugh jostled her. Her eyes swung to his face and something clearly must've given her away because he smiled warmly, rubbing her head.

"Maka," a term of endearment he used for her, "I haven't told you the story of our island yet, have I? You must've seen it in the books..."

The shopkeeper laughed, "That's not enough. You've got to tell it right."

Manu nodded in agreement, continuing through the plaza as though a man hadn't just fallen to his death and started walking again like he'd tripped. Her jaw still hadn't closed and Manu came to a halt by one of the island's favorite statue pairs—a beautiful, marbled feline shrouded in clouds and rising to some unseen height against the moon and a man at her feet, easel and brush scattered eternally by their side.

"Centuries ago," Manu continued warmly, like an old man gearing to tell his favorite tale, "this island was the home of a popoki goddess. She was lavished in the finest of things, lived the grandest of lives. Hunted when she wished, lived when she wished, played and explored and even the moon loved her so. But she grew bored of these endless days of luxury. She arranged for grand things done in her honor, hunted the largest of beasts in her home and nothing could please her."

She was still watching where the man, now alive, was rubbing his back as though he'd tripped.

Manu smiled, "Until, one day, a poor man washed ashore. Nothing but a craftsman and an artist by trade. He'd somehow been carried by a thin piece of driftwood and landed on her island. A storm had overtaken his ship and stranded him there. The popoki goddess had been prepared to hunt him like the rest who dared find her land, but the man, desperate to live, had vowed he would make her the most beautiful thing in the world."

She was still trying very, very damn hard to get over the fact that the man who'd fallen was technically a zombie, but Manu continued.

"With nothing to lose and eternity in her paws, she agreed to the man's wishes, promising to grant him whatever he needed to see this mission to completion. He told her, warmly, that he needed nothing more than what he had," Manu traced a finger over the brush at the statue's feet. "He spent nine days and nine nights, working away, hidden from her view—she tried to tempt him and coax him out to play, but he continued to work. Won over by his determination, she kept all others away and made sure he was kept in the best of comforts. Whatever he needed, she wished to grant."

Manu continued, voice almost dreamy, "He finished, finally. When she arrived in his chambers, etched onto a silver threaded tapestry and inked in, was none other than herself."


"'How did you make this?' the goddess whispered, dragging her palm down the silken edges and turning to the artist.

'With nothing but myself,' the artist said. He showed her his silver white hair, cut short from what he'd used to weave the tapestry and then pointed to this thin scars along his arm. 'And all of myself.'

'Why?' the goddess pressed.

The artist smiled.

'There is no greater beauty than that of one bringing another to life.'

The goddess—"


"Fell in love?" she interrupted.

Manu smiled, his eyes shining. "Yes, maka. She fell very deeply in love with the artist, touched in a way she had never been before. But the toll of the shipwreck and the hours he'd poured himself into the work he crafted for her were far too great. He collapsed into her arms and passed."

She winced. Why do all these stories end like that? But that still doesn't explain—wait.

Her heart began to hammer in her chest.

"The goddess," Manu continued, "so overcome with love for the man made a fierce decision. A popoki goddess, granted with nine lives, shared each and every one of them with the artist."

No.

"She was left behind with nothing but one, giving her the chance to see him come back to life before her eyes. The two embraced, getting married soon after and—"

No. No. No. No. This cannot be happening. There is no way some wild fairy tale like this is true enough—

"That is the origin of our people," Manu made a grand gesture to the entire island as whole, eyes shining. "Why we embrace the love for our crafts and our art as we do. Because we uphold these traditions, the popoki goddess continues to love us—"

This is all a joke. It's one cruel, ridiculous joke—

"And we are each," Manu said proudly. "Granted with nine lives at birth. It's a secret few in this world are aware of, but it is one we treasure."

Manu turned to her, beaming. "He merely lost one today. It is important to remember each is precious though, but to also consider, that we have nine lives to live—so it must be done to its fullest!"

Manu didn't seem to sense her distress. Reasonable, since she was keeping her face carefully neutral since all other expressions were broken, and everything inside of her had now burst into flame and chaos because—because—

I'M HERE TRYING TO END THIS AND YOU'RE TELLING ME I HAVE TO DO IT NINE FUCKING TIMES LIKE A CAT—

"They say his brush still exists somewhere out there," Manu said conversationally. "A legendary brush used to paint a goddess... What a fine brush it must be, no?"

She did what she'd been doing best her early years of life.

She burst into tears.

Manu looked sympathetic, "I know, maka. It is a very sad tale in the midst, isn't it?"


Nine lives.

The people of Artopoki—her—were all blessed with nine lives because a cat goddess fell in love with an artist.

She'd been a bit numb to the news at first, staring dumbly at her paper while Manu encouraged her to draw and draw and draw. It was hard to believe—ridiculous. People weren't born with nine lives, it didn't work that way. People were lucky sometimes, and had near death scrapes—but nine? It was a fantasy. Impossible. Not without magic or some otherworldly—

She grimaced, plopping down into the patch of berry bushes she had snuck into. Pretty white things that reminded her of strawberries.

Other worldly. It was exactly that.

And hiss and cry as she might, there was no way to refute what she had seen with her own eyes, a dead man rising up and walking once more without a desire for human flesh and groaning.

Okay. So say, by some chance, they really did have nine lives and not superhuman healing abilities or some kind of weird sturdiness. What should I do then? Did she really have to kill herself nine times to finally end this whole farce?

She grabbed a fistful of white berries. Make berries were their name. Manu and Mahina both had warned her time and time again—all the villagers did to every child, that they were extremely poisonous to Pokians. Something in the berries reacted with whatever special property was in their blood and forced their hearts to stop beating. Instant death. The bushes grew far from the village centers and couldn't seem to be killed no matter how hard they tried to get rid of them. They also closely resembled a perfectly harmless fruit that grew on the island, little kalo berries. Villagers took extra care teaching the difference and being wary of them regardless.

Might as well test it out then.

She offered up an earnest thanks to everything Manu and Mahina had done for her up until this point—it wasn't easy taking care of babies. I hope you have a better and proper kid the next go. I wasn't worth it.

She shoved the make berries into her mouth, chomping down and crushing them in fistfuls between her teeth.

They tasted terribly sweet—it reminded her of some super sugared melon.

Something seized her body, a stuttering, gasping breath—pain, pain, so much pain, I'm burning from the inside out—

Nothing but black.


"How do you feel, maka?"

Her eyes snapped open.

Steady, warm hands cradled her face. She could feel her heart hammering in her chest, wild and rapid as her eyes flashed across the room. Her own hands shot up, grabbing onto the hands cradling her cheeks and Mahina smiled, eyes shining with warmth and reprimand.

Oh my god.

Her jaw dropped. Her eyes followed. No blotchy marks on her skin. No blood staining her shirt from where she'd all but coughed her heart out—nothing. She felt perfectly and absolutely healthy.

Part of her whispered that maybe she just hadn't eaten enough. That they'd been able to treat her so she got better—

She knew what death felt like.

She flexed her fingers, staring in disbelief at herself.

She had died.

"We told you to be careful when you go picking, maka," Mahina said, tone stern but soft as she tucked her silver white hair behind her ear for her. "Though, you'd be surprised how many adults here today will say they lost their first life exactly like you. A poor rite of passage on this island, it seems."

"I'm alive?" she said hoarsely. Mahina laughed, kissing her temple and standing to prep for dinner.

"Very. Life is such a grand thing, so you'd do well not to waste them on silly mistakes," Mahina's eyes sparkled and she drew a finger down one of the swords she had hanging from the wall. There was something loving in her eyes, a little lonely. "Nine lives are nine more chances to right the wrongs."

She continued to stare at her hands, trying to process what she'd just been through. Her mother hummed, "Manu will be back soon. His trip took longer this time so let's eat well tonight. Just you and me."

She flopped back down onto the bed, staring in disbelief at the thatched ceiling.

Nine—damn—lives.

Eight more to go.

She slapped herself.

"We all make that mistake, maka. Don't beat yourself up over it. The make are tasty, aren't they? It's such a shame..."

The make berries had actually tasted like shit, because she vehemently remembered she now hated the taste of melon and cucumber for all eternity.


Making a second attempt at her life wouldn't be easy.

Not just because she was three and some months, but because Manu was ridiculously overprotective. Maybe with reason, sure, since she had died once and he was her father—but this was another level. Even she had noticed that parents of the village seemed to usually be on amiable and lax terms with their children, save for a family here and there.

Manu was the here and there.

He never let her out of his sight. All trips outside were made with him close at her heels or holding her in his arms. He grew very fond of having her spend hours and hours drawing—something she'd loved a lot before and would've given anything to do, but people telling you to draw was never the same as telling yourself to draw.

She spent a lot of these hours of luxurious imprisonment trying to understand more and more about this world. Knowledge was power and the right kind of knowledge could get you killed. That was good. So she spent a lot of this time observing a number of different things, whether the island, her own face which was still so...foreign or in—most cases

Her parents.

She'd pegged Manu and Mahina wrong, it seemed. Manu had seemed like some easy guy, a true lover of the arts while Mahina was all fire and wild eyes, hands sliding lovingly against metal meant to kill. Manu was the harsher of the two, the stricter, the justice bringer and it seemed especially clear with his intent on making sure his only daughter became the best damn artist in the entire village.

Manu was an illustrator. She hadn't thought much of it at first, but the position on this island was much, much different from her world.

Illustrators were those tasked with etching history into the papers. Manu and a handful of villagers had been selected by elders to leave the island on various trips and regular journeys to different islands, worlds, seas, to see it all. Draw it all. History needed to be recorded and Pokian blood never faded. Manu and his brother, her uncle—a guy she personally didn't have much of a taste for since he was always saying real sweet things to her and trying to feed her melons—were high in this council of people.

Manu seemed set on making her his next successor.

Mahina was fire. Wild and untamed, but like every flame—she swayed with the faintest of breezes. She was the kind of woman who merely loved to do what she wanted to do, went with what was blown her way. She didn't sweat small things and loved her work with all she was worth.

Her parents did not act like... people who were in love.

She could tell this pretty quickly, when she decided to look for it. They didn't try very hard to hide it.

The only thing that seemed to link these two...coworkers more than lovers together seemed to be her. And this house. She didn't know what circumstances had brought them together, whether an arrangement or some mutual agreement, but they got along well enough. They were friendly, like roommates. Never shared kisses or cuddles or whispers of affection, the only one who got those was her from both of them.

Manu was a true man of this island through and through, nothing but his duty to tell the story of the world with his brush.

Mahina was a woman whose heart belonged to her craft.

"Why swords?"

Mahina had looked curious, turning to her when she'd asked. It'd just been dumb curiosity on her part too, but the way the feather tattoo curved around Mahina's eye, each edge of the feather sharp like blades, when she smiled in the midst of her work—that was something.

Mahina smiled, she reached for the sword she'd been coating and gently set it in her hands. She shot a look around the house for Manu and then let it fall into her grip.

It was heavy. She almost dropped it without meaning too, but sharp sense not to damage something loved flashed through her and her little arms trembled—

The sword suddenly grew weightless.

She looked to where Mahina was holding the tip of the blade, eyes shining.

"They're lovely, aren't they?" Mahina murmured, wistful. "Can you hear it?"

Her lips parted to respond and Mahina dragged one finger down the blade. A soft sigh flowed through her all the way to the hilt and back. A sigh neither she nor her mother had uttered. A song.

"Yeah," she said softly. That's amazing. It'd been awhile since she felt anything as real as this—strange. It almost felt foreign, but like some soft, unspoken sixth sense, the weapon in her hands, this piece of art and love had—

Mahina's eyes shone with nothing but love.


She liked her mother.


"Nothing but trash that is what they are. To think—to think, they could go and threaten us in such a manner—"

"You saw what happened to Ohara with your own eyes. We wouldn't stand a chance—"

"But what if we did—"

"Politics," she looked up to where the old shopkeeper had spoken. He was getting older now, but it was hard to tell with the people on this island and their telltale white hair. She had to look for the crinkle around his eyes, the heavy way he moved. "You best stay away from now, you hear that little one?"

"Are we on bad terms with anyone?" she tried doing her research. Artopoki didn't seem to have a heavy hand in any wars aside from arms-dealing and managing to drive off invaders. The fierce way her father and uncle argued beg to differ.

The shopkeeper sighed, "One cannot be on bad terms with the world, little one. It is a death wish. The people of this island tend to forget that sometimes. You get drunk off of life, with these many lives. You forget. Blood does not phase us. Death is a far friend."

She mulled his words over. They didn't get shipments from Ohara as they had in the past. She gathered that something awful had happened to the island of historians and scholars. Something that threatened an island as free and fierce as Artopoki as well.

"They love our blood though," the shopkeeper chuckled. "Haven't stormed this island because they love how wonderful it looks on their fancy parchments and golden pens. They write and paint with the blood of our people and don't think twice. Many here think it sacreligious that any but those loved by our popoki goddess should use our blood."

Understandable. Her father and uncle were growing more and more heated by the minute. Her uncle seemed sternly against their war on anything, despite his claims they brandish to the world the island's greatest treasure—several beautiful works of art locked away in the deepest cave on the island, hidden behind a waterfall and protected by the statue of their goddess. Her father, on the other hand, seemed all for fighting whoever scorned them.

There were gathering supplies because as soon as she turned four and a half, she would accompany her father on her first journey to illustrate.

"You just do what we always do," the shopkeeper coughed. "You tell the story of this world, little one. You tell it the way your eyes see it. The blood will never lie."

A thought struck her.

"Mister," the shopkeeper turned, "what happens when we get old and we haven't used up all of our lives?"

He smiled, turning his eyes up to the sky and looking so, so content, she was seized with a strange emotion in the pit of her stomach.

"If we've lived our lives to the fullest and have any left to spare," he pressed a finger to his chest and then kissed it, "they return to our goddess so we may be born again and hear nothing but the most pleasant of sounds."

She chewed on this thought.

It was, admittedly, a pretty beautiful thing.


"Everything has a voice."

She looked up from the sword she'd been helping Mahina sharpen. Pokian blood acted as a liquid whetstone and many of the crafters of the island took pride in their work. In moments where she didn't feel like drawing—because everyone needs a break—and Manu wasn't there to breathe down her neck—she was with Mahina.

She wasn't starting to hate her apprenticeship with Manu or anything—it was a dream to be able to draw what they drew and do it for a living. The problem was just that… well it was for the living.

They also spent too much time with her uncle whom she didn't like because he was always trying to feed her melons. He kept babbling on about opening up their exports to the world and Manu wanted none of it.

Mahina ran a gentle pinkie down the sharp end of the blade. Not a single scratch bit into her skin. "The good ones cut only when they are told too. If you are kind and useful, there is no need for it to harm you."

You're talking like it's alive. Was what she wanted to say. The hours and days spent beside her mother forced her otherwise. The voice she could hear sometimes, whispering in the back of her head like a little breath of wind, begged a different story too.

People in any world had probably spoken of things retaining some kind of life, a spirit of sorts one way or another.

In this world, it existed just the same.

What a weird place.

Manu agreed with this to a degree. She could see it in the way he'd watch a scene, a meadow or the sea and the people, and then he'd close his eyes and draw like he'd known it his whole life. Mahina was the same, but to her it was matching the people who came searching to the item they needed. It was hardening herself in a strange way that no sword she coated and cleaned could ever cut.

"You just need to be willing to listen," Mahina said. She handed the blade back to her mother and Mahina smiled, nodding approvingly at her work. "It speaks when it wishes. Just be willing to listen, my star."

There was something ugly that fluttered in her chest. A feeling she didn't have any right to feel and one that'd be better off dying somewhere in a corner. Mahina didn't need to waste her praises on some half-assed person like her who could hardly stare at cliffside without thinking of jumping off.

She liked Mahina.

A lot.

"Mama."

Mahina glanced up from the sword, tucked against her chest right by her heart. The blade could've sliced her clean so easily. It merely rested there, like a child's head. "What is it, my star?"

She swallowed the words clawing up her throat.

"Could you teach me how to do this like you do?"

Mahina's smile was as bright as the glint of the sun off the blade and just as sharp.

"If your father hadn't discovered your knack for drawing first, I think you would've make a fine craftswoman."


She wasn't sure when she'd properly started to call the warm, fiery woman named Mahina her mother.

She tried to feel guilty about it all, despite the warmth.


There'd been a lot of things that'd been considered art in her world.

Starry NightThe Kiss. Anything by Edward Hopper—the works.

What the artists of Artopoki created?

She watched as her father sliced a cut against his palm. The blood trickled out, dribbling down the arching lines of skin until he pressed it against the paper and dragged it across, eyes shining with the memory of what he'd seen.

In an instant, the blood smeared ink on paper began to take a life of its own. Lines were drawn, colors spilled in and shaded until the very image of the island they were about to dock stood before them against the paper, nothing but what should've been a memory transcribed perfectly to paper.

"When we lack time," Manu explained, pulling his hand away and handing her a sheet of paper. "By hand is always the best."

He smiled at his own joke. She took the paper from her father and adjusted her notebook so it had a sturdy surface. Manu handed her a small knife, the handle carved in intricate patterns to look like stars and the blade was clearly her mother's work. Her own carving knife.

"But the blood," Manu said. "Never lies."

The feeling that'd overwhelmed her when she saw all the encased artworks at their finest finally settled. The very thought, that looking at what her people had created made her feel as though she were truly standing there in that moment.

Because it was a drawing done purely and literally, by memory.

She thought of her own memory and cut her palm, smearing it across the paper like her father.

Their little island log cabin on the cliff's edge by the flower fields sketched itself onto paper.

Manu's smile was so, so wide.


This was a problem.

Her parents were a problem.


Manu smiled at her, hand poised above her eye. "Ready, maka?"

She nodded.

Today, she turned four and a half.

All the children of their island turning four and a half around the same time were to gather together after the individual ceremonies were performed for one grand festival. Four and a half to represent the mark of halfway to nine to be with the goddess who loved them so. Manu had gone the whole nine yards, Mahina smiling and creating the prettiest pieces of jewelry for her to wear.

"For you, maka," Mahina had slipped into her small hands a carving knife, the kind she could use to both sharpen her pencils and cut into her hand for painting. It was beautiful, slender, and finely etched with stars and the sky on the hilt. "Manu will have a fit if he sees you waving it around. But nothing but the best for my daughter."

Manu seemed especially eager to get the whole thing going since it signified her step closer to following his path.

She didn't deserve a single inch of anything happening today.

Guilt and something numb threatened to swallow her whole.

Until I can die a reasonable death to them. She reasoned. Until I can take myself in a way that they…

Manu readied his brush, dripping in her own blood, as customary for the marking. The only way Pokian blood could stain their own skin was when it was mixed with a special material. She hadn't really had any idea for what she should have, but Manu and Mahina seemed to have agreed on something all the same.

"Live true," Manu recited. "The blood never lies."

The cool, wet touch of the brush started above her eye. It tickled. Manu's hand carefully crafted itself over the curve of her left eye, she could feel finer details etched around the design until it finally came round in an arch to beneath her eye and—

A massive, piercing explosion rocketed off the side of the island. A firework set off too soon.

Manu's hand jerked.

"I like it," Mahina said finally.

Manu looked as though he ought to cut off his own hand.

She stared at herself in the mirror.

Her father had been attempting to paint a heart around her eye, it seemed. It curved around the end and had small etchings outside the curve, looking like thin streaks and petals. But the very tip of the bottom of the heart, where Manu was about to begin the next half, streaked down like a painted smear below her eye. Thin, but unfinished. Smeared.

Half a heart.

"We can fix this," Manu said.

"I like it fine," she said, patting her father's leg. It fitted, truly. She could live with this.

Half a life.


Her first lesson in illustration took place in a city called Flevance.

The journey had been long. They'd crossed through treacherous sea after treacherous sea, managing to bypass majority of the monsters that seemed to inhabit this world with some precious stone crafted at the bottom of the ship. Granted, she spent most of it locked away in the cabin and below deck because she refused to stand anywhere near where she could be that close to water and stare at it for so long. The ship received special pass through certain checkpoints because of the nature of their duty, but Manu had scoffed at each one, instructing her in detail instead on what her first job would be like.

She felt kinda bad, watching him put so much effort into something that wasn't going to last. She figured she could at least do these little jobs right for the poor guy.

"They call it the White City," Manu said, dragging her from the ship's cabin where she refused to look at the water and onto the plank to disembark.

She could see why.

Flevance was starkly, brightly beautiful. Gilded buildings seemed to glisten. Everything in the entire town looked as though it'd been dusted in white, platinum gold. The entire city seemed to be painted in a pastel, creamy white, and she wondered if Manu had deemed this her first job because of how beautiful it was.

"Anything that makes you stop like this," Manu said. "Draw."

She pulled aside her cloak. Unbuckling her satchel while she walked. She pulled the sketchbook with thick parchment paper out, flipping a new page and used the carving knife Mahina had gifted her to cut along her palm.

She glanced to Manu and he nodded.

She stared at Flevance's port. The first glimpse of the city at the edge, taking in as much of it into view as she could.

She dragged her bleeding palm across the paper.

The White City etched itself onto her paper, crimson swirling and changing into the soft hues, the glistening platinum until it finished with nothing but a soft sheen of white at the top of it all.

Manu nodded once more, satisfied. She tucked her sketchbook under her arm and followed him while the others in their group split up to cover more ground.

People seemed hard at work to varying degrees. It was easy to tell apart those who enjoyed the vast majority of Flevance's beauty and elegance and those who worked hard to maintain it. Miners and nobles, the rich and the laborers, but all seemingly fairly happy.

"It is a city much like our island," Manu started. They both stopped by a street painted with shops and a cathedral. Children dressed in school clothes ran to a fro, laughing. Manu pulled his sketchbook out and she copied him, taking the time to draw properly this time instead of smearing the blood. "They produce a material found only here, Amber Lead. It's a beautiful thing, truly. They use it to coat their products and dust themselves and ship it out by the pounds to nobles elsewhere. They are a flourishing economy."

She could hear a but in Manu's voice. Manu grimaced, closing his book and moving down the street. A few people spared the travelers strange glances at their cloaks and markings, but they seemed rather taken with their platinum white hair.

"Our blood is no export," Manu said. "It is our pride. Not some luxury for others to use."

She wondered if Manu and Mahina didn't get along because of that. The crafters of the island seemed perfectly liberal with shipping their blood for others to use as coatings.

"But," Manu helped her onto the ledge of a hillside overlooking the central plaza of the city. "It is a place favored by history. We must draw."

The sun caught off the gilded buildings and made the entire city shine so brightly she had to squint.

She plopped down and began to draw dutifully. Her father watched over her shoulder before he turned back to the city, thoughtful.

"Whether it can withstand the times is another tale to tell," he mused. He shot her another look, examined the entire meadow and then glanced to the small town off the city just down the hill. "Maka, I will go to get the central and outskirts down. Wait for me here when you are finished, alright?"

She nodded. Manu looked pleased and patted her head. "We'll make a fine illustrator out of you yet."

She paid half attention as her father walked off. Her fingers moved nimbly across the page, sketching as colors bled to life and took down what she saw. Things that would've taken hours to draw before were coming to her in minutes, which was strangely infuriating but whatever life, she'd roll with it for now. I'm still coming for you.

"Don't go near those mushrooms dear," she stopped, looking up from her sketchbook where a mother was tugging her child away from a small patch a few feet away. "Those are poisonous you know. They grow straight from the mines and you'll get sick and die instantly if you aren't careful. You don't want that, right?"

She stared, watching as the mother and child disappeared from sight.

Her eyes landed on the mushrooms.

Eight lives to go.

Accidentally eating something poisonous in a foreign country sounded completely reasonable, didn't it?

She stopped beside the mushrooms, plucking one and examining it. It was a rounded thing, bulbous and weird look with strange brown spots. It looked very much like something in textbooks that strictly said not to be eaten.

She cast a sly look toward where Manu had left her.

"You kill me quick, you hear?" she whispered to the mushroom, plopping down and brushing dirt off the bottom stem. She snapped it off and held the top half in her hand. "I'm counting on you buddy. Try not to make it painful."

She shoved the entire thing into her mouth, chewing hard.

It tasted like pencils and graphite.

She pressed her hands flat to her mouth from nearly spitting the entire thing out. Something burned down her throat, clawing at her chest and making it harder to breathe. The world spiraling in front of her and she dropped to her knees, choking and hacking as something built up in her stomach—I'm not dying of poisoning anymore. This is so fucking painful, shit

"You idiot! Hold on!"

What? The soundless, strangled gasp barely croaked from her throat. Someone grabbed her shoulder and she saw a glint before something sharp pierced the side of her neck and—Did I just get stabbed?

Nothing.


She knew what dying felt like.

Her limbs seized. Her entire body arched roughly, everything in her system jerking to life with a shuddering, shrieking ache—

She also knew what coming back to life felt like.

This wasn't either of those things.

Acid rose up in her throat. Everything constricting as she sucked in a shuddering breath. Someone shoved her head toward the right side in the direction of something—

She puked out all her guts and everything she was worth into the metal bucket that'd been shoved into her arms and her head shoved deeper into it to keep from splashing out. She hacked, tasting bile and spit and everything disgusting as she coughed and wheezed. She entire body shuddered with the effort of expelling everything inside of her and then some and oh my god what the fuck

She was also very, very familiar with the feeling of food poisoning,

She spat into the bucket, the vile contents sloshing and she breathed a ragged breath through her nose.

"What you ate were poisonous mushrooms native to this city," a young, clinical voice spoke at her bedside. "You must be a traveler, based on your clothes and how you look. We may be the White City but we don't have anyone with white hair here."

She felt like absolute shit and wanted nothing more then to keep her head resting there against that metal bucket. But her vomit also smelled like worse shit so she tipped her head up weakly. She burped, gagging at the taste in her mouth and the person beside her grimaced.

"Did I die?" she asked weakly. Just gotta make sure.

She seemed to be located in some kind of hospital or doctor's office. Pristine white sheets, medical tools arranged neatly on a tray at her bedside. A used syringe settled onto a napkin beside it all.

The boy who'd been speaking looked as pale as she felt. His hair was a charcoal black, making his strangely pale complexion pop out in an almost eerily phantasmic sort of way. It set her nerves a bit on edge, followed with the cold dark dray of his eyes, so dark they were almost black.

Honestly, he reminded her of that creepy kid in class who was too smart for their own good and had too much fun picking things apart or bringing in animal skulls for show and tell. The weird ones who ended up making too much money and were probably secretly sociopaths.

"Almost," he said flatly. She watched him pull a chart out from his side, flipping a page over, all business. "I injected you with ipecac—" he glanced to her youthful face, "something to make people throw up whatever they've eaten that might be poisonous. It worked in time to save you."

She groaned, head hitting the metal railing of the bed. He shot her a look, raising one eyebrow.

"You'll feel nauseous for several more hours," he reported. "You're welcome."

"Thanks," she said bitterly.

He ignored her, jotting things down on his clipboard. She squinted, rechecking the office for anything strange. "Aren't you a little young to be a doctor?"

He looked over the top of his clipboard. His eyes were dull, regarding her as nothing of much more significance. "Where is your parent or legal guardian?"

If Manu finds out

"He was getting work done," she said. She tried sitting up in bed and winced at the sharp stab of pain in her stomach. Never going with poison again. Gotta get more creative, this is too much hell. She spat into the bucket, wiping the back of her mouth and noticing a bit of blood. She was about to wipe it on the sheets and thought better of it, wiping it instead on the edge of the bucket.

Her so-called savior looked up. "Are you bleeding internally?"

She wasn't sure how to answer that. "I think I'm good. You should toss this bucket though, this isn't going to come out."

She tapped the side where she'd smeared her blood. He looked at her as though she were an idiot for a moment before something seemed to dawn on him.

"You're a Pokian."

For a split second, she thought he was calling her something from her old life that she was very familiar with until she slapped herself. That's right. Artopoki. Pokians. That was her. Still half delirious with mushroom poisoning and her failed suicide attempt.

"Yes."

He regarded her with newfound interest. Her eyes zeroed in on the scalpel that had magically appeared in his hands—when did that get there—and her eyes darted rapidly to the only door in the room. She feared for a moment that she'd just made a wrong call since Manu always seemed fairly certain enough that people knowing what they were was fairly safe. He only ever told her to be wary of some when going on excursions and yeah, she wanted to die and all, but she was not going to get murdered a second time. She was dying on her own terms this time damn it—

"Your blood contains a special enzyme that causes it to stain permanently," he said. "It's fascinating. People have been trying to understand the way you use your blood as ink. Many think it has something to due with magic."

I'm willing to believe anything in this weird world. "Yes."

She felt rapidly for her pockets. Her carving knife poked her fingers and she grabbed it, lifting the handle and slicing her palm instantly. Her savior raised a brow and she warningly held her bleeding palm out.

"You don't want this on your face for the rest of your life," she said warningly.

He scoffed, setting the scalpel down. "I only wanted to take a small blood sample. It's not everyday the people of your island come visiting."

Small sample my ass. "Besides," he added when she continued to squint at him and hold her bleeding palm out threateningly. "I would have used it to call it even for the hospital bill for your treatment."

"Bill?" she squawked. Manu had all the money on him and last she checked, in her past life and this current one, she was still pretty damn poor. "Listen here, kid—"

"I'm older than you, brat."

Not in spirit you're not. "Listen here… you. I didn't asked to be saved, alright? You just happened to be there and you made the choice yourself—I didn't ask for help and—"

"That medicine," he nodded to the empty syringe. "Is awful expensive. Should we wait for your father to settle things then?"

He looked completely and utterly pleased with himself despite his pale visage. She grabbed the sheets beneath her with one fist, mouth opening and closing. A string of choice curses were tempted to escape her lips, several he probably wouldn't understand since her native tongue didn't exist in this world but ugh. Manu finding out would make things complicated and who knew what would happen?

She roughly jutted out her arm, clenching her bloodied fist.

"Just a sample," she said darkly.

He smirked, satisfied. Clearly unaffected with swindling blood from a four and a half year old in the name of medical progression. He grabbed the clean syringe from the tray and proceeded to clean her arm, pulling up a vial so he could take a blood sample. His fingers were starkly pale compared to her summery island tan. She waited, mouth tasting disgusting from the vomit and unhappy as he drew blood from her and tapped the syringe, pulling it away from her arm and examining the now stained glass.

"Interesting," the freaky pale savior boy remarked.

She rubbed her arm aggressively. "Happy now?" I hope it breaks and stains you forever.

He set the vial of her blood down carefully. He held out a hand and she recoiled. This son of a—"I need to bandage your arm."

"I can do it myself."

He scoffed as though speaking to a petulant child.

Which he was, but who cared? She was twenty seven in spirit. She also needed to hurry up and get out of here and find Manu before he fined her or flipped the entire town upside down looking for her.

"I'm a doctor," he said flatly. "I know what I'm doing."

"I'm a doctor," she mimicked. "I know what I'm doing."

He seemed to be thinking twice about his choice to save a stranger from a poisonous mushroom. She snorted, pleased. Good. I've still got eight lives because of you, kid. He grabbed the roll of bandages from the tableside and approached her, expression cold. "I will sedate you if I have to."

Her jaw dropped in disbelief, "To wrap bandages on me? Who do you think you are—"

"A doctor."

"More like some kind of creepy kid—how old even are you?"

"Older than you. Now give me your arm."

"No! I want to go—"

"My, what's going on in here?"

She stopped, hands raised in defense where the boy had been trying to wrestle her arm out so he could bandage her properly. She froze at the sight of the older man, charcoal tufts of hair and rather tanned skin. His dad? A lab coat hung over his shoulders and he looked to be assessing the situation in record time, staring for a moment longer before he glanced to the boy.

"She ate the amber mushrooms by the hillside," he reported. "I saved her."

Barely!

"I see," his father hummed. "I noticed several men who looked to be from Artopoki at the town square. Are you the daughter to one of them, perhaps young miss?"

"Yes!" she blurted quickly, shoving the bucket into the boy's arms. He recoiled in disgust, dropping it to the floor with a clank and she scrambled on wobbly legs from the bed. Her foot caught on the railing and she fell face first onto the linoleum floor. "Are they still there? I need to meet up with my dad since he must be worried sick—"

"He looked to be in a hurry for you too," the doctor chuckled, turing to his son he added, "You're sure she's completely fine to be discharged? No trace of it left in her system?"

His son grimaced at the bucket of vomit. "None. She just needed a bandage on her arm from where I took a sample."

His father smiled, "I'm glad. You're very lucky, miss. Those mushrooms could've done some awful things to you. Perhaps that strange blood of yours helped out, hmm?"

The father seemed like a reasonable guy. Sturdy and well-meaning. She didn't know where the creepiness from his son came from. She rubbed her arm and searched the room for her belongings. "Maybe. Thank you very much for your help sir—"

"You could've died you know," the boy reiterated.

Yes, I do know, that was the point. "Where's my bag?" she said instead, ignoring him. "I need my stuff—"

"You may have a few lives to spare," his father said softly, "but do take care, little miss."

The boy froze, looking at his father in sharp confusion. She went carefully still, staring at her feet and then raising herself from the floor to look at the man.

His eyes were warm.

You don't have the eyes of a killer.

"It's an old myth I heard, but I suppose it's true then," he mused. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. As a doctor, the idea has always been fascinating to imagine. But as a father of a daughter myself…"

He pulled a photo frame off one of the desks and turned it toward her. The pale savior boy, his father, a beautiful, warmly smiling woman with her son's eyes and their daughter smiled back, beaming against the beautiful scenery of their city.

"I think it pains any parent to see their child die," he said warmly. "So do take care of yourself, alright?"

Fuck. She rubbed her elbow, keeping her eyes trained on the man's shoes. They're nice people. Damn it. An ugly feeling twisted in the pit of her stomach, one she'd been working on training to eat away bit by bit, but it wasn't doing much.

Something settled at her side and she turned. Her savior had deposited her back along with her sketchbook, crossing his arms over his chest. "Your bill's covered. You can go."

His father looked amused. "You didn't make her pay now, did you—"

She roughly ripped a page free from her sketchbook. She imprinted the vivid memory of the city from the hillside in her mind. She imagined it as clear as possible and then blurred the image of the family to the forefront, staring at the picture in the father's hands before she pressed her palm to the page and smeared it across.

The son watched in avid interest, eyes growing curious while the father made a noise of awe. He crouched down, watching as colors bled onto the paper from her blood and then slowly it took shape—

"That's—" he started, surprised. She shoved the paper into his arms and stood, grabbing her bags and her things and barreling as fast as she could out the clinic door.

"Thank you for everything!" she blurted, rushing as fast as her small legs could take her.

"Don't eat stuff growing off the floor!" the son shouted after her. "Brat!"

She flipped him off over her shoulder, rushing past a kind looking woman and a little girl holding something round and mushroom shaped in her hands. She booked it toward the direction of the town center, ignoring the burning of her ears and the flutter of her heart.

Only when she was certain she was far enough from the clinic and close enough to the town did she skid to a quick stop, tugging her sketchbook out once more and smearing her still cut palm across a new page.

The softly lit clinic bled onto the pages.

She flipped her book shut and set off to find Manu.


"Who was that, dear?" a woman tucked a strand of soft chestnut hair behind her ear, leaning over to press a kiss to her husband's temple. "A patient?"

"A traveler who ate something bad," the doctor responded. "She's alright now. Left us behind with something rather nice." He ruffled his daughter's head fondly. "Did you have fun seeing the preparations for the festival?"

"I did!" she responded eagerly. "Brother, here's your hat! Thanks for letting me wear it!"

Her brother sighed fondly, rubbing his sister's head and situating the rounded, mushroom shaped and spotted hat back onto his head. "Anytime, Lami."

"You did great handling that on your own," his father praised. "You're getting better and better everyday, aren't you?"

His son shrugged, tugging his hat down over his eyes. His mother beamed at the news and noticed the thick paper in her husband's hands. "What's that?"

"This?" the doctor opened up the paper wide to see. "We got lucky ourselves. Our patient was a special kind of artist and left us with this nice gift as thanks."

"I want to see! I want to see!" Lami demanded, tugging her father's arms lower so she could see as well. Their son peered over his shoulder to take a glance.

"Why," his mother began. "How beautiful."

"What luck you found her when you did," the doctor mused, "right, Law?"


"Can I get a hint?"

Mahina laughed. "No can do, maka. You can do better than that, come on."

She frowned. Her eyes were squeezed shut, trying very, very hard to listen to everything around her. She could hear the low, quiet ringing of the swords she'd already found behind her. Mahina was waiting patiently in the chair beside her and she could feel her mother's smile as she watched her.

When Manu was away and not exporting her off on more illustration jobs to island after island—and Manu was away more and more these days while her uncle was lurking around the home, speaking quickly to her mother about more politics and happenings and about her father's frequent visits to the their sacred temple behind the waterfall—she and Mahina played.

Mahina taught her that select items with enough spirit and love carved into them had a voice. Everything had a voice. Even the living things outside and around them. She wasn't too fond of listening to the animals outside though, since they didn't seem to have anything nice to say to her at least—some dumb sixth sense they had about her penchant for wanting to end her life—but the voices of these special things were different.

Mahina's swords were different.

Her mother's works always had the softest, fiercest of whispers. Mahina took to hiding them around their hut when Manu was away, urging her practice in the art and also biding their time for their own amusement.

This one was hidden with particular difficulty.

"Don't worry about your father or anything else," Mahina said. "I know it may feel like you can hear those voices too. They sound angry, don't they? Frustrated. Furious. Manu is merely letting the things outside this island bother him far too much for his own good. You listen to nothing but those swords and they'll tell you all you need."

She listened real hard. Her feet started to take her in the direction of the kitchen and Mahina laughed. "Not your stomach, maka."

She huffed. Her head cocked to the side and she crossed her arms over her chest, listening past the whispers of the ocean outside that she thoroughly avoided. Past the teasing calls of the birds sitting among the thatched rooftop. Past Manu's precious drawings and the angry way his brushes hummed, looking and looking for Mahina's voice—

Something foreign whispered into her ear.

She stopped, eyes flickering open. Mahina made a pleased noise, watching her disappear down the hall. She followed the quiet sound, one she'd wondered if she'd ever heard before in their house. It seemed strangely familiar, as though it'd always been there, just too quiet to hear because she was looking so intently for her mother's voice this time—

Her small hands pulled a drawer open and she stopped.

"Maka?" her mother called. "My star?"

She gingerly scooped the cool item into her hands. The cold touch of the chain began to warm between her fingers and she stared at the beautiful craftsmanship in wonder, slowly heading back toward the kitchen as she tried to listen for that voice once more—

"Did you find—oh."

She looked up.

She was possessed with the sudden urge to draw her mother.

Mahina's face was etched into something so wholly human. Her expression set into something quiet, almost subdued, a little faraway. But her eyes were warm. They shone with a thousand memories she'd probably never see and a thousand other things she'd never know as she approached her mother and stopped by her knees, cradling the item.

"I was looking for your voice," she explained, offering the item carefully to her mother. She didn't have to listen to know there was a heavy, long importance to it.

Though it hadn't been her mother's voice she'd heard, as she normally did from the swords her mother made. It was her mother's name that had called to her, uttered by someone completely unfamiliar and unknown.

"Mahina."

Mahina gently took it from her hands. Her fingers ran down the smooth sides of the golden cross, fitting snugly into her palms before she pulled off the top of the cross. It popped off like a sheathe, revealing a small, glistening blade within.

Warmth burned at her fingertips. She heard the voice speak once more, a little more clearly, filled with a little more emotion. Tender. So soft she almost felt as though she were hearing something she shouldn't.

"Mahina."

"Yes," Mahina said, softly, an emotion she recognized clearly lining the edge of her words. "You found something very beautiful, didn't you?"

She wondered if she would've been able to pick this up, had she truly been her age. But something in Mahina's expression when she held that golden cross made it clear that regardless of age, she was sure she would've understood in that moment regardless.


She never questioned why Mahina and Manu didn't love each other after that.


"They're making it harder and harder for us to do our jobs."

She didn't look up from where she was sketching out the strange looking bird sitting perched in front of her.

"You waste time," the bird said. "Fish have more sense of life than you."

Shut your dirty mouth if you want this papaya. She mouthed to the bird. It clacked its beak at her.

Manu continued to speak heatedly behind her with her uncle. They were located in one of the many grand studios set aside for the artists and illustrators to fine tune their work.

"We should just come clean with what we have," her uncle said. "Let the whole world see it! Then thousands would come rushing to protect it—"

"You really think that's what will save us all?" her father snapped. "The stories of a dead man?"

"It's history. It's a story that changed the course of this world—"

"They come closer and closer by the day to treating us as nothing more than exports," her father seethed. "What makes us any different from their slaves? They let us run free in our pastures and when they grow tired, they'll round up what's left of us and hook us to machines and use us as they like because we are nothing more to them than stationary—"

"They are not our enemies!"

"Befriending them is not the same as licking their heels and wiping their asses, brother. You and I both know what you want when you say that."

Heavy silence pulled tight. She awkwardly erased at a mark she messed up on.

"Think about your daughter," her uncle breathed. "The children of this island don't deserve what happened to Ohara. Those people were slaughtered. One survivor out of the whole island and even then she is still hunted."

"Ohara," her father said, "died with pride."

"Best," the bird began again. "You stay here if you want to die so badly."

She tossed the papaya at its feet.


The grand treasure her uncle talked a great deal about was something she'd only seen once, when Manu took her to the island's sacred temple. There were many grand things in that temple cave behind the waterfall, artworks that could fetch high prices and even more.

A thick stack of papers, worn at the edges and bound together by fine silver threads. Pokian hair.

"It tells," Manu told her once, "the story of one of the greatest adventures to have ever occured in this world."


Her father began to take her less and less on excursions outside the island. Her folders once heavy with new drawings from their illustrations to many islands dwindled. Ships began to be turned away once they reached port. The once lively, flowing atmosphere of the island began to grow taught.

Children around her continued to laugh and play. They begged her to wade into the waters and draw along the blank sandy beaches. She watched them all and turned to her mother, sitting quietly on their little hilltop overlooking the island and the beach behind them, the golden cross sitting at her side.

"Mama," she said. Mahina turned to her, running slender fingers through her snowy white hair and tucking it behind her ear. "What will happen to this island?"

The yearly festival for the other four year olds was coming close. She stood beside her mother, avoiding looking at the ocean and watching instead the way the bamboo and palm trees swayed.

"This island is loved by forces beyond their understanding," Mahina mused. "The island will remain, no matter what they do to it. Too much Pokian blood soaked into its roots to ever fall to fire or to anything else."

She didn't have the heart to ask her mother about anything else.

She talked a big game about suicide. She loved Mahina. Manu was kind. There were many things on this island worth loving, and if she could have it any other way, she'd hope that they all lived and thrived and saw nothing but infinite days of their warm, basking sun and laughter stretched out to ring for miles as they painted the story of their world.

She didn't want to live. Her goals hadn't changed. And though she was adamant about choosing how she'd die and refused to die by other means—

She wouldn't mind dying here on this island with these people, no matter how it happened.

Not one bit.


"He wants to meet with them," Manu said to Mahina, quietly, thinking she couldn't hear them asleep in her hammock. "He thinks if someone owns up to the act. Give them someone to blame, the rest will be spared."

"He's always been obsessed with that thing, hasn't he?" Mahina poured them both another glass of the sweet alcohol made from the kalo berries. "He's never even seen it for himself."

"He's obsessed with the story of a dead man," Manu said bitterly. "He denies himself of everything we stand for. We paint the past to draw the art of the future."

Mahina looked to the man beside her. Not her husband. Not her lover. But every inch of her kind and a fellow citizen of their island.

"You want to fight them."

"I'm surprised you don't," Manu eyed the swords she had waiting to be shipped out. "We could put up a good fight. Give them something to remember."

Mahina laughed. "Spray them all in our blood and let them remember that for the rest of their lives, eh?"

They shared an earnest laugh for once. She tried not to listen, but kept on her side, staring out the window as the ocean rushed outside and a bird called out a little song to another. A cry to leave and depart.

"I've still got four good lives to live," Manu said. "I'll use each one."

Mahina said something too softly for her to hear and when the lights went out, she shut her eyes to the world.


"They all say to leave."

Mahina looked up from where she'd been coating another batch of swords and spears. Her mother shot her a curious look, but she remained silent, staring at her from across the workshop.

"Those old men by the port?"

She shook her head, "The birds."

Mahina smiled. "I thought you didn't like listening to them."

She bit her lip.

I don't mind staying here to die. But you and Manu and as many people as possible should at least

Artopoki didn't deserve to end here.

Her own wants be damned. She didn't care what this world wanted. What this government she'd never seen and these people who used their blood as easily as buying a new pencil—didn't give a damn for any of it. She loved this island. She loved its culture, its people—all of it. She wanted them to survive and live and she didn't know how she could do anything but stand there and think of ways to convince her mother and father and as many people to just leave—

"Do you hear them, maka?" Mahina questioned softly. "Tell me, my star."

She did. She didn't want to, but she did.

She nodded.

Mahina dragged a finger lovingly down the sword in her grasp.

"What do they say?"

She shut her eyes, wishing she couldn't.

"They'll cut whoever you ask of them," she said finally. "They'll fight with you to the end of their time."

Mahina's smile was so bright it hurt.


She saw less and less of Manu as the days grew nearer and nearer to some invisible end. When her father was home and not slaving away in the temple and studios, he told her to draw.

If she'd been the child she was in her previous life, she probably would've hated him.

But in every utterance of the order, she heard what he wanted to say.

"Remember every last bit of it."


She stared at the mirror and touched the half painted heart etched around her eye, tracing the smear like a blurred teardrop.

She touched the blank white of her hair. Felt along the sun-kissed tan of her skin.

She remembered a face very different from this one.


The news of the end of their world came swiftly and in nothing but dull black and white print.

The Island of Artopoki, charged with illicit treason against the World Government for housing propaganda and treasonous artwork. A hearing to be held before the Council one week from now.


They didn't wait a week.

The ships came in the middle of the night, three days from the announcement, on the night of the festival.

Her uncle was the first to find her.

She'd been helping move blank lanterns toward the town square. The four year olds would get to draw their markings onto the lanterns and send them up into the sky as she'd been able to do a year ago. She wore the traditional island garbs, a blank white top that wrapped around her chest and neck and loose pants with gaps in the side like a dancer's. A crown of bright, pale blue flowers and golden centers to match her eyes were woven atop her head. Mahina had a matching one.

He came bearing arms full of gifts and a wide, dazzling smile.

"Manu off in the temple again?" he mused.

She shrugged. She folded each lantern carefully, trying not to count how many there were to remind her how many children remained on this island.

"You should eat, maka." She never did like hearing it from her uncle. It was a word reserved solely for her parents. "You work hard for a child your age. My brother has such high hopes for you, you know. He truly sees the future of his profession on your shoulders. You're a real prodigy."

Or I just had decades before this to become good. She shrugged again. Her uncle was silent for a moment.

"You'll carry on our legacy."

She finally turned to her uncle. If it was another damn melon in his hands, she'd bash her head into one of these rocks right then and there.

He looked pleased. "Eat, maka."

The fruit in his hands was one of the weirdest ones she'd seen him bring to her yet. The town square was starting to get louder and louder as the festival started to pick up. She eyed the bright red fruit critically, swirled with strange patterns like hearts perhaps, rounded like a giant watermelon. God damn it.

She warily opened her small hands and her uncle set it into her waiting palms. "Eat and grow stronger, maka. You've got much work ahead of you."

She refrained from rolling her eyes and bit into the awkward fruit.

The most disgusting taste she could possibly imagine—bitter, revolting, sour, rotten—they all fought for attention. She gagged, dropping the fruit to the floor and recoiling as she coughed, wishing the disgusting piece of fruit hadn't lodged itself into her throat and sunk all the way down like some slimy piece of—

Her uncle watched in silence.

"What was that?" she wheezed. "That was—"

A single, blaring thought rang through her mind. It shattered her consciousness, barging forward without any precedent and she shuddered, hands twitching. What the hell?

You're a Living woman now.

She froze.

What?

There was something very, very familiar about this thought ringing through her mind and this sudden rush of knowledge about something she knew she hadn't known before—

"You bastard!"

Her eyes went wide. Manu rushed past her, slamming his fist roughly across his brother's face. Manu, who was always so fond of his hands and took such pride in them because they allowed him to do his work and his living and his love— "What have you done?"

"Isn't this what you wanted?" her uncle spat. "To get stronger? To continue? This is how we do it! There's more on the shipments we can give to the children tonight—"

"That was never a choice for you to make!"

"They'll have more worth this way—"

A thunderous explosion shook the entire island. She turned sharply, recognizing a sound like that only in movies—

The town square was on fire.

Her blood ran like ice through her veins.

"No," Manu whispered, confirming her fears. "No… They're too early. They didn't know about the festival. There was supposed to be time to evacuate the children—"

He stopped, staring at the bright flames licking higher and higher into the sky. The piercing whistle of a canon cut through the air followed by the next and the next as chaos erupted in a collision of sound and destruction. Sharp, shrill cries and shouts began to flood the air.

He turned to his brother and she stared at her uncle in horror, realization dawning on her the same moment it did for her father.

"You fool," Manu breathed. "You mad, hopeless fool."

Her uncle smiled.

"You're always talking about the future," her uncle said softly. "It's time to make way for it, brother."

Manu lunged for his brother.

"Papa!" she screamed, the two men crashing into the boarded warehouse. "Papa—"

Slender, toned arms wrapped around her waist and hoisted her up. The smell of metal and ash flooded her nose and she turned, eyes watering on instinct at the sight of Mahina's fierce blue and gold eyes and her shining white hair, matted with ash and damp with something. Blood smeared her cheek, staining her decorative gown for the festival while two swords hung from her sides. "Mama!"

"She can't swim!" Manu shouted. "Go!"

Mahina's eyes darkened with understanding and then she was running with her clutched tight to her chest. Something about her father's shout seemed critically important even though she knew they already knew how much she avoided ever touching the water and learning how to swim—

"I love you, maka!" Manu shouted after her. "Live your lives to the fullest!"

"What about Papa?" she demanded, clutching tight to Mahina as she ran faster than she'd ever seen her mother move. Swift like the wind, fierce and beautiful. "It's happening, isn't it? That government is attacking? They hate that thing we have, right? Just give it to them! Distract them and have as many people escape as possible—"

The smell of ash and smoke was growing farther and farther away. Mahina shouted at her not to listen to any of the voices, to turn the switch off. She could hardly even think to turn it on as she clung desperately to her mother. Her mind raced a thousand miles per minute, imagining every inch of the island she knew these past years engulfed in flames—

"I will not let you die here, my star," Mahina said fiercely.

—was ending.

The scent of the beach and the ocean flooded her senses. She turned over her shoulder, hair whipping past her cheeks and slashing her eyes from the fierce wind.

Dark waves lapped at the shore. She watched them warily and Mahina's steps grew lighter against the stand, staying above the sinking grains. She skidded to a halt besides a heavy bough of felled bamboo stalks. They were tucked behind the cliffside, their house just above their heads and the beach behind their home. Not a single ship in sight.

Her mother gently set her down onto the ground, touching her cheek and then brushing aside the stalks to reveal a thick wooden crate.

She stared at the crate with wide eyes, watching as her mother pried the top off and pulled several items forth.

"You knew?" she whispered in disbelief.

Mahina smiled, shooting her a look with such fierce love. She deftly clasped a cloak over her shoulders, brushing petals from the crumpled flower crown on top of her head. She noticed the petals mixed with blood in Mahina's hair. She'd never looked more beautiful.

"I listened."

She caught sight of her sketchbook being shoved into a backpack. Several bags and supplies were strung to the larger sack. Mahina shoved thick scrolls and a heavy folder filled with old papers bound together by silver thread. Her mother paused briefly at them, glancing to her and then shoving the papers deep into the backpack. Bottles of ink. Brushes. Pencils. Her carving knife—

Her mother pushed the straps of the backpack over her shoulders. Her body trembled with the hefty weight and Mahina smiled warmly, tucking her hair behind her ear.

"My star," Mahina murmured, "you shine brighter than anything else, alright? You live your lives brighter than anyone else."

"Where's your backpack?" she questioned numbly.

"You can't hide your heritage," Mahina stroked her white hair, turned silver with the moonlight. Canons shrieked through the air and she could hear the resounding crash as they collided into buildings and possibly people. This isn't where I should be. I don't deserve

Mahina pulled the cloak's hood over her head, the flower crown dropping into the sand. "But you can hide that you were ever from here. Not all of us heeded the call of our goddess and her island."

"Mama," she said sharply. Mahina stopped, looking over her shoulder. "Mama. What about you? What about everyone else and Papa and—"

"Mahina."

She froze.

She knew that voice.

She knew that voice.

A little sound escaped her mother's lips. Something torn between a little hum and a quiet, wistful little sigh. She was frozen in place, eyes landing on the golden cross that dangled from her mother's hip beside her bloodied sword and a small satchel. She knew that voice.

"Mahina."

She turned sharply over her shoulder to face the man who'd spoken only once before in her head.

Her entire world came to a screeching, shattering halt.

No.

He didn't don the signature hat and plume. His long coat hung over his shoulders and left his muscled, chiseled chest bare. The night almost made him blend in with the looming shadows of the bamboo groves and palm trees, hiding the long, elegant sword strapped to his broad back. But the night did nothing to hide his piercing, unsettling and familiar golden eyes—

No. No. No. No.

"You're a Living woman now."

West Blue. Ohara. A trashy World Government out to silence others and one that approved of slavery. Monsters in the ocean. A golden cross necklace with a blade hidden inside that would be used to taunt a familiar swordsman. Disgusting fruits that robbed the ability of swimming—it was all beginning to blur in horrible, sickening familiarity as the man standing before her made everything come crashing through in perfect, horrific clarity because—

She knew this man.

And he had only ever belonged on a screen or paper.

She begged the goddess of this island to tell her it was nothing more than some sick, twisted dream blurring her past life with this one.

"Mihawk," her mother whispered, confirming her every fear and suspicion with a single utterance of one name.

This can't be happening.

Dracule Mihawk, the greatest or possibly soon to be greatest swordsman in the world.

The world of fucking One

This can't be real. This can't be happening. This isn't

"What happened to Ohara will happen here."

Her mind latched onto the single, resounding thought and she turned to her mother, understanding and horror filtering everything else but this present moment out.

Mahina stood. The moonlight turned her hair a brilliant shade of liquid silver. Mihawk watched her with those piercing golden eyes. Blood dripped from her swords and onto the sand. Mahina touched the golden cross tucked to her hip and then she smiled, eyes filled with nothing but a long, aching love she only ever saw in her mother's eyes looking at her work.

"I knew you would come," Mahina said softly.

Mihawk's eyes skimmed the distance where the horizon was beginning to bleed red with flames. He looked over his shoulder where his coffin shaped ship waited, his throne hidden in the shadows of lapping waves and faint moonlight.

Then Mihawk's eyes pinned her in place, golden irises cutting through her like knives. She almost shuddered had her own attention not been so fixed on her mother.

"You're risking a cushiony job coming here," Mahina murmured. "Are you certain?"

Mihawk fixed her mother with a long look.

Mahina exhaled so softly.

"I would never do anything that I consider a waste of my time."

Mahina's eyes shone. Mihawk seemed to have come to the same conclusion she did, "I came however, with the intention of one woman and a child aboard my boat."

Mahina smiled. "One child alone shouldn't change much, right?"

Mihawk's face was unreadable, shadowed. But his piercing eyes held her mother in place where she stood.

"I don't deserve to live!"

Mahina's eyes dropped down. Mihawk fixed his gaze on her. She felt tears springing at the corners of her eyes and she clutched desperately at her mother's dress. "I don't. I don't! You—You, everyone on this island, Papa—they all deserve so, so much more! Trust me, you have to trust me! Don't throw this chance away and live out your life, start again, try again, you deserve someone better than me—"

"You always were so mature for your age, my star," Mahina murmured sweetly. She brushed her thumb past her bangs, tucking them behind her ear. "No, jaded is the better word, isn't it? That happens sometimes, when one is born with so many lives. I always hoped you'd grow out of it though."

"I don't deserve this," she began to sob. "I don't. I don't. Please don't do this."

Please don't give me

Mahina brought her flush against her, hugging her tight. She clutched her mother with everything she had, begging, trying, trying

"Perhaps your past life was hard," Mahina murmured, "may this one bring you nothing but happiness."

"You don't owe him anything," Mihawk said without a hint of mercy. "Any of them."

Mahina turned to him, her smile fierce and filled with love. Mihawk's fingers curled carefully around her wrist. He kept his face even.

"Come with me," he said.

I won't repeat myself a second time.

"Not to him," Mahina agreed. "But I owe everything to this island and to my people."

Her hand pulled from his. Mihawk didn't fight her grip. She reached around, pulling the golden cross free, reaching her arms up around his neck. The world's greatest swordsman stood there in stony silence, not uttering a single word as Mahina clicked the necklace once more into place and fixed it against his chest, touching it once with her finger before she looked up to his face. Mihawk gazed down into hers.

His hand reached up and cupped her cheek. His thumb followed the curve of the feather tattoo inked around her eye. She suddenly felt as though she were seeing something that didn't belong to her.

"Her papers and everything else is in her bag," Mahina said softly. "You just need to take her to that place. I have an old friend who'll take care of things from there."

Mahina pressed a satchel into his other hand. Mihawk let it drop to the sand with a soft thud. His hand settled onto her hip instead, nestled below the hilt of her sword.

Mihawk tilted his head slightly to the side. Mahina reached over his shoulder, stroking the hilt of his sword with eyes filled with nothing but love and wistful, aching longing.

"I've never coated a finer sword," Mahina said. She looked into Mihawk's face. "Never crafted for a finer swordsman."

Mihawk's fingers found her chin. Mahina tilted her face up to meet his.

An explosion shattered the air, the bamboo swayed.

Mahina dropped down to her knees, cupping her daughter's tear stained cheeks in her hands. Her mother began to laugh, eyes shining with tears as she peppered her face with kisses. "Mama, please—"

"My star," Mahina said fiercely. "You live every life brighter than anyone else. You blaze and you live everyday till the moment it all ends. The blood never lies."

I don't deserve this. I don't deserve this. I don't deserve this

Please don't die for me.

Mahina scooped her up into her arms. She clung tightly to her mother, burying her face into the crook of her neck and doing what she'd been doing best this whole damn time in this world, this world that wasn't even one she belonged in because it was the world crafted from a fantasy—

She cried.

Mihawk matched each of her steps, snatching the satchel from the ground. He stepped onto his ship, the wood creaking and Mahina set her down inside the wooden hull, smiling at her with so much love and affection. She reached and pressed a kiss to Mihawk's palm and then the tip of his index finger. She pressed it to her chest.

"How many?" Mihawk questioned lowly.

Mahina smiled, eyes sparkling. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

Mahina turned to her. Her stupid, idiot daughter who didn't deserve a single ounce of this—

Mahina traced the half heart inked into her skin around her eye. She traced the other half herself against her skin, smiling so wide and so bright it hurt.

"I hope one day someone can finish it for you, my star."

Her mother wrenched herself away from the ship and stepped back onto the sand. Mihawk stood, one hand coming down and gripping her shoulder tightly to keep her from running back onto the sand. Mahina smiled, her swords glinted, the sky growing blood red and eyes shining and hair a dazzling, brilliant silver—

She etched this image to her memory.

"I love you!" she said, pulling against Mihawk's grip but not breaking from it. "I love you, Mama!"

Mahina smiled.

"I love you, Hoku."

Mahina pushed her foot against the hull of Mihawk's ship and shoved with all her might. The boat heaved off the sand, sliding back into the murky, lapping waves.

Mihawk stood tall behind her, watching in silence as Mahina grew smaller and smaller against the shore. She refused to take her eyes off the island for even a moment, hands fumbling through her bag and tugging out her sketchbook as she flipped messily to a new page and bit her fingers so hard the skin broke beneath her teeth.

She smeared her fingers against the paper, trying to avoid the teardrops falling from her eyes.

Artopoki, the little island located in West Blue, the world of a story that had only been fiction to her before—growing redder and dimmer in the distance.

Mahina against the sand, beautiful and brilliant, appeared on her paper.

The world's greatest swordsman was silent behind her.

"If you meant what you said about not deserving to live, and truly wish to waste this chance," Mihawk said finally. "This journey will end here."

Hoku was silent, watching her island grow smaller and smaller into the distance.

"Her lives," Mihawk said, without mercy, and she listened to the voice of his sword strapped to his back and its quiet, soft whisper of longing, "were worth more than yours."

Hoku pressed her head against the side of the boat. Everything churned in her mind as one violent, relentless storm. Her aching, throbbing fingers reminded her how real it all was. The sea water lapping against the wood threatened to drag her back to where she belonged.

If she hadn't hated it so much, she would've tossed herself over and let it take her.

"I know."


"Yeah," Luffy mused, a salty, easy sea breeze caressing his cheeks as he crossed his arms behind his head and grinned. "Probably trying to kill herself."


That I put into words, how wonderful life is, when you're in the world.

 

 

Chapter Text

"Oh," Nami clapped her hands together, pressing her fingertips to her lips. "This island is so... cute!"

The spring island of Mayman bustled with a rolling, lolling, easy breeze.

The Going Merry had been docked with perfect, friendly acceptance. The harbors milled around like lapping waves against a pond's edge. Old, beaming fishermen waving to them in all pleasantries as they hobbled onto their colorfully painted boats for the day's catch. The docks themselves were wrapped in auspicious colors, banners flapping lazily with handwritten advertisements. Beautifully scrawled and intricate patterns for the various shops and markets that filled the small islands lengths brandished in kind.

Usopp's shoulders slumped visibly in relief. His knees buckled, head bowing. "This is such a nice change of pace..."

Every open expanse of meadows were spotted with bright, dark green four leaf clovers. They grew in bountiful bunches, spotting the entire island side. The docks opened up with kind pathways toward the town's front plaza, little street markets and small shops lining every which way. Flowers dotted every inch of the town available, painted colors along the wall of all good and bountiful things—beaming koi fish, a grinning sea king on a mural outside one of the homes—even a group of children ran past, laughing happily as they waved banners brandishing the number seven.

"Look at all the clovers!" Luffy exclaimed, diving head first into a bunch growing by the harbor. He grabbed fistfuls and tossed them into the air. "I win!"

"You don't win at four leaf clovers," Usopp said smartly. He stooped down, quickly gathering bunches by the handfuls and shoving them deep into his bag. "They're lucky! If we have a bunch like this there's no way anything bad is going to happen to us..."

Zoro watched them with his arms crossed over his chest, unimpressed.

"It's stupid to bet your luck on a plant."

"No it's not!" Usopp protested, four leaf clovers tucked behind his ears like flowers.

Mayman looked every bit like the little towns illustrated in children's books.

Sanji pulled his cigarette from his lips, exhaling, "It's very quaint, isn't it?"

Zoro restlessly pulled at Wado Ichimonji at his side, making sure it was snug. "You sure this is the place?"

Luffy was scrutinizing one of the banners hanging off the dock post. He stretched his arm upwards, pulling it back to him with a thwack. He stretched the fabric out, squinting as he rubbed his finger against the softly painted design.

"Don't strain yourself," Zoro said.

Luffy folded the banner and turned on his heel to face his newly assembled crew, lips stretching wide across his cheeks.

"Yup!" Luffy concluded. "She's here."

"Did she tell you she was going to be here?" Nami questioned suddenly, checking the barometric pressure. She looked satisfied by the results and closed it shut. "It's good weather all around, but it doesn't mean we should stay here too long either or we'll miss a good sail. You just told us to head straight for this place once we left..."

"Of course she did!" Luffy said, brushing clovers off his hat and placing it back atop his head. "She said 'Fine! I'll be at the second to last island before you leave. Don't follow me!'"

Nami frowned, "She told you where she was and then told you not to follow her?"

"She said more stuff too," Luffy said simply. "I didn't really care though. I made it here before she left. She owes me something so I get to claim my prize now!"

Nami placed her compass back into her bag, feeling a strange sense of pity toward the mystery stranger they were searching for. "Loguetown is the last island. Mayman is the second to last... but I don't think this island was ever really talked about until recent years. It seems so nice though, I wonder why..."

"There's a lot of old people here," Sanji commented suddenly. "And kids."

The rest of the crew perked up at his words, gazes swinging out. Heads of varying colors filled the town's center but the same, shaded variations of white and gray. Most notable of all—the soft, gentle hobble of most of the inhabitants. Smiling grandmothers and chuckling grandfathers calmly, slowly, and very happily made their laps around the town. Canes clacked against cobblestone like little tunes while children wove in and around the older inhabitants. Only so many of the islanders appeared to be within their middle years or older.

"Hey, Luffy," Nami recalled the flat descriptions Luffy had shouted. "...How old is she again?"

"Hey, Gramps," Luffy called, marching over to an old man watching a younger boy water a batch of four leaf clovers. "You got a gambling hall around here?"

Nami's hand smacked the back of his head. Luffy's head merely smacked back into place with a rubbery twang, expression unaffected. "Don't ignore me!"

"Hello, young man," the old man greeted warmly, turning to them with shaking limbs. "Who might you be? Are you looking to test your luck?"

"I'm going to be the King of Pirates," Luffy said.

"My, that's nice," the old man murmured with a nod.

"Don't go telling people that every single time!" Nami screeched.

"And I don't really care about that stuff," Luffy said. "You got any tall places too?"

"He wasn't serious about that whole trying to kill herself thing, was he?" Sanji spoke up, smoke rolling off his cigarette.

Zoro rubbed his chin, looking disgruntled. "Hell if I know. You scared, shitty cook?"

"Shut up, muscle-head. I just think it's a waste for any beautiful woman to want to take her life—"

"We have both of those," the boy spoke up instead for the old man. He placed the watering can down and crossed his arms over his chest, eyeing the assembled group with a critical eye. "What's it to you losers?"

Luffy smacked his head and the kid yelped. "I'm not a loser, loser."

"Hey, you let me do the talking, Cap!" Usopp pushed forward, sticking his nose high in the air. "You see us, kid? You know who we are?"

"Bullies!"

"We're pirates!" Usopp said loudly. "We're the toughest, bravest pirates out there! We took down a hundred fishmen in one swoop, defeated an entire army of pirates run by the most dastardly of villains and even vanquished none other than—"

"Oh, my," the old man said pleasantly. "It's been quite some time since we had pirates sail through. Ah, there was that one man, I suppose. We've been very lucky not to have much trouble since years before. You all wouldn't be looking for trouble, would you?"

The boy ground his teeth, looking fierce beside the white haired old man. They looked every bit like the first line of defense fitting for such an island.

"We're not looking for trouble at all!" Nami rushed, shoving Usopp and the rest back with a quick shove. They toppled over, Zoro's head smacking on the ground where Usopp and Luffy tumbled over him and Sanji watched them all, exhaling smoke. "I promise, mister. We're actually here to just look for a friend of ours we're supposed to pick up. Hopefully stock up on supplies for cheap if you have any too!"

"You guys don't look like you could take down our town anyway," the boy muttered, cheeks flushing as he tried not to stare at Nami's beaming smile. "Except maybe that grass haired guy."

Zoro's lips curled up at the edges. Sanji bit his cigarette and Usopp said nothing, quietly stuffing more clovers into his bag while Luffy picked his nose.

"Fover town doesn't have anything exotic," the kid continued to Nami, "We've got lots of fresh fruits though. The waters around here are always lucky and full of fish. You can buy your supplies in our market."

"Perfect!" Nami said happily, grabbing the boy's hands and his cheeks flushed a darker red. Sanji scowled behind them. "Thank you so much, sweetie. Now, could you also tell us where that...gambling hall is?"

The kid rubbed the back of his neck, "Just so you know, most outsiders don't get lucky around here. It's more of an islander thing..."

Nami's eyes glittered mischievously. Luffy waved a hand, flicking aside something caught on his nail. "We just need to know where it is."

The boy jerked his chin roughly in the direction of the market. "It's the one painted gold and red. You won't miss it. If you're looking for somewhere high though, all we've got are the mountains past the town. It's where all the monks live in the temples."

"Monks?" Sanji repeated. "This doesn't look like the kind of town monks would live in."

The boy crossed his arms stubbornly over his chest. "Most of the people that live here are old or young like me. Betcha idiots didn't notice that."

"Yeah we did," Luffy bit back. He stuck his tongue out.

"Our monks help write talismans and protect the town," the boy said. "Our highest temple is over that hill that way." He made a funny face. "You... you guys said you're looking for someone?"

"Mhm!" Nami said. "She's got, um, really white hair! Super white," Nami glanced nervously at all the old people milling about with pleasant smiles and snow white hair. "And a..."

"Tattoo!" Usopp piped up. "A tattoo around her eye with a... what was it again?"

"A smudge like this!" Luffy smeared dirt under his scar down a short distance.

The boy looked surprised. The old man hummed, looking faintly amused. "What the heck do you want with—"

The old man patted the boy's head. He hobbled closer, cane clacking and faced Luffy specifically with a gentle stare, unbuckling. "Is there something that dear miss can help you with, future king of pirates?"

Luffy tipped his hat back. His crew watched with curious eyes, waiting. His lips stretched wide across his face and then he was grinning. "I won so she owes me something!"

The boy shoved his hands into his pockets. The old man smiled, "I see. She's quite adamant about keeping those promises. She just left the gambling hall a few hours ago, you should find her right up that hill at the highest temple. She usually leaves to meditate at this hour."

"Meditate?" Usopp repeated. "Hey, Luffy, you didn't tell us your friend is some kind of ancient monk—"

"What kind of person are we picking up?" Nami wondered, biting her thumbnail. "How old is she?"

Zoro watched a cat slink by, batting paws at the painted fish etched into the wall of a home.

Sanji sighed, putting out his cigarette. "Guess we gotta go and see for ourselves, right?"

"We'll go ahead and show you folks the way," the old man said kindly. "The miss has been very helpful to the rebuilding of our town. It was our luck she came this way."

"Yeah?" Luffy threw his arms behind his head, following with skipping steps after the old man and his wary crew in tow.

"R-Rebuilding?" Usopp started. "What happened? A battle? Were you guys attacked?"

"Oh, yes," the old man said, not specifying which he answered. "She tries her hand at gambling every day and then seeks enlightenment in the mountains with the monks. Quite the studious one."

Luffy, surprisingly, seemed to be mulling over the old man's words. He adjusted his straw hat and then snickered.

"Shishishi, what a joke."


Roughly Thirteen Years Ago, Somewhere in the West Blue


Traveling with Dracule Mihawk was no joke.

Given the circumstances, nothing should seem funny to begin with.

It'd only been roughly a day and a half since they departed the shores of Artopoki and watched as fire and sky swallowed her island home whole. That'd been one part of the horror, she supposed, slowly sailing away with nothing but the smell of smoke and the faint, bitter scent of burning blood. The other half had been watching the seas for any signs of ships leaving the harbor. Any little gleam of hope that more people made it out. That it wasn't the same kind of massive slaughter that a certain archeologist of a certain crew had undergone.

She wanted to believe Artopoki was different.

They all have more than one life. Hoku reasoned. They can't die that easily. She thought about Mahina's dripping blades and the fierce gleam of gold in those sky blues. They wouldn't die that easily.

Hoku tried not to think about the old shop keeper who always handed her the best kiionohi berries and his bad leg.

Luckily, thankfully, regrettably?—she didn't know, but one of those damn things—sailing with Mihawk also meant sailing with silence. The man hadn't spoken a word to her since Artopoki disappeared from both their sights and then he sat back in his throne, changing the course of the sails occasionally and saying nothing more to her. The silence gave her plenty of time to sit there to her own thoughts, wallow in them, drown, sort them out—the whole shebang.

Mihawk wasn't one to tell her what to do. Or anything for the matter. He let her sit there by the front bow of the ship, pressed against the curve of the wood and trying to keep her eye on the skyline and not the water below her.

She did hope they planned on docking soon. Her backpack had been packed with plenty of rations to seemingly last more than two weeks, maybe longer if she rationed well. But she was going to need to pee soon at some point and she did not feel like striking up that conversation anytime soon with the personification of a gothic cathedral behind her. There was a lower deck to his small ship, but she didn't have the guts or the right to venture below. She also didn't want to think about him remembering he was human and recalling his normal human body functions and just—argh.

Hoku spent a lot of the time thinking. Most of that time divided between stages.

Hoku spent the first quarter in denial. Just denial. And just for a quarter. She felt like she needed to get the disbelieving thoughts off her chest or she'd grow crazy with the classic—"No, this can't possibly be real! Pirates, monsters, and anime oh, my!" The denial also helped fuel her disbelief that she hadn't just been reincarnated, she'd been born again in a world far beyond any of her capabilities of understanding. A well-built, thoroughly creative and fantastic world, sure, she'd give the man that. But herHere?

She spent half the time after that sorting herself out. Hoku dumped the denial into any trash bin available and moved on because denial wasn't going to help her cause. On the bright side, this was a world teeming with danger and murderous intent at every turn if you knew the right people and ended up in the right place. Dying should be easy then, shouldn't it? She'd hardly have to lift a finger and there ought to be someone out there willing to swing.

Being in a world that'd bled to life on paper and come to life on television was just that. A world. The kind of world it was didn't matter. A kind of world that allowed its militia to storm the harbors of a small island nation teeming with deep history, color and life and people and do their hardest to burn it all to the ground—

"Fire and the like won't destroy this island. The island will remain. It has long before us, it will long after."

Mahina had never said the same of the people.

Her clothes still smelled of smoke. Hoku picked a dried flower petal off her draping pant leg and dropped it into the ocean. She absently wiped at a tear that rolled down the corner of her cheek and swiped at her nose.

Hoku spent the rest of her time mourning.

"Come on," a commentator that didn't exist laughed, "Why are you crying? You were going to off yourself any moment. You feel sad about all this? Sad you missed your chance to die too?"

Hoku did lament that. Dying proudly with the people of an island she hadn't meant to love but did so wholeheartedly as easy as breathing? Of fucking course. She ought to be face down on the white, sandy beaches and at peace with herself.

Morals be damned. Fairness be damned. And fuck everything else.

Hoku would feel however the hell she wanted to feel. The people of Artopoki didn't deserve a damn thing that had happened to them. Manu didn't deserve to watch his life's work go up in flames. Her uncle did deserve the most painful of any painful thing to happen to him. The town didn't deserve a tragic attack on the night of a festival meant to spark joy into all their hearts because—life. Mahina deserved to be sitting there on that cliff, overlooking the ocean and the beach and writing another letter, probably addressed to the man sitting a few feet behind her while she sang to her swords and they talked sweetly back to her—

Hoku didn't know how long it would take her to die. Didn't know how long she'd have to live in a world shitty enough like this to let things like that happen to people like them. She was roughly five and some and she didn't plan on getting further than the age she'd died in her last life. But for as long as she did live—she was going to remember. Every moment. Every person. Every inch of that island in vivid detail.

The pages stuffed full of her sketchbook she'd spent the past hours drawing through fluttered. The corner of the page peeked with a symbol all too familiar to this world and her mind before.

She'd bring grief to that symbol for however long the rest of her life was worth.

You told me to live my life blazing brighter than any star. Hoku wiped at her nose with the back of her hand, sniffling and trying to push a far older mentality into this tiny body. I'll live what's left burning it down.

Mahina probably would've smacked her for that. Maybe smiled. Agreed, only to a degree. She was still her mother, and she'd clearly wanted her to keep living.

"It's just so hard."

"What's the point without even someone like you to be there?"

Hoku tried not to think too much about Mahina. Or Manu. It still hurt.

"The fool who wants to die lives," a bird had called to her, circling overhead. Mihawk hadn't even spared it a glance, eyes somewhere far on the horizon as he examined a paper in his hands. "Have you been spared, fool?"

You shut your dirty mouth. Hoku had mouthed back. The bird banked, coming to perch daringly on the side of the ship. Some kind seagull looking thing. She thought she might've recognized it from somewhere.

"Fool wishes to die," the bird said. "Still. Best, you let the ocean take you back."

Hoku tried not to shudder at the thought. Given the new state of her being and what her uncle had forced upon her in his deranged sense of legacy, the ocean beside her could easily solve all her problems in an instant.

That too. Hoku realized grimly. Foreign information had slipped into her mind as though it'd always been there to begin with the moment she took a bite. She didn't have the faintest interest in exploring it at the moment though.

She fiddled with her fingers. Stupid dumb fruit that fits this shitty background.

The bird looked amused. "Fool will not die by water. Fool who wants to die will pick her death."

"You're damn right I will," Hoku snapped back. "You think I made it this far to die some shitty death? I'm doing it by my terms."

She sensed Mihawk watching now. He could think she was going crazy with grief for all she cared. Not even good enough to strike down with his sword. He'd made it clear if she spoke any of that suicidal shit, he'd off her himself with a few words.

He'd probably be better off pitching her off this boat. She probably would've done that. The daughter of the woman he loved with a man he could give two shits about? The reason why that said woman might've stayed behind and not left with him had it just been her—

Hoku wiped furiously at her eyes.

The bird fluttered its feathers. "Moon woman gave you chance. Fool has not changed mind?"

"I've got eight," she held up her fingers for emphasis, making sure the stupid animal knew she doubted its ability to count. It fluttered its feathers once more. "I'll stay long enough to pay respects. They all deserve that much."

The bird clacked its beak. "Respects?"

Hoku stared into its beady eyes. The sketchbook beside her fluttered with the ocean breeze, flipping to the page that bore her perfect replica of a symbol she would damn to kingdom come.

She didn't think birds could laugh. But its eyes did. "Respects. Fool wants to die. That is a wrong."

Hoku contemplated the physical and mental toll it would take to wring the bird's neck. It didn't looked phased by her ill intent. It clacked its beak. "This world does not take kind to being wronged."

Hoku grabbed the piece of bread from the top of her bag and chucked it. The bird clamped the piece down tight between its beak, tossing its head back and swallowing. Its white wings spread out and with a few heavy beats it took off, singing a shrill laugh in her head, "Fool lives. Fool lives."

She didn't watch it disappear. Her fingers instinctively reached for her bag, gingerly taking her pens out and quickly closing the top.

Hoku had been lucky that food and supplies had been stacked in the outer and top halves of the bags. She didn't have the heart in her to look through the bottom and find anything else that Mahina had pushed into her bags for her. The thought was still too raw, like rubbing a blistering burn.

Mihawk hadn't touched the satchel Mahina had given him since they left the island. It merely sat against the side of his throne. Silent.

Perhaps the only thing they'd have in common this entire trip.

I don't know where he's taking me or how long it'll take to get there. Hoku pressed the heel of her palms to the corners of her eyes, stretching her face and staring tautly at the horizon. He'll probably wash his hands of me at the island Mahina wanted. He doesn't seem like the kind of guy to go back on a request like that.

If she was lucky, it'd be some obscure, dangerous island where she could just disappear from this world without another trace.

Hoku's eyes drifted to her sketchbook. She peeled back a few pages and ran her thumb over the illustration of the World Government's symbol.

Maybe it'll have a marine base. She added absently. And I'll burn it to the ground.

"We're docking at that island," Mihawk said.

Hoku looked halfheartedly over her shoulder, more intrigued by the fact that he'd actually told her that instead of leaving it for herself to figure out. That's something, at least. Nearing them in the faint distance was the unmistaken shape of an island.

Mihawk didn't tell her why or if that was her drop off point, but Hoku figured she would find that out later on. She let her head rest on the ledge of the ship and felt the sway of the boat beneath her.

Hoku wondered if she should read more into it than given, but then decided against it. This man ought to want nothing to do with her. Cool character or not and while she'd liked his design—she wouldn't feel anything either. His writing had never made him out to seem like the kind of man who'd appreciate useless apologies or quiet declarations of things he'd already known.

Hoku thought about the way Mahina could fall asleep in the middle of her work late into the night, a blade nestled to her chest, never cutting, never once in danger of being cut.

"She really loved you."

"It was an albatross."

Hoku looked up, startled. Her lips parted to speak to him for once and ask what he meant. Her mind clicked into place. Mihawk didn't spare her a glance.

Hoku looked back to the horizon, eyes above the waterline.

She tried not to think about the man who'd created this world and how he tended not to include things that didn't have significant meaning or symbolism later on, if not now.

She tried to not recall what that specific bird meant.


"Supplies. One night. We leave midday tomorrow."

Three short sentences. Possibly the most she would ever receive until their parting.

Mihawk anchored his ship and disembarked without glancing back to her, taking Mahina's satchel and his trusted blade with him strapped to his back.

Hoku stood there on the swaying boat, waiting for a moment until he disappeared into the port side of the town. A few men were milling by the docks, gaping. Some people started screeching in realization at who'd just arrived on their island.

Truthfully, she didn't expect anything of Mihawk except for him to get her to where Mahina had wanted. She didn't want to expect anything else of him. It wasn't right. A kid or not, she wasn't his responsibility, and she didn't feel like bothering him about any of it.

Cause you don't talk but your sword's a little less tight lipped. Hoku pulled the hood of her cloak over her head, tucking her hair back behind it. And you lost something back there too.

There was a little flutter in her chest. A fleeting thought. She squashed it down. It was best to stay neutral. Stay ambivalent. Don't think. Don't hope.

Hoku made a list instead.

She tugged her backpack onto her shoulders and set off in the direction of the other side of the port town. She couldn't recognize anything from her limited knowledge, so it didn't seem to be a place of any importance. Hoku figured she ought to get the things she needed first.

New clothes. Ash and blood still hinted at the edges of her festival clothes. Smoke still hung to the fabric like a familiar perfume. She'd need a bath too. A map would be useful. Books? Might as well keep myself busy. Mahina's rations would hold, but maybe she could find something else to add. More paper and ink bottles. She'd also need to find a place to stay, whether tucked under a bench or otherwise since she didn't want to ask of anything else.

But first.

There was one thing Hoku wanted—needed to know above all else.

Hoku felt a tear roll down the side of cheek. She wiped at it absently.

A part of her was grateful, strangely, in that moment for being older than she truly was in this body—for having a mind and soul older than that of this child who was now, whether she liked it or not, her, through and through still. Maybe raised by people like Mahina and Manu, the child still would've fared fine, but the events that'd transpired were still a lot to take in.

Some part of her, inherent, small, still seemed to recognize that.

"Okay," Hoku said aloud, to no one but herself and her heart. "Okay. You're okay."

Hoku walked on.

"Excuse me," Hoku said to a fisherman preparing to leave. He looked up, "Where can I find a newspaper stand?"


She wanted to know what happened to her home.


The town was called Continuar.

The island seemed to be a fair enough size, average in seemingly every way. It had a small port and it seemed its main exports laid deeper within the plaza. A small trading expo lined with stalls and vendors selling from laid out mats. A swamp-meet of sorts.

Hoku took note of food vendors and stalls that sold maps and trinkets. Small inns dotted the town but there'd been a forest area with an alcove that looked promising too. Her mother had supplied her with a sack stuffed full with money—beli, I guess, isn't it?—but she didn't know how she'd come by money later, so she opted to be wise with it for now.

Hoku stopped by a beaming parlor, lit up with people streaming in and out despite the middle of the day.

A gambling hall.

Hoku made a face. She could try to test her luck, but waiting till her funds were low would probably be the best. Best not to track back any past habits.


A twenty-three year old woman clapped herself on the back, pulling the stacks of chips closer to her while she slapped her winning cards down.

A few men around her were grumbling. Someone said she was awful lucky and she responded with idle small talk, already betting a new, generous hand.

The great thing about deciding you were going to die?

Gambling was easy as shit.

No fear of what happened after you lost. If you made more money—leave it behind for the family. If she lost it all? Some rich ass bastard would only get richer. Maybe one of the people at her table could use it for something good.

Without the weight of fear of risks, there laid only numb rewards.

She slapped a new hand down. She wondered if she should've started gambling sooner. It was fun. Might've given her something to go for. It was ridiculously idiotic to think so—but a gambling addiction probably would've wanted to make her keep living to win it all back, right?

Oh, well. Too late.


Hoku made a mental note to remember that hall though. She'd take some time out and sort through the tidbits of information that still streaked through her head regarding this world and anything prior she'd known. Only the basic details seemed the most important right now—the worldly details. The exact stuff she only half paid attention to watching mindlessly and without destination. The plot didn't matter, she wasn't involving herself with anything near that.

It had to be something I watched half assed. Hoku followed the fisherman's instructions to where a newsstand ought to be close to the port. She knew some chunks extremely well and others sparingly because, well, she'd only tuned in when it showed. Sometimes she got invested into an arc and wanted to see it through. That was it. But maybe that's the best. The less I know about them and that lot, the less likely I'll be involved.

Hoku gripped her cloak. The town center had grown sparingly isolated of people. She casted a quick glance around to see if any eyes were following her.

The few people that still remained in the plaza had all their eyes trained on one man who didn't even have to lift a finger to get them to look and quake in fear.

Hoku stopped a few feet from the newsstand.

Mihawk's sword met her quiet gaze.

Guess we decided the same thing was the most important one.

"What's he doing all the way over here?" a man whispered quickly behind her, ushering his wife closer to a small café looking building. "Out hunting again?"

"He might've been called in for that raid they did at that island," his wife whispered. "No buster call. Different and just as awful. They say... They say it might've been a demand from—"

"We're better off not talking about it," another man spoke up to them. "I was telling my brother he should stop selling their exports..."

"They made damn fine quality goods," the husband protested. "Some of the finest I've ever seen. You won't find craftsmen like that anywhere anymore. You ought to keep selling—the prices will skyrocket for their goods!"

"They always made the prettiest paintings," the wife sighed, looking saddened. "Such a damn shame. They should've played it smarter. What did them in again?"

The man waved his hand. "The truth or what we're told?"

"Morgans always tells it the best... For what it is too—"

Hoku stepped up to the newstand's counter. Mihawk didn't even glance her way, a newspaper already in his hands. A few people started whispering amongst themselves, twisting this way and that to see who stood beside the fearsome swordsman at such a short stature.

"Someone tell that kid to scram before it gets killed—"

"One, please," Hoku said the man running the stand. A burly bird was perched beside him, looking at her curiously. A News Coo.

The man at the counter stopped. His eyes widened at the blood inked marking curved around her eye and the strands of white that curved choppily around her cheeks, sliding across her eyes. His mouth opened, as though to say something before he glanced to Mihawk still standing there and seemed to think better of it.

Continuar hadn't been far from Artopoki. Probably the next closest island, given Artopoki's rather secluded nature. The island had often taken days to get anywhere when she sailed with Manu so—

Hoku saw pity and fear in his eyes.

"Here, kid," the man slid the paper across the counter, pulling his hand away quickly. Hoku tried not to scoff and set a coin down in return.

She shuffled the papers, tucking them close to her chest. Hoku turned away from Mihawk, fingers trembling as she gripped the stack and started walking back toward that forest path she'd seen before so she could read in silence—

"Blue roof. Red door. Second door on the first floor. The one by the coast view."

Hoku stopped. Mihawk's boots hit the floor in an even staccato as he walked away from her.

Hoku kept walking.


If there's already news about it, then it means things must've finished up. Hoku tried to ignore her trembling fingers as she settled down onto a few gnarled roots. The forest was thick, even trees providing ample shade with a mushroom or two growing in patches. Moss coated the base of trunks and something like a squirrel and raccoon raced by after shooting her a glare. Animals seemed to sense her lack of will to live and didn't take too fondly to it.

If there's news, they stopped the fighting. It's over. All that's left is an aftermath.

Hoku stared at the backside of the paper. An article about a famous Vice Admiral named Tsuru still chasing down a group called the Donquixote pirates. A comic strip.

Prisoners taken in. Hoku reasoned. Forced to go on trial for housing treasonous works of art. Fighting back against the World Government? She didn't know who'd been involved, but if none of those heavy hitters from the storyline had been there, then didn't it mean that Artopoki's frontline could have stood a chance? People could've escaped before reinforcements came—

"This," Manu said proudly as he opened the door to a workshop. Dozens of men and women were stretched out, hunched over desks, or standing as they painted into the air and paper and world with soft hands, "is our pride."

She comforted herself with the memory of Mahina's sharp, fanged smile. Her bloody swords and the men she'd laugh late into the night with as they clanked and built and crafted.

Hoku turned the newspaper over.

They'd made the front page.


Island of Artopoki taken under siege in the middle of the night.

The island of Artopoki, famed for its wondrous works of art and unparalleled craftsmanship, was stormed by marines under World Government orders. A previous statement saying the island's leaders would be taken to trial under the case of housing treasonous works was discarded. An anonymous tip had been provided that the island would be preparing for a counterattack and the government took swift action.


Hoku's fingers nearly tore the flimsy paper. She refused to think about the children who begged her to play in the aquamarine waters and showed off their newly inked tattoos.


Artopoki's greatest exports had been their coveted Pokian ink. Their highest buyers had always been the World Nobles. Many praised the works of their crafts, from weapons to basic cutlery.


So they took them prisoner to sort it out. Hoku reasoned. They have the island under watch now.


The entire island was set ablaze. Not a single remnant of treasonous artifacts were allowed to remain. The sturdy dexterity of the Artopoki's crafts was what allowed the good condition of Ohara's thousands of books to remain despite water or fire. Officials worked tirelessly into the night, rounding up rebels of the island who fought back. A fleet of ships were downed. Several of the island's elders were taken into custody and are sentenced to be executed tomorrow.

An issued declaration by the World Government branded all Pokians specifically native and born to the island of Artopoki to be eradicated. Treasonous information could have leaked to a number of networks, an inside source claims. The Government dealt with it swiftly, stamping out all other possibilities. Pokians not of legal birth to the island of Artopoki have been spared.


A black and white photo had been snagged. A headline below it stated once more that the World Economic Journal reported all news as unbiasedly as possible. Not to be influenced by any other power but what was witnessed. Pressed and printed into the second page.


"They can try whatever the hell they want!" "Big News" Morgans laughed, throwing his head back into the air with his beak parted in mirth. "No one can ever stop the truth from getting out! They were a damn fine group of storytellers, eh? Wrote my first headliner in their blood—they deserve nothing but what they've always done themselves. We tell it like it is boys, all be damned!"

A chorus of cheers rose up in the newsroom, papers flying into the air.


The photo illustrated a line of Pokians waiting on the edge of a cliff. Hoku knew that cliff. It was to the south of the island. It overlooked a perfect jumping point into the deep pools of ocean beneath. Children jumped off as a test of courage all the time.

Each person had an iron ball chained to their feet, rounded to the massive size of double anyone's head.

The other photo showcased a throng of Pokians strung up onto wooden stakes. Kindling was pushed beneath their feet. Hoku could barely make out their faces but she caught a few distinct markings she did recognize.

The tattooed ankle of the mother who ran the bakery. That tattered jacket around that man's shoulders meant he was the sake crafter who always used the best kiionohi to make his drinks. So they hadn't all been massacred that night.


The people of Artopoki sent to death by water and fire. A message to all who dare to conspire against the World Government and look to spread the treasonous propaganda against its goodwill.


"You can lose a limb," Manu explained. "Your next revival, it'll be back. I've only ever seen people come back losing a limb or two once or twice. Strange, beautiful thing. I ought to draw it next time."

"So what," Hoku had said. "You just... show up again?"

Manu nodded, looking completely serious. "Bathed in a little white light and there you are again. Truly wondrous, isn't it?"

Hoku wondered what it would be like to have people watch someone's head chopped off just for the person to show up again.

"Wounds will all be healed, a restart," Manu touched his heart. "But it's useless if your body isn't somewhere it can remain alive. That's why you must be careful no matter what, maka."

Hoku looked at him, stuffing her face with kiionohi. Manu took one and tossed it far out into sea spread out against the boat. It bobbed once and then sank beneath the waves. Hoku looked away, rubbing her arm.

"If you drown," Manu said. "You'll keep drowning if your body stays there. If you're caught in a fire, you'll keep burning if you can't get out."

Hoku grimaced. Neither option sounded like a way she wanted to go, no matter how swift. Burning to death and then reappearing and burning again? No thanks. Drowning was always out. Never an option. Never.

"Apparently the closer you near the count, you catch glimpses sometimes, little bits of a past none of us can quite remember. Perhaps another life?" Manu mused. "I heard that was once how we executed criminals of our island. Only Pokians know how to kill Pokians as well as we do."


The newspaper in her hand crumpled in her fisted grip. Hoku lurched, twisting her body to the side and digging her hands into the mossy ground.

Hoku wretched.


The treasonous propaganda Artopoki was harboring has been declared missing. High rewards are promised to anyone who can deliver it safely to the World Government intact. Contents are not to be read.

Strictly forbidden.

- M


Hoku debated going to the designated inn Mihawk told her of.

Half of her still wanted to find somewhere in the forest to hole up. The island was a fairly warm one, probably stuck in a summer season. But the other half was beginning to win over after recalling every event that'd transpired in the forest after she'd read the news.

I don't want to be alone right now.

After rinsing out her mouth in the riverbed, Hoku had sat there, staring at a reflection she still found herself trying to memorize at times.

She had Mahina's eyes.

She touched the mark Manu had painted for her around her eye.

Her stomach throbbed. Her throat was hoarse. She should eat something but at this point, she was too afraid of being able to hold it down. Hoku hadn't known whether or not to toss the paper, rip it to shreds in a fit of frustrated agony, or keep it.

For now, it was shoved deep into one of the backpack's pockets.

Hoku felt tired around her eyes. She finally relented and weakly pushed the door of the inn open. A woman at the front glanced her way, eyeing her shadowed cloak for a moment before looking away without another word. Hoku hurried to the corridor that should've overlooked the coast and stopped beside the door Mihawk told her.

Hoku stared at the red wood.

She pushed it open with weak fingers, tired of everything else. The silence that would come with Mihawk was welcome.

I want to feel another person.

From the way the light caught off the glass, Hoku could tell the bottle was nearly polished off. Nothing left but one more glass, perhaps.

The second to last glass of wine sat in Mihawk's fingertips.

His back was reclined against a sleek wooden chair. His hat and coat had been hung against the back of it, his sword resting against the wall beside him. Mahina's untouched satchel sitting across from his spot. One bed had his items, neatly folded, and a second bed was pressed against the other side of the wall, empty.

Hoku couldn't see his eyes. Mihawk's head was turned away from her, the newspaper laid out on the table in front of him. She barely caught the reflection of gold in the window before Hoku turned her gaze to the unoccupied bed. She quietly made her way to it, dropping her backpack against the side. The stiff mattress practically sang to her at this point, but she hadn't even gotten new clothes today and—

Bath.

Hoku tentatively pushed open the adjacent door. A washroom met her with a large basin in the center and what looked to be a showerhead of sorts. Hoku shut the door behind her and fell to her knees of the tile, grabbing a clean rag on a rack and plunging her hands into the water.

It was hot.

Hoku let the warm water burn a bit at her fingertips, watching her dirtied reflection ripple.

Droplets hit the water's surface.


"I lost a few of my lives being a fool who chased wild things that existed in this world,"Manu mused. "I think I was trying to find something. Some undiscoverable truth."

He sighed through his nose, patting her head.

"The blood never lies," Manu said. "I get that thrill sometimes still too, you know. A call for adventure. I'd like to spend the rest of these lives teaching you how to see this world, though. How beautiful it can be. All of it."


"I want you to tell the story you want to tell. And tell it true."


When Hoku stepped out of the washroom, hair damp and smoke no longer clinging to her skin, Mihawk popped the latch of the satchel Mahina had given him open.

Hoku stared at it in surprise. Mihawk's face was a collected mask of calm indifference. His finished glass sat on the windowsill and he turned, moving the bag to his lap and flipping the top open.

She silently took a seat on the bed. A part of her whispered to look away. Mahina had given it to him after all, not her. She had her own things she should look through too.

Hoku continued to watch, chasing the scattered remnants of her mother.

Mihawk's nimble fingers carefully pulled out several folded papers. He flipped the top open with his thumb, scanning the top contents and then he set it down beside him. A slender silver box he didn't open. A beautiful, large glass vial filled with red and tied off with a ribbon. For coating. What looked to be a photo? A flask. A lone letter.

Mihawk pulled out what looked to be the final contents with both his hands. A large, bundled stack of letters. They'd all appeared to have been opened before with other envelopes not yet opened singled in between each of them, alternating.

Mihawk stared at the stack of letters for an infinite amount of time before he leaned back against the chair. His fingers rubbed along his bearded chin, a look that felt too personal for her to see to a man she'd hardly known and was only connected to by one person they both loved—

He poured himself the remnants of the bottle and stared up at the ceiling, letters in his lap.

Hoku roughly and loudly dragged the backpack onto the bed. She purposefully made a show with unbuckling the clasp, pulling the strings free and she shot Mihawk a quick glance.

The older man had already turned his gaze back to the window.

Fine then. Hoku huffed to herself, pulling the top part of the contents out. The rations and money she set aside, digging in deeper to the things Mahina had tucked in for her below. I get it, alright? We're nothing alike anyways and—

Hoku's fingers trembled as she pulled out several soft cloths. She tugged them with a little more force out of the backpack, realizing quickly that Mahina had packed her a spare change of clothes. She set them beside her with a gentle pat, thanking her mother profoundly and digging deeper.

Thick rolls of paper. Beaten boxes from their home filled with art supplies and her carving knife. Hoku ran her fingers over the etched in hilt, carved by Mahina's gentle fingers. Her sketchbooks. Packets of seeds—Hoku read over the labels with interest. Make berries and kiionohi fruit trees. A small glass bottle filled with the sand of their home, white and faintly pink. Hoku took extra care with the rolled papers she knew were the countless drawings Hoku had made of their family and their island, ones she'd given to her parents.

Hoku rubbed her face against her shoulder, holding back a sniffle. Her fingers wrapped around something fairly heavy in weight, almost cylindrical? Wrapped in silken cloths, Hoku pulled it free and stopped.

She knew this.


"Do you have a favorite?"

Mahina hummed, not even looking from her work as she reached over and pointed in an aimless direction. Hoku followed her finger and blinked.

"I try to love all of my blades or they're not really mine," Mahina said, looking over with a fond smile. "That one was one of my first. It stays. Always. I've been told it ought to receive a refurbishing at least but..."

Mahina sighed lovingly.

"It endures."


The fabric was woven Pokian cloth. Silk like in feel. Silver through and through. It had creases along parts of it where it'd been used for more than one occasion for various things. Hoku unfurled it with care, pulling out the sheathed short sword and holding it reverently in her hands.

The sheath was a sleek, almost glassy container. Black, carved carefully with Mahina's signature moon and a flower inside the crescent. Heavy and sturdy with several notches etched into its side where it'd done its duty to protect and defend.

Hoku pulled the blade open with a soft click.

The low lighting in the room still did the blade well. A few inches longer than her arm and stopping with a clean diagonal cut. Thin red glass ran through its center and to the hilt, rosin encased blood. It gleamed almost silver and the hilt had been rewrapped, recurved to show Mahina's crescent moon with a newly painted and carved star in the middle.

Mahina's first and perhaps best piece of work. A true Pokian craft.

"Mau."

She caught her reflection in the blade. Hoku could feel the life thrumming within its metal but the blade remained silent to her despite how hard she listened for any inkling of a call back.

To continue, endure, preserve. To flow on forever.

"Give that here."

Hoku looked up, shutting the blade in surprise. Mihawk had stood, staring her down from across the room and staring hard at the short sword in her hands. Hoku's grip tightened reflexively and Mihawk didn't look as though he were about to rip it from her grasp, but he did appear to be waiting for her to listen to what he'd just ordered.

Something in Hoku's chest twisted at his words. He probably knew this sword. Did you see her use it? Was it beautiful? What was she like—?

Mihawk opened his hand, waiting.

"Give it here," Mihawk said once more. His eyes were those of one who would not repeat himself a third time.

The greatest swordsman, so of course. What would she even do with this—

"No."

Mihawk's piercing gold eyes cut her like any blade. Hoku stared at the sword in her hands and then turned to him, hopping off the bed and staring up at him with her ridiculously short stature and small body and this man could kill her and be done with it in an instant—

"Do you even know how to use it?" Mihawk said instead of cutting her down or ripping it from her hands, critical.

Hoku almost slid into the basic stance Mahina had taught her. Every part of Mihawk's body seemed to be too perfectly in tune—his eyes flashed briefly, he'd see right through her. She couldn't do anything against him. She was only a child—

"She gave it to me," Hoku said hotly. She banished any tears. Tears don't get you anywhere, fuck you tears. "She gave those to you—" she gestured wildly with the blade to the vial on the table, "—and I bet you don't know how to coat a sword with that, do you?"

Mihawk's eyes were like chips of molten gold, frozen solid as he stared at her.

"This one, this one is mine. Okay?"

Mihawk's fingers twitched briefly. He stared down at her, all strength and power and intimidation. Hoku didn't have anything to lose but a handful of lives and she dropped her gaze from his to the golden cross hanging over his chest, a little close to his heart.

"You have yours," Hoku said.

Mihawk's fingers curled back into his palm, dropping it to his side.

Hoku roughly hooked the silk cloth through the loop at the end of the blade and at the top of its hilt. She followed the crease that proved it'd been tied like this just before and then she wrapped it snug around her waist and tied it off like a sash. Mau pressed snug to her lower back.

Hoku balled her hands into fists, glaring hard at him and trying her hardest not to cry because, because, because—

You have her. This part of her I get to keep.

For the briefest moments, something like fatigue flashed across Mihawk's face. Fleeting and then it disappeared altogether. He sat back in the chair, leaning his elbows onto his legs as he stared at her from across the room and Hoku stared back into those endless golden eyes.

Hoku slumped down on the wood floor, the blade clacking softly behind her.

The two of them sat there in silence, letting it overtake them.


What are we going to do, you and me?


"It's the finest you know, the absolute real deal. You aren't going to find things like this cheap anywhere else—in a day or two? It's going to shoot up to one hundred thousand beli. You think you can pay it then?"

Hoku bit intro the strange hunk of meat in her hands. It'd smelled absolutely amazing when she walked by and she'd watched fat drip from the crispy edges on the skewer for two seconds before buying a stick. It melted into her mouth, marbled and a little salty like the ocean but holy shit, it's delicious.

"Sea king meat," the vendor said proudly. "Don't bag 'em often, but when you can, why, it's a mighty fine meal."

Hoku tried to imagine slicing one of those massive monsters clean and decided she shouldn't grow too fond of the taste.

Mihawk had left the room with all his things early at the peak of dawn without a word to her. Hoku had spent a little more time in that stiff mattress, staring at the ceiling with Mau tucked beside her pillow, untouched where she'd left it.

Okay.

He had said midday. Did that mean, what, noon? Two? Three? Hoku figured she could find the weirdest part of town where everyone was acting the strangest and find him to solve that issue. She didn't think Mihawk would leave her behind with his end of the deal to fill, but she wouldn't expect anything else of him either.

Loose black pants hung tight around her hips and then tightened again around her ankles. Comfortable and easy to move in. The silver sash was tied snugly around her waist with Mau pressed comfortingly against her lower back. A black halter top was tied around her neck and left her middle bare, just as most of the clothes on Artopoki had. A silver flower had been stitched into the side. Manu's handiwork.

The clothes reminded her of home.

Hoku pulled her cloak tighter around herself. Her hair had been tied back into a ponytail that brushed a little past her shoulders, stubborn cuts still clinging to her cheeks and across her eyes.

It'll have to do. Hoku chewed, savoring the fatty, well-seasoned taste as she reached for the chili oil offered and lathered it on. I should still go get some books and a map. A smaller backpack for short distances so I don't have to take the whole thing—

"This is truly a real Pokian work?" a man demanded. Hoku looked over her shoulder at the next door vendor. The older man who'd spoken was a skinny thing, dressed in well-worn working clothes and twiddling his hands nervously as he eyed the wares. Hoku stared at his bright, cherry blossom pink hair. "Truly? Without a doubt?"

The shopkeeper nodded. Hoku tried to count how many chins appeared with each nod and curve of his thick neck. "I don't lie, sir. I only sell the finest. It's crafted by those people and coated in real Pokian techniques—you know what they use, don't you?"

The pink haired buyer looked nervous, finally shaking his head.

The burly seller smiled, as if sharing a secret. "Their blood."

"Heavens—"

"You won't find it for this price anywhere else!" Hoku's eyes dropped to the heavy katana the man was trying to sell off. A pretty thing, all silver with a leather hilt. He even had a shiny sheath to go with it. "Their goods are rare now, you hear? No one else can make them and with so many of them scattered from the island—they're not true Pokians if they don't stay, you know. The ones who might build 'em for you in other towns won't ever be the same as the real stuff, right here! You're lucky I don't up the price for how far I'm stretching my neck out to sell this—"

"I understand!" the man said hastily. He shuffled through his bag and pulled out a full wallet. "Alright then, how much?"

The shopkeeper smiled, three golden teeth catching the sun. Hoku squinted against the shine and bit into her sea king meat. She turned her attention toward the wares settled onto his table, listening.

"I'm selling for seventy thousand be—"

"It's fake."

The buyer stopped, gaping at the shopkeeper. The burly man touched his lips, looking as though he were trying to figure out if that little voice had come from his own mouth. Both their heads craned downwards and Hoku stared at the sword, chewing.

"The sword," Hoku said, in case they were hard of hearing or couldn't make connections. "It's fake. You know, not real. Didn't come from Artopoki."

The buyer looked nervous. He ran a hand through his hair, "Little miss, what on earth—"

"Who the hell do you think you are, brat?" Hoku narrowly avoided a string of spit. She bit harder into the meat, chewing. The burly man huffed and puffed from behind his stand. "This brat doesn't even know what she's talking about—scram kid, before I call your dad and have him give you a real whipping—"

"It's a tachi," Hoku said. "About what, sixty one centimeters? Just barely cutting it. It's a sword but it ain't even a good one. And it's not Pokian."

She knew a good sword.

The buyer looked startled, eyes darting back and forth. His eyes became skeptical and the shopkeeper flushed red with anger. Veins throbbed on the side of his neck and he grabbed the end of the table, growling down at her. "I said beat it brat. You don't know what the hell you're talking about – this sword is the real deal! Finest Pokian ore used in its making, coated by hand with blood and finished off with—"

Hoku licked salt and grease off her fingers. She reached onto her tip toes and grabbed the sword in both hands. It landed heavy in her palms, but Mahina's swords were always heavier.

Hoku turned to face the buyer, unsheathing the sword for him to see. The shopkeeper looked as though he couldn't believe what was happening with this child before him. Hoku eyed the blade, listening quietly and giving it a sniff before she braced it in both hands and faced the nervous, intrigued buyer.

"Everything made with love," Mahina laughed. "Will speak. If you listen, that is."

You've got no voice. Hoku raised her knee. "If it was really from Artopoki, I wouldn't be able to do this."

You weren't made with any kind of love.

The blade snapped clean in half against her knee with one swift jerk.

Glassy, metal shards probably made from cheap pig iron scattered in the air. A piece nearly nicked her cheek and Hoku merely stared at the two broken parts in either of her hands and then faced the man calmly.

"Fake." Hoku said.

The pink haired man's eyes shone with something bright.

A meaty hand fisted itself into Hoku's coat. She grunted, hauled off her feet with frightening ease. The burly seller glared at her, purely enraged as her sandaled feet hung uselessly in the air. People looked over with shocked gasps and the buyer took a step back in shock, eyes wide as the shopkeeper shook her around like a ragdoll.

"You stupid brat!" he bellowed. "Do you have any idea how much you just cost me—you're paying for that blade! It was a damn fine blade—"

"It wasn't," Hoku said stubbornly. "Worth as much as you."

Fuck you, asshole.

He'd tried to pass of something as the work of her home. Her home that she'd just lost and by all hell—it pissed her the fuck off.

She knew a good sword.

The shopkeeper's fist tightened. Hoku felt him grab her tender skin beneath her coat, shaking her with newfound fury. Her hand still gripped the broken halves of the swords uselessly, staring him down with searing eyes as spit flew across her cheeks. "You give me all you have, right fucking now you little piece of shit! You don't know anything—"

Her hood flew back. Paper white hair flashed out against the light. The shopkeeper stopped, people in the plaza stilling briefly for a moment before some quickly turned their eyes away. The buyer looked stunned, staring at her hair with wide eyes.

"Screw you," Hoku seethed. "For thinking you could ever pass off this shit as something she could make."

The shopkeeper's rage twisted into something strange. He stared at her hair and her lightly tanned skin and the marking around her eye as though in thoughtful reverence. His eyes dropped to where blood was pooling in her palm, dripping down the broken half of the blade.

"Pokian blood," he said to himself.

"Strike, little one."

Hoku plunged the broken half of the blade into the man's meaty arm.

He howled in pain, dropping her. Hoku hit the ground on her ass and hissed, quickly scrabbling onto her feet. People were watching in stunned horror as the shopkeeper cursed, gripping his arm and whirling around at her with nothing but pure, fury. He looked like a mad animal wounded and scorned, ready to strike her down—

Hoku gripped the other half of the useless blade.

You don't deserve to take one of my lives, you piece of shit.

"You fucking bitch—"

"L-Leave her alone!" the pink haired buyer blurted, swinging his bag against the back of the man's head. The seller whirled on him in fury, knocking him back with his hand. The man crashed into a stall, wood splitting and Hoku tensed.

"I'm going to gut you, kid," the man seethed. "You're going to regret ever—"

The burly, bulging man stopped, eyes bulging from his head.

Hoku stopped as well, glancing around quickly and realizing everyone around them were watching with bulging eyes, fear painted across each of their faces—ah.

Hoku shuffled her feet around.

Mihawk's sweeping cape curled around his boots. His heavy, beautiful sword peeked over his shoulder and he stared down at her with those molten gold irises, unmoving.

"H-H-H-Hawk Eye Mihawk!"

Ah, shit.

Mihawk seemed to be assessing the situation with an almost nonchalant indifference. His eyes skimmed over the bleeding shopkeeper, eyeing the pink haired man trembling in place in a batch of broken rubble, and then finally back to Hoku. His attention seemed particularly focused on the broken half of blade in her hand.

"You did not draw your own," Mihawk observed, Mau tucked protectively against her back.

Hoku sniffed. She tossed the other half of the blade to the ground with a clatter. "Asshole didn't deserve a blade like that."

Mihawk raised one careful, dark brow. His lips seemed eternally turned down into that strange, brooding frown of his.

"You broke that sword," Mihawk said.

The burly man spluttered. Something like hope in his eyes. A man who respects the sword—

Hoku wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "It was a bad sword."

A heartbeat.

Piercing, full, dark and deep, the sudden laughter shattered the entire atmosphere.

Hoku's jaw dropped in unison with everyone around her. She felt her heart stop for a moment, staring at a sight that probably should never have been seen with mortal eyes. Her fingers scrambled for her cloak, pulling it closer to her in fear while people looked prepared for their lives to end that very moment because—

Dracule Mihawk—

Was laughing?

His head thrown back, chest rising with the full sound of that dark laughter filled the air. Mihawk quieted, looking thoroughly amused and quite content with himself. "Fine."

Hoku continued to gape at him.

Mihawk picked up her discarded backpack and shoved it into her trembling arms. "We're departing."

Hoku stared at the backpack and then at him. Mihawk met her gaze evenly and unaffected, as though he hadn't just burst into hearty laughter and then reverted to complete stoicism. He adjusted his sword and turned on his heel without another word, proceeding to walk away.

Hoku tried to swallow her own spit so she wouldn't choke.

"H-Hey!" the shopkeeper blabbered. "You can't just—"

Mihawk spared the man half a glance over his shoulder.

His forehead hit the floor so hard Hoku almost winced. His entire body shook as he stayed there, crouched like a roach against the ground. Hoku eyed him with little pity and wiped her hand against the inside of her cloak, reminding herself to get the thin cut bandaged before Mihawk struck her down for staining his boat—

"Little miss! Please, wait a moment!"

Hoku risked a glance back. Mihawk didn't turn but his feet stopped in place, the only indication of anything he could say to her.

Something fluttered in her chest.

The pink haired buyer came to a shaky halt. The older man panted, casting shaky eyes Mihawk's way before they turned back to her. His fingers trembled and then he seemed to steel himself, "T-Thank you, little miss. Truly. You saved me a great deal back there and I'm sorry I couldn't do more. A man like me couldn't even—"

"'s fine," Hoku said. "Have a good life."

The man looked startled. Hoku closed her fingers together in an okay sign and slowly started to back away. "He pissed me off. You just happened to be the one he was trying to fool."

The man opened his mouth and stopped. He looked hesitant and Hoku was about to follow after Mihawk because she didn't feel like testing his newfound patience anytime soon either.

"At least let me give you this—please!"

Hoku stared at the soft fabric suddenly thrusted into her hands. The older man smiled, nervous, but his eyes shone with nothing but earnest gratitude. "I make scarves and headbands like these by trade—I sell them where I can and my son loves them enough, at least let me give you this as thanks. I know it's not much but—"

Hoku regarded the smooth fabric. A clear, pale blue in color and dotted with golden stars.

"Okay," Hoku said simply. "Thank you. Sir."

His smile stretched so wide it almost hurt to look at. Hoku carefully tucked the scarf into her pocket and nodded curtly to him, awkwardly beginning to walk back. She gave him a curt wave and then turned on her heel, hurrying after Mihawk with her head bowed.

"And do," the man shouted after her with nothing but kindness, "be more careful! As a father, watching something like that was horrifying! Take care, little miss! Thank you again!"

Hoku didn't look back, merely securing the scarf in her pocket and skidding to a halt by Mihawk's side.

He didn't look down at her, staring ahead at the sea and then down to the docks before he continued to walk.

Hoku walked on beside him.


"My, you've grown awful fond of making ones like that lately," a wife mused, setting down a tea cup beside her husband as he worked.

"I can't get these designs out of my head," he admitted. He thanked his wife and ran a hand through his cherry blossom pink hair, sighing as he took a sip. "Is he out playing marine again?"

His wife laughed. "It's not a bad dream."

"It's a hard one," he admitted. The father paused staring at the open textbooks he'd managed to secure about an island who'd suffered at the hands of the very people his son aspired to become. "But he can do something about the way it is, can't he?"

"I like this one!" his wife exclaimed, touching the soft fabric. Blue in color with golden flowers etched in. "It's almost like the one you had with stars... it's lovely, dear."

He smiled, beaming with pride. "Thank you, love. I've got to keep working hard. I want our son to be able to talk proudly about his father, even if it's just a weak man like me."

His wife smiled. "He might be a bit of a coward like you, but he's got your heart. Ah! I should call him in for dinner before he gets lost by those docks again, always hopping onto the wrong boats that boy... Koby!"

The man traced a finger against the bright, fierce blood red of one scarf, the strange, half heart shaped pattern with a smear he just couldn't quite get right.


"Ah, it's a sea king."

Mihawk looked over from where he'd been leafing through a book.

Hoku looked up from her sketchbooks, staring out across the water. A massive, serpentine head peeked from the waves, glancing about in an almost lazy daze. It parted gaping jaws lined with teeth in a yawn and blinked, turning its head tiredly.

The two of them watched it.

"They're surprisingly delicious," Hoku said.

Verbal remarks were limited. Minimal. But they were active. Silence was broken by the occasional comment or shuffling of movement. Things Hoku tried hard not to read into or think much else of, but it was still a slightly welcome change in the middle of their travels.

Mihawk closed his book. "Sautéed."

Hoku made a face, "I've only had it charred. Tasted pretty damn good to me."

Mihawk and Hoku regarded the creature stretched out against the water and aimlessly drifting closer. The two of them had gone through loaves and slices of cured meat earlier this morning.

Mihawk reached up with one hand, adjusting the sails of his ship.


"You have to let me see the sword if you want me to show you how to do it."

Mihawk stared at her from his throne, Yoru strapped to his back.

Hoku merely stared back, the vial of Pokian coating in her lap, legs crossed as she absently tucked a strand of hair back behind her ear.

The last island they'd visited had been a place filled with bustling craftsmen. The iron and forge had assaulted all her sense and made her feel a little homesick, but the many people catching a glimpse of the pretty glint to Mau's scabbard had made her too uneasy to want to stick around. She spent most of the time following at Mihawk's coattails, trying to figure out if she'd ever be able to get her hands on the plume of his hat and see how soft it was.

Hoku realized later after Mihawk had expressed the closest thing to visible irritation at not being able to find a decent place to procure what he was looking for—that he was looking for a coating. The man seemed perfectly capable of fine tuning his sword on his own, but he'd been searching specifically for the tools to make use of what Mahina had left for him.

Tools and knowledge Hoku had.

You want me to hand you, Yoru. A sword tripled your size. Capable of felling not only man but slicing clean through an entire armada of ships. One of the finest swords to have ever been crafted. A supreme grade sword. One of twelve. And you want to hand it to you, a little girl with hands that can barely fit the blade—

Mihawk hadn't actually said any of those things. It would break his word count for the day, but he did say it all with the look on his face and the way those less and less unsettling gold eyes were staring her down.

Hoku shrugged lamely.

"It's different for every sword," Hoku played with the vial. "You gotta know how the sword works to figure out the right kind of coating to give it."

"I can tell you all of that with perfect ease," Mihawk said flatly.

"No," Hoku shook her head stubbornly. "You gotta feel it—I don't care what you think. I was taught this one way and one way only – all of them have a kinda way they'll tell you how to move and..."

Hoku shrugged again. "You won't know until you hear it—"

Mihawk seemed to have fancied something in what she'd just said. A word he latched onto during her explanation. Looking almost as though he were humoring a whim, he smoothly reached over his shoulder and unsheathed the mighty blade with deft fingers, curving it over his shoulder and pointing it her way as he held it loftily in one hand.

Hoku couldn't help the noise of pure admiration at the blade's craftsmanship.

Smooth and sleek. Not a single nick or scratch on any part of the blade. Encrusted. Carved. Black as night. Ebony. Its craftsman promised a type of synchronization with its swings that would bring about the sweetest, most haunting of rings. Its fine design stretched all the way to the way the hilt was crafted, handles like a cross and glistening and just—

It was a really good fucking sword.

Mihawk's expression was blank but she'd like to imagine a bit of haughty pride at her star-struck gaze.

Hoku shot him a brief glance. Mihawk remained immobile, watching her sharply. Her hands reached up slowly and her fingers lightly touched either side of the blade.

Hoku immediately jerked her hands back as though the blade had burned her.

Mihawk raised a dark brow.

"I can't coat it," Hoku said. "It's too good a sword – I, shit, I will be better one day. Right now, I do not deserve to touch that sword. I can't. I'll show you and you'll just have to do it."

Hoku rubbed her hands together, shaking her head in fearsome disbelief. "Such a good sword, my Goddess, who the hell could make such a sword—"

Something like a dark whisper of laughter flickered through her head. Hoku watched the blade warily, missing the way Mihawk's lips curved for just a second before he smoothly slid Yoru back into place and the laughter was silenced. Hoku finally glanced back to him and figured Mihawk's expression was the closest to you're not an idiot, congratulations.

"You will not use Mau?"

The fact that he knew his name shouldn't have caught her off guard, she probably knew it, somewhere in there. But hearing the name she'd only uttered in her head aloud and the sheer weight of what that meant about Mihawk was something to swallow.

Hoku gingerly slid the sword from her makeshift sling around her waist and lower back. A frown touched her lips and she ran a loving hand down its side.

"He hasn't spoken to me," Hoku said. To anyone else, she imagined, who didn't understand a single inkling of what she meant, would deem her insane. This world could demand it, probably. But the blood that ran through her veins and the culture she had been taught would not be silenced by any other thought. Especially not a skill her mother had helped her hone in herself.

Mihawk was not anyone else.

He looked vaguely curious, for as much as his set glower and disinterest could portray. He watched Mau in her hands. Mihawk leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, staring at the blade with a different look in his eyes.

Hoku knew she'd never draw this blade unless it wanted her to. She doubted it ever could. Hoku and her mother were far cries in terms of owners and Hoku didn't really have it cut out in her cards to be a master at the blade—steady maybe, sturdy and capable, but not a master. This story has enough of them as it is. Her heart still belonged to the paper and brush after all.

But she did love them.

Hoku couldn't help the longing sigh, patting the blade. "If he hasn't spoken to me by the time we part, I guess I'll have to give—"

"Have you ever considered speaking first?"

Hoku stopped. She looked at Mihawk with wide eyes, not even needing to ask to who.

Hoku's head nearly snapped in her haste to look back down at the sword.

"Hello?"

...

...

...

Hoku slumped back lamely against the boat. Mihawk didn't say anything but Yoru laughed for him, thoroughly amused.

"How did you ever even get your hands on a blade like that?" Hoku couldn't help but ask, curiosity that had eaten at her occasionally from a past memory bled through. "Not just Yoru – the other supreme swords, are they still floating around too?"

Hoku lifted Mau and squinted. "You've gotta be at least askilled grade, right?Mama wouldn't take any less."

Mihawk crossed one leg over the other. "Her swords were never graded. Mau stands at what I would deem Great Grade."

Hoku's fingers slipped. Mau crashed onto her chest and she wheezed.

The world's greatest swordsman leaned back into his throne, getting comfortable as he watched the ocean.

"Yoru, of course, was not my first."


"You remind us of her, little one," Yoru's dark, velvet voice had whispered. "Though you lack all her grace."


Hoku couldn't talk about Mahina. Not yet. She and Mihawk weren't about to undergo an entire bonding seminar and become best buds over the words and memories of her either. Life was never that convenient. Hearts never swayed to such breezes.

It was all too raw. It hurt all too much. And she figured it would drive him to a place she didn't feel like visiting herself either.

But they could talk about the thing she loved. The thing they themselves, loved too, as every bit of her.


"Observational haki."

Hoku paused mid bite around the hunk of grilled fish in her hands, bits of charred skin on the edges of her lips.

Mihawk dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a napkin. She still had yet to understand the man's switch for when he decided to be the very face of an almost elegant conquistador and when he decided to be the damn ruffian that he was and wipe things with the back of his hand. Fire crackled at their feet, the makeshift encampment with logs huddled by their pit stop for the day. His coffin boat was docked onto the shore, Yoru resting against the side of the log with Mau at her side as well.

Oh, shit, that's right. What'd she chalked up to some magical occurrence in this world actually had a name. I forgot that was a thing. A rather semi-important thing depending how it was used that could grant quite the upper hand in battle.

Or leave you at the mercy to annoying animals who don't know when to shut up. Hoku glared quickly over her shoulder at a small, fox-ish animal. It snickered behind her back, laughing to some other animals in the jungle behind them as they traded jokes about stealing their food. Like they'd even try with this guy around.

"Yes," Hoku said.

Mihawk didn't look impressed. Then again, he never seemed to be easily impressed by much, especially in regards to her.

"I think everyone back home was kinda good with it," Hoku licked her fingers, biting into the grilled fish they'd caught—they being her while Mihawk watched her struggle to not fall into the ocean and stab at the water with a fishing rod she'd conducted with her newfound powers. "The non-living things are usually nicer to talk with than the living."

Mihawk looked vaguely interested. "The living."

Hoku swallowed, "Animals. Stupid birds. A fish. They never really have anything nice to say though."

It'd always seemed like haki in this world could be developed depending on how you wished to further it. Some of the characters had always seemed to get along with the animals—it was kinda the same, wasn't it? She just happened to not get along with them along with hearing what they had to say.

"And humans?"

Hoku made a face. "Never really wanted to hear what they had to say."

Mihawk poured himself a glass of wine to that, looking vaguely satisfied with her answer. Always vaguely in expressions, always blunt with his words.

"If anything, the blood never lies," Hoku mused.

Mihawk took a sip of his wine. Hoku had contemplated asking him for some and figured her child sized liver wouldn't appreciate it as much.

"That saying," Mihawk said. "Is it common?"

Hoku tossed the now cleaned skewer into the fire. She wiped her fingers onto the cuff of her pants and reached around for her sketchbook, leafing through it as she bit her thumb and smeared it onto the page. "I think it meant whatever people needed it to mean for them back home. I like it."

Mihawk swirled his glass, crossing one leg over his knee. Hoku turned the drawing around and showed the man himself, an exact replica in color and all, shadows casted against his face. "Papa always said by hand is the best."

Mihawk's face was hard to read. Hoku wondered for a split second if she should've picked her words a little more wisely—

"It can be quite useful," Mihawk said.

Hoku brightened. "Right? It's not just some stupid drawings here – it's real art, you know! You could tell the stories of the world in full color. I liked helping make the swords and pots and stuff too, but it's really gotta be drawing after all—"

"Observational haki."

"Oh." Hoku deflated. She played with the brush between her fingers and pursed her lips, scrunching her nose up. "I mean, I like hearing the swords. It's nice. Probably useful for finding things too and stuff but..."

She shrugged. "I like hearing my own voice too."

Mihawk tipped his glass back. "It isn't impossible for some to train it to the extent that the future can be witnessed."

Arguably ridiculously cool, but Hoku would have to sit that out. It also sounded extremely time consuming and taxing to try to learn and she wasn't keen on that either.

"And armament?"

Hoku experimentally flexed her fingers. She waggled them by the fire and shrugged. "I cannot get papercuts sometimes if I try hard enough."

Mihawk regarded her as one would an insect that hadn't expected on finding.

Hoku vaguely remembered a third in that category—a ridiculously useful one to some extent, really. Knocking out a mass of opponents who weren't even worth your time to begin with and giving off a flashy show of power? A great play. But it also meant drawing some uncanny attention and she doubted many could scrap by with having it and remain in secret for long.

Hoku would prefer to avoid anything flashy at all costs.

Mihawk didn't say anything pertaining that subject further, though Hoku had a gut feeling the conversation wasn't over. He wasn't really the type to go into full armed lectures on such matters anyway, and Hoku figured if she ever wanted to do something useful with it, maybe learn so she wouldn't nick her swords as much, he might not be unwilling.

Hoku stopped suddenly. She roughly stood, scooping up a fistful of pebbles and she whirled around, chucking them into the forest. Leaves shook as animals scattered and she hollered, "Yeah, that's right! Scram, assholes!"

Mihawk took a long sip of his glass. Hoku turned back to him and paused at the idly contemplative look on his face. "What?"

"Recalling a story I once heard," Mihawk said, and that was that.


She'd forgotten when Artopoki had stopped becoming an island and had become home in her mind and heart.


"It's fake."

Hoku found her sandaled—she might need new shoes soon—feet dangling once more from the floor.

The seller at this particular vendor was sending spit flying into her face as he hollered obscenities. The woman who'd been about to buy his entire collection of fake Pokian wares because—none of them painted that ugly for shit's sake look at that awful symmetry—was staring in horror, clutching her purse and her little dog.

Hoku's face remained one twisted into disgust.

"Who do you think you are you little piece of shit—"

"Screw you, asshole." Hoku said. She gathered the waiting saliva in her mouth and spat onto his face.

He stood there in stunned silence, cheeks slowly growing redder and redder as her spit began to drip down the side of his chin. His fist reeled back to deliver a punch and Hoku grabbed uselessly at anything near here since Mau was off limits—

Her ass hit the floor with a thud. Hoku grunted, looking up startled and bracing herself in case the man was readying himself for a kick—

His jaw had dropped, eyes wide in terror as she stared at the looming, brooding figure behind her.

Hoku's feet left the floor before she could defend herself. Mihawk picked her up from the back of her cloak like one would a misbehaving pup, regarding her with the same disdain he had for insects. The dockside trading port looked prepared to end up as half chopped figures along the shoreline, but Mihawk merely tossed her mercilessly back into the coffin boat without even glancing back to see if she'd made it.

Hoku did, painfully, head smashing into his throne, but she did.

Mihawk turned to the next vendor, wiping his hands as though he'd just taken out the garbage. "Rations, enough to fill this bag."

Nearby vendors all pitched into ensure his bag was as full as quickly as possible. Some kind soul slipped in herbal ointment for bruising. Mihawk would not give it to her until a day later after the bump on her head healed.


"What fruit did you eat exactly?"

Hoku made a face. The very same face one made when recalling something absolutely disgusting they'd ingested because taste was a powerful reminder of the past and Jesus Christ that shit had tasted like pure shit.

It also annoyed the same shit out of her and made her think of another piece of shit that she hoped died in the most painful of ways.

It bothered her sometimes to call upon the foreign information with such ease, as though someone had gone ahead and crammed it into her brain without her consent. Hoku shuffled around in her pocket for her brush, turning around to face him amidst the sandy shoreline they were camping on.

Hoku dipped her brush into her special blend of ink, waiting for a few drops and then she slapped it onto the sandy ground, drawing the first thing that came to her mind.

Mihawk watched, face nonchalant indifference, but he watched nonetheless. Yoru rested against this side and Mau rested against her own. Hoku revealed a happy looking fish drawn into the sand. She reached in with her fingers and promptly peeled it off from the ground, holding the to-scale, three dimensional drawing out to him.

Mihawk grasped onto the sand-made fish, turning it this way and that. Hoku cupped her fingers around her mouth, forming a circled pathway with her fingers and she blew toward the creature.

The fish immediately jumped to life, wiggling about in Mihawk's grip. The swordsman promptly dropped the now animated object to the ground, watching in flail about.

"Times three," Hoku said, holding up three fingers and tapping it to her chest.

The fish enlarged, tripling its current size. It began to move with more vigor, newly found life in its sandy eyes as it opened and closed its mouth. Hoku drew a net into the ground and pulled that free as well, an intricate web of sand holding the entire thing together.

Hoku limply tossed it over the fish. The sand made fish turned back to look at her, indignant.

"That's it?" Mihawk said.

Hoku tapped four fingers to her chest. "Times four."

The fish grew bigger.

Mihawk stared at her.

"It's called the Viva Viva fruit," Hoku shrugged. "I can bring anything I've drawn myself to life. I can make it bigger but I can't make it smaller and it's only made from whatever material I drew it on."

Hoku glanced to the fish, "Return."

All life faded from the fish's eyes. Its sandy body slumped back into a pile of what it once was, nothing more as the net faded from view as well. "I did some research and there's supposed to be another fruit really similar to this—brother and sister fruits? But that lucky bastard just gets to bring shit to life and has to draw to scale, material doesn't matter either. This technically takes a sliver of me when I do it, since it's not really life it's given but my own vitality. I think the bigger they are the more they'll take and bad things happen if I give too much."

"You can give the net personality then?" Mihawk inquired. "A sword you drew?"

"To a degree," Hoku said. "But it's only as strong as the material it's made from." She kicked the sand. "Apparently if I touch another devil fruit user, I can transfer vitality," she made air quotes, "into them too and sorta give their powers a...boost. But it would only work to a degree depending on their own abilities. If I give too much I gotta recharge and I'm useless for a bit."

Hoku rubbed her chin in thought, "I'd probably die, I think. Haven't had the chance to test it."

Mihawk turned over the vegetables they'd foraged and were grilling. "You aren't fond of it."

"I mean, it can be useful," Hoku conceded, drawing a smiling face into the ground and peeling that out of the sand. She held it out to Mihawk and he didn't even give it a single ounce of his attention. Hoku tossed it back into the ground. "But I've got to keep touching the people to give them a boost and it doesn't sound like much fun being someone's battery pack."

Mihawk watched the embers crackle.

"You fear water."

Hoku stared at the smear in the ground she'd just made.

"I'm supposed to."

Mihawk gave her a look that said it all without having to say a single thing.

"Drowning just doesn't seem fun," Hoku said.

Mihawk didn't breach the subject further, seemingly having lost interest. Hoku resumed drawing in the sand with a stick.

"Fear untamed will shackle you."


Hoku knew his words were an unspoken law of truth.

But fear was also an opponent she knew she couldn't beat.


"What are you doing?"

Hoku didn't look up from where she'd been carefully trying to draw a pair of shoes into the cotton mass she had in her lap.

Mihawk stared down at her as one—of course—would a bug.

"Trying to see if I can make new shoes out of this thing," Hoku said. She gestured with her right hand not holding her brush to the broken sandals at her side. "They've finally given up on me."

"Of cotton," Mihawk said, looming several feet above her.

"It looks like it'll be comfortable," Hoku said.

Mihawk picked her up by the scruff of her cloak. Hoku's cotton fell onto the floor and she watched it in silent lamentation as Mihawk stepped on it without any mercy and continued to walk deeper into the town. She dangled from his grip like a sack of potatoes until she was deposited onto a rough wooden bench and the shoemaker in front of her looked ready to piss his pants the moment Mihawk's hat had come into view.

"New ones," was all Mihawk said. "Sturdy. Fit for combat."

He looked at her wriggling toes.

"Closed toed."

Hoku walked out of the shop with newly furbished combat boots, black and sleek looking. She chose not to comment that the man had tailored them to somewhat match Mihawk's own.


"Why do you continue to feed it if you hate it so much?"

Hoku looked up from where the albatross was flying away in triumph, a loaf of bread clutched between its beak. Mihawk watched it depart.

"Best," the stupid bird had cawed to her, "Fool remains a fool."

Hoku turned back to the bird, sitting down as the boat swayed beneath them.

"I keep hoping it'll choke on it one day."

Mihawk rewarded her with the faintest twitch of his lip.


The situation had shifted to do or die.

The latest island in the midst of Mihawk's journey to deposit her had lead them to a wintery island. They'd docked against a slightly icy coastline, Hoku going through the familiar motions of wrapping the rope to keep it steady with trembling fingers. Her clothes were nowhere prepared for the random, winter island in the midst of the West Blue's almost tropical themed areas.

It had seemed doable at first, scale the mountainside and arrive at a town that was supposed to be located deep in a gorge between two icy hilltops. But a quick storm had suddenly fallen on the island, forcing them to take shelter into a nearby cave since even if Mihawk could plow through the snow without a glance back, he still preferred not to deal with the annoying wind and pulling her off his shoulder to find a frozen popsicle.

The cave they'd slipped into was large enough to hold several others. The harsh wind that still poured in through gaps and cracks made it impossible to light a fire, and the two of them had been left to keep to themselves and the clothes on their backs for warmth.

Mihawk faced the mouth of the cave, Yoru settled across his lap, disinterested.

Hoku froze her fucking ass off toward the back, furiously rubbing at her arms and sniffling as she wrapped her cloak around herself multiple times and resolved to shiver the entire night.

Except for one traitorous thought.

She kept her eyes intently on the tip of her shoes, limbs pressed as close to herself as she could and keeping her body moving. Her hand shifted to her chest and she rubbed at it, figuring the movement would eventually warm up her arms too, but her center core was first priority.

I could die in the cold. Hoku thought idly. Lose a life, knock one down. Would I just wake up and freeze again?

Death by the cold didn't sound appealing in any sense of the idea.

Choose how I die, my damn ass. Hoku sneezed. She burrowed her chin deep into her knees and tried hard to bite down onto her chattering teeth so they'd stop clacking so damn loud. Who said I got to choose how I die? What a load.

Hoku pressed her cheek roughly into the freezing fabric of her cloak, refusing to budge to the icy wind that trickled in from a crack.

Her thoughts stilled.

We aren't close.

We don't even really get along.

It's hardly a mutual partnership.

I'm just baggage.

Hoku stood up on shaky limbs. Her teeth chattered loudly, entire body trembling like a little leaf in the wind as she slowly trudged towards the mouth of the cave. An icy breeze ruffled at Mihawk's plume, fluttering the collar of his coat.

Worst case scenario, he just chucked her to the back of the cave, right? He didn't seem the type to bloody somewhere he'd have to stay for a little while longer.

Hoku dropped down. She turned her back to Mihawk and held her shaking, freezing excuses for breaths as she barely pressed her back against his.

Hoku wrapped her arms tight around herself. The whisper of heat licking along her cloak as she waited and counted to ten.

She counted another ten.

And another.

When a minute had passed and Mihawk hadn't picked her up and chucked her to the other side of the cave or sliced her in half, Hoku quickly grabbed the ends of his large, flaring coat. She wrapped it around her shoulders and shuffled a little closer to his back, teeth slowing their chattering as she sat there and hoped her small body offered even an ounce back to make herself a little useful.

Hoku closed her eyes.


When dawn peeked through the opening of the cave, the golden, rising light turned the entire snowy field into one of scattered, crushed diamonds.

Mihawk watched the entire scene come to life before him in silence.

Hoku was slumped over, her small back pressed flush against his own with his coattails wrapped several times around her. Mau sat, hugged between her arms with her cheek pressed into the hilt, leaving a red imprint as she slept soundly.

Mihawk never said a word.


"You hear what they've been saying about ol' Hawk Eye?"

"Red Haired" Shanks happily slapped down his mug of grog. He wiped foam from his lips with the back of his hand, grinning merrily and stupidly at the vast ocean around him as Benn charted a course for a new island for them to stop at for supplies. "What?"

"Say he's picked himself a slave and has her around to carry his things and polish his sword."

Shanks spat out his next swig of grog, nearly falling over the side of the massive ship.

"That ain't right. I heard he's gone and sired himself a daughter. She's got his eyes!"

"That man would rather fuck his own sword before he had a kid!"

Benn flapped out the maps in front of him, tapping his gun to an island and ignoring the rest of his crew and his choking captain wheezing over the side of the ship. "I think this place looks good. Let's go here. Dawn Island."


A cannonball whizzed by the coffin boat, nearly smashing into the mast.

Hoku gaped, eyes bulging from their sockets at the near death experience.

How'd that fucking chance of good luck miss my damn head—

A ship appeared beneath the rolling fog that had carried over the ocean. It'd hidden the massive thing from their view until it decided to make its move, men moving about in the ship as their shouts barely carried over and Hoku could see smoke rolling from the side.

She blinked.

Do they even know who they just shot at?

Hoku turned over her shoulder. Mihawk was reclining in his throne, head propped onto his chin as he slept, the brim of his hat tipped down to hide his face.

Hoku looked at the sketchbook in her lap and then back to the ship across the horizon, contemplating her choices.

She didn't really feel like dealing with another band of power hungry pirates who thought they could make something of themselves by taking down the world's greatest swordsman. Honestly? She'd try to save them and herself some trouble. Mihawk was a simple man in certain standards.

He was not the kind of man who took kindly to be awoken without reason.

He was also the kind of man whimsical in a sense enough to slice an entire ship in half for waking him up from his nap for no reason.

Hoku dipped her brush into the ink, standing up with silent feet and making large, exaggerated motions as she drew into the air, the ink remaining imprinted there. The enemy ship was slowly sailing closer, seeming to think they'd caught Mihawk off guard and looking to get a more accurate shot.

Hoku drew an exclamation mark for emphasis.

TURN AROUND. NAPPING. WILL DIE IF AWOKEN.

A skull and crossbones with 'x's for eyes tried to hit her point closer to home.

"Take aim men! The Greatest Swordsman this world has ever seen will belong to none other than me—"

The boat swayed beneath her feet. Hoku grabbed the curve of the wood, steadying herself as she felt a chill run down her back.

She cast a wary glance over her shoulder.

Mihawk's plumed hat dropped onto her head, completely blocking her view. Hoku hastily shoved it up over her eyes and grimaced. Mihawk looked as irritated as his normally stoic face could portray, the faintest twitch of a brow and—wow, I'm actually starting to get better at reading this guy. He unsheathed Yoru and Hoku could hear the blade crackling with newfound energy, a velvet lined chuckle resonating loudly in her head.

"Hold my hat."

Hoku flattened herself against the hull as Mihawk raised his sword. He regarded the words she'd painted into the air with a low scoff and then drew back to swing.

They never stood a chance.

As usual.


Many years after, countless ships would pass by the haunted area, catching sight of those floating, ominous words and steer clear with the idea that some unspoken monster was hidden within the depths.


Hoku didn't meet another Pokian until more than half a year after the massacre.

Mihawk had gone off to secure an inn with ease as usual. Hoku had parted his side to head deeper into the outskirts of town, trying to find a book and map shop another local had steered her towards. She wanted to read more on the forging and care of specific blades and what it would take to at least retain a skill level like Mahina's and be useful to the damn man for once.

She'd been reaching for a book high amidst a shelf, stretching onto her tip toes as her cloak, beginning to wear down, slipped over her head and pooled around her shoulders. Stark white hair brushed against her ears as she reached.

"You're from Artopoki, aren't you?"

The quiet, disbelieving whisper had caught her off guard. Hoku nearly toppled off the side of the shelf had better sense and Mihawk not allowed to land on her heels, whirling around with her heart leaping into her chest because those could potentially be dangerous words since no one should know she came from Artopoki and only that she was Pokian

Something resonated through Hoku's veins.

Her fingers uncurled from Mau's hilt, the blade still silent to her greetings after all this time.

The woman standing before her had strawberry blonde hair. Her skin was a sun-kissed tan but a little lighter than her own. Her eyes were a warm shade of chocolate brown and she stared back at Hoku with a strange expression on her face.

Truthfully, the woman should've appeared to be nothing but another normal person who could've hailed from any island in any direction of the Red Line.

The only thing that could ever truly give her away was the one thing Hoku had latched onto.

The pendant around her neck was a very special flower that only bloomed to the northern coast of Artopoki's waters. They were funny, beautiful flowers that reminded her of ones that had grown in her past world too. A little different in color and location, but beautiful things that grew from the sand beneath lapping waves and breached the surface of stiller seas.

The same flower Mahina used in her emblems.

"You're Pokian," Hoku said, something strange twisting at her voice.

The woman cast a swift look around them. The only other people in the store were a woman with a child and the owner, an old man by the counter leafing through a newspaper. She silently motioned with her head toward a secluded alcove up a few steps.

Hoku remained rooted to the spot, staring at the woman.

She raised a finger and pressed it to her lips and then pressed it to the spot just above her heart.

Hoku followed without another word.


"I wasn't sure how many of us I would ever run across again," the woman—Lily, explained once they'd settled into the little space away from any prying eyes or ears. "I've been traveling around, trying to find a place I could grow comfortable enough to stay in. I make money doing paintings and little works here and there for people to get buy."

Lily stared at her, as though in disbelief. "I can't imagine how a child like you has survived this long on your own... and without any disguise..."

Hoku chose not to mention Mihawk.

"You're not from the island," Hoku said slowly, staring at the woman across from her in almost quiet reverence. She had so many questions bubbling at her lips but only so many could be answered, couldn't they? "Are you? You said I was from home instead of saying I was like you..."

Lily shook her head. "I was born off island. My parents left many years ago to set up shop in another town in the South Blue."

They stared at each other for a minute, taking in the sight of seeing another one of them here and in the flesh.

The little whisper of hope of escaping ships flickered out in Hoku's chest.

"I haven't met another survivor," Lily said quietly. "You're the only one. I've met other off islanders such as myself but... we've all grown sparse and few in between with recent events. It's safer that way anyways. Small communities of Pokians that have existed are gone now. For good reason too."

Hoku stared at her in disbelief. "I thought the World Government wasn't going to attack any off islanders? They said—"

"What?" Lily looked startled. "The World Government—"

Lily stopped. The light caught off her eyes and Hoku slowly realized that she'd used make up to cover any remnants of her coming of age tattoo. Something about the idea made the one around her eye sting sharply. Something twisted in her chest.

"How many of us are out there?" Hoku questioned. "A lot? Only a few? Artopoki's been around so long, there must be a lot of people who left the island like your parents right? Or people who were away on explorations and journeys and didn't come back yet—"

Lily pressed a hand to her lips, staring at Hoku in disbelief.

"You don't have a single clue," Lily said, voice soft. "Do you?"

Hoku's blood turned to ice. Mau felt heavy in her lap where she sat cross legged.

"Of what?"

Lily stared at her as though she were trying to fathom how this stupid, clueless child could've survived this long without any idea of something. Hoku shifted restlessly, fingers twitching along the table. Yes, Mihawk had played the biggest hand in any of that and a few wise choices to keep her hood up and the fact that there were plenty of white haired people in a world like this one without it being strange if people could have moss colored hair like spearmint—

Lily started to laugh. It was a bitter, hardened sound. Hoku watched her, thoroughly unsettled and starting to get a little frustrated because she'd finally found someone else! It couldn't end in cryptic, bitter confrontation like this without anything to go on with—

"It's not the World Government," Lily spat out the words. "That we must fear, little one. Not any longer. They've done enough to leave it for the rest of the world—do you know why they said those off island wouldn't be harmed?"

"Because there's no point," Hoku said. "There's no point—"

"Because others will finish the job for them," Lily hissed across the table. Her eyes flashed with bitter, unrestrained rage and pain. "You think people out there would just let such luxuries sink away? The reason the export on our ink was so high and so coveted is because we kept it to ourselves. Buyers with authority we could never imagine were happy so long as they got their fill, but since the main supply has been eradicated in a show of power, what do you think is left? Who do you think is left?"

Hoku felt a strange numbness begin to spread through her body. She refused to think about what she knew about this world. Refused to think about anything else except that she was supposed to meet back with Mihawk soon and her only worry should be causing a little hell and finding a way to chip at her lives and not this

Lily pressed the back of her hand to her mouth. She shut her eyes for a moment, breathing shakily.

Hoku wanted to scream at her not to say anything else.

"Our crafts," Lily hissed brokenly. "Were not the only thing to rise in prices."

Hoku thought about the blood that ran through her veins and how pretty it looked on paper.

"We're nothing but stationary to them."

"No," Hoku said like an idiot. "No."

"They took my parents and sold them off," Lily laughed, gripping her dyed, strawberry blonde hair. Tears welled in her eyes and dropped onto the tabletop. "Seller's raided small towns where we'd settled. We scattered to the wind the moment it became clear what was happening. Lists rose up in Sabaody like it was none other's business and prices—prices."

That's not fair. Hoku thought like an idiot. That's not fair. That's not fair. Her people did not suffer, did not die for what was left behind to suffer even further for simply being spared—

"You'll carry our legacy."

Hoku wanted to throw up.

"They bleed us dry," Lily seethed. "They have us working in forges and waiting in their fancy parlors to paint their portraits. Artists! True, living... We are nothing to them but – but—"

"Stationary," Hoku said brokenly.

Lily looked up at her. Hoku couldn't take her eyes off her strawberry blonde hair.

"Normal dye doesn't work on our hair," Hoku said numbly. How did you...

"Normal dye doesn't," Lily agreed. "But our ink, has always been the finest."

Lily reached across the table and brushed her thumb over Hoku's tattoo. She wanted to slap her hand away. Wanted to scream. Throw up. Burst into tears because that's all she could do sometimes, wasn't it? Just cry like a useless idiot who should just toss herself over a cliff—

"If you want to live anything close to a life," she said. "You should hide who you are."


"Pretend you were never once Pokian."


Hoku stared at the bowl of dye in front of her, on her knees with spreads of newspaper around her so she wouldn't make a mess.

Her murky, muddled reflection gazed back. Light from the inn's provided lamps caught off the silvery sheen her hair took on sometimes. Strands were all gathered along the nape of her neck, freshly cut and a little uneven. Her fallen strands looked up at her like slivers of silver thread on the newspaper, crestfallen.

She'd chosen black as her color. Brown... brown wouldn't do. Black should be fine. It was a basic enough color. Simple. She liked black. Plenty of people had black hair.

You'd have to cover up the tattoo next.

Hoku touched the tattoo around her eye, staring at her muddled reflection as though it would tell her she really didn't. Plenty of people had tattoos, right? The hair should be enough—

"Pretend you were never once Pokian."

Hoku stared hard at the bowl of dyed ink she'd made herself.

Just do it. She thought. Just do it, you fucking coward. It's what you're supposed to do, right? If you plan on hanging around long enough to lose a few of these lives so you can actually pay your respects then—

"What are you doing?"

Hoku looked up.

Mihawk stood at the door to their room. Hoku hadn't even listened for his footsteps and he looked almost comical, standing there without his hat and carrying a paper bag stuffed full with rations—what are you, a normal person for once? Hoku could see the heavy bulge at the bottom that promised books and perhaps more stacks of paper he'd picked up as well. Things he had no real use for.

Yoru was propped against the wall behind her, Mau leaning beside it.

"I want to dye my hair," Hoku said.

Mihawk regarded the bowl of gloopy dye she'd created with barely a look. He looked to her then with an expression so degrading and familiar that Hoku really should've considered a full time job as an insect. Mihawk really knew how to make her feel like one.

"Why." Mihawk said, not even asking as though she had achieved some level of stupidity in the short time they were apart.

Hoku contemplated a plethora of answers.

Her eyes dropped down to the bowl in front of her, ready to dunk her head into it.

"It'll make things easier."

She didn't see the way Mihawk arched one fine brow. She could hear his feet taking slow, leisurely steps toward her. She could barely make out the tips of his shiny boots because everything was starting to become blurry and fuck.

Hoku refused to wipe at the tears that had started falling from her eyes, refusing to acknowledge that they'd even appeared in the first place and Lily had given her a bottle of make-up to help hide her tattoo already and, and, and – AND

Mihawk stood there in front of her, looking down. Hoku refused to let a single sob escape her lips.

"Pretend you were never Pokian."

"You can't hide who you are, but you can hide that you were ever from here."

Who you are—

Mihawk's fingers closed around the edge of the bowl. They waited there for a brief second as Hoku watched with blurry, watery eyes. He slowly, excruciatingly slow, took the bowl from beneath her and raised it up. He waited there another minute.

Hoku told every part of her fucking body to stand up and take it back.

She told every single part of herself to stay right there and not even dare.

Mihawk walked away from her. She heard the window latch being opened and heard the sound of the bowl being tossed out of the room. Hoku's shoulders shook and Mihawk walked back across the room, saying absolutely nothing.

His hand landed on the top of her head. It stayed for all but five seconds and then he removed it, walking back to the table and chair.

"Black," he said. "Would make you look like my daughter."

Mihawk sat down, pouring himself a glass of wine.

"You are not my daughter."

Hoku pressed her forehead to the ground and cried, relief flooding her chest and threatening to explode as she nodded uselessly and tried to shut herself up because—

The blood never lies.

From her hair to her eyes to her fingertips and her skin and the blood running through her veins—

She was the daughter of Mahina and Manu of the Island of Artopoki.

She was Hoku, a Pokian.


You don't have to hide who you are while you are with me.

Or where you came from.


That night, Hoku dreamed of Artopoki.

She dreamed of clear, crystal blue waters she feared. She dreamed of full trees stuffed with fruit. Of sandy white beaches hinting pink. Of a massive clock tower and a field of flowers and a small island log cabin on the top of a cliff that overlooked the other half of the island shore.

She dreamed of Manu, hunched over his desk and painting the story of the world.

She dreamed of Mahina, eyes shut as her head leaned against her swords, sitting in her favorite spot overlooking the entire ocean as though she were waiting for the day a certain man would come, earlier than expected.

"Wake now, my star."


Hoku's eyes snapped open, blown wide.

She lurched up in bed. Hoku's hands scrabbled against the sheets, grabbing uselessly and shoving them off as she stormed over the mattress. She tripped, feet catching in the folds and she hit the floor with a thud. Her cheek smashed into the dusty wooden floorboards and she threw herself onto her hands.

Mihawk's eyes snapped open. His hand shot instinctively for Yoru at his side, straightening from where he'd fallen asleep propped against the window with an empty wine bottle and his eyes immediately searched, observation haki flaring out to sense the closest bout of danger—

His eyes dropped to where Hoku was crawling on all fours along the floor like some kind of possessed animal.

Mihawk stared.

Hoku lunged the rest of the way. She crashed onto her stomach on the floor, hands flying as they snatched Mau from where she'd left him propped against the wall beside Yoru. She quickly drew the sword, staring at the shining blade and all but screamed—"Hello?"

Hoku waited, panting, cheek throbbing.

"Hello, little star." His voice was low, almost breezy like the wind or passing petals brushing on her cheeks. Cool like the moonlight on her skin.

Hoku slapped her cheek.

"Hello, my star."

Hoku had almost forgotten what pure, unadulterated happiness felt like.

Hoku wordlessly rolled onto her side, showing Mihawk the blade with the stupidest smile on her face.

Mihawk stood, slinging Yoru over his back. Something akin to an almost dangerous excitement flashed through his eyes.

"Come, take it up." Mihawk said simply. "We will make you something worthy of that blade just yet. Or I will slay you in the attempt."


Mihawk kept true to his promise.


Hoku hadn't been honest about something she'd been trying to understand since she could properly walk in this world.

She thought it was just a silly trope. A dumb trait added in for a little bit of humor. People weren't just—born clumsy. They learned to be careful. More mindful. Sometimes people had butterfingers or mishaps, but you weren't just eternally clumsy.

She didn't understand, but this body was ridiculously clumsy.

It was annoying as all hell.

Hoku's wooden sword—because Mihawk refused to let her train with Mau first, he ordered her to use her power and pull a wooden sword drawn exactly in Mau's shape from a tree and to train with that first until he was satisfied—nearly went flying from her hands. Her foot caught on a rock that hadn't existed before and she slammed face first into the dirt.

Mihawk regarded her as usual, like an insect.

But a now interesting insect who could wield something he was actually interested in.

"I don't get it," Hoku whispered into the dirt, looking around with eyes wide with fear. "Why am I so clumsy?"

"We will beat it out of you," Mihawk said, hitting her back with his own wooden sword. "Now up."

Mihawk seemed to take the challenge to beat it out of her to heart.


He couldn't beat it out of her, in the end, but he could damn well train her to do something useful with it.


The first thing Hoku cut with Mau was a flower.

Halved perfectly, sliced clean through the stem. Hoku wondered if this was some kind of precision test to see if she could get it right before trying to cut through things like wood or maybe rock—

"The best swords," Mihawk said, showing her the perfectly halved stalk, so thin like hair. "Will always cut true when asked."


The first thing Hoku did when Mihawk deemed her barely worthy enough of holding the real short sword, was show him how to coat. There was an unspoken promise for her to do it soon for him herself, when she could cut more than a flower with Mau.


Hoku never asked Mihawk when the destination would arrive.

She didn't want to know when it would end.


This.


"Why did you take up their offer?"

Hoku had been working through a fresh page in a new sketchbook and reminded herself to draw the same few things first as she always did with every new book.

Home. The symbol of the World Government. And a face she didn't want to forget.

Mihawk took a long sip, staring out across the vast, endless horizon.

"It granted me freedom."

"To do what you wanted?" Hoku questioned curiously, looking up from her pages where she'd been running a nail down the World Government's emblem. "They'd have to really haul ass to come after someone like you."

Mihawk looked vaguely amused. The sea breeze ruffled his ebony locks and tugged at her paper white strands, blowing them back.

"To do what I exist to do."

What I am.

Hoku stopped what she'd been drawing and felt her fingers slowly begin to steer course, illustrating the man sitting in front of her.

She titled that one at the bottom, in neat, thin scrawl.

A man who loves his passion.


She slipped that drawing into an old, beaten folder beside two other drawings. One titled A man who loves his work and the other a woman who loves her craft.


"What was she like when she was younger?"

Mihawk looked up from where he'd been inspecting Mau's blade. He had nearly thrown her headfirst into a tree thinking she'd been stupid enough to nick the blade trying to cut through a giant boulder. She hadn't, but he'd hit her anyway.

Yoru, massive and looming, sat across her lap. Hoku's hands were coated with the blood adjusted specifically for the process of cleaning and refurbishing the blade.

Two different bouts of laugher rang out, one like velvet, the other breezy like the wind.

Mihawk looked back to Mau, running a finger down the edge of the blade. "At what age?"

Hoku took the weight of his own question with a grain of salt.

"...Twenty?"

"Reckless and loud."

"Fifteen."

"Reckless and loud."

"...five?"

The look Mihawk gave her made her once more, consider the occupation of a bug.


"What was she like?"

Hoku nearly smudged the careful drawing she'd been making of a slingshot against the boat. She was going to try to use the damn thing to shoot bread at the damn bird the next time it came.

On the island.

Hoku mulled his question over.

"Beautiful," Hoku said. "And loud."

She pretended not to see the corner of Mihawk's lips twitch upwards.


The two spent roughly over three years together.


The departure came suddenly and without warning.


"This ship," Mihawk said. "White sails with the blue markings. It'll take you to where Mahina asked of me to bring you."

Hoku ran face first into a stack of crates by the dock.

Eight and some now. Hoku tried to keep her hair short since it made things easier, leaving a strand on the right side to grow a little longer for her to braid and tie off with a strange, thin thing made of a wine colored fabric like the inside of Mihawk's coat that Mihawk never claimed to have bought for her but left on the table without another word. A smaller backpack meant to fit all her things was strapped to her shoulders. Loose fitting pants tightened around her ankles and hips, a black colored halter with a star on the back and a cloak now on its last legs. Mau strapped snugly to her lower back with a silver sash woven with a light blue scarf dotted with golden stars.

Hoku stared at Mihawk as though he'd just told her he was going to quit being a swordsman, a bruise forming on the bridge of her nose.

...

...

...

That was an exaggeration, completely impossible. She looked at him as though he'd said he was going to quit drinking.

Mihawk's face was perfectly neutral as he stared back down at her.

An unspoken understanding shot through Hoku's chest. A realization she'd never forgotten but had let slip to the back of her mind.

The gamble with never knowing the destination had been running the risk of never knowing when it would end.

They'd both played perfectly good hands.

Ah. Hoku thought lamely. This shit kinda hurts.

She pretended weakly the thought was about the bruise forming on her nose.

A salty breeze tugged at their capes and hair. Yoru resounded and Mau greeted it back in kind. Hoku and Mihawk stood there side by side, not saying a single word.

Hoku used to imagine what parting with him would be like. She vaguely remembered planning out how she'd live in silence, maybe burn a base down, hoping the place was dangerous and easy to lose a life or two.

Hoku couldn't imagine how easy that would be anymore, with Mau at her back and what Mihawk had painfully beaten into her in her muscles and memory.

She used to think it would be easy, leaving him with one less burden. Saying goodbye.

Hoku turned to Mihawk. She childishly grabbed the edge of his cape and Mihawk remained silent and stoic as always. He regarded her as one would a strange thing that had caught his eye on the side of the road. Hoku stared at their feet and let the thousands of thoughts swirl through her mind.

Mihawk wouldn't make her get on that ship. It wasn't in his style. She doubted he would kick her off the coffin boat she'd fondly named Noir in her head. Mihawk would do as he'd always allowed her to done.

Make her own decisions.

Staying with Mihawk would be fine. It wouldn't change much. He might make her consider more seriously what it meant if she wanted him to teach her anymore with the sword and that he might just feel like acting on a whim to test her potential. Staying with him might also mean a few unsavory encounters with people who could move the story that still existed in this world to places she didn't want to go or be a part of.

Hoku, briefly, fiercely, wonderingly, considered asking Mihawk to take her along to wherever the hell he would end up next.

Hoku thought about the place Mahina wanted her to go. About what it could possibly be. What her mother might've wanted her to see or understand or do as her last wish.

She thought about how much she would always love her mother, no matter what.

Hoku looked up into Mihawk's eyes. She refused to cry. Mihawk had no patience or use for tears. Worthless to him, just as she had been for more than half of their time together.

"Okay," Hoku said, feeling the single word rip into her like a stab through the heart and pulling something free. "Thank you for everything, Mihawk."

Mihawk's hand came up. He traced the line of the heart around her eye with his thumb and brushed aside a useless tear in the process.

"You're welcome," Mihawk said.

Hoku bit her lip. Her face twisted into something ugly as she tried not to cry.

"You have the snail?"

Hoku nodded. Her own baby transponder snail tucked into her backpack. Mihawk had a larger one to match with it.

"You have my card." Mihawk said.

"You've got mine," Hoku said, but in reality she blubbered it and it came out as yuh hawf mah cward.

Mihawk dropped his eyes to Mau strapped to her back. He looked back up to her, face a perfect mask of calm and he reached up and left his hand on her head for a little more than ten seconds this time.

"You'll endure." Mihawk said, and then he stepped back from her as the final signal after she'd made the call.

Hoku sucked in a shaky breath. She stared at the docks for a minute before she turned sharply on her heel.

Hoku barreled face first into Mihawk. She wrapped her arms tight around him for barely a few seconds, patting Yoru against his back with the fondest of farewells and hearing a velvet laugh say goodbye as she ripped herself from him and then ran for all she was worth.

"Run, my star." Mau laughed. "Blaze. We will continue."

"If you can't hold your own," Mihawk called after her, short, even—"I will take that blade from you."

Hoku didn't look back. She pressed her fingers to her lips and then to her chest and held them up in the air, curling all but the middle one down and then she hauled ass before he changed his mind to slay her where she stood.

"Thank you for everything!" Hoku screamed, turning heads around her as she cried, face ugly and twisted and snot dribbling down her nose. "I'm not going to miss you, you bastard!"

What did he say? Hoku thought blearily. Blue sails? White markings? Her eyes landed on a ship matching that very description and Hoku ran past other passengers boarding the voyager. Several workers shot her startled looks but Hoku ran onto the deck and tripped over a barrel, taking it down with her and hugging like the fucking loser she was because fuck. She started to cry.

She didn't know how long it would take to go through these lives.

She wanted to see him again before it all ended.


Mihawk only watched until the flashing white hair disappeared beyond his view.

If you had asked, Mihawk thought in wry amusement, merely on a whim. There would have been no issue.

He turned to head back to Noir, never looking back.


Dracule Mihawk, seven, fearsome and wild, still had much to learn.

His wooden sword hung from his grip. Pants scuffed up, ebony locks strewn wild behind his head with two strands framing his youthful face and his golden irises. He'd just bested the rest of the hulking men to the south of the town who claimed to be quite the masters at the blade. Only one had proved any difficulty and he resolved to beat one hundred more before he allowed himself a true blade.

"These are fake," the resounding crash of metal and glass echoed through the small market street. He turned, golden eyes landing on a head of bright, flaming white hair and a burly man who looked ready to murder. "You're ripping people off with prices like these."

Mihawk's eyes landed on the several swords she had strapped to her back. He watched their weight sway and eyed them with interest.

"You little brat—you don't know what the hell you're talking about—"

"They're bad swords," Mihawk watched the burly man topple over onto his feet. The girl stepped over him, throwing a choppy lock of hair over her shoulder and stopping.

She turned, catching his gaze.

Her eyes swirled like the ocean and gold peeked through like sunlight catching.

Her gaze dropped to the wooden sword at his side. She made a strange face, cocking her head as though to listen for something before a wild, fearsome grin stretched across her lips and her eyes glittered, dangerous.

"Hey kid," she crouched over the fallen shopkeeper, "you need a good sword?"


Hoku would not realize, until almost a decade after, in the middle of studying one of her maps as she got ready to sail off with rubber arms wrapped in loops around her waist and legs as Luffy whined and complained, that that man did not need to take the several years they spent together to take her to her drop off at where Mahina had wanted.

She nearly walked off a cliff after the realization, Luffy robbed her of one more good chance to lose a life though.


Mihawk would never tell her that the day where she had snapped that foolish blade clean in half on her knee, that he had made the decision to keep her for one more day instead of taking her to where Mahina had asked of him.

It simply wasn't his style.


"Something bothering you, Tsuru?"

The older woman huffed a sigh through her nose. Sengoku raised a brow at her peculiar behavior. The women of her fleet were rushing around the ship docked to one of the marine's port bases, calling things out to each other and giggling as they readied the sails.

Tsuru crossed her arms over her chest, the heavy coat hanging from her shoulders. She tucked a stray strand of graying hair behind her ear.

"Truthfully," Tsuru mused, humoring the man. "I've been expecting a child to be delivered into my custody for quite some time now."

Sengoku spat out the rice cracker halfway through his lips. The goat at his heels snatched it out of the air and began to crunch down on it, crumbs littering the cemented dock.

"Pardon?"

"Yes," Tsuru said simply. "Given the supplier, I expected her quite some time ago. I tried to get in touch but he's not a very chatty man. Hard to reach, bothersome fellow. I've been waiting for almost several years now."

"Years?" Sengoku exclaimed. "My—you've been expecting a child for years? Whose?"

Several soldiers looked over in shock at the words, eyes bulging from their heads. One marine dropped the barrel he'd been carrying and toppled into the water.

"Yes," Tsuru said again, slightly miffed by the idea herself. "I had some idea what might've occurred, given that troublesome dear woman's history and her paramour's... whims. But this is surely far beyond any of my expectations. I have half a mind to sail out and demand an answer at this point, which I am."

Sengoku opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again.

"Close that before you catch a fly," Tsuru said. She shook her head, clearly disappointed and feeling rather robbed. "I was looking forward to whipping that girl into shape to be a fine marine one day."


Hoku would only discover once the ship docked at its final destination, that she had misheard Mihawk's words after all.

The man had said a ship with white sails and blue markings.

Hoku had boarded a ship with blue sails and white markings headed for what she found out was some quaint island called Dawn Island.

What a cute island. Hoku couldn't help but think, stepping off onto the docks with a sweep of her cloak. She pulled her backpack tighter over her shoulders, eyeing the sloping little fields, wooden fences and people moving around with happy smiles on their faces. Is there anywhere even deadly on this place—

Something barreled straight into her, activating what the fuck clumsy gene she had was and making her fall onto her ass. Hoku hissed, the other person—a child, a boy? Shouting out something in surprise. Hoku quickly checked Mau to make sure it was alright before she snapped her head around. "Watch where you're going brat—"

Hoku froze.

No.

"You watch where you're going!" The boy shouted back. He glared at her with very familiarly, stupidly big eyes. A very, very familiar boy who didn't have a scar under his eye yet. An un-fucking-mistakenable boy who did not have his trademark hat because he clearly hadn't undergone the events to receive it yet and—

Hoku contemplated seppuku in that very moment.

Mau scolded her, firmly.

The boy—the damn, damn boy with fluffy black hair and the face that had to be recognized because it was his face—blinked. He stared openly at her white hair and her tattoo and then he laughed, pointing at her.

"You've got cool hair!"

"FUCK!"


Hoku, roughly nineteen and some, stood proudly before the crafted concoction before her at the top of the highest mountain the island of Mayman had to offer.

White hair fanned out behind her, now sitting at the middle of her back with a short braid on the side of her head twisted off with a wine colored fabric. A crescent moon tattoo had been inked with her own special remake of the ink they used back home against the back of her neck, a flower in the center with a very detailed, specific, sword cutting across. Manu's marking of a several scattered petals dotted her shoulder.

A white halter top with a black star, cropped to leave her middle bare. Loose fitting black pants tight around her ankles and boots resembling a style she was fond of.

After some careful deliberation and planning, she'd finally devised a perfectly reasonable and purely accidental way for her to take her seventh life.

Fucking finally.

The monks were in the middle of a meditation session. She'd arranged the huge piles of bamboo they chopped daily by the side of the temple so it'd all come crashing down and smash her into the ground—effectively killing her quickly and painlessly.

It was all perfect.

As if straight out of a horror novel, something echoed through the entire mountain forest side with a rubbery twang. Hoku stopped, staring at the pile of bamboo in stunned, etched in stone disbelief as hands wrapped around it for purchase and then pulled the entire monster stack away with the force of their weight—

No.

"HOOOOOKKKKUUUU!" a horrifyingly familiar voice shouted in pure, absolute glee. "I'M HEREEEEEEE!"

Hoku slapped her cheek.

"FUCK!"


Remember that's the way it used to be . Oh, it seems like a mighty long time. Oh-uh-oh, I'm so glad you're here again.

Chapter Text

 

Hoku had always been told there were some crazy statistics when it came to adrenaline and life or death situations.

It wasn't hard recalling about hazy classroom memories and slumped over lecture halls while teachers and professors told you the same thing about every human body: adrenaline could cause amazing feats, brain limiters were released, fight or flight—the works.

What Hoku and her other-life counterpart had always chalked up all these lessons to was a simple summary solidified in one sentence.

When you thought you were fucked, you could do some crazy shit.

—Which was exactly why Hoku was somehow able to deduce in a matter of crucial seconds that since her attempt at taking her third life—she was sorely behind schedule since she was now nineteen or so and she'd only lost two damns lives so far leaving her at life number seven—meant she'd left Mau and her brush behind.

Hoku watched the heavy stalks of bamboo ripped from sight, tumbling over the side of the mountain's cliff close to the trailed path of tall, towering trees and bamboo stalks. Hoku then quickly made the miraculous and split second decision to ignore the familiar voice hollering at her like some kind of possessed animal swinging through the trees and—

Hoku ran.

"HEY HOKUUUU!" he shouted gleefully. Hoku refused to glance back for fear of what she'd find hauling itself over the mountainside like some kind of monster. "WHERE ARE YA?"

Several temples lined the mountain side. The monks were still in the middle of their meditation session and should be finishing up soon. Hoku could beeline straight for them and hide, but the next reasonable choice was for her pursuer to come knocking and asking loudly for her, to which the monks would be happy to help.

Hoku eyed the side of the mountain where jagged rocks jutted out from mossy patches. The steep drop off went past the trails and cut down to the other side of the island. The same side where her little makeshift hut sat on the edge of the forest, plenty of distance from the shore.

Hoku veered sharply left, leaping off the trail and intending to take a swift, speedy tumble that may or may not bash her brains out—

Hoku's foot caught on a misplaced old stone tile. Her entire body lurched and she slammed face first into a moistened pile of moss, pressing against her face like a sponge.

"For shit's sake!" Hoku shoved herself upright, rubbing roughly at her cheek and scrambling to her feet. This is not the time for this, damn it!

She'd book it to her little hut. Hoku would grab her things and then run for the docks where she could grab a fishing boat and be sailing off before they made it down the mountain. She'd leave a note on the docks saying it was a damn shame they'd just missed each other but she wished him all the best on his journey and to leave a newspaper on her grave once he finished—

"It's a promise then, no take backs!"

Sure, she had made a promise.

A promise she had fully intended on avoiding having to fulfill and had vaguely prepared for should all else fail. Hoku wasn't one to break her promises, but it wasn't breaking a promise if she never had the chance to fulfill her end of it since they never met up again, right? The goal had been to spend a minimal amount of time on Mayman where she said she'd be but she didn't say how long, lose a few lives and then skedaddle before he even had the chance to holler her name or set foot anywhere near enough his hands could stretch.

Hoku spat out a wad of moss against her lip. She scrambled over a slick rock and prepared to leap off the steep drop—if she timed it right, she could probably smash her head. Quick and painless. Messy. But it'd be killing two birds with one stone and she could get up fast enough to make her get away.

Brilliant. Hoku snapped her fingers. You're a fucking genius. Sorry, some promises are better off not being kept. You'll do great out there. Have fun and try not to die in the future. I wish you all the best and more.

Hoku threw herself over the rock ledge.

A familiar pair of firm, sturdy hands snagged a tight grip on her hips, looping around her waist several times.

Hoku stood there for a slice of a second. The arms clamped down and pulled onto her middle like someone had just looped a rubber band around her a few times.

Hoku's hands shot out. Her arms looped around a few stalks of bamboo, legs following suit.

"No! No! No, no, no, no—we are not doing this Lu—"

"GOTCHA!" he hollered from an ungodly distance away. His fingers flexed and then a mighty weight pulled.

Hoku heaved, air squeezing out of her lungs as she gripped tightly to the bamboo stalks. Leaves trembled, the entire bundle beginning to bow as she was pulled, arms stretching backwards and tugging her further and further from her own arms. Hoku felt her entire body beginning to bend from the force of keeping her legs and arms wrapped around the stalks. Come on. You can do this. You can do this! You did not get this far just to slip up here—

The bamboo stalks gave way with a clean snap.

Hoku had never once wondered what projectiles felt like when someone slingshot them away.

She now knew exactly what they felt like.

An incoherent screech was torn from her lips and lost to the wind. Hoku's hair whipped out around her as she was rocketed through bamboo thickets and rock. Her entire body was hauled over the top of the mountainside and for a moment, all she saw were Mayman's usual fluffy clouds and the broken bamboo stalks in her arms and then—

She plummeted downwards.

Hoku's heart leapt straight into her throat, threatening to escape her chest and go flying into the atmosphere. Tears were ripped from her eyes as she plummeted at neck breaking speed and a single, lone figure came into blazing, blinding view.

A stupid, signature straw hat settled nicely atop his stupid, fluffy black hair. Stupid bright red vest and denim shorts. Stupid, stupidly wide black eyes swallowing her whole with a stupid scar curving up with the force of his stupidly huge and stupidly happy grin on his stupid face.

Stupid arms that were always stretching to catch—

His arms snapped back with a resounding thwack! Hoku slammed face first into a mouthful of that red vest and all and everything of him. They toppled down to the ground, skidding several feet from the force of the impact. Her head throbbed and a piercing, resounding echo of boisterous, giddy laughter filled the entire air and her ears and her chest.

Hoku imagined the carefully crafted plans in her hands cruelly punched straight through and ripped in half by none other than this world's future King of Pirates, the stupid rubber idiot who would become something amazing because this was his story, the greatest danger to any plan she could ever imagine making.

Monkey D. Luffy.

The one person in this entire, ginormous, endless world she just had to run into—

"Hoku!" Luffy cheered, victorious and triumphant. "I found you!"

For a traitorous moment, a flurry of bright, vividly colored memories exploded behind her eyes.

The smell of the sun and the sea rushed around her, ferocious and frightening. Bratty complaints and loud, boyish laughter. Ferocious animals. Rolling hills. Creaky wooden floors. Trees. Creeks. Rusty, long metal pipes. An entire junkyard. An island of beginnings. A childhood she never asked for or deserved to experience.

Hoku shut her eyes for one second, gripping handfuls of rough red vest and the sun at her fingertips.

It's good to see you again.

Hoku smashed her head into Luffy's.

"Get off me, fatass!" Hoku said. Luffy laughed.

She tried to push herself off of him and brace her arms against the stone flooring, but Luffy's arms wound tight around her and promptly crushed her ribcage. Hoku wheezed. Luffy squeezed her tight into a bear hug and began laughing gleefully, almost rolling around on the floor with the both of them as his hat folded over his head. "Hoku! Hoku, Hoku, Hoku!"

"Yes!" Hoku snapped. Her arms were trapped beneath his and Hoku wriggled her face free, scowling at Luffy's beaming, carefree grin. "My name didn't change, dumbass!"

"You're the dumb one," Luffy said, knocking his forehead into hers. Hoku saw stars for a moment, trying to get herself reoriented while her forehead throbbed. Luffy laughed. "Did ya get less dumb while you were gone? Or are you still talking dumb? Oh, man, I've got so much to tell you! I bet I did way more than you've done—but look! I told ya I'd make it here and find you so now you've gotta—"

Hoku struggled to find the right retort to snap back at him, the topics switching too quickly for her to properly grasp onto the perfect amount of scathing to toss back at him. Luffy looked absolutely pleased with himself, laughing his stupid laugh away in her ear.

It'd only been a few years since she'd left him, complaining and reluctant but eventually all smiles and well wishes because of their compromise.

Luffy had the frightening ability to make it feel as though it were all just yesterday and so, so long all at once.

Something funny and annoying twisted in her chest.

"Shishishi, you always make stuff so complicated," Luffy said. "But I'm here now and I brought my crew and we're gonna enter the Grand Line so you've gotta hold up your end of the deal!"

"I know," Hoku said bitterly. "I remember. I'm here. Where I said I was." I was just about to go though. "Congrats. Glad you're not dead—" even though I knew you weren't gonna die anytime soon, "good job. It's good to see you again. You grew an inch. How did you even find me up here—"

"Luffy!" a voice only faintly familiar in old memories shouted. Hoku paled. "You can't just go launching yourself up a mountain like that—you nearly killed us with that stack of bamboo!"

"You put our precious Nami-swan in danger, damn it—"

"Guys, I think I'm suffering from I-can't-climb-mountainitis—"

"You're already at the top, stop complaining."

Oh, Goddess. Hoku's head drooped backwards and Luffy made a funny face at her jello state in his arms. He shook her around, Hoku's head bobbing back and forth. He brought them all. What else was I expecting? This is literally the worst case scenario. I'll just fill my stupid end of the deal and book it before he can say anything else. You imagined this once, right? Everything going to flaming shit.

No, you didn't you dirty little liar. You thought this was all going to work out perfectly and you'd never have to see his stupid face again. Dumbass.

"Hey, guys!" Hoku's stomach lurched. Mama give me strength.

Luffy leapt to his feet, hauling her along with him with perfect ease and promptly unwinding his arms from around her. Hoku spun around like a spinning top, the world blurring around her as Luffy's arms snapped back in place. He grabbed her shoulders, turning her to the assembled group of horribly familiar faces who Hoku had prayed and begged and bartered with to never see in this entire lifetime because it meant bad things and troublesome things—

Hoku's dizzying gaze finally straightened. She stopped seeing double and triple of blurred minty moss green, bright, fruity orange, sun yellow and fluffy black—color theory doesn't exist here anymore.

"This is her!" Luffy said excitedly. "Hoku!"

The original five, the start of what would become one of the greatest group of adventurers to any story. The assembled cast, the people who would weave the story of this world. The beginning of none other than the Straw Hat Pirates, and they all stared at her with varying degrees of different expressions.

Hoku tried not to throw up on her shoes.

"She looks like she's about to hurl," Zoro said first.

Sanji swooned.

Oh, Goddess. Hoku pushed her hair back over her head and stared, horrified at the ground. I know all their names. They have no idea I know their names. This is literally everything I've been trying to avoid from the start. What are even the odds? What are the honest-to-god odds of running into the people who will shape this world and I just wanted to go die somewhere from a heart attack from eating or—

"Who wouldn't after that manhandling?" Nami said. Her eyes were hesitant, trying to read her and catch a glimpse of her pockets all at once, but her smile was earnest. "It's... It's nice to meet you, Hoku? Luffy's been talking all our ears off about you. I'm Nami!"

The navigator stretched her hand out, smiling.

Hoku pressed her fist to her mouth. Throwing up was making promising progress.

"She kinda loses it like this sometimes," Luffy said, unaffected. He picked up Hoku's elbow, lifting her limp hand while her eyes spun and dropping it in Nami's. Nami looked torn between saying something and really saying something as she shook the limp hand. "Hoku thinks too much."

"I-I'm the Great Usopp!" Usopp blurted, thrusting his thumb into his chest. "Since I'm sure you must have heard of me, it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance! I'm the same hero who—"

"This is Zoro," Luffy said, stretching his arm around and hooking it around Zoro's neck. The swordsman grunted, a lazy look to his face as his eyes held her in place skeptically. They dropped to the empty sash around her waist, looped in the back for something to hold.

Hoku felt ridiculously exposed, but she'd spent years learning to live with being looked at like a bug—mint-head's searching gaze could come lower on the list. "He's the first nakama I picked up! He's great! He's real good with swords and you're crazy about those!"

Hoku tried not to look at Wado Ichimonji pressed snugly to his hip. It was greatly tempting and she shut off all noise to her head. Not worth the risk. The less contact the better. She just needed to fill her end of the deal and go.

No more than that.

Hoku stared at the famous blade, biting her bottom lip.

Zoro cocked his head back. His arms crossed over his chest and he looked faintly interested, catching on to his captain's words.

"Yeah?" Zoro said.

"No," Hoku lied.

Hoku swallowed the urge to vomit down. Throwing up was worse than crying—neither of them would get her anywhere and just cause unnecessary pain. Don't freak out. Adrenaline pumped through her veins, mind working to try and figure out how she could weasel herself out of this situation.

PLAY IT COOL.

The worst had come to fruition. She was smack dab in the middle of dangerous territory and she needed to play her hand right. You're good at gambling. You can do this. Yes, very, very pivotal characters to a story she didn't want to go anywhere near with her hands were gathered before her. But as summer rains came suddenly—they could be gone, just like that.

People were always coming and going.

It'll be just like that.

Hoku grabbed onto that thought with everything she had and tucked it somewhere safe.

"And this is Nami!" Luffy continued excitedly, hand snagging Nami's shoulder and shoving her closer. Nami stumbled, plucking Luffy's hand off.

"I already introduced myself you—"

"She's our navigator!" Luffy said. "We wouldn't be able to get anywhere without her! She's the best!"

Nami twirled a strand of hair, trying not to look pleased with herself.

Hoku offered her a little bow of her head, "Thanks for not getting him killed or letting him drown. I appreciate it." I really do.

"Oh! Well, I always do my best," Nami's eyes glittered and she inched a step closer, curling her fingers. "But of course, I always take payments when payments are due—"

I'll give you almost everything I have if you haul them back onto your ship and leave.

Hoku opened her mouth to say just that.

"Aaaand—" Luffy turned finally back to where Usopp had been twiddling his fingers, playing with what looked to be bundles of clovers he must've picked up from the base of the island. The other looked up expectantly, eyes shining while he smoothed a hand back over his wild hair and smirked.

You dealt with that interruption great. Hoku had half a mind to praise, used to being cut off from any coherency when it came to Luffy. I get why you guys are all gonna be fine.

"This is Usopp," Luffy said, jerking his thumb. "He's great too."

Usopp ran with what he was given.

"That's right!" Usopp said proudly, nose high in the air. "One of the greatest! We've come far and wide and triumphed over some vicious guys and, say, how old are you? Just asking for, uh, Nami!"

Nami slapped the back of Usopp's head, whispering none too loudly, "It's obvious she's not a grandma, you idiot! You don't need to ask!"

I'm getting there in spirit at this rate. Hoku looked at Luffy. "What have you been telling them about me?"

Luffy shrugged. "You have really white hair and that funny tattoo."

Makes sense.

Hoku nearly jumped out of her skin. Sweaty, clammy hands starting to warm up her own furiously clamped down over her fingers. Hoku grimaced, air puffing from a certain blonde's nostrils from where he must've been biting back his tongue patiently this entire time and holding himself back on whose account she had no idea—

"Hello, my darling snow angel!" the cook gushed, eyes shaping themselves into hearts as he panted heavily in her presence, dropping to his knees and holding her hands as though they would guide him to heaven. "Our captain's words haven't done a single justice to describe your absolute beauty. The golden shine to those beautiful blue eyes, I feel as though I'm drowning in you just by looking at them—"

"That's Sanji!" Luffy said happily. "He's our cook—his food is awesome."

Hoku thought, with a bit of regret, to the thousands of images of food made by this man's hands that did always look absolutely delicious and so out of reach. Too bad I'll never try it. "I'll take your word for it."

"You're too kind!" Sanji rushed out, shuffling closer on his knees, nostrils flaring. Zoro looked disgusted behind him and Nami slapped a hand to her forehead. "Please, I'd be honored to cook something for your lips to taste any moment or hour of the day—"

Hoku pried one of her hands free—an easy feat from the slick sweat coming probably from the both of them. Sanji's words faltered, the cigarette tucked in the corner of his mouth hanging precariously. Hoku absently slid the back of her hand against his cheek, pushing the hefty lock of surprisingly silky hair out of the way. Both of Sanji's eyes blinked at her, star-struck and she gave his cheek a pat with the back of her hand.

"Most girls aren't a fan of guys who are too persistent," Hoku said absently. "'s cute though. I just prefer them a bit older."

Her thumb brushed the bottom of his eye, tracing downwards to his cheek. Hoku smiled, "I've got a soft spot for scars."

Blood rushed from Sanji's nose and he fell over backwards, twitching against the floor. Hearts floated from his eyes and he mumbled drunkenly, "Cute... said I'm cute... hehehe... doesn't that mean—"

"What a new reaction," Usopp murmured, rubbing at his chin while Nami nodded curiously beside him. "Luffy's right, she is a little weird..."

Always wanted to see under that hair. Hoku swiped her hands against each other and exhaled through her nose, turning to the assembled group gathered before her. Just do what you have to do, send them on their way and scram.

"People are always coming and going."

Luffy looked as though he could barely contain his excitement. His sandaled feet shuffled along the floor, lips stretching wide as he finally blurted, "Whaddya think?"

Hoku ran a hand through her hair. She thought about the memory of things that had yet to happen, of people they'd meet, the things they'd see, what they had and already—

"Yeah," Hoku said, lips curling into a smile. "You've found something pretty great, haven't you?"

Luffy looked absolutely pleased with himself. His hands shot up to his hat and he grinned, happy and proud and positively beaming.

"Seems like they've known each other for a long time," Zoro said.

"Luffy said they grew up together," Nami reminded, she tapped a finger against her cheek, staring at Hoku. "But since he was so adamant about getting here..."

"She seems normal enough," Usopp said suspiciously. "I mean, if Luffy trusts her... that should be fine. But—"

"He also finds some freaks," Zoro finished.

The three of them watched, waiting.

"Luffy's trust is a bit..." Nami searched for the right word. "...giving. We should see what she's carrying on her—"

"He also told us to trust you," Zoro said flatly. "Look where that got us."

Nami stomped her heel into his foot. Zoro's face twisted, jaw dropping in sharp pain. His hand found his sword and Usopp quickly struggled to keep him from drawing it. "That's it, today I'll cut you down you witch—"

Sanji sighed, "I think I'm in love."

"How did you guys end up here anyway?" Hoku questioned, eyeing the lot of them warily. "Most people don't think to scale the highest mountain on the first visit to see some monks."

"I told them you'd probably be—"

"A sweet old man and a boy showed us the way!" Nami interrupted quickly, shoving Luffy's face aside. "We asked about you and they were very sweet about the whole thing!"

Hoku deflated, "Old man Wishbone showed you the way?" Damn it. That means they got his seal of approval. "How'd you get past little Wishbone?"

"Some funny names," Luffy said.

"He got past them," Zoro jerked his chin toward Luffy. Hoku deflated a little more. "They were especially generous about the details of your stay here."

Hoku ignored the weight to his words and focused on figuring out the weight of his sword.

"They said you helped rebuild this entire island!" Sanji gushed. "A beautiful, wonderful woman who helped out the people here and is a huge source of the luck they have in the gambling houses—"

"We were expecting someone pretty wild," Usopp said. "Thank goodness you seem normal!"

The crew stared at her expectantly.

Hoku emptied out her pockets for them. A few crumpled papers fell out.

"Shishishi, well I win!" Luffy said loudly, clapping his hands together. "That means you've gotta do it, you gotta do the thing! You promised and I won so—"

"I promised, it was never a competition, dumbass," Hoku snapped. "So you didn't win anything. You just made it. So yeah, I'll do it. Let's get this over with, alright?"

"I won," Luffy protested.

"You didn't win, there was no competition."

"Nah, I won."

"No, you didn't."

"Yeah, I did you loser."

Hoku's hands wrapped around Luffy's neck, shaking his head back and forth while Luffy picked his nose uncaringly. "I said ya didn't win you bastard—"

Usopp made a noise as though he'd discovered something, writing nothing down on his imaginary notepad. Nami nodded in agreement. Zoro yawned and Sanji continued to smile stupidly up at the sky.

"He's already said it a thousand times but from where I'm from you say it or it isn't yours," Hoku said roughly, turning to the other four while Luffy laughed, neck stretching in her grip.

"Hoku. Nice to meet you. Congrats on not dying. Thanks for keeping him alive. I don't know what he's told you about me and I don't really care because it's probably stupid—" she wrung his neck for good measure, "—like everything else he says."

"Shishishi, you're such a sore loser," Luffy said.

"I don't want to hear that from you," Hoku dropped her grip on Luffy's neck, wiping her hands of him. The captain righted himself onto his sandaled feet and adjusted his hat, grinning. "Can't take no for a damn answer... alright, let's go. I've got things to do."

Luffy threw his arms into the air. "Hooray!"

"W-What's the thing?" Usopp blurted. "What exactly are we here for?"

"Is it treasure?" Nami said eagerly. "Did you promise him treasure if he made it this far? How much—"

"Even better!" Luffy cheered. "C'mon, let's hurry up!"

Nami frowned. Her foot caught on the heavy body still swooning against the floor. She stooped down, tugging roughly at his cheek and Sanji was on his feet in an instant, blubbering out words of affection for the navigator as she waved her hand at him. "Save it, idiot."

"What do you have after this?" Zoro questioned, crossing his arms over his chest.

Hoku turned away from the longing look she'd been giving the steep hillside beside them. Her feet began to carry her toward that familiar trail, the same one that'd take them back to her little hut just before the shore began.

Hoku glanced over her shoulder at the assembled lot and offered them a lopsided grin, eyes glittering.

"A date with death."

Nami blinked. Sanji paused in the middle of fishing out a new cigarette while Zoro didn't look impressed. Usopp gulped, twiddling with his fingers.

"L-Luffy said she'd be trying to kill... herself, right? So she shouldn't be out to... k-k-kill anyone else—"

Hoku's head snapped forward from where Luffy had smacked the back of her head. "Stop saying dumb stuff, dummy."

"Don't hit me you stupid piece of rubber—"

"Maybe," Nami said warily, eyeing their captain as he shooed the newcomer down the beaten path and she continued to hiss insults at him, clawing but still being herded down nonetheless. "She means what she says."

Zoro yawned.


Mayman was a fair sized island with only two different docks. A main side where most travelers could anchor their ships, head into the plaza and then find what they needed before departing, and a back dock off to the east side for locals to use for heading out to fish or play in the lagoon that pooled around the edge of the island, enclosed off by a ring of steep, molten rocks.

Soft, almost golden sand lined the shores. They trickled into the edge of the forest where grass met the beach and the two mingled against a heavy wall of bamboo. Patches of dark green clovers grew strangely in bundles at the base of bamboo trees and against the sand before the clear waters brushed against them.

A single hut stood tucked against this bundled mass, crafted together in a way that promised smooth and skilled hands. A few wooden steps were carved out to level the house above the ground, giving to its modest size and keeping it tucked away from prying eyes against the bottom of the sea cliff behind them where the temples had been.

Hoku's hut was a simple thing, but it'd been her home for almost a year, so she loved it enough.

"This island sure has a lot of these," Sanji commented, pulling out his cigarette as he stared at the heavy bunches of clovers growing. "They're all four leafed ones too—aren't they supposed to be lucky and hard to find?"

"We're just super lucky," Luffy said.

"Isn't it not as lucky if they're so easy to find?" Nami questioned.

"The whole island is lucky," Hoku said simply. "Weird, ancient mumbo jumbo. It usually only works on the people born to this island though. Natives and those who stick around long enough."

"A lucky island?" Usopp's jaw dropped. "T-T-That—isn't that amazing?"

"No one believes it because they're not lucky when they come," Hoku said. She tugged her boots off, setting them on the little bamboo-made shelf outside the hut's door. Curtains fluttered along the curve of the hut, a breeze whistling through the home and right back out.

Luffy shifted impatiently behind her, twisting his hat and then crossing his arms behind his head.

"Is that why no one ever talks about this island?" Nami questioned curiously. "I could find it only on a few maps and it's only so far from Logue Town..."

"Mayman hit a slump a while back," Hoku said flatly. "They got lucky and fixed it. Live decently now."

"You helped fix it," Sanji said warmly.

Hoku narrowed her eyes, "I just helped build some stuff."

"You seem to know a lot," Zoro said, watching her lazily. Hoku glanced to him, eyes dropping once to his sword before she promptly pried them away. "How long you been here?"

"Too long," Hoku muttered under her breath.

"We noticed nothing but grandmas and grandpas living here," Sanji said. "And children. Only a few adults. Is there a reason for that?"

Hoku made a face. She fiddled with the knob of the hut and nudged it open. A bell jingled, a string of wind chimes following suit. Dried clovers the kids had gathered up for her and strung along the top of her porch swayed playfully.

"They got lucky too," Hoku said simply. She pushed the door the rest of the way. "Welcome to my hut, it's small and messy. Shoes off before you come in."

Luffy immediately slipped out of his sandals and weaseled into the house right after her. Usopp fumbled with his laces and Zoro grunted in annoyance as he pried his off. Nami carefully slipped off her shoes and Sanji politely took off his own, eagerly offering his assistance to set her shoes down onto the little shelf Hoku had left her own on.

Usopp blinked. He squinted, reaching over and touching the bamboo rack as he ran his thumb down the smooth shelves. "Hey, is this handmade?"

"The whole hut is," Hoku called back from inside the hut. "Don't touch that, Lu. I made it."

"She built this whole place?" Nami craned her head back to eye the modest little thing. "It's so cute too..."

"A handywoman," Sanji sighed appreciatively.

Zoro nudged the door open with his foot. The rest of them filed inside, feet meeting smooth wooden floors covered occasionally with thinly woven bamboo mats.

A network of thin ropes intersected above them. Little trinkets, glass orbs and carefully hung papers folded into different shapes swayed softly in the low sea breeze. A small hallway promised a little room toward the back of the hut, the rest of the home comprised of a large living room that acted as a workspace—a heavy wooden desk pushed up by the window, papers scattered all over the floor, stacked high with heavily bound books and ink bottles strewn about.

Heavy petals bowed beside an open window, scattered pieces splattered with paint as the flowers rested in their vase.

Journals bound with silver string. Easels pushed against the wall. A long bamboo bench like a craftsman's table. Paintings and drawings and nick-knacks pushed into every available space. Scattered remnants of a life all bundled up and kept from bursting at the seams just by the curving bamboo walls holding the hut in place.

Nami gingerly stepped over a hefty pile of papers with drawings etched left and right. Usopp squinted at the paintings and drawings hanging from the ceiling and pinned to the walls appreciatively. Sanji's eyes skimmed around the home and settled with clear relief on the little island and small space that served as a cute little kitchen.

Zoro nudged a stack of books by a couch with just enough room for a person to slump over it and sleep without knocking over the heavy pile balancing on the other side of it.

An empty ink bottle rolled out from the action, echoing across the floor. It knocked with a soft clink into another pile of empty bottles, all varying sizes and colors.

The crew's eyes turned toward their captain.

Luffy was already situated at the small table island by the kitchen, hands smacking onto the countertop. "You got any food?"

Hoku slammed a large basket of bread and fruits onto the countertop. Luffy dove in with vigor.

"I said it was a mess," Hoku said to the rest. "I can make tea or something if you guys want but this won't take that long." So help me you'll be out of here before you realize it.

"Oh, please, we don't want to be a bother!" Sanji protested. He sidestepped a mountain of strewn papers and hopped over a heavy duffel tucked against the side of the wall. Zoro eyed the bag. He adjusted his tie and smiled charmingly down at Hoku. "If you'd like, can make you something if it wouldn't be a bother—"

"Are you an artist?" Nami interrupted, standing beside an entire wall with pinned, half-finished drawings sketched out. Scenery of places, portraits of people, little alleyways and a cat against a window sill.

"...of sort—" Hoku stopped. She drummed her fingers against the counter. "Yes."

"Do you do this for a living?" Usopp exclaimed. "These are great! I mean, I'd know because I'm quite the artist myself—I painted the most beautiful woman in my village back home, you know."

"Here and there to make some spare cash," Hoku said. Nami perked up. "Enough to get by."

"Did you make all these too?" Nami's eyes sparkled as she drew a gentle finger down several vases, finely painted and almost gilded with a silver sheen. "Do they have... an estimate for how much they'd go for?"

Zoro bent down and picked up a glassy jar, rolling it between his fingers. His other hand rested on the hilt of his sword, eyes dropping to the unzipped, gaping duffel shoved full with items as though someone had been in a hurry. Zoro's eyes flickered to the side of the wall, plastered posters and designs of different blades at every angle.

He grimaced at the perfect etching of one blade in particular, sketched in vivid detail. One of only twelve he'd had the chance of experiencing first hand.

Hoku poured several different sized cups of tea. Luffy continued to shove the mountain of food into his mouth, content while Sanji protested at her elbow to let him help. "I usually just make them for fun. I'm not as good as a crafter as others, but I can get by."

Hoku rubbed her fingers. "Anyway, this idiot dragged you all here because I promised him a sort of... reward, I guess, if he made it this far. I'll get it started so you guys can get on your way—"

"You're Pokian."

Hoku only paused for a second, setting the tea cup down in Sanji's hands. She'd had to get used to things like that, after all. The cook blinked, looking curious at the stated declaration, easy, without accusation. Usopp had turned over his shoulder where he'd been trying to follow the storyline for several pages pinned to the wall. "A what?"

Luffy chewed, munching as he stared, unaffected.

Nami turned to Zoro, "Like... the crafters? I think their wares tend to fetch pretty great prices in markets if they're authentic..."

Zoro held up the empty jar between his fingers. A faint, glassy residue colored the inside with an almost pinkish hue.

"The coaters," Zoro said, shoving Wado Ichimonji up an inch from its sheathe and then sliding it back. "Crafters. They made good weapons and their coating techniques for swords worked to sharpen and keep from rusting. The best in the world. My old teacher came across a vial once, said it was a shame since..."

Zoro turned, tossing the jar up and catching it. He took in Hoku's warped reflection through the jar, standing at Sanji's elbow, fierce white hair against lightly tanned skin and the curve of the heart around her eye.

"They're all just about gone."

Nami looked startled. Usopp's face went pale and Sanji's brows were creased.

"You mean Artopoki—"

"A-A-Are you saying," Usopp dropped the sketchbook he'd been about to peer through. Hoku grunted. "S-S-She's a g-g-g-gho—"

"Not all gone," Hoku said, turning her attention to Zoro. "Just scattered. Maybe hiding. But never really gone. Things stay."

Zoro's eyes dropped to the pale blue sash around her waist, dotted with gold stars. Long metal hoops hanging empty behind her.

"Wait!" Usopp spluttered. "If you mean the Pokian ink—the legendary ink that can be written onto almost any surface? The stuff that's supposed to remain for years, even after everything you could possibly do to it... the stuff made by that ancient group of people forever ago?"

"It's only been fourteen years," Hoku said. "But yeah, pretty great stuff. Stains forever unless you know the secret."

Usopp gaped.

You'll all be gone and I'll be gone too. But some things stay.

"I'm from Artopoki," Hoku said. "A little island from the West Blue. It's still around, if you know where to look. Pokian."

"Nope!" Luffy guzzled down the cup of tea she'd set out for him and grinned, "Hoku's one of a kind!"

Hoku faced the entire crew. "I'm just Pokian."

"Does... Does that mean..." Usopp trailed off, eyes darting around curiously.

Hoku nodded to her desk. Trays of varying bottles of different colors and inks sat. "You can take some, if you want. Great for just about anything, maps too if you'd rather not sell."

Nami winced, looking torn before her heart clearly won over the prospect of new cash. "Maps?"

Hoku tapped a paper pinned to the wall behind Sanji. "Stays forever, if you use the right kind of paper."

"Sounds like magic," Sanji murmured, gazing at Hoku with newfound curiosity. She looked at him and he swooned, "How's it made?"

Hoku didn't even blink, "Blood."

Nami and Usopp screeched, wrapping their arms around each other as they leapt ten feet clear of the desk.

"Are you saying these are all made with blood?" Nami shrieked, pointing to all the paintings.

Hoku blinked, "I mean, you mix some other stuff in to get the texture right. And some of them are just regular sketches too in graphite... But I like to grind it down and make my own pencils too, so I guess... yeah."

"Can you coat?" Zoro questioned, brow quirked in interest.

Hoku chest puffed up with pride. Sanji mumbled something about it being cute and Hoku patted her chest, turning her chin upwards to the air. "Can coat? I'll have you know I've coated one of the greatest—"

Hoku stopped. She blinked at the ceiling, recalled several events that might've transpired before the assembled group's arrival, and a particularly nasty scar the mint haired man standing in her hut might now be sporting because of how well she coated a specific sword—

"I can coat pretty damn well," Hoku finished.

Zoro looked tempted to test her on the claim.

Hoku was half tempted to show him so she could get her hands on that sword.

Focus. In and out. Get them to scram. Hoku clapped her hands together. "Like I was saying. Stop shoving your face, Lu, let's get this started."

"Oh, yeah!" Luffy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, shooting up from his seat with a clatter. Hoku dodged his grabby hands. "This is it! It's going to be so great, oh man."

"You never actually explained what it is," Zoro reminded. A glint caught the corner of his eye and he turned his head with interest to a familiar shaped object propped lovingly beside a window, free of any clutter.

Hoku roughly cleared a space on the wooden floors, pushing things with her feet. The gathered group stumbled back several steps to stay clear of the heaps and Hoku dropped to her knees, shuffling through a thick folder before she pulled out pages and pages of thick paper.

"Luffy said you two grew up together," Nami said conversationally. "I'm sure that must've been a pretty hectic time, right?"

"We only spent some time together—"

"We've known each other for years!" Luffy said happily.

Hoku stretched her hands out and grabbed her brush on the low desk beside the couch. She felt along the nicked ridges, promising to give it a new carving soon enough.

"What's she going to do?" Usopp whispered worriedly to Sanji's ear.

The cook snorted, "Who cares? She looks beautiful like that. I bet anything she could do would be beautiful—"

Hoku grabbed her carving knife and pulled her hair up into a messy bun. She looked up at the gathered group.

You're all going to do something out there. Hoku thought, a bit quiet. You're going to blaze paths that can never be followed. What a story you guys are going to tell.

Everything in the small hut seemed to exhale a sigh, something soft and fond and warm.

"Alright," Hoku said. "I'm going to need some blood."

I'm about to turn this fucking disaster on its head, you just watch life.


 

Roughly Ten Years Ago, Dawn Island in the East Blue


This is a fucking disaster.

"Go away."

Hoku tugged her hood roughly over her head, pulling the wearing cloak tighter around her shoulders. Her feet carried her hurriedly deeper into the village's central plaza. She tugged her backpack tighter over her shoulders, Mau snug against her back.

The small port off the side of Dawn Island was a bustle with few, lively and peaceful. Picket white fences curved around small pastures, well and sturdy windmills rolling lazily with steady breezes. Here in this village at least, Hoku doubted she'd be in too much danger. Her current issues were people who might be stopping at the docks anytime soon and catch a glimpse, and those—what, bandits? Bandits up in the mountains. She needed to steer clear of that weird area whose name she couldn't remember filled with nothing but trouble and the rest of this damn kingdom, then she'd be fine.

"Why?" the young boy whose name she refused to acknowledge or learn or think about followed close at her heels. His sandaled feet slapped against the dirt, nearly catching on her boots. Of all the people that could've left the ship he could've been interested in. Of all the damn people I had to run into or—

You got on the wrong ship.

I just had to get on the wrong fucking ship! Hoku grabbed at her cloak, nearly tearing her hair out in frustration. How does this happen? What are the odds? What are the actual odds? Is this some kind of joke?

"Because I'm busy," Hoku snapped to the boy when he tried to tug at her cloak, eyes wide with curiosity. "Go away."

"What's a kid like you have to do?" he questioned. "Hey, why's your hair so white? Are you actually really old?"

"Yeah," Hoku said, because it wasn't truly a lie. "I'm actually in my thirties. I'm in disguise right now because I'm sneaking around so I can eat little kids like you."

He laughed, nearly stepping on the end of her cloak. "That's a lie!"

Her biggest problem? The bumbling brat following behind her without a care in the world and without any damn clue the kind of grief he could potentially bring to her.

Not if you're smart about this. Hoku resolved. Not if you figure this out just right. Just ask someone about the next ship taking passengers heading out. Ask around the docks and find out where they're going, hitch a ride, and never look back.

Hoku nodded, her hood pooling around her shoulders. You're competent enough. You can do this.

Grabby hands snatched a fistful of her hair, close to her head. Hoku squawked, head snapping back where the grabby fingers carded through silken locks.

For shit's sake—Hoku smacked his hand aside. "The hell?"

"It's soft!" he said in surprise. "I thought it'd be like a goat!"

Hoku couldn't help but look offended. Pokian hair always had an uncanny skill for being silky and soft because their hair was one of the best materials for—

"It's like the inside of bread!" he said happily. He wiped the corner of his mouth of drool. Of course its's food with you. "Hey, are you hungry? You're not from around here right?"

"Says who?" Hoku snapped.

"You just got off that boat, dummy," he laughed, pointing at the boat sailing away behind her. "You're weird!"

"You're weird," Hoku said, marching forward. He followed quickly behind her, arms swinging happily at his sides while he made a game of trying to step on the ends of her cloak. "Listen brat, who can I talk to about getting on the fastest ship out of here?"

"You want to leave already?" he looked offended, grabbing at the ends of her cloak. "You just got here! What a waste!"

"I've got places to be and things to do," Hoku said roughly.

He pouted, "That's no fun. Hey, want to go eat something?"

"No," Hoku said. She was hungry. "I want to leave."

"Where're you from? Are you a pirate? No you're not, you're too small to be a pirate!"

Hoku stopped. She looked at the fluffy haired boy and eyed the head taller height she had above him.

Hoku snorted, walking on.

"Hey!" he protested, grabbing fistfuls of her cloak and tugging. "Hey! You just laughed at me, didn't you? What's so funny? You're just a little taller!"

"I'm also older, brat," Hoku said. "Look, plenty of people got off that boat to with me—why don't you go bother one of them?"

I just need to get out of here. Hoku rubbed her arms and shook her head. She pointed roughly over her shoulder and he followed her finger. "See? How about that guy? He looks dangerous and interesting."

The two of them stared at the man polishing several weapons at his feet. He was tall and muscular, tattoos lining his arms and scars promising plenty of stories.

He pursed his lips, "No."

Hoku pointed to a beautiful blonde woman shuffling a deck of cards, strange tattoos along her eyes. "How about her?"

He shook his head. "Nope!"

Hoku pointed to another. "Him?"

"Nope."

"That guy."

"Nope!"

"How about—" Hoku choked, hands grabbed at her hair, tugging playfully through the strands and she roughly shoved the hands from her face. "Stop doing that—"

"You're funny!" he laughed, eyes alight with something bright. His lips were pulled into an impossibly wide smile, face just so damn...bright. It felt like the sun warming her cheeks and threatening to burn if she didn't bow her head. "You're plenty interning!"

"Interesting."

"That!" he tugged at her cloak and made grabbing motions for her. "What's your name? Where you from? What's this?"

Hoku's heart stuttered in her chest. His fingers smoothed over the curve of her mark around her eye. His eyes were shining with curiosity, warm against her skin and pressing hard enough to remind her it was there—

"It's funny!" he said. "Like someone messed up!"

"No one messed up," Hoku said, shoving his hand away. Except for me. Hoku straightened, tucking everything closer to herself and promptly turning around on her heel. "Now scram you—"

Hoku's face slammed into a mouthful of soft, sweet cotton and human body. Her weight stumbled and she stepped on the back of her cloak, toppling over and falling onto her ass.

"Oh, my!" a warm voice exclaimed. Hoku's hands shot for her nose, rubbing tenderly against her face as she blinked blearily at the sky. He was laughing beside her, saying something loudly until slender fingers touched Hoku's knees. Her eyes shot upwards, meeting warm, pretty dark irises and olive colored hair framing a gentle, beautiful face.

Oh, no. Hoku thought.

"Are you alright?" her brows furrowed and she set the basket she'd been carrying down beside her. "I didn't see you at all, I'm so sorry, sweetie. Here, did you hurt your nose—"

"I'm okay," Hoku said nasally. She rubbed her nose, wrinkled it once and wiped aside the bit of blood spotting the upper part of her lip. "None of it got on you, right?"

The young woman looked startled. She glanced to her clean skirt and Hoku nodded, rubbing her hand off on the dirt. "Sorry 'bout that—"

"Makino!" he cheered. "What's that smell—food? What're you making? Let's eat! I'm starving—"

"Hold on, Luffy, I'll get to you in a second," Makino said warmly. Luffy groaned, knocking his head back. Hoku scowled at the ground. "Sorry, sweetie. Let me help you up..."

Makino trailed off. Her thumb brushed against Hoku's cheek and the girl flinched, looking up with sharp eyes as her fingers strayed for the hilt of her sword.

"You have such pretty hair," Makino said, tucking a strand behind Hoku's ear in a way only few had ever done in her entire life. "It's almost like snow or clouds."

"Bread!" Luffy shouted.

Makino laughed, a sweet, gentle sound. Hoku dropped her fingers from Mau, feeling strangely guilty as she scrambled to her feet. Makino looked up in surprise. "Uh, sorry again, miss. I'm just passing through—"

"Makino," she said warmly, offering her a hand. Hoku took it gingerly and Makino stood, brushing dirt off her skirt. "Passing through? You seem awful young to be traveling on your own."

"Sorta," Hoku said. He was eyeing Mau with newfound curiosity, trying to catch a peek under her cloak. "Sorry to bother you, miss. I'm looking for the next ship—"

Hoku's stomach let lose all its withheld fury.

The echoing grumble rang loud in her ears. Hoku remained rooted to the spot, wondering if she ought to just go marching into the forest and find something that could kill her and get her out of this damn situation already.

Makino laughed. He cheered, throwing his fists into the air as he ran headfirst through the doors of a wooden building marked Partys Bar. "Come on, how about we get you something to eat first, sweetie? You can even start up your own tab since you're just passing through."

"Oh, no," Hoku started, "it's fine. I'll just head—"

Tufts of black came barreling out of the bar. Hands clamped down onto her own hands and Hoku nearly toppled over as he went running back through, tugging her along behind him. "Come on! I'm hungry!"

"Let me go you brat—"

Hoku's foot caught on the first step. She flopped over, face smashing into the wooden floor.

"Oh, my!" Makino said behind her. "Are you alright?"

"What a klutz," he complained.

Hoku's hand shot out, snatching his ankle and pulling sharply.

He fell to the floor with a whamp.


"From the West Blue?" Makino questioned, propping her cheek onto her hand as she eyed the two children before her, feet swinging at the top of the barstools. "That's far. What brings you all the way out here?"

Hoku swallowed the mouthful of various fried vegetables she'd been shoving into her mouth. Makino looked amused, nudging another platter their way, "You sure can eat, can't you?"


"Is... is that for the two of us?"

Mihawk didn't look phased. The sea king sliced into neat halves lined up neatly along the island shore before them. Hoku stared, a bag of freshly caught fish dampening her heels.

Two stomachs rumbled in unison.

"Is that a problem?"


Hoku licked her lips and then snatched her loaf of bread from his greedy fingers.

He pouted, cheeks rounded like balloons. "Dwun beh stwinguh."

Hoku simply stared.

You. Hoku tried to wrap her very close to short circuiting brain around the thought. You.

"There's plenty more for you, Luffy," Makino reminded. She turned her attention back to Hoku, "Is there anything else you'd like to eat?"

"Apples if you have them," Hoku said immediately. "Please."

Makino fished around a basket below her and pulled forth a handful. He eyed them hungrily and Hoku took one in her hands, rubbing it on her shirt before she pulled out her carving knife and began to slice through them.

"I was supposed to meet up with someone," Hoku said. "I got on the wrong ship and ended up here though."

"My!" Makino said, eyes growing wide. "Are you far from where you need to be?"

Hoku winced, slipping a slice into her mouth and pushing half of what she'd cut toward Makino.

He made a whining sound as he continued to shovel armfuls of meat and bread into his waiting mouth.

"I don't know," Hoku said.

Makino frowned, "Do you know where you need to go?"

"...no," Hoku said slowly.

"Oh, dear," Makino tilted her head. "That sounds like a problem."

"Shishishi, what a dummy," he said.

Hoku's hand smacked out and slapped his extended stomach. He wheezed, grappling for a cup of water. Makino frowned at her rough housing and handed him a cup. "Is there anyone you can call?"

Hoku opened her mouth and blinked. She quickly fished around for her bag, pulling out the sleeping Den Den Mushi that'd been tucked away safely. She hopped down from the stool and shouted over her shoulder, "Hold on, I'm making a call!"

Makino watched her hair disappear around the corner of the bar, flying through the doors just as an older man in striped pants and an equally striped hat came hobbling in. "What's all that commotion about?"

"Ah, Mayor-san," Makino greeted. She eyed the other apple that'd been sliced clean sitting on the countertop, nudged just enough to the side for Luffy's wandering hands to snatch it up. "You're just in time! We have a very cute traveler visiting our village."


Purupurupuru. Purupurupuru—ka-chak!

The baby snail's eyes blinked open, half lidded and frighteningly golden. Hoku still had to wonder about the nature of these creatures and fiddled with the wire hooked up to the bigger snail hanging on a post beside the bar. A familiar, ink black goatee colored the bottom of the snails chin and it turned its small head slightly, the other line silent.

"I got on the wrong ship," Hoku blurted.

The snail blinked once.

"White sails with blue markings," Mihawk's familiar voice rumbled through the snail.

"I got on the one with blue sails and white markings," Hoku said. "Where am I supposed to go?"

The snail seemed to contemplate its answer before Mihawk carefully responded, "Where are you?"

"Dawn Island in the East Blue," Hoku said quickly. "Cute place called Foosha Village, it's very nice and I'm not in any danger or anything."

It was true enough. Makino hadn't said a single thing about her heritage or looks otherwise, if the young woman knew, she either didn't intend on saying anything or just didn't know. She always seemed so nice anyways, I think she'll be fine. Foosha Village had been isolated if she remembered most maps right, from the rest of the Goa Kingdom. She'd be fine here.

Temporarily.

But if she gambled any more on staying around him there might be a problem.

The snail quirked a brow. Its eyes turned sideways, as though looking at something else. Hoku waited, drumming her fingers along the side of Mau comfortingly. Mihawk fixed his gaze back on her. "East Blue, you said?"

Hoku nodded.

"...I can inform you of where you were meant to be sent," Mihawk said finally. "It may require my assistance to see you through properly, however."

Hoku made a face. "Where were you gonna send me?"

The snail blinked once, lips settled into that familiar frown as Mihawk seemed to gauge how worth it'd be to divulge such information to her.

"Somewhere with a change of pace," Mihawk said. "Though, if you remain on that island, you might find just that soon enough, I suppose."

"Can't stay here," Hoku said. "Not good. Nuh uh. Need to get outta here."

"Why?"

"To save myself a load of trouble in the future," Hoku said. "Are you far from here?"

"If I come back to get you," Mihawk said. "I will challenge you for Mau."

Hoku stared at the snail.

The snail stared back.

"It is," Mihawk said slowly. "What I said I would do the next time I saw you, is it not?"

"...Yes," Hoku said. "It was. But—But you can't just—"

Hoku gripped Mau protectively. The snail simply stared back at her, piercing golden irises unwavering.

"You don't think you could handle it?"

Hoku stared at the snail.

It barely seemed to smile.

"Fine!" Hoku snapped, shaking a fist at the snail and tucking Mau safely under her arm. "Just tell me where I'm supposed to go—I'll figure it out myself."

The snail looked faintly bemused, lids lowering as it seemed to contemplate something before Mihawk answered.

"Very well then," Mihawk said. "The intended location—"


Hoku slammed the swinging doors of the bar open, shuffling through with her feet dragging.

He turned over his shoulder, trying painfully not to look too eager as he shuffled around on his seat, watching her as he slurped loudly on the cup of juice in his hands. You're a bad gambler. Terrible poker face. Hoku hopped onto the bar stool, tipping back precariously. An old man sitting on the seat beside her paled, but she snagged the countertop and righted herself.

"How'd it go?" Makino questioned, setting down a steaming mug in front of her.

He slurped loudly.

Hoku's toes curled at the smell, bringing the warm mug closer and giving the tea a sniff. That smells amazing. "Not so hot."

"You didn't find the place?" Makino said, brows furrowing.

"Found it," Hoku said bitterly. "Don't wanna go though." Did she know a friend who could stash me away there? What was mama thinking? Even if the safest place is right under their nose, I still—

Hoku puffed angrily at the tea before taking a sip.

"Oh," Hoku pulled back, eyes a little dopey and cheeks flushed as she looked at Makino in awe. "Is this apple tea? How'd you know I like apple tea?"

"It is," Makino said warmly. She picked up a glass and began to polish it off. "And just a guess."

Hoku sighed happily, legs swinging behind the counter. Makino tried to fight her smile and the old man beside her suddenly scoffed, taking a sip of his drink.

"She's still just a kid after all," the old man said to Makino.

Hoku blinked, she glanced to the old man sitting on her left and he flashed her a curious look, rubbing his chin as though he were calculating something about her. "Who're you, gramps?"

"Gramps? Why I'll have you know—"

"He's our Mayor," Makino said kindly. "Mayor Woop Slap-san, she is still just a girl."

Oh, more people. Hoku blew air through her lips. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You talk funny!" he said.

"You just sound mature for your age is all," Makino corrected. "But there's nothing wrong with that! You'll grow up to be a fine and beautiful woman."

Hoku grunted.

"Well?" Woop questioned. "Where's a young Pokian like you headed off to?"

Makino looked curious. He made a face at the word, testing it on his lips with a funny look. Hoku stared at the cup of tea in front of her, rippling with a single, bobbing stalk. She turned over to Woop, "Was it the hair?"

Woop laughed, an old, gnarled sort of chuckle that reminded her of tree roots. "Should be fine here if you're smart about it. I can promise you that. I'd say it was your mannerisms and that tattoo of yours that gave you away. I've seen stranger hair throughout my years."

He tried to look as though he weren't listening, but he'd already leaned half off his stool, slurping.

"Mm," Hoku looked thoughtful. "I'll take your word for it, Gramps."

"That's mayor to you!" Woop snapped. "And you listen here, it may have been a few years now, but you ought to think twice before you go hopping on to just any ship—"

"When's the next ship out of here?" Hoku asked Makino. Woop's jaw dropped downwards, nearly smacking into the countertop.

"It depends where you'll be headed," Makino said slowly. "We're closer than you'd think to the Red Line, but... where do you want to go?"

Hoku sighed through her nose. Her brows furrowed in thought, tilting her head to the side as she pursed her lips and then snapped her fingers.

"I'll wing it."

"You can't just wing it!" Woop exclaimed, standing up from his seat and waving his arms at her. "You listen here, little girl, I don't know if you're sure what's going on out there, but if that next ship you hop onto is a one way ticket to somewhere on the Grand Line, there won't be much of you left!"

Hoku tried not to look a little dreamy at the thought. "Super dangerous right? Could get killed..."

"There's plenty out there to fear beyond the sea!" Woop snapped. "Thieves, monsters, sea kings—and not to mention those no good pirates!"

"Pirates," Hoku echoed. He perked up beside her, barely an inch still on his seat as he scooted closer, hands growing clammy against his cup. "Pirates, huh? I should look out for scary swordsmen too while I'm at it."

"You betcha!" Woop said. "Now you see, this is a good village here I run. No one should really bother you out here. If you'd like, we can find you somewhere to stay, just for—"

"No thanks," Hoku hopped down from her seat. He jolted, tumbling off his own and crashing to the ground with a shout. Hoku shuffled through her bag and pulled out several bills, tip toeing to set them on the counter. Makino blinked with wide eyes and Hoku turned to Woop. "It's very kind of you sir, but I'd rather not rack up a debt more than I should."

Hoku bowed her head, picking up her backpack. "Thank you very much for your kindness and hospitality. I truly appreciate it. I'll be on my way now—"

"Don't leave!" Hoku felt the air squeezed flat out of her lungs. She hacked, toppling over from the ferocious weight that'd suddenly tackled her around the middle. Her head smacked hard against the ground, staring dizzily up onto the ceiling before stupidly wide eyes, now filling with tears clambered atop her. "You can't go! You're trying to leave already?"

"What?" Hoku snapped, hands shoving at his shoulders and he gripped the front of her top stubbornly, sniffling loudly. "The hell—get off me! What's it to you—"

"You can't go yet!" he protested. "You can't! You just got here!"

"Luffy!" Makino rushed around the counter, "Come on now, you can't do that to her. Sorry, he just gets excited easily—"

"You gotta stay!" he shouted, fists flailing about as tears and snot dribbled down his face. Hoku felt tears drop onto her cheeks, staring at him in utter disbelief at the simply vibrant display of emotion. "You can't go yet! Come on—"

"Don't tell me what to do!" Hoku snapped, fisting his shirt and tossing him off her. He lurched with a shout of surprise and Makino gasped. Hoku pinned him to the ground. "The hell even is it to you? I literally just got here! You don't even know me and you're just following me around cause you're bored—"

"That's not true!" he shouted, "You're interesting! Everything gets boring here! You gotta stay—I'll show you all the cool spots on the island and where to get the best fish and—"

"Stop crying, you crybaby!" Hoku shouted back. "Crying doesn't do anything! You're so weird! I'm literally no one and you're acting like—"

"I'll fight you!" he declared.

Hoku smacked his head against the ground for good measure, reminding him who was pinning who.

"Best two of three," he said stupidly, eyes spinning.

"Don't cause a mess in Makino's bar!" Woop scolded. "Now, get off each other right this moment—"

"Mr. Mayor!" The doors to the bar swung open with a violent shudder. A man stumbled in, soaked to the bone and Hoku paused, hairs rising along the nape of her neck as a flurry of voices dully pressed against the edges of her mind, calls and cries across the island for animals to gather together to avoid—"A giant storm broke out of nowhere across the sea! We're calling all the ships back in right now!"

"Tie down the masts too!" Woop instantly hurried after the man. "Makino, make sure those brats don't go running off into trouble!"

Hoku stared in disbelief. The wooden doors swung behind him, dark, heavy clouds beginning to fill the bits of sky she could see. Hoku scrambled off him and he quickly rushed to his feet, bracing himself in case she tried something again. Hoku ignored him and pressed her face flat against the window to the side of the building, craning her neck around and—

The sweet whisper, a soft, gentle thrum.

Rain poured down onto the entire island.

"You're welcome to leave tomorrow if you'd like," Makino set a hand on her shoulder and Hoku jolted, looking up at her. "But I have to insist you stay the night. No ships are heading out in this weather. I have a spare room against the side of the bar, it used to be an old boat shed and it's too big for anything else."

Hoku deflated slightly. Her eyes flickered back outside, still round with disbelief on the sharp turn in weather—what rotten luck. Is this really happening?

Hoku couldn't help but remember annoying words cawed shrilly at her as wings flapped loudly by her face.

"This world does not take kind to being wronged."

My ass. Hoku heaved a sigh out. She nodded to Makino, mumbling a quiet thanks. Hoku turned over her shoulder to grab her things, resolving to study the maps she had of the surrounding area and figure out her next move from here—

Hoku stopped.

He offered her a stupidly wide grin from the other side of the bar.

For a moment, brief and fleeting, she remembered a particular scene. A strange scene she'd heard plenty of people talk over and discuss meaning to. A scene that struck her as something funny and merely the world's way of saying something loud, laughing, and without mercy. A scene that would later involve the boy standing stupidly in front of her and a bolt of—

Hoku trashed the thought just as quickly as it settled, folding it up, ripping it into halves and roughly shaking her head. She grabbed her backpack, made sure Mau was snug and followed after Makino to help her get the makeshift room settled.

That would just be stupid.


"It's not your time to die here."


"Luffy, you can't just tackle strangers like that," Makino scolded, dabbing a cloth around Luffy's eyes to make sure it wouldn't swell. "What were you thinking?"

"Rough thing, ain't she?" Woop said, glancing out the window where a black cloak over a head of white was working on dusting out a few things from the small room before the rain poured in. "Guess she had to learn to be."

"She wasn't that tough," Luffy protested. "I could take her! I'm a real man!"

Makino hummed, eyeing the bruise around Luffy's eye. "Yes, yes, I'm sure."

"Guess you had something right going on in there," Woop huffed, clasping his hands behind his back and turning to the two of them. "She looked hell bent on sailing out of here. It's a nice village! I work very hard—"

"Yes, yes, Mayor-san," Makino appraised. She leaned back, crouched in front of Luffy who'd started to pick at his ear, mumbling about being hungry. "Say, Luffy?"

"Yeah?"

"What'd you mean by all that?" Makino questioned curiously. "Did she do something that caught your eye before she came in here?"

Luffy blinked. He cocked his head at Makino, brows furrowing as he racked his brain with everything he had. Makino laughed, "It's alright, I was just curious. Sometimes you've just got to trust your gut—"

"I dunno," Luffy shrugged. "Something told me she's one of a kind, so I shouldn't let her go!"

Woop laughed. Makino looked curious, arms settled over her knees as she watched Luffy.

Woop shook his head, heading over toward the door, "You'll meet plenty of people with hair stranger than hers. I'll check to see if those fishing boats are all back, I'll be just a minute."

Luffy made a face, "Her hair?"

Makino hummed quietly under her breath. She pressed her cheek against her arm, smiling curiously at Luffy as she ruffled the top of his head.

"You know, Luffy, stay just like that and I think you might end up being quite popular with the ladies when you grow up."

Luffy patted his stomach. "I'm hungry!"


Hoku couldn't remember what she'd dreamt of, but she could still feel the sting of something quiet in her chest and felt the wet trail of tears lingering on her cheeks.

"You cry in your sleep," he said loudly. "You're weird."

Hoku blinked once. She wiped at her eyes with her hands, pushing aside any remaining tears and staring at the wooden roof above her. The small boat shed had been plenty spacious, pushed into the corner, an old bed stand where Makino had hauled out a mattress and armfuls of sheets and blankets—"If it gets too cold, you can just sleep with me!" The mattress was softer than what she was used to, and Hoku was beginning to realize she had a bit of a preference for swaying hammocks and blankets arching over soft dirt or grass.

Several lanterns were set up onto the single window sill in the shed. A small desk table, a few boxes pushed into the corner filled with things for the bar. A candle Hoku had kept going later into the night as she'd poured over some maps beside her, half melted down.

The blankets had been plenty. Hoku had tossed her cloak over the top of the pile, feeling a little more at ease before she'd finally fallen asleep to the sound of rain and rolling thunder.

She turned onto her side, staring at the boy making the dip in her mattress as he grinned stupidly down at her.

Sunlight, pale and thin streaked into the small window, catching off the tufts of coal black hair.

Hoku shoved him off her bed.

He let out a strangled shout. His hands shot for his head, rubbing the top of it as Hoku sat up in the mattress. Her hair was a bit wild, curling against her cheeks and sticking out this way and that. He shot her an indignant look, sandaled feet slapping the floor. "What was that for?"

She licked her palm and tried to smooth the strands. "Didn't anyone ever teach you to knock?"

"I did!" he protested hotly. "You were sleeping too much! It's morning! Come on, let's go play!"

Hoku propped her cheek onto her fist, eyeing the boy standing eagerly at her bedside.

Hoku's eyes dropped down to his shoes. A trail of mud and leaves followed him into the shed.

"Shoes off," Hoku said.

His brows furrowed. He glanced down to his feet, picking them up left and right then left and right before his eyes went wide. He scrambled to slip his sandals off, shoving them into the waistband of his shorts and then he beamed eagerly at her.

Hoku stared at the stupid shirt of his, a blue anchor with the word anchor captioned through it.

"You really are a kid," Hoku said with a scoff. "Let's go play?"

He looked as though he'd been slapped. His cheeks puffed full of hot air and he stomped his foot against the ground, "That—That's not what I said! I said let's go explore! Yeah! There's tons of cool places around here – come on!"

Hoku shuffled to the end of the bed, wiping a fist against the window to clear it. Hoku squinted, barely catching sight of the docks. A steady rainfall continued, a light drizzle. Fishermen clad in heavy jackets and sturdy boots were already starting to move about.

Hoku heard a laugh in her ears and her head turned sharply.

His arms strained with effort, trembling as he gathered Mau into his arms. Hoku froze at the sight, cheeks puffing as he turned to her. "This... is cool! Do you know... how to... use it—"

"Paws off!" Hoku snapped. His eyes went wide, nearly dropping the sword in haste as Hoku threw herself off the bed.

Her foot caught on sheets and she slammed face first into the floor.

Hoku cursed, pushing herself onto her hands and she glared at him. "Give it back! He's not a toy, he's important to me—"

Mau was shoved promptly into her arms.

Hoku blinked once, twice. She stared at him in disbelief, stunned for a moment. Mau warmed at her fingertips, laughing with mirth.

"Sorry," he said easily. "Didn't know it was important."

Weird. Hoku stared at him, falling back and leaning against the mattress. He smiled toothily at her, all bright and beaming and so—weird. How can you just change like that – what kind of a person even are you? What am I supposed to say to that? Say to you?

"How do I stand a chance against this?"

Hoku hugged Mau close to her chest, as though the sword could somehow even transfer an ounce of strength.

You're dangerous.

Hoku's heart skipped a funny beat.

"Hey!" he said excitedly, unfolding a paper by her bed from the stack she'd been sorting through. "Is this your name? It's like mine! Ho-ku. Lu-ffy! And there's even—"

Hoku snatched the paper roughly from his grip. She folded it into tiny quarters and then shoved it under her pillow. He blinked, facing the end of Mau's sheath as she pointed it threateningly at him.

"No," Hoku said.

"Hoku," he tested it on his lips, unthreatened. His mouth stretched wide. "Hoku—I like it! Hoku! Hooookuuuu—"

"What do I have to do," Hoku asked seriously, "to get you to leave me alone?"

He pursed his lips. His fingers played with each other, fiddling around before he grinned. "Let's go exploring!"

Hoku's mouth opened to tell him to shove off and leave her alone so she could never have a single thing to do with him again—

She paused, turning to him curiously. A whim.

"You got any high places around here?"


Foosha Village reminded her of something she couldn't quite remember.


"I found this place all by myself!" he said proudly, jutting his thumb into his chest. "No one else can climb it as good as I can! Well, maybe Grandpa, but who cares about him!"

Hoku had her cloak tucked tight against her, shielding the sketchbook she had tucked behind her with Mau and her hood pulled over her head. Rain dripped off the corners of the fabric, puddles and mud splashing at her boots as she followed him up a winding wall of rounded stones, piled high and woven with moss and heavy tendrils that stretched from tree to tree.

For as peaceful as Foosha Village was, the untamed forests pressing in close on either ends promised something else.

"He comes again," Hoku turned to where a trio of fat badgers were peering through a heavy bush. "Comes. Comes."

They sniffed the air and bared teeth at her. Hoku flipped them off.

She lifted a heavy leaf, following him as he clambered like an animal, true to his name, and barely managed to snag a grip onto the next branch, swinging. "See? Isn't this super cool?"

Hoku watched a small family of magpies bank down onto a tree. They chattered, singing something sweet to call to one more who still had yet to follow after them.

"It's not bad," Hoku said. If I time it right, I could probably slip climbing up those rocks and end up bashing my brains out in that ditch below...

It was killing two birds with one stone. She'd knock one down and hopefully scare the shit out of the boy leading her around enough to get him to leave her alone. Maybe she could even just die and wait it out before scampering off and he'd never think twice about it.

Mud splashed at each step. Hoku could see the steady fall of rain dancing across thick leaves, pushing at thin petals and pouring over smooth rocks. His hair was already beginning to plaster itself to his cheeks, wet and wild as his shirt grew drenched and the kid should've been shivering and miserable by now.

Always moving forward, Hoku snorted. You wouldn't spend too much time thinking about someone like me, right? I'd be some memory you'd think about once in a blue moon.

Hoku listened for the rumbling sound of rushing water anywhere nearby. She peered carefully over the top of the hill. No rivers around here at least... He waited for her impatiently, bouncing up and down dangerously against the slick grass and grabbing handfuls of wet earth as he hauled himself up another mountainside. "We still have to get to the top! It's super super cool if you get there before—"

"Soon, soon!" Hoku turned over her shoulder. A magpie called to another on a higher branch. "Soon, soon!"

"Hurry up!" he shouted. Hoku's eyes were ripped from the ditch she'd been eyeing, turning with growing annoyance back to the boy as he grinned from the top of the cliff. "Come on! We're gonna miss it! It's so cool—I bet you've never seen anything cooler than this before!"

"I heard you the first time," Hoku shouted back. "Just give me a second, brat!"

"Slowpoke!" he teased back. His head appeared over the top of the cliff, eager and shining. "Need help? I can help ya—"

"Don't need your help," Hoku said roughly. She grabbed fistfuls of earth, feeling her nails sink deep into the wet, softened mounds of dirt. She slowly began to haul herself upwards, one step at a time. Is this high enough? Should I keep going? Should I let go here—

"Coming! Coming!" a shrill voice sang back. "Here! Coming!"

"Come on!" he shouted down to her, waving his arms wildly. "We're gonna miss it—"

"Soon! Soon!" they sang back. "Soon! Come!"

Hoku's fingers dug harder into the ground. Raindrops slid down her cheeks, curving just under her eyes and trailing down to her chin. She could feel her arms begin to strain a bit with the effort, feet digging in deep for footholds. Mau pressed against her back, firm. She remembered heavier hands and a heavier sword in her grip and hauled herself over, pushing strength into her arms.

"Come on!" he cheered. "We're almost there! It's about to happen! You only get to see these on rainy days!"

"Coming! Coming!"

"It's soon!" he shouted excitedly.

"Soon!" they sang.

"Come on—"

"Coming—soon—waiting—"

Voices blurred. They blended, a song and laughter piercing her ears and Hoku's lips parted. Her hands dug into the clifftop, pulling herself over.

"Here!"

"I'm here!" Hoku answered breathlessly, rain dripping down her chin and beginning to soak her cloak as she panted on her knees. "Here. I'm here."

Hoku stopped for a second. She stared, stunned at the ground as her mind churned uncertainly. Hands tugged incessantly at her shoulders before she had a chance to think about anything else and she shuffled onto her knees, coming to stand up as he tugged her closer and closer, past a heavy pile of leaves and—

"See?" he cheered, childish and loud and alive as he threw his hands high into the air. Rain pelted their face, light and loving and the entire scenery before her cleared out. Wind ripped at their hair, pulled her cloak roughly over her head and nearly toppled his small body backwards as he cheered once more. "It's awesome!"

The vantage point was high above Foosha Village. To the east she could see rippling, rolling waves. An endless ocean curving around the half of the island stretched out small and green before them.

The sky trembled.

Clouds began to part. Nothing blocked their view for as far as they could see. Rolling, trembling bunches of gray and white clearing aside as though someone had plunged their hands through the water to clear something through. Streaks of light streamed through their open paths.

Foosha Village lit up, shining rays of light scattered across the entire world.

She thought about a woman from another life who'd told her they were Jacob's ladders. "Look, someone's slipping up to heaven."

Hoku thought about a story Manu had told her about falling stars kissing the earth.

Something pushed, wild and fierce against her chest.

"That's not it," he said, shaking her arm. Her eyes couldn't be torn from the sight coming to life in front of her. He cupped his hands over his mouth and with a fierce, triumphant cry, he shouted as loudly as he could to the sky.

"I'M HERE!"

It seemed to part for him, just for a moment.

Black and white feathers filled every available inch of the sky. Hoku watched, flocks of magpies erupting from the forest below and around them as they took to the sky. Feathers scattered, raining down with the light shower still falling down around them. Dozens of wings beat in succession of each other, catching light and rising higher and higher—

Hoku wasn't sure when she'd managed to get her sketchbook into her hands. Couldn't remember when her carving knife had kissed her palm, pressing a cut into her fingertip.

"Can you draw it?" he exclaimed. "Can ya? How good can you draw—"

Hoku smeared her palm against the page, a thick stain of blood following suit.

His eyes bulged from his head.

In a second, the trails shifted. She let the rain hit the paper, dampening the edges, giving it life.

Lines sketched out. Colors began to appear, blurring and blending in all the right places. They traced out, followed patterns and images pressed to the forefront of her mind and still unfolding right in front of her in this moment—

Hoku snatched a falling feather from the air. No bigger than her thumb. She felt the bristles between her fingertips, dragged her nail down the side and then pressed the small thing hard into the corner of the paper where it held, slick with blood made ink.

She held the paper out for him to see.

"SO COOL!" he shouted, eyes nearly popping from his head as he threw his hands into the air. "THAT'S SO COOL! Does that mean you can draw poop too—"

Hoku shoved her sketchbook into his face, shutting him up.


For a moment, Hoku hadn't been sure who she'd been answering in that forest.


Hoku's foot slipped through a heavy torrent of mud.

Her cloaked back hit the slick hillside, she skidded down, hands shooting out for a ledge. He turned around, eyes bulging out of his head with a shout before they slammed into each other, heads colliding and bodies tumbling down and down a long hill—

The two of them slammed into a pile of underbrush. It rattled the tree beside them and thick leaves shuddered, pools of water splashing down on top of them. A bird let out an indignant screech, spitting an insult at her as it took off. A fox in the corner snickered.

"Can you show me more of that?" Hoku said breathlessly, chest heaving, soaking wet.

He started to laugh, gleeful, a ringing, stupid laugh and he threw small hands into the air and they slipped into a puddle of mud.

"Heck yeah!"


Foosha Village reminded her of something farther back than slightly pink beaches and rolling waves and a small island log cabin overlooking the sea.

Long meadows, little picket fences, lazy windmills—it all reminded her of something that felt almost forgotten. Of a place visited on sweltering hot seasons. Of a place a woman had taken her two daughters, so long ago.

Of a small place visited only on the occasional whim, of breezy nights and warm mornings and laughter and hands digging into the earth to escape perhaps just a little bit of the everyday.

"Doesn't it kind of make you feel special?"

A place Hoku couldn't quite remember, but perhaps someone else might've.


A place that reminded her what it felt like to be just a little bit—


"I'm surprised you two are still alive after all that," Makino laughed.

Her brows were furrowed in obvious worry. Her hands moved softly against her head though, showing she wasn't really angry so much as just looking out for two kids she must care about, even if one was just someone she'd just met. You're a nice person, I hope you live a good life.

Hot, steaming bowls of soup were waiting on the counter. A mug of hot milk and a cup of tea.

"But you're definitely going to get sick," Makino added. "Don't doubt that."

Hoku tried not to sneeze. Her damp hair clung to her cheeks but the short length should dry soon enough. She could hear him laughing in the other room while some other townspeople and the mayor tried to help get him into new clothes.

"Idiots don't catch colds," she said.

Makino laughed, "You think so?"

The bar was warm. There was a piano in the corner, old and rickety that she'd never noticed before. Guess it didn't make the screen. She faintly wondered what else existed in this world, hidden along the cut edges of a paper's borders or cut out from a television screen.

Makino's hands tugged gently at her hair so it didn't cling to her cheeks. A sweater a little bigger than her hung from her shoulders, smelling like softener—Makino's. Stockings clung to her feet.

Mau was settled over the counter beside them. Clean and dried. Her sketchbook sat beside him, a little damp around the corners.

There was a rumble in her mind, low, like a hum.

"We all try to help take care of him while Garp is away," Makino explained her unasked question. "He's Luffy's grandfather." You're sharp, aren't you? "You have to excuse Luffy if you can. He doesn't really have any parents and... well..."

Makino laughed, something sweet, "He's special."

Hoku snorted. "He's stupid."

Makino giggled.

Her slender fingers combed through Hoku's short locks. Makino said something softly about how silky her hair felt, reaching over for a warm, dry towel to make sure she was all dried off so she wouldn't get sick.

"I can do a lot of handy stuff."

Makino paused.

"I'm good at making things," Hoku said. "I can build almost anything you need. Repaint the bar. Fix the sign. Clean the floors. Carrying stuff. Just about anything you might want me to do."

Makino set her hands in her lap. Hoku stared at the steam rising from the cup of tea. "Just until I find a ship whose destination I like."

The sound of muffled laughter. Shouts from older men, a loud complaint, more laughter.

"If you don't mind," Hoku said.

Makino smoothed the sweater over her shoulders. She used the extra handkerchief she'd brought down and wrapped it from the bottom of Hoku's head to the top, knotting it off like a ribbon to hold her hair back a bit.

"I think that sounds plenty fine," Makino said. "For as long as you'd like."


His presence spelled trouble.

It was gambling on something she wasn't sure she'd like the outcome to, whether good or bad.

But he was also a stupid, happy, lively six year old boy.

She liked Foosha Village.

Whatever the hell this world wanted from him, Hoku figured it didn't care what happened or who he happened to be hanging around with before his adventure started.


She liked—


"HOOOOOKUUUUU!"

The wooden doors to Partys' bar swung open. He barreled through, sandals slapping against the wood as he leapt forward. "I'M HEREEEE—"

Hoku smashed the dustpan she'd been holding into his face. He crumpled, falling into a messy heap of boy and sun on the floor. Makino giggled from behind the counter as Hoku crouched down next to him, tapping the top of his head with the broom. "You literally know where I am. You don't have to shout. I like my ears."

"Let's go fishing!" he shouted, face peeling off from the floor and eyes shining at her. "Do the thing! Do the thing!"

Hoku rolled her eyes. She tugged her brush from the pouch on her back beside Mau. Hoku drew two items along the floor, peeling them from the wooden floor boards and she handed a small one to him and held onto her own.

"Times two."

The fishing poles enlarged in size. He cheered, waving the pole around dangerously. She could hear the mayor shouting something outside the bar and he stormed towards them and Hoku carefully set the dustpan and broom aside, slinging her own fishing rod over her shoulder. "We'll catch something good for dinner tonight."

"I'm counting on you," Makino waved them off, watching the head of white and black disappear out the door.

"Where'd he go?" Woop demanded, skidding into the bar. "Luffy stole all the bait from the tackle shop, that buffoon!"

"I'm sure he'll pay it all back," Makino appeased. "He's the kind of man who pays his debts, you know."

"He's six!"


"HOOOOOKKKKUUUU—"

Hoku's foot smacked out. He tripped over her leg, smashing into a table and knocking it to the ground.


"HOOKKKUUUUUU—"

Hoku shoved a chair out. He slammed into it, wheezing as he toppled over and summersaulted into the wall.


"HOOOKKKKKUUUUUUU—"

"I'm right here, stop shouting."

He tripped over the broom she smacked into his ankles. His face slammed into the wooden floorboards. Makino giggled behind the counter, propping her cheek onto a hand. "Don't you think you're too rough on him?"

"He'll deal with worse later on," Hoku said mercilessly.


"DINNER! DINNER! DINNER—"

Nami's foot swung out to stop her captain from running head first into the mess hall.

Luffy's feet shot up, hopping over the obtrusive object with perfect and practiced ease.

Nami blinked in disbelief. Usopp looked over, pushing his goggles up over his head. Zoro choked on a snore.

"Wow!" Luffy tipped his hat up, looking back to Nami's foot still sticking out like an idiot as though he hadn't a single idea of what he'd just done. "That was cool."

Nami smacked the back of his head. "Don't run to dinner!"


He peeled himself off the floor, slapping his palms flat against the ground. His cheeks and forehead swelled a little bit red and his lips stretched from ear to ear, all teeth and gums. "I found a bird's nest! The chicks hatched! Let's go look at them!"

Hoku made a reluctant face. He started tugging at her pant legs, urging her toward the door regardless. "I don't really like birds."

"I found a wolf's den too! We can play with her puppies—"

Makino clamped a hand over both their shoulders, stopping them from charging any further out the door.


"HOOOOOKKKUUU—"

Makino's hand came out this time, snagging him by the back of his shirt before he could topple into the dirt made ladder Hoku had pulled to life. "Careful, Luffy. She's working right now."

He blinked, squinting as he craned his head backwards.

Hoku perched at the top of the dirt ladder. Several brushed stuck out of her mouth, short hair held back by one of Makino's headbands as she squinted, left hand stroking bright letters onto the sign outside the bar. Her right fingers came around and smoothed out a smudge, cleaning the edges and Hoku leaned back, looking down at Makino.

"Ish twis gwud?"

Makino laughed. Partys Bar glistened back, polished, bouncing letters over the freshly painted wall. "It looks perfect, thank you, Hoku-chan!"

Hoku exhaled through her nose, chest puffing up a bit.

"Say," Chicken stopped in the middle of her delivery, a basket of fresh caught fish hanging from her elbow. "My fool of a husband would throw out his back trying to fix our sign, think you could help us out, Hoku-chan?"

Hoku shifted the brushes in her mouth to the corner like cigarettes. "Yeah?"

"If that's the case," Woop said loudly, clapping his hands behind his back as he looked up at Hoku. "For letting you stay in this village, you ought to repaint the sign by the docks and our town hall—"

Hoku snorted.

"Did you just laugh, you little—"

"I could use a fresh coat on a banner I wanted to hang!" Jojo shouted, poking his curly hair out from the bakery. "I'll whip you up a great cake if you don't mind helping out."

"Free cake!" he cheered, rushing forward and shaking the ladder. "Hoku! Hoku! Free cake—"

"Don't shwake tuh laddah—shit!"

Hoku toppled off the top. His eyes bulged from his head and the two children crashed into each other, quickly breaking out into a squabble.

Makino laughed.


"Hoku-chan, would you help me fix up this post over here? I want to make it look nicer for when people come to town!"

"Mhm."

"Hey, Hoku-chan! Why don't you help me paint a name onto my new boat? You've got the best handwriting in town."

"Okay."

"Hoku-chan! Want some strawberries? We got a good harvest this year, there's plenty for the whole town."

"Yes!"


"HOOOOOOKKKKKUUUUUUU—"

Hoku slapped both her hands down onto his cheeks. He stared at her with round eyes, cheeks squished like pancakes between her hands. Hoku slowly released him, bringing a finger to her lip. "Shh."

He nodded rapidly, head bobbing so fast she thought it would've snapped off.

"Hoooookkkkuuuu."

She slapped the back of his head, hiding her smile. The two of them both turned over the pile of leaves, pushing them down so they could get a closer look.

Surrounding the peaceful areas of Foosha Village—signs—newly painted by her under Woop's nagging— were marked off for various trails that lead deeper into the forests that lead to the center of Dawn Island. Winding pathways and heavy trees lined every which way and a vast array of creatures could be found, ranging from the more dangerous to the less.

Sometimes, sometimes, he wasn't always attracting the wilder ones.

The mare snorted. She swished her tail, nudging the foal at her side so they could climb the alcove of rocks and make it toward the flatter meadow on the other side. A beautiful pair, rose roans with flowing locks and rippling muscles.

"Think we could ride one?" he whispered eagerly, eyes shining.

"Maybe when its older if it doesn't mind," Hoku whispered back.

"Come," Hoku watched the mare bob her head toward her child, urging her along. "One more. One more."

"You ever get lonely?" Hoku asked genuinely, eyes full of the two across the forest before them.

He made a face. It took all of his effort to consider her question, rubbing the side of his head and making little grunts. Hoku was about ready to tell him to stop and save the brain cells for when he got older, but his hands came together with a resounding clap and he laughed.

"No way!" he turned to her with a toothy grin. "People are always coming and going here—there's so many people to meet!"

The mare's ears tipped forward. She ushered her foal the rest of the way, not sparing them a single glance back.

Hoku felt Mau, snug against her.

"Yeah," Hoku said.


"Come on, maka," Mahina laughed, holding her newly furbished sword high over her head. The island breeze caught her hair, whipping it around her and making her mother look straight from a warrior's painting. "One more!"


He never talked about his father, sometimes about a loud, mean grandfather, but never his father.

Hoku knew to a degree it was simply because he didn't really care about a man who wasn't in his life and couldn't afford to be bothered by such trivial matters because he was simply not that kind of person.

Always moving, always moving.

She knew that man was out there somewhere, causing hell to a group of people she'd like to say a few choice words to herself.

But still—

"You're kind of cool, sometimes."

He whipped his head around, eyes shining like stars.

"Say it again!"

"Sorry, it's gone now. Lost to the wind, you don't get another one. Ever."


Hoku cut a tree down with Mau for him. Simple and easily pleased, he really liked that. She let him give a shot too, but that ended in near disaster with Mau almost slicing clean through his fingers had Mahina's blade not been crafted with the finest self restraint.

"Wild boy," Mau whispered in her ear when she took him back with fond hands and held him tight, "Wild boy will shake this world."

They watched him try to pull his head out of the hole he'd shoved it into, stuck.


He didn't ask a lot of questions.

He only ever asked about the things that caught his attention. He asked about her hair. About the half heart around her eye. He asked about Mau and her powers and what she could do with them. Asked her to draw things. To tell stories. He asked about what she liked to eat. Her favorite type of fish. Drink. The best story she could ever tell.

She told him about those things. Told him about an island with beautiful waters she'd never find anywhere else. Told him about a cat goddess who fell in love with an artist. About an island log cabin overlooking a cliff and her hope to see it again one day.

"What do you wanna do?" he asked, shoving fistfuls of bread into his mouth.

Hoku ripped the loaf in her hands in half. She pushed half to him and busied herself with buttering up the other half.

A heavy leaf blocked the sun from beating down above them. The forest was a little quieter than usual, lacking the steady file of voices and chatter. No teasing animals or bared fangs to say things to her she'd rather not hear.

"Die," Hoku mused. "Raise a little hell for some people before that."

He choked. Hoku waited for his response, undeniably curious and debating whether or not to bet—"That's stupid."

Hoku took her half of the bread back. He made grabby motions, eyes growing wide and Hoku held it out of reach.

"It is!" he protested. "So much other stuff you can do! It's lame! Do that when it happens, don't just wait for it, dumbass!"

"Don't call me a dumbass, dumbass," Hoku said. "What do you wanna do?"

You haven't met him yet. Haven't had any experiences to properly shape your ambitions and story. Hoku tapped the bread, watching crumbs fall and sweeping them aside. Does anything change for you?

"I wanna go on the greatest adventure ever!" he shouted, spreading his arms wide, entire face twisting in excitement at the sheer idea. "Ever! Ever!"

"Yeah?" Hoku leaned back, crossing her legs over each other. "Why's that?"

What keeps you going—

"Because the greatest adventure means doing everything!" he said excitedly, arms flailing. "Eat the greatest stuff, meet the greatest people, do the greatest things and even die the greatest death!"

Hoku handed him the half back.

"Pick something else other than dying," he said, chomping down and shoving the bread completely past his lips. He chewed, bits flying everywhere and Hoku started to tug her sketchbook out to get started again for the day. "'cause that's dumb."

He didn't ask whys. He didn't asks wheres and whens and whats. He didn't seek for more details and merely took whatever he needed to keep moving forward.

You don't change an awful lot when you get older, do you?

Hoku was in a good mood.

She decided to humor him.

"I'd tell the greatest story ever then," Hoku said. She dragged her fingers down the side of the sketchbook, thumbing through the pages for that familiar sound. "How's that?"

He laughed, loud and eager and eyes shining.

"That sounds awesome!"


"Can you imagine?" Manu crowed, throwing his hands wide as though to encompass the entire world and fit it before him on the pages sitting in his lap. "A story greater than anything else in this entire world—to tell that story, not for all to see or hear or know, but to tell it just to tell it and—"

"To think, about what could possibly come next!"


He never asked about the past.

Only the future.


"Aren't you getting just... a little tired of wearing the same clothes?"

Hoku looked at Makino, scandalized.

A protective hand came and touched her cropped halter top. The ends of her pants were starting to fray a bit from the rough housing and constant forest explorations or beating him into the ground—he still had yet to pull a leg over her just yet—thank you, Mihawk. Her boots held sturdy, scuffed up though they were.

Her cloak was an entirely different story. Frayed deeply along the edges, ripped in some places where she'd already started sewing it back together. Her hood sported a new hole along her neck she needed to patch up as well.

But hell if she was ever going to give those up.

He continued to stuff his face beside her, scarfing food down at a familiarly rapid rate. Makino gave a little smile, the kind of smile older, caring figures in your life gave you when they were thinking of the nicest way to tell you something you might not want to hear.

"I just wash 'em when they need it," Hoku said, rubbing the fabric between her fingers. "I don't really need a lot of clothes anyway."

Makino kept her face even. Woop Slap was at the counter a few chairs down, nursing a cup of tea.

"You know, I have plenty of old clothes that don't fit me anymore," Makino started warmly. "I was going to throw them out… Why don't you look through and see if there's anything you'd like to use? They're really cute! I promise."

Hoku hummed, picking up a slice of the apple tart Makino had cooked for her. "'S okay, don't wanna be a bother."

Makino looked a little pained, "That scarf you have around your waist is so cute… don't you think it'd be cuter around your hair then for a sword?"

Hoku laughed, "Mau deserves only the best!"

Makino's lips trembled, "We can pick out new ones just like them—"

"Done!" he cried, hopping off the stool and racing out of the bar. "Thanks Makino! Come on, Hoku!"

Hoku shoved the tart into her mouth, muffled out a goodbye and thanks and took off after him.

Woop Slap let loose the laugh he'd been holding back, nearly spitting out his tea as he slapped the countertop. Makino stared at the counter, dejected as she drew absent circles onto the polished wood. A bag of simple dresses, easy to move in and cute blouses she'd been eyeing sitting at her heels behind the counter.

"Minimalistic!" Woop crowed. "That's it. What a girl. Any man that thinks of wooing her ought to start digging into books about swords and anything interesting if he thinks of standing a chance!"

Woop stopped. The thought sobered him up and he spluttered, "No man will take that girl! She's too young! She should stay just the way she is—no need for new clothes to make her look any prettier, Makino!"

Makino sighed, a small pout on her lips.

"I just thought she'd look so cute…"


"It's my birthday today!"

Hoku stared, blinking wide eyes in disbelief.

He beamed, lips stretching from ear to ear. His eyes were bright, almost painfully so as he stood over her hammock—she'd drawn one from various materials and Makino helped her set it up in the boat shed that'd now become her makeshift hut.

You have a birthday. Hoku felt stupid for even thinking the thought. Every person on this island had a birthday.

"Each person here is alive."

Hoku tried to ignore something that'd been clawing at the back of her mind for a long time now.

"What day is it today?" Hoku asked.

He laughed, "My birthday!"

Hoku rolled her eyes to the calendar drawn onto the wall. She stared at the date, unconsciously filing it back into her memory and then turned back to him.

"Happy birthday, you."

It'd been awhile since she celebrated someone's birthday.


"When's your birthday?"

Mihawk regarded her on the same level as an insect.

"Why."


Artopoki's tradition was usually to throw a single lantern up into the air, a wish for a good year and health to see the next one on someone's birthday. The most pomp and circumstance was a big dinner or something done amongst family since age was a funny thing with Pokians. Four and a half and nine were supposed to be the biggest landmarks until you came full circle with a life or two intact…

Hoku turned to the calendar.

She'd turn nine this year.

"How old are you turning?" Hoku said.

"Seven!" he answered instantly, waiting.

Hoku hummed. She sat up in the hammock, swaying a bit with the movement. Hoku reached over, fumbling through her counter and several bags strung up along the wall stuffed full with various items. She tugged out a special stack of especially thick paper, reaching for her brush and turning back to him. "I'll give you your present in a bit, so wait, okay?"

His eager grin suddenly dropped from his face.

Hoku snorted, "What? Come on, you never told me before so I need some time—"

"I don't want anything for my birthday!" he shouted suddenly. Hoku jerked back in surprise, grabbing onto the side of the hammock. He hopped down onto the ground, grabbing the edges of the knitted fabric. His cheeks puffed out and he waited, staring hard at her expectantly.

"Well, what the hell do you—"

"Stupid, Hoku!" he said loudly, shoving at her hammock. Hoku squawked, materials toppling around as the entire thing made one full swing knotting up and nearly tossing her to the ground had she not clung for dear life. "Stupid, Hoku! You're stupid!"

He stuck out his tongue at her, barreling through the door without a single glance back. His feet scuffled back for a brief second, grabbing his shoes outside her door and then running off.

Hoku stared at the ceiling, a paper dropping onto her face as the hammock swung violently beneath her, slowly coming to a stop.

She lifted the paper from her face. Her birth registry from the island she usually kept tucked away, name and date and all information needed from Artopoki written onto it in their ink. She stared at her name.

"What the fuck?"


"My, Luffy did all that?"

"I don't get it!" Hoku said, slapping her small palms onto the countertop. Woop moved his glass out of the way. Makino smiled. "Is he mad I didn't know it was his birthday? He never told me—no, he doesn't care about dumb stuff like that. Is it just because I didn't have my gift ready? Was he expecting some big, crazy adventure or something?"

Makino opened her mouth.

"He's so frustrating!" Hoku threw her hands to her hair, gripping short, choppy locks. "He's crazy! Weird! I'll never understand him and he's always just doing as he likes—argh! I'll just go buy him food—that'll stop him, right?"

Makino made a thoughtful hum, leaning onto her elbows.

"I thought you said he didn't want anything?"

"I guess he does!" Hoku exclaimed, exasperated. "I – I just, I dunno! What did you get him, Makino?"

Makino smiled, "I'm making a feast for him."

"Well, that's perfect," Hoku said miserably. She ran a hand through her hair and then shook her head clear, "I'm just going to go to the docks and check out what ships are leaving today. I'll be back with some food."

Hoku grabbed her small bag, tossing it over her shoulders and grumbling under her breath. Don't have time to be worried about this stupid guy. Why am I even bothering with this? What do you think you're doing

"Say," Woop said suddenly. "Whose birthday is it again?"

Makino shot him a curious look and Hoku snorted, "It's his."

Understanding dawned in Makino's eyes. Woop resumed sipping at his glass and the bartender rushed around the counter, hurrying after Hoku.

"Hoku-chan! Would you mind listening to an idea of mine, just for a bit?"


"Why are you still here with him?"


"Hey, you."

He growled, whipping his small head around over his shoulder. "I—"

His eyes went wide. Stars colored them, painfully obvious and withholding nothing as his jaw dropped low to the ground and he staggered back at the sight.

Hoku stood, wind tugging at her short strands. The animal beneath her feet coasted, long, wide fins flapping lazily against the breeze as it opened its mouth in a sort of soundless laugh. The giant, paper manta ray swayed, bowing a massive head and coasting closer to the ledge of the cliff.

"That's so—" he stopped, clamping his hands flat over his mouth. His lips pursed out and he barely managed to spit, "That's not cool at all!"

You're such a bad liar.

"Listen, you—"

"Stop calling me you," he said loudly in protest. His cheeks puffed up and he patted his chest. "I'm Luffy. What are you, dumb?"

"I don't care, you," Hoku snapped. "I'll call you what I want."

"Then I'm gonna call you stupid!"

"Try it, dumbass."

"You're the dumbass!" he crossed his arms roughly over his chest. "W-Whatever! I'm going to go explore a new cave by myself because its way cooler than you and—"

Hoku raised a carefully drawn cone up into the sky, tugging roughly at a fuse she'd crafted herself.

A sharp whistle rang out. She perched carefully atop the floating manta ray, bringing it a little closer to the ground. A fuse sizzled and then something popped. A light flickered out. Smoke trailed upwards and then something shot fast into the sky above her, hitting air with a loud bam!

His eyes went round as saucers.

An array of colors exploded into the sky. Embers, flashing and flickering out in golden and brightly colored hues. They fizzled and popped, scattering across the sky in a dazzling display of mini explosions and fireworks. Hoku quickly turned, grabbing her brush and slapping on into the air.

"Happy Birthday Luffy"

His eyes swallowed the sight greedily, stepping closer and closer with shining irises as he turned to her—

Hoku hesitated only a second and then offered him a hand to step onto the manta ray.

"Happy birthday, Luffy."

Watching him was like watching the sun.

All of its rays, its brightness and glory and heat—spread wide across his face. His teeth showed, eyes crinkling harshly at the edges and he beamed, as though all and everything else didn't matter a single moment anymore except for what was happening right here in front of him.

Luffy grabbed her hand.

And then tossed the rest of himself onto her, wrapping his arms around her neck and his legs around her waist and nearly sending the two of them plummeting to their deaths—keep going, Luffy!

"Oh, man," Luffy cheered loudly by her ear, grinning so hard it almost hurt her to look at him. "Thanks, Hoku!"


"Why don't you call him by his name? You don't…. You don't actually hate—"

"I've just been scared."


Saying your name meant facing the single thing I've been trying to run from.


The first time Hoku met Monkey D. Garp, she didn't ever think it would've been from spilling booze all over his pants.

Well. Hoku thought weakly. At least I didn't throw up on you.

That privilege belonged to that strange boy back in a city whiter than anything she'd ever seen.

It'd been an accident originally. Hoku was about to run a tray over to the fishermen waiting in the corner when her foot caught on what seemed to be absolutely fucking nothing and she went sailing through the air. The mugs had gone flying, smashing into thick, sturdy legs like tree trunks and staining dark military blue pants an even darker shade. Hoku had stared at the mess in horror for a second before she blinked at clean shoes and the familiar colored uniform—

A navy man.

Who cares then? Hoku snorted, raising herself up on her hands and holding back any kind of apology. Good riddance. Hope you have an awful rest of the day and the World Government eats its own shit

Garp stared down at her.

Hoku stared back.

Oh.

Oh.

OH.

Hoku's jaw smacked into the floor the exact same time Garp's did.

You're

"You're—" Garp started and then stopped, biting harshly onto his bottom lip.

Fucking huge! Hoku finished in disbelief, gaping at the sheer size of the older man before her. Sun kissed tan skin, so much like Luffy's. A curved scar beneath his eye, dark gray hair growing a little grayer with some still black streaks. Massive, bulging muscles and ridiculously broad shoulders. You can't be human! The signature marine coat hung heavy from his shoulders, sweeping at his feet and Hoku's eyes caught on the few lapels decorated on his chest.

Hoku felt something dark flicker through her chest. Mau was sitting on the countertop beside Makino, silent and thrumming with energy.

Hoku's fingers curled into her palms.

"Garp-san!" Makino said in surprise, hands flying to her mouth. "You're back already? Is it for Luffy's—"

"H-Hey!" Garp bellowed, veins bulging along his neck as he turned roughly to the few occupants in the bar. "You lot! Don't you have work to be doing before I check for your permits?"

The fishermen jolted. They scrambled for their drinks, grabbing their things and rushing out of the bar with mixed laughter and fear, shouting out the door, "Garp-san's back!"

Oh, shit. Hoku stopped breathing. Thisthis is him. What should I do? Just play it cool? Act normal? Why the hell is he looking at me like that ah, wait, but he's still a

Ugh! Hoku slapped her forehead. Am I an idiot? Why is thinking so fucking hard?

Garp snorted through his nose like a bull. Beer still dripped from his pant legs, staining his whole front and filling the air with the familiar smell of alcohol. Hoku remained rooted to her spot, on her hands and knees with empty mugs rolling around her.

Garp snapped his head back to her.

Hoku jumped.

"You," Garp started and stopped, biting his lip again. His hand curved into a fist, pressing it harshly to his mouth as he stared at her, almost as though he'd seen a ghost.

Monkey D. Garp. Hero of the Marines. A man famed and feared far and wide. A man who Hoku knew beyond what he knew, though faintly. A man whose power succeeded far past the many and—

You work for them.

Hoku saw fire in her eyes. She saw flames rising up and swallowing a small island whole. A beautiful woman standing on its shores with swords dripping red and a man hunched over his desk and banners flapping proudly amidst the smoke—

Hoku struck first.

Her fingers curled around the empty mug at her side and she launched it without a second thought. It smashed harmlessly into his shoulder, bouncing off as no more than a pebble and clattering back to the floor. Garp flinched regardless, face shifting. Makino looked up in surprise, "Hoku-chan—"

It was childish.

Hoku knew this man was not responsible for a single thing. Of all the people that could work for them, he was one of the greatest. He was a good guy. Tough love, tough man, and a tough heart. He'd care for Luffy growing up, he tried to make a difference in the marines and stand a good stance amidst chaos and corruption. She knew he and so many other were not to be blamed. They didn't man those ships, and even then, the men on those ships were only following orders and she needed to be understanding—

But it all hurt too fucking much. There was no one for her to reach right now. No one in her grasp to seek justice. It wasn't even her own given right to be so hypocritical when she could barely do anything herself and talk such a big talk but, but, BUT.

"That's for home," Hoku couldn't help but seethe at the closest she'd get right now to the people who really deserved it. Childish and ignorant and stupid—she couldn't help but settle for this. "For all of them."

Tears swelled up in her eyes and she refused to let them fall.

Garp's lips pressed into a thin line. Heavy set brows lowered over his eyes, his gaze taking in her small frame in all of its entirety on the floor. Angry and hurt and baring small canines at him like a wounded animal who couldn't do anything else.

"Hoku-chan," Makino said softly behind her. Footsteps creaked on wooden floorboards and Hoku sucked in a shaky breath. Garp wasn't someone she wanted to be on bad terms with but to hell with it all—

The entire building seemed to lurch. The wood beneath his knees nearly shattered from his weight. Hoku stared, eyes wide as Garp dropped to his knees and carefully clasped his hands over them.

The older, towering man opened his mouth, closed it. Garp's brows went slack and he suddenly looked far, far more tired than she'd ever seen this man in the entire series as he offered her an uncharacteristically somber look and said, voice gruff and low and so, so gentle—

"My name is Vice Admiral Monkey D. Garp," he said, facing her evenly. Hoku's heart twisted sharply, breath catching in her throat. "On behalf of the ma…. On behalf of myself, for what it's worth, miss, I apologize for the… the inexcusable things we did to you… to all of your home."

Garp bowed his head roughly. Hoku jumped back, falling onto her hands as she stared in disbelief, about to shout and scream at this man to please, please, please, don't say it

"I'm sorry," Garp said deeply, head bowed before her. A tiny, stupid, insignificant little girl who— "I'm so very sorry."

"You were there the night it happened, right?" Lily murmured from across the table.

Hoku's fingers curled tightly over Mau's sleek sheath, nodding.

Lily leaned back into the small chair. Her eyes went skywards. Bitter, quiet tears began to roll down her cheeks and Hoku looked up as Lily began to smile. A fruitless, dark, empty thing that stretched across her face and Lily laughed.

"They burned it all to the ground," Lily whispered. "We all saw it happen. We read the news and we realized it had nothing to do with what they said it was—what those who need to believe it the most believe."

Hoku went still.

"They used the artifacts as an excuse, right?" Hoku said slowly, weakly. "They had a falling out with someone important and—"

"The island angered people with irrevocable power," Lily said breathlessly. "The artifacts, those traitorous propaganda they speak so fearfully of, it's nothing more than an incentive for the right people amidst those circles. No, Artopoki went to flame and hell because—"

Lily laughed again.

Hoku felt something inside her break, just a bit.

"Because those who would be gods simply didn't have enough of that pretty ink on their desks."

"I'm sorry!" Garp shouted, face pressed so close to the floorboards. Makino was at his side, trying to urge him to stand up but he continued to shout. "Please, forgive this foolish man for not being able to do more for—"

"It's not your fault."

"You knew they killed all those people on a whim. You know that the people out there had things they wanted and peoples' interests happened to match so they made the choice that best benefited themselves. They didn't care about who would have to suffer after because there would be no one left and people were tired of coveting something that should be rightfully theirs because THEY ARE—"

She knew why Garp felt the need to apologize to her even though this man probably hadn't lifted a single finger near any of this disgusting mess.

Because you're a good man who works for something good run by people who are bad and you, you just like everyone else and all those other people I know will exist and do exist are just

Just doing their best.

Garp looked up, a red spot growing on his forehead.

Hoku hugged her arms to herself. Her head was bowed, short bangs barely hiding her eyes but not hiding the way her lips trembled. She turned away from Garp, wanting to break something and break herself all at once.

"I'm sorry I threw it at you," Hoku said quietly. "I know it's not your fault."

Mau's voice was breezy in her ears and she imagined the same breezes on Artopoki's shores, whistling through the entire town.

Somewhere in her mind, she wondered if the older woman who could be standing here right now would feel the same.

But the older woman wasn't here, only in spirit, and Hoku was reminded once more that she was still nothing more than a child.

"Thank you for apologizing," Hoku said. She turned to face Garp, eyes filling with stupid tears and she roughly wiped them aside with the back of her hand. She sniffed once and managed, practically a shout so she wouldn't break into a sob because years would pass and things would change and leaves would grow but—

"I know you're just doing your best."

I'll still miss it, you know?

Monkey D. Garp was not about to sell her off to the highest bidder. He was not about to toss her behind bars or send her to an execution block or drown her in the ocean.

Monkey D. Garp was simply a good man.

I want to believe that, Hoku thought fiercely. She didn't know if she had past memories to thank for that or not, but it'd have to do.

Tears shot from Garp's eyes, snot dribbling down his nose. He sniffed, loudly, far beyond a man his size and visage should look and the sight almost made Hoku jump back in surprise. Garp slapped his cheek with a resounding clap and Makino gasped.

You're just like Luffy

"What's your name, miss?" Garp demanded, wiping roughly at his eyes and clambering to his feet with heavy, powerful steps. He rose to his full height and then thought better of it, bending at an awkward angle to crouch in front of her. "I… I know rough times are falling on your people, stupid, disgusting things I'm working to stamp down. But I promise, from this day forth to do whatever within my power and keep you safe if you'll have me—"

Hoku set a hand on his knee. Garp stopped.

"I'm Hoku," Hoku said resolutely, meeting those bright, powerful eyes and wondering the kind of man Luffy might one day grow up to be himself. "From the Island of Artopoki."

Garp's fingers twitched. His eyes went wide, lips parting and Hoku swept on, "And I appreciate the offer… sir. But that won't be necessary."

Hoku stood up. Even on her feet, she barely reached Garp's head with him crouched so low and knees bent. She balled her hands into fists at her side and said resolutely, "And I will endure."

Mau sang across the room.

"But you're just a—"

"It's not your job to take responsibility for other assholes," Garp spluttered and Hoku shrugged. "'s really nice of you to say that though. I'm sorry again, for spilling on you and the cup. I know you didn't make that call and didn't make those decisions. I've only just met you and it'd be weird to have someone I don't know take responsibility for something they shouldn't."

I've already got one pair of eyes across the waves. Hoku mused idly. Well, not really, but he'd probably bury me at least if anything ever happened. "I've been doing plenty fine here and I don't plan to stay for that long anyway. I'll be fine wherever I go."

Hoku crossed her arms over her chest. Garp looked as though he'd been carved out of stone, staring at her.

"And if you're the Mr. Garp I've been hearing so much about," Hoku added, nodding to Makino, "then you've already got someone plenty busy enough to worry about. You're late for his birthday, by the way."

"I know that—" Garp stopped. He stared at Hoku, bewildered before he suddenly rose to his feet. Hoku stumbled back one step, the man as tall as a tree as he stared down at her for several beats.

Garp burst into laughter—loud, boisterous, and without any mercy.

Hoku took a wary step back.

"Sorry!" Garp said loudly, rubbing the back of his neck and then shaking his head. "You caught me off guard there, sweetie. It's been awhile since I've run into a Pokian after everything happened and to think there was a survivor out there from the island no less—weren't cha afraid I might turn you in?"

"You wouldn't have apologized if that's what you wanted," Hoku accused.

Garp laughed, loud and free. "You're a sweet girl! I don't know how you ended up here, but I'm glad you did. Makino-chan! Is she the one you've been writing about? The one taking care of my idiot of a grandson?"

"I'm not taking care—"

"The one and only," Makino said warmly. She clasped her hands behind her back, giving Hoku a look that seemed to hope she'd explain a little more of what'd happened in detail to her later. You deserve a bit of that at least. "Hoku-chan here is my best employee, you see. She's the only one able to keep up with Luffy in this village."

"That's not true—"

"Well!" Garp boomed, turning with loud slaps of his feet to Hoku. She flinched, suddenly wary of just how much life seemed to be radiating from this man and how easily he shifted gears at the drop of a hat—of fucking course, what else did I expect from his grandfather? Where did the dad go so differently? "You're the one who's been giving that idiot a run for his money, I have more to thank you for than you think."

"You don't," Hoku said.

Garp crossed his arms over his muscular chest. "I can't believe that dumb idiot has a cute girl like this hanging around him, who does he think he is? Listen here, Hoku-chan," Hoku grimaced, "you better stay away from that idiot. He's a fool who doesn't know what he's talking about and you can become swell friends with him after he becomes the best damn marine there is to be…"

Garp opened his mouth, as though to ask something, but his eyes landed back on her and he seemed to think better of it. Instead, the towering man leaned forward, hands on his knees and offered her the most charming yet beastly grin imaginable, the same kind of grin Hoku would imagine on a bear or some kind of animal—

"Hoku-chan, I was presumptuous to make such offers. How about we chat and get to know each other over some drinks, eh? I'll buy the snacks and we can talk!"

Hoku stared.

"You got a grandfather?" Garp asked seriously.

Hoku racked her brain, dumbfounded. "Not… really?"

"Great!" Garp boomed. "You can call me Grandpa then! Grandpa Garp. All the kids in town call me that—"

Hoku glanced to Makino for confirmation. The young woman busied herself with dishes behind the counter, humming.

"—and we're already closer than you think if you've been running around with that fool." Garp shook his head. "Damn brat needs to start getting ready for the marines…"

Garp trailed off, staring at her with newfound curiosity.

"You said you've been staying in this village for work?"

"Temp," Hoku said. Makino giggled. "I'm waiting for a ship with a destination I like and then I'm taking off."

Garp rubbed his scruffy chin.

"Say, Hoku-chan, how does a ship with the destination of—"

The doors to Makino's bar swung open, smacking into the walls and smacking back. Luffy stood, in all his glory, shorts and knees dirtied for whatever ungodly reason as his lips parted to bellow for food and he stopped, staring with bulging eyes at his grandfather and Hoku.

"Gramps—" Luffy's eyes dropped to Garp's pants.

Luffy's laugh pierced through the entire village, echoing across the mountains as he fell back and clutched his stomach, tears springing in the corners of his eyes.

"Gramps peed his pants!"


"Tsuru-chan? You look a bit upset today—"

Vice Admiral Tsuru swept past Garp, storming into the head office without a single glance back. Garp blinked in surprise, following after her curiously and ready for any kind of drama she might have to take up with the man of the hour. She ripped the sliding doors open without so much as a knock.

Sengoku's head shot up, lips parting and a rice cracker dropping from his lips onto the papers he'd been working on. "Tsuru-chan! What on earth – you've got to at least knock, even if it's you—"

Tsuru slapped slender, slightly wrinkled fingers onto Sengoku's desk.

The two older men jumped.

"We need to put an end to this," Tsuru said sternly, not leaving a single room for argument in her tone. "This is simply atrocious what we are allowing to happen to these people. Perfectly good, honorable people."

Sengoku's mouth opened to respond and Tsuru slapped several case files onto his desk.

Sengoku's eyes dropped to the familiar colored files, the same color used to mark each issue of the same contents, face dropping. His hand went up to his forehead, trying to smooth out the creases beneath his cap. "I understand, Tsuru-chan, what this might mean to you. But it's not something we can just charge in and change with our own means! It's existed before our power and we're doing all in our power to make sure it doesn't stay after—"

"It's ridiculous," Tsuru said. "It's horrid."

Garp crossed his arms over his chest with a grunt. "Yeah, Sengoku."

Sengoku shot the other man a narrowed look. Don't you start. "Tsuru-chan, if it's about the child you've been expecting…"

Garp spat, choking on his own spit.

"It is not just about that one poor, little girl," Tsuru said resolutely. "It is about all the other children that exist out there and will have to imagine growing up living in fear that they will not be seen as what they are and as nothing more than a commodity with a price tag."

Sengoku's brows creased, heavy. Garp rubbed his throat, staring at his shoes.

"I will also," Tsuru said firmly, "not let that dear woman's daughter become a living ink bottle."

Tsuru crossed her arms stubbornly over her chest, turning away from the two men and storming out of the office. "She can be anything else she wants, but I will make sure she has the choice to do so!"

Sengoku glowered from his desk, calling back after her, "Even a pirate?"

Tsuru huffed, a short, clipped sound as she shot them a sharp look over her shoulder.

"I'll let her burn a whole base down if it means she can be as free as she wants!"

The sliding doors slammed shut behind her.

Sengoku let out a deep, fatigued sigh, rubbing at his eyes as Garp began to snoop through the files.

"Note cute at all, that woman," Sengoku said gravely. "No matter her age. She says all that yet she'd already ordered a uniform just the right size… This is why she shouldn't have trusted this job to a pirate no less, even if he is a warlord…"

Garp ignored his muttering, "Tsuru-chan's expecting? Who's the man?"

Sengoku smashed his fist into the corner of the desk.


  • Case File 4140
  • Increased illegal dealing in the pillaged exports of following goods from Artopoki Island:
  • Ceramic Wares
  • Glass Wares
  • Weapons and Armor
  • Ink
  • People

The second time she met Garp, she didn't actually see Garp.

She saw the mountain of bags and boxes piled high in his arms, prettily decorated and tied off and contemplated how okay she was with being crushed to death by an avalanche of materialistic objects.

"You see," Garp started—she thought it was Garp at least, and not one of the boxes—"One of the pirate ships we bagged, they were hauling tons of these things you see here, lots of boxes of all kinds of stuff. And myself, a hardworking marine, well, I couldn't just let them get away with all this—"

"What were pirates doing with a bunch of girl's clothes?" Luffy said loudly.

Garp's foot shot out with frightening accuracy, knocking his grandson into the dirt without any mercy.

"And, well," Garp set the mountain of items down at his feet. Hoku sized it up, finding it doubled her height as Garp finally appeared over the top, beaming down at her with a wide, shining grin. "I figured, you see, since knew a cute, beautiful girl who could fit these clothes just fine… well, why let them go to waste!"

Hoku wondered if her, her, just turned nine, would be able to understand what might've been happening here without the aid of a mind that was spiritually already several decades older.

Yeah, Hoku thought, staring at all the pretty boxes and Garp's beaming face, grin wide and waiting. Anyone could figure this out.

She had to wonder why Monkey D. Garp never had a daughter.

She glanced at Luffy pulling his head from the dirt.

Some genes are just too strong, I guess.

"See? How about this one here?" Garp rummaged through a bag, pulling free a ribbon and quickly tugging out a pretty sundress the color of sunflowers with a little monkey on the corner. "Isn't this cute? It'll keep you nice and warm, cover you all the way and there's even this jacket to match—"

Hoku defensively set a hand over her bare stomach. Decency be damned in this world anyway, everyone on Artopoki had a style similar to this.

"And look!" Garp pulled out a new pair of what seemed to be athletic pants, soft pink with a ribbon around the waist. "Practical clothes for practical training! How's that? You'd look the cutest and still be able to hold yer own against those swine of men who might want one day to—"

"How's this hat?" Luffy said loudly, popping up from the pile with a sundress hat on his head, a soft cream color and straw in fabric.

Hoku's lips curled into a half smile. She plucked it off his head, "It suits you. But not the right color."

Luffy grinned.

"Mr. Garp," Hoku started.

"Grandpa Garp, missy."

"...Garp," Hoku corrected. Garp grunted, holding up a small blouse with a banana on the front. "I… this is, uh, nice and all, but…"

Hoku tugged at her fraying top. "I like my clothes. I don't really need many pairs."

Garp looked pained, staring at her pants with fabric patches on her knees and her favorite cloak falling apart over her shoulders.

He weakly held up a knitted sweater with half a cat's head sticking out, the other end having its tail.

"Isn't this cute?"

Hoku stared.

Luffy burst out in laughter.

"Hoku's like me, dumb gramps!"

"You're the worst influence, you hoodlum! She's different from you, you hear? It sounds like you need another fist of love—"

In the end, Makino eagerly came to a rushed compromise, urging and somewhat demanding Hoku pick some of the new clothes and they'd work around tailoring it and changing them around to suit her liking more. The cloak and boots stayed, to some people's regret, but she'd at least have some different outfits at her disposal.

Especially come Garp's decision to haul Hoku into the mountains with Luffy, soon enough.


I think it's time for a new one.

Hoku ran her thumb along the sides of the sketchbook. The familiar sound of papers flipping through against her skin echoed through her ears like a soft hum. She gave the sleek cover a pat, binding it back up and tucking into the stack of other filled books.

Mau rested across her lap, a low, breezy hum. Hoku worked to try to make some sense of the mountains of drawings and piles of things she'd pulled free from different surfaces to test. A wooden bird sat perched on the corner, a vial attached to its feet for when she'd try to send it off tomorrow for her first and only customer as a private coater.

I should get a smaller one with more pages this time. Hoku tossed the sketchbook onto the top of the pile, turning on her heel. Thicker, so I can draw more even though the space is limited…

A low rumble filled the small boat shed turned home. Hoku stopped, swinging around on her heel in surprise as the entire stack of sketchbooks came tumbling down with a resounding thud. She winced, stepping back from the seemingly hundreds of papers that'd escaped their loose confines, books from her earliest moments on the island flipped open haphazardly.

Great. Hoku blew a sigh through her lips, gingerly picking her way through and kneeling in the middle of the mess. Maybe I should ask for a spot in the bookshop to store these all…

Luffy would be rushing to meet her soon once he scarfed down his dinner. Makino had called for her to eat something before they set off for another hiking trip, so she didn't really have the time to go through and organize everything right this moment—

Hoku stopped. Corners of books dug a bit into her legs and she shuffled, finding a more comfortable position as she stared at the small stack in front of her.

Several sketchbooks, bound closed for until she felt like looking through them again.

Her sketchbooks from the island.

The ones you grabbed for me. Hoku ran her fingers lovingly down Mau and shuffled closer, pulling one onto her lap. I don't think I've looked at it since then.

She hadn't. Hoku had known they were there, always there. It should've been nice to want to go through it, but she'd never been able to bring herself to do it so easily.

Hoku rapped her knuckles on the smooth, worn down cover.

Manu had given her this one.

Hoku undid the bindings, flipping the cover open.

A thick, heavily bound stack of papers slid out into her lap, brushing against Mau. Hoku frowned, pulling the cover open fully to realize in disbelief that the entire contents of the sketchbook had been ripped out, replaced with the thoroughly bound stack, threaded through with silver and wearing down considerably at the edges…

Someone hid these in here… Hoku started slowly, grabbing the stack of papers in confusion. What are they? Hidden registries so other people could get away

Hoku's fingers stopped.

The thick stack of papers fell back into her lap, Mau humming.

Hoku felt her heart drop six feet below the earth and come rushing back up, trying to slip out of her mouth and explode.

The stack were thoroughly bound. Silver, beautiful threading to give it the qualities of its own book. The edges were worn, hardened with metal clasps so the corners wouldn't give way to the rest of the papers. Glossy, coated over and protected and something Hoku had only ever seen through a pretty glass case in the deepest corners of the temple behind the waterfall—

"It's our greatest treasure," her uncle breathed. "It's our savior."

She heard Manu's laugh and his adoring eyes. The way his fingers would glide across the glass and he'd promise to show it to her one day if she really wanted.

"What," Manu breathed. "Could possibly come next?"

Hoku's eyes rigidly dropped down to the object in her lap.

A soft cacophony of blurred voices reached her ears and Hoku slapped both her hands over her mouth.

"It tells the tale of the greatest adventure ever."

I thought they would've burned you. Hoku couldn't help but think. That asshole and all those other people wanted it for whatever fucking reason enough to burn it all… I thought they would have gotten rid of you so that no one could ever

She thought about Mahina and Manu laughing over the table, less and less lovers and more and more as friends in arms.

Hoku exhaled slowly. She shut her eyes for a second and counted to ten and then gingerly held the book back up into her hands, feeling the aged sides with undeniable curiosity.

"You're treasonous," Hoku told the book, a bit reluctant. "I don't know if you know how much trouble you caused, but I have half a mind to burn you." But I won't because they obviously didn't want that.

And she could only imagine the devastated look on her uncle's face when he realized it was gone and all his poor hard work for legacy gone to waste.

The book seemed to laugh in her hands, gnarled and throaty.

Treasonous. Hoku scoffed, curiously unwinding its latch and opening up the cover. Carefully. You probably tell a map to some awesome treasure. Maybe a secret weapon? Maybe you tell the secrets to the island that no one but the elders knew that could change the world

Hoku's eyes flittered over the title page.

Hoku's hands flew from the book, nearly chucking the precious thing into the furthest corner of her room. Her head smashed backwards in her attempt to scramble away from it, banging loudly into a small dresser. Hoku hissed, clutching her head and then looking up with wild eyes and looking back to the door as though someone else might've seen and she tried to swallow her thumping heart down until Manu reminded them it was just the three.

A girl. A sword. And a book.

"No," Hoku said out loud. "No. No. No."

The book seemed to mutter something back at her, but she sensed more amusement than anything else.

You were made with nothing but love and life.

Hoku counted to twenty this time for good measure before she climbed over the mountain of things and gingerly peeked past the cover.

Hoku slammed the book closed.

She counted to thirty and lifted.

Slam.

The book seemed to threaten her to try it one more time and see what would happen.

Hoku flipped the cover open all the way through.


"Under the urgings of many of the crew, namely that of our first mate, and the carefree indifference of our captain, I have been tasked with the innumerably honorable position of inscribing within here by my hand and by my blood, which will never lie, the tale of the greatest man I have ever met. His crew. And our voyage aboard the Oro Jackson to do what has never been done before.

To sail to the end of the world and see all it has to offer.

We tell this tale not for legacy. Not for boast. Not for fame.

It is as it has always been. Free of all else.

Here lies the tale of the man who would be The King of Pirates

Gol D. Roger


I write the following now, without the knowledge of my crew. I have never had the pleasure to sail with a grander bunch of souls, and wherever our seas shall find us and the winds shall blow, I will remember these days to my last and each life I live, the sweetest of sounds I hear will be nothing but this, here and now.

But if you just hold on, The morning sun will rise.

To another morning.

-H.D.K


A mark was painted beneath the name, curved, unmistakable ink shaped like a sloping wave.

Hoku carefully pressed the cover back down, head bowed.

She stared at the book and it gazed back, as though curious to see what she would do next.

"Maybe," Hoku said, giving the book a fond knock of her knuckles and knowing full well the worst things you could lie to were things themselves, they always seemed to know, "but maybe next time."

The book's pages fluttered. A laugh.


"Hey, Luffy?"

Luffy looked over, face bright with curiosity. Hoku thumbed the book in her grip, feeling the smoothened pages, touching the silky binding along the spine. She turned over her shoulder and stared at Luffy.

He was grinning back at her, hands plunged into the riverbed where he was struggle to fish barehanded.

"If you could read the story about the greatest adventure ever told," Hoku said. "Would you want to see it?"

A bird sang something in the distance. Hoku heard familiar wings beating down closer where the albatross would make his famed appearance, but she had more pressing matters at hand than worrying about that stupid bird.

Luffy made a funny face.

"No, thanks," he said finally. "I'm good."

"Yeah?" Hoku questioned, holding the book against her lap.

"Yeah," Luffy agreed. "I'd rather go on my own adventure first. We can see whose was better at the end of it!"

Hoku let the wind play with her short strands, curling them against her cheeks.

"Of course," Luffy snickered, "mine's going to be the best!"

The albatross clacked its beak together, as though to laugh.

"Best," he cawed her way, "Fool not get burned by sun."

"I'll find you a place," Hoku said to the book, tucking it safely back to where it had been found. "Don't worry."

The pages fluttered, content.


A certain ship finally docked itself amidst Foosha Village's peaceful waves, filled full with the toughest men around, hearty and sturdy and loved by the sea and filled with love for it back.

A certain man stepped off his ship, tipping a certain hat back over his head as he surveyed the peaceful little dock.

He grinned, lips stretching from ear to ear.

"This'll do just fine, men!"

Everything changed from that point on.


I don't wanna see you cry. You don't have to feel, this emptiness. She said "I'll love you till the day that I die."

 

 

Chapter Text

"Come on, Hoku-chan! You don't have to fix it that high up now, it's dangerous up there!"

Hoku grunted. Wind tugged roughly at her hair, slapping short chunks into her eyes and cheeks. She roughly rubbed the side of her face against her shoulder, hand drawn ladder swaying freely against the ship's mast as she struggled to try and draw the final screw into its side so it would hold.

A gathered crew of local fishermen were calling up to her, watching with arms crossed as the ladder rattled. A fierce wind was blowing, bringing in the promise of a chance for rain.

"I'm almost done!" she shouted back. "Just tell Luffy to stay away, he'll end up getting me killed—"

Hoku nearly knocked her head against the mast. Mau seemed to tut against her back.

"On second thought, someone call Luffy over!"

"I really do appreciate your generosity," a man said warmly, walking beside Woop Slap as his crew began to unload and dock. "I swear on my honor as a man of the seas and as a pirate, we won't bring any trouble or harm to this village. We're just looking for a place to stay the night, grab a drink or two and—"

"Yes, well," Woop sniffed, hands behind his back and doing his best to appear the figure of authority as he walked beside the man several heads taller, several leagues stronger, but in no way handsomer than himself. "See to it that it stays that way, or else! I best not see you causing trouble with any of the kind folk here or…"

"You have my word!" red hair like scarlet, crimson and bright against the curve of a sculpted jaw and bright, grinning teeth. "This is a mighty fine village! I noticed that great looking bar in town too…"

"You better not give Makino and Hoku-chan any trouble!" Woop warned sternly. The man was dastardly charming and quiet the talker, but he was still a pirate and he had a town to run after all. "If I hear about anything—"

"My men and I would do no such thing," he promised honestly, grabbing his hat and pressing it to his chest with a bright, blinding smile. "Swear on the seas."

"That's always changing," Woop huffed. "You seem like a fair enough bunch… but pirates from the Grand Line should never be—"

"Come on, get down! You'll kill yourself!"

The mayor clicked his tongue, squinting up as the two stopped in their tracks. The red haired pirate shaded his eyes, peering up at the high mast post and a small figure at its very top. "Who let her get all the way up there?"

"She was insistent about fixing the draw," a fisherman sighed. "Said she could weld it so they wouldn't snap off next time, get down now! Winds are picking up!"

A muffled voice shouted something back, cut off by the wind.

"Call Luffy," another man shouted. "He'll get her down. Girl's always got a death wish, that one."

"Aye! Near tossed herself off the barber's roof fixing the sign."

"You get down, right this instant!" Woop shouted up at Hoku, waving his fist. "You hear me?"

A small face peered down, a brush between her lips. She cupped one hand over her ear, shrugging her shoulders.

"Well, now," the pirate tipped the brim of his hat upwards, smiling. "Who's that up there?"

"Our resident artist," Woop said with a bit of pride and then he scowled. "She's a traveler that ended up here on some godly luck if you ask me. 'Waiting for a ship that suits her fancy' to take off on."

Woop sniffed. "Best she just settle down here, in my opinion."

"Artist?" he peered up, squinting at the small figure. The sun caught off her hair, flickering. "What's an artist doing fixing a ship—"

Sea water splashed up from the side of the ship, nearly soaking the entire deck. The ends of the ladder began to drip ink, slowly falling apart as the entire drawing shuddered at the contact. A man shouted in alarm, the mast post groaning as a fierce wind rocked the entire ship and—

"Shit!" Hoku's fingers slipped on the ladder, missing the hook by a hair. Her eyes snapped open, rough wind whipping past her face and whistling through her ears, sharp and slicing. I'm falling.

"Hoku!"

"She's gonna bash her brains out!" a fisherman shouted, shoving aside crates and a crowd rushed forward. "Hoku-chan—"

Ah, shit. Hoku shut her eyes, tucking her brush safely against her chest and pulling Mau around so he wouldn't snap on impact. I don't know how I'm going to explain this one

The air rushed out of Hoku's lungs. Her back collided with sturdy, firm arms. The smell of the sea and the sun washed over her, twirling together and rushing past her face. Hoku's heart nearly jumped from her chest, mind racing as she realized no, she hadn't just bashed her brains out on the deck below her and died.

The brim of a hat fluttered with a rough breeze. Salt brushed at her cheeks, a warm smell pushing past her.

Hoku's eyes slowly traveled upwards, following strong, muscular arms to a sun kissed face and bright, shining eyes like chips of silver. Hair like scarlet or apples. A white, billowy shirt opened up to reveal a toned chest and a black cape hanging over broad shoulders—

Oh. Hoku's brain short circuited. A thousand thoughts suddenly raced through, vying for top priority. Someone in the back of her brain screamed in alarm, smashing a table with a memory and reminding her what the person standing before her, catching her in his arms and saving her from his death meant about a faraway timeline and that she should be screaming her head off but—

A single, traitorous, but undeniably human thought shoved to the forefront of her mind, dazzling and blazing.

Oh. Hoku thought dazedly. It's you.

The man who'd just robbed her of losing another life grinned, charming in this roguish way. His arms curled around her, holding her steady while Woop gaped beside them, spluttering.

"Well, now," his voice had this sweet sort of rumble to it, light like the sun and just as warm, "did this dove forget how to fly?"

Hoku probably should've been freaking out about numerous things.

But

Her heart gave a traitorous little flutter.

What a man.


She couldn't help herself.

It was a thought she'd had in her previous life and it was a thought that only followed into this life, seeing him real and in the flesh.

"Red Haired" Shanks, soon to be or currently one of the four emperors of the New World, was hot.


Hoku got the news from Makino.

Even though she knew faintly that these men would be spending close to around a year in their village, eventually making it a temporary sort of base for their excursions back and forth to the Grand Line, realizing what it meant in terms of time in a sense, of where she stood amidst a grander tale was daunting.

And even if seeing the famed crew and characters up close was undeniably tempting, even for her, the promise of being wiser and staying away was even more tempting. Best not to get too involved. Best not to make too much noise or ripple an ocean she never intended on sailing.

Luffy was already one gamble she'd decided to take. There was no need for more.

After her slip up at the docks, she made steep, bounding efforts to steer clear of their path. The excuse was reasonable—a bunch of pirates in their village? Nothing wrong with pretending she was like a few of the others being a bit wary of their presence. A nine year old girl going out of her way to avoid some big scary pirates wasn't out of the ordinary at all.

Hoku made sure to take all the right jobs for Makino that would keep her out of the bar when they were there. Skirted the docks when they were in and out of their ship. Kept close to the parts of town they wouldn't be—weirdly difficult because these men were explorers by nature, they trekked all over town and peeked into shops and chatted up the locals like the charismatic band of sea loving fools they were and she could see how easily the town was falling just as kindly in love with them back, if not only a bit hesitant.

There's a reason you guys are so strong. Hoku mused. In more than one sense. She needed to be careful with this one.

Her biggest problem was, of course and always—

Luffy.


It didn't take much for the two of them to meet.

Whether it was some fate beyond their control or something inexplicable in the way they were, the two were drawn together like magnets.


Hoku could see it the instant Luffy laid eyes on the man and his infamous straw hat, eyes turning round like stars at the sight of the pirate crew in front of him.

Hoku carefully sneaked out of the way, pretending to busy herself with helping the fishmonger's wife, Chicken, bring in a new batch.

"You guys are real pirates?" Luffy exclaimed, loud and undaunted.

She could see it too, the same instant Shanks laid eyes on Luffy and something seemed to twist in the air.

A meeting that would change this world.

A breathtaking smile twisted over Shanks' lips.

"Aye, and what's it to you, anchor?"

Luffy's entire face lit up.

"You go on amazing adventures?"

Shanks' grin turned wider.

"Only the most amazing."

Luffy seemed to see stars.

"Freer than anyone else?" he demanded.

And there, Hoku realized, is where it happens.

Shanks' eyes lit up and he turned fully to the boy, hat fluttering over his head and cape billowing around his legs.

"Only," Shanks said. "The freest."


Luffy became as infatuated as one could get with the infamous crew.

Day in and day out, he was rushing to the docks, speeding to Makino's bar, and demanding stories. Chatting them up as easily as anything else. Weaving in and out between their legs and following right at Shanks' heels as he talked and talked and asked and asked. He drank in their stories and breathed their experiences like air. Shanks rattled at him, knocked him around, teased him and played along all in good fun, often telling him he was a nuisance or to scram before they tossed him out in a barrel into the ocean.

Given though, the crew seemed just as taken with him.

"You don't seem very interested in those pirates, Hoku-chan."

Hoku shrugged. Luffy was out by the docks, probably bothering the crew again before they'd make their way back to the bar and Hoku was already finishing up her work here to get some more drawings in and maybe help the baker with a new poster he wanted to make.

"Just pirates," Hoku said, inspecting the mug in her hands for any dents. "They'll come and go."

Makino looked amused, "You're not interested in any of those stories they have to tell? They're quite the group."

Hoku shrugged again, "I'll live."

Makino hummed. Hoku busied herself with a new mug, contemplating giving it a new face lift.

"Are you lonely without Luffy?"

Hoku tried to pretend the mug crashing onto the countertop was intentional. She difficulty played it off as setting it down roughly to beat a dent out of it. Makino had a hand pressed to her cheek, looking clearly interested by the entire ordeal.

"No," Hoku said, trying her damnedest to make it seem as true as possible. And it was. It really, really was. Honestly. Without a doubt. "It's nice, getting a breather from him."

Makino's eyes shone playfully, "He's not the type to forget his friends, you know."

Hoku grunted.

"And the captain's a very nice man," Makino added. "The whole group of them are quite fun, despite how rowdy they get sometimes."

Hoku made a face.

"Besides," Makino said kindly. "I'm going to need your help in this bar at some point. More mouths to feed and mugs to fill, you know."

Hoku looked grim.

"Just better," Hoku said offhandedly. "Not to get too wrapped up in all this. I mean, they'll just leave anyway."

Makino seemed to consider her justification for a moment.

"You could always just see them again."


Hoku considered herself a pretty damn good gambler.

It might have been a bit of an addiction.

She hadn't counted on, however, the wild card that was always Luffy.

And the man who had already sat himself at the other end of the table, a hand of his own at work as curious eyes constantly followed the flash of white hair peeking in and out of town, just out of his reach, like a bird he hadn't been sure of ever landing.

And as always, pirates were and eternally so, always drawn to strange things just out of reach that whispered something new.


"HOOOOOKKKUUUU!"

Hoku almost smiled. Almost. Because she hadn't missed hearing her name shouted that way at all. It was just a reminder that there was something Luffy was probably trying to bother her with since the pirates turned him away again and he wanted her to go on some wild goose chase…

The dirt made raccoon at her heels snickered. She scowled down at the thing, motioning for it to help her keep the sign in her hands propped up.

"What's up?" Hoku questioned easily, keeping her eyes focused on the work of rearranging the baker's new sign. "Did they chase you off again?"

"Nope!" Luffy said. She heard his sandals slapping, coming around to her side as he grinned hugely. "I've been looking for you, ya know! You're running all over the place. Don't make it so hard."

Hoku snorted. She muttered at the raccoon to lift it more to the left and it rolled its eyes, standing on the tip of its paws.

"Are you almost done?" Luffy pressed.

"No," Hoku said.

"When will you be done?"

"Never."

"Liar!"

Hoku rolled her eyes. The raccoon snickered. "What did you have in mind after this? Eating?"

"Benn said he'd show me how good of a shot he was!"

"Aye, but nothing compared to our marksman, you know."

Hoku dropped the sign, head whipping around so fast she nearly smacked into Luffy standing ridiculously close. The raccoon squeaked, straining to hold onto the sign so it wouldn't crash into the floor and ruin all their hard work.

Loose hair curled low against his neck, tied off. Smoke trailed lazily in curls up into the sky, cigarette hanging from the corner of his lips as he offered Hoku a low smile, eyes skimming over her curiously.

Keep your cool. Hoku reasoned, rubbing her cheek as Luffy complained loudly at her side. It's just the first mate. Just keep your cool.

"Hello, miss," he said, shifting the long gun strapped to his hip as though to tip a hat. "Benn Beckman. I'm part of that pirate crew that's been terrorizing this village."

"Ah, uh," Hoku said dumbly. "Hi."

"Her name's Hoku!" Luffy said proudly.

"Hoku," Hoku echoed, wiping her paint stained palm quickly on her pant leg and sticking the small appendage out. "Nice to meet you."

"I already said your name, dummy," Luffy said.

"It's mine so I've got to say it," Hoku said. "Thanks for putting up with him. I know he can be a bother."

"Our captain seems a bit taken with him," Benn said. His large hand clasped tightly over hers, giving it a swift shake. She could feel callouses that lined his palms and fingers. Work. History. A scar over his knuckles, thin. "It's no problem by me. You're that funny friend of his he's always going on and on about."

Hoku looked at him as though he'd suddenly started speaking Pokian, "Huh?"

"Luffy," Benn nodded to the boy who was already making faces at the raccoon she'd brought to life, running circles around it as it hissed at him with no real threat. "Or anchor, as our captain's taken to calling him. Can't swim much to save his life, can he?"

"He talks about me?" Hoku questioned, not sure if she was feeling the urge to vomit or something funnier.

"Always going on about a friend of his with hair like clouds who's been avoiding him lately and all the exploits you two get up into," Benn withdrew his cigarette, exhaling a long train of smoke away from the both of them before he put out the butt beneath his heel. "You're the little bird our captain caught on the first day, aren't ya?"

Hoku opened her mouth, closed it, and answered reluctantly, "Yes. Thanks for that. By the way."

Benn looked faintly amused. "I'm not the one you ought to be thanking, aye?"

Hoku made a face.

The raccoon finally let out a snarl of protest, thumping its tail rapidly against the floor. Luffy laughed, holding onto the sign as the thing began to chatter away, lecturing her for leaving it standing her like some kind of slave and yada yada yada

"I get it," Hoku said to it, stooping down and grunting as she hauled the sign over her head. Benn raised a brow. "I've got it, see? Happy now?"

"Stupid," the raccoon huffed. "Stupid. You stupid."

Luffy cackled, "It called you stupid!"

"What is that strange thing?" Benn inquired. He crouched down, hand resting on his gun lazily. "A raccoon?"

"It's Hoku's!" Luffy said eagerly. "Hoku can draw all kinds of stuff and make it pop. They're always real funny to play with!"

"You don't say?" Benn questioned.

Bad attitudes more like. Hoku strained, hobbling for a second as she pressed the signboard into the wall. A steady hand appeared over her head, holding onto the tops of the sign and she quickly pinned it in place, weaseling out under Benn's arms. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it," the first mate leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. Benn examined the sign, rubbing his chin.

A beaming raccoon held a tray of steaming hot loaves, mimicking the one now looking proud at her feet. Hoku gave it a small nod and the dirt raccoon shuffled into place, settling in front of the bakery and grinning wide.

"Return."

Light faded from the raccoon's eyes. A small little ball, white like dandelion fluff fluttered from its chest and slipped back into Hoku without another word. She gave its head a fond pat, smoothing the dirt to make sure it'd hold. "Thank you."

"Thanks!" Luffy echoed, patting its head as well.

"Devil fruit powers on a little thing like you?" Benn hummed, a low sound, a bit thoughtful. "You made this yourself?"

Hoku huffed, chest inflating a bit. "I make almost all the signs around here. I've been reforming and recrafting plenty of the stuff in this town—it's gotta be done just right and with a good eye, you know."

Luffy snickered, "You just like drawing."

Hoku's arm snagged around his neck, throttling him in a chokehold. Luffy gagged out curses, beating at her arms and struggling to break free. You ain't got a devil fruit yet so you're not so tough right now, are ya? Maybe she could condition him to be used to this so no matter how strong this ferocious boy got, he'd always be weak to a punch or two from a strong enough gal.

Hoku snorted. Not like I'll be around long enough for that. Might as well enjoy it while I can.

"It's well done," Benn praised, focusing more on the way the fine lines had been inked. He rubbed at the paint, not a single glossy piece or particle chipping off. "You take all kinds of jobs?"

"Muh odd wones," Hoku said. Luffy managed two fingers into her mouth, hooking her cheek and tugging it roughly as she pulled at his eyes and grabbed his nose.

"Interested in a job that'll take some guts?" Benn inquired absently.

Hoku and Luffy both looked up in interest, hands pulling at every available corners of their faces.

"What kind of job?" Hoku shoved Luffy's face aside and he squawked.

"Oh, it'll take a real skilled hand," Benn traced the outline of a grinning face on her sign, glancing down to her. "Talented work. Think you can handle it?"

"Hoku can handle anything!" Luffy shouted.

Hoku twirled her brush between her fingertips. Luffy looked up eagerly from the floor.

"What's the prize?"

Benn's lips tugged up into a bit of a grin.

"A hearty meal on us?"

"Deal!" Hoku and Luffy chorused together.

Hoku smacked Luffy's head. "You're not doing anything, freeloader!"

"Hey, I brought him to ya!"


She should've been smarter about this.

Honestly? What else could she have been thinking? The first mate of a pirate ship asking about her handiwork and inspecting the way she painted banners—was she really that big of an idiot?

"So cool!" Luffy gaped, rushing to and fro about the ship, jumping over crates and trying to climb up the mast. "So cool! The ship is so huge! So cool!"

Men around her laughed. Burly and sea hardened, wide grins on their faces as one of them snatched Luffy from clambering up the top of the dragon shaped post at the bow of the ship. "I like that spot! I wanna sit there!"

Hoku stood amidst the heart of the Red Haired Pirates.

On their ship.

Tasked with the job of repainting their flag.

Hoku worked hard to keep her face neutral, trying to save it from looking as though she'd bitten into another devil fruit or eaten something sour. Or melons. Or cucumbers.

Hoku, you fucking idiot. Stop thinking with your stupid ass stomach.

"Where'd you go and pick up this cutie?" a crewmate hollered from the top deck of the ship. A chorus of chuckles rose up beside him. "Little flower doesn't belong in this mess of beasts!"

"She's Luffy's friend," another man called. "Far more welcome anytime then him, I'd say on the eyes."

"Hey!" Luffy shouted. "Hoku's my friend first!"

"Well, if it's Benn making the calls then there's gotta be good to it, aye?" Hoku turned, eyeing the familiar, older face as he grinned, cross legged atop a barrel. You're his dad. "Painting a pirate flag is serious business though, little miss. You're painting the heart of our ship!"

"You might be counted a criminal!" a larger, rounded man cheered. He bit roughly into a chicken leg and Luffy's mouth watered at the sight, small goggles perched onto his eyes. "Yasopp, bring it out!"

Benn blew smoke away from them, leaning against the side of the ship. "How's she looking?"

Yasopp grimaced. He hopped off the barrel of potatoes and pulled free a heavy stack of thick black fabric, carefully unfolding it. The flag flapped outwards with a loud billow, settling all around her as the crew cleared the deck, working without a word, in sync, seamless. Luffy nearly sent them both toppling onto the sleek wood floors, peering over her shoulder and under her arm and gaping at the sight.

Sleek black fabric. Pristine white etched into the heavy canvas, curving arches, glittering cutlasses behind the skull and a bright red brand crossed through the face—

"What happened?" Hoku couldn't help the anguish in her voice, accusation in her eyes as she stared in disbelief at the gathered men around her. Her crafter's soul lamented somewhere in a corner, every cell in her body Artopoki born and raised and she could feel how painful it was to look at this beautiful flag—

And stare at the ragged, ugly rip right down its left side, as though someone had gone for the heart of the flag and smeared their own blood over it to boot.

The entire ship of New World class pirates suddenly looked sheepish. Yasopp dragged the tip of his shoe along the deck, the other crew member continued to eat solemnly, eyes all turned away from her accusing stare and Luffy blinked curiously under her arm, staring at the flag.

Benn exhaled, smoke curling around his face, shaking his head.

"We ran into an unruly bunch, see," Yasopp started, a bit defensive. "Real nasty brats who didn't know what they were doing on the Grand Line. They thought they could take our captain's head so we set them in their place since they wanted a fight so bad—"

"And rotten kids went after the flag before we even realized it!" another crew member piped up, looking like a child trying to explain why it was the neighbor's kid and not him who broke the bike. "The flag! Our flag! What kind of pirate—"

"A terrible thing," another man said.

"Aye! We beat their asses and sent them running home with their tails between their legs!"

"We couldn't help it!"

"It caught us off guard…"

"Lucky Roo felt so bad he didn't eat that night!"

He nodded in agreement, rubbing his bulging belly sadly.

Hoku shot them all a look of disbelief.

Several heads turned away from her, rearranging crates and whistling offhandedly.

"We were supposed to get it fixed at the next town we stopped," Benn explained behind her. "But our captain has been particularly picky about it this time. It's gotta be just right or else."

"I see," Hoku grunted, crossing her arms over her chest. Mau laughed, curling with interest toward the collective mass of lively bodies around them. Luffy snickered at her side. "You poor thing…"

"Right?" Lucky Roo said.

Hoku stared pointedly at the flag.

Yasopp tossed a potato at his head.

"Can you fix it?" Benn inquired. "Or will we need a new one?"

"Starting over on a new fabric would definitely be easier," Hoku said, rubbing her head for a moment before she hummed, beginning to make a wide circle around the flag. Several men jumped back, stepping out of her way with Luffy following importantly at her heels. "But if you're intent on keeping this one—"

"We are!" they chorused in anguish.

Benn inclined his head.

"I can make something work," Hoku muttered.

"Shishishi, are you gonna do the thing?" Luffy asked eagerly, hair tickling her cheek from how close he stood.

"A little different," Hoku shoved his face away, but not too far. "Can you hold Mau for me, please?"

Luffy's eyes lit up. His hands shot out instantly. Hoku gingerly slipped Mau from her back, settling him in Luffy's hands where he gripped the sword tightly and firmly to his chest. The safest spot she could ever leave it. Hoku used the scarf she used for Mau to push her bangs back, tying it around her head.

A case of jars tied around her waist clinked together. Hoku felt along the top of each before pulling out three different jars, colored paint sloshing around inside. She weaseled her brush out from the tool belt as well, tugging her carving knife and making sure the tip she wanted was just right before she tucked her brush behind her ear and settled onto her knees before the massive flag.

It rippled slightly with the wind, almost solemnly.

Yasopp quickly grabbed a crate and two other men followed, weighing down the corners without even being asked. The gathered bunch of men, tripled and doubled her size, all peered over shoulders, watching curiously and with almost childish fascination as she knelt beside their flag.

Luffy continued to grin, bright as the sun beside her, Mau warm in his hands.

You're a good flag. Hoku dragged a finger down the thick fabric, feeling it curl under her touch. I'll do you just right, don't worry.

Benn leaned back behind her, glancing over his shoulder at something before he crossed his arms over his chest with a small grin.

Hoku fingered her braid along the side of her head with a bit of regret. You'll grow back. She untangled the wine colored ribbon. Luffy shuffled forward eagerly, sandals slapping and she gave it to him to wrap around Mau's hilt for now, overlapping the silver fabric.

"Can I get a bowl?" Hoku asked.

"Get her a bowl!"

Hoku stared at the loud clamor, watching as one man nearly tripped and another came shooting from behind a door, holding a wide rimmed bowl in his hands and he tossed it to another. Lucky Roo quickly set it down beside her, stepping back and chewing on the bone of the chicken leg nervously.

Hoku held her braid in one hand, reaching up with her carving knife.

She sliced it clean.

Choppy locks fell against the side of her head, tickling her ear. Hoku set the braid down onto the area where the flag had been torn, ignoring the jerky motions and surprised gasps from the men around her.

Luffy made an eager noise of interest.

"Hair?" Yasopp squawked.

"Her pretty hair..." another man mumbled.

Hoku smoothed her strands over the rip, spreading it evenly. She tugged her brush out and pressed her carving knife into her palm.

"Blood?"

"You've seen blood before, shut up you idiot!"

Hoku let a steady amount drip onto the scattered strands before she ripped off a piece of her shirt and tied it over her palm. Hoku spread the blood carefully over her hair against the tear, watching it with soft eyes and feeling the fabrics and pieces of material slowly come together.

"Her blood's disappearin' or am I going crazy?"

"You're crazy."

"B-But it's gone!"

"You all act like you've never seen crazier things out there!"

Luffy shifted impatiently behind her. Hoku pressed the threads of hair deeper into the flag, counting to nine.

A sea of startled, man-ish grunts and gasps fell over the deck of the ship.

Hoku gave the newly stitched, completely brand new looking fabric a soft pat.

A chorus of cheers nearly made her eardrums bleed.

"It's fixed!"

"Our lovely lady flies one more time—"

"Bust out the sake, she's healed!"

"Someone call—"

Hoku grunted, ignoring the loud stomping of boots and ear splitting whoops. Luffy seemed almost caught up in the excitement behind her, eyes still darting to her back and watching her work as he shifted around her, moving from left to right.

"She ain't done yet," Benn said simply. The entire ship fell silent, stopping mid-cheer.

Hoku gingerly dipped a brush into the jar of white paint, shifting carefully around the skull and giving the entire thing a brand new coat. She followed the lines of whoever had etched them in before her, carefully curving around sloped bones until she dipped the brush in red and finally lathered on the final touches to make the flag look as though it were brand new.

Hoku flicked her brush to the side, wiping it off the corner of her shirt. She tucked it back behind her ear, undoing the scarf around her head and tugging it down around her neck.

"There," Hoku said, leaning back with a small smile. "Done."

The cheers broke out in renewed fervor. Yasopp shoved at a man to keep him from stepping on the flag, laughing loudly as they all began to rush about, crying out as though someone had gone and told them they'd each become king of the pirates.

"It looks awesome!" Luffy shouted besides her, shoving against her shoulder and Hoku couldn't help the widening of her lips, their cheer infectious. "Hoku's the best! Yahoo!"

Hoku sat back on her ankles, touching the fast drying paint to make sure to was good to go and she huffed, rather proud of herself. "There you go, Mr. Firstmate—"

Hoku stopped, voice catching in her throat.

"Captain!" Yasopp shouted. "Look at her, all brand new and beautiful! Like the first day we got her!"

"Brand-spanking-new!"

"Pour us all a mug, boys!"

Benn exhaled, a trail of smoke curling lazily against his cheek. His lips curled upwards at the corners.

Sunlight turned his red hair scarlet.

"See, Shanks?" Luffy demanded, holding Mau up like a trophy as he grinned, running around Hoku and nearly leaping into the air. "Hoku's always the best! It's gotta be her!"

His eyes drew themselves over his flag several times, getting brighter and brighter each run. His lips curled into one of the brightest grins she'd ever seen, enough to give Luffy a run for his money, for now at least.

"Well, dove," Shanks said, "it looks like you've gone and fixed my heart for me."

Hoku swallowed.

Shanks' grin split half his face. He tipped his head back, not even bothering to cup his hands over his mouth as he bellowed, "We drink tonight, boys! To our resumed journey as pirates once more!"

"Aye!"

"You know," Shanks said almost breathlessly, turning back to her with shining eyes. "I've always wanted my own jolly roger to be made by a Pokian."

Hoku went carefully still.

"The best flag I ever flew under was Pokian made, and there's nothing like—ah, get off me you fool!" Shanks laughed, shoving several men aside and grabbing someone's shoulder to shove him off toward a barrel of sake. "Come on! Let's take this party back to the—"

Shanks stopped. He blinked once, eyes wide in surprise. His head turned left, then right, then left once more and then dropped back to the ground.

Empty.

Shanks lifted his cape, checking at his heels.

Benn lightly slapped his shoulder. "Gone and flown off, cap'n. Perhaps you scared her away with all that hollering."

Hoku had already slipped away.

"But even Luffy's gone!" Shanks exclaimed, turning around once more for good measure. "Was it something I said?"

Benn lit a new cigarette, clicking his lighter shut.


"Hey, Hoku!"

"Mmm," Hoku mumbled back, running her fingers through her newly cut hair, feeling the soft tendrils and wondering if she should try to keep it like this or ask Makino to even it out. Luffy was following easily at her heels, Mau still wrapped in his arms.

"You don't like Shanks?"

Hoku stopped in her tracks.

She pressed a fist to her mouth, contemplating her answer. Luffy was ridiculously adept at being able to read through the littlest of signs when it mattered, and he was also ridiculously an idiot and willing to believe almost anything.

"No," Hoku said slowly. "It's not that."

Luffy held Mau in his hands.

"Then why don't ya wanna hang around?"

Hoku gambled on honesty.

"I just feel like my life will be easier if I don't," Hoku said.

Luffy tipped his head to the side. Hoku rubbed the back of her neck and shrugged, turning around to face him. "'s just this feeling—"

"You think too much." Luffy said. "You need to just do stuff more."

Hoku tackled him to the ground, trying to throttle him despite his obscene laughter and hands batting playfully at her shoulders, trying to wrestle her into a hug with Mau between them.

"Last time I ever try being honest with an idiot like you—"

"You're the idiot, shishishi!"


Hoku realized, dangerously, that saying no to Luffy was a very, very hard thing.

She should've realized then, that saying no the man who resembled him so strikingly, should've been just as hard.


"I heard I could get a good coating from the pretty lady who works in this bar," Shanks said sweetly, leaning an elbow onto the countertop.

Luffy would pay.

Makino raised a brow. Hoku continued to polish the tray of mugs in front of her, inspecting them for any chips and making a mental note to show the glass blower at the end of town a way to do it with a bit of soot so they'd echo sweetly. Shanks continued to smile, not the least bit deterred as he watched her work.

His fingers slowly tiptoed across the counter, growing dangerously close to her arm.

Hoku swatted his hand away with a towel. Shanks grinned and Makino sighed, looking amused.

"I'm not sure about coating," Hoku said flatly. "But Makino's seafood fried rice is killer."

"I'd love to have one of those too, please," Shanks added to Makino with a smile. The young woman raised her hands up, shaking her head as she slipped into the kitchen and Hoku followed her enviously. Should I just leave? "Hopefully while I get a little estimate of how much it would take for me to have my sword tuned by a skilled, beautiful little lady?"

Hoku narrowed her eyes, "And where'd you hear about this coating from?"

Hoku's fingers stopped briefly, eyes growing round. Ah, no way. Could it be that they met before he came here and

"Luffy started spouting some kind of weird nonsense about you and swords," Shanks said. "I put it together from there."

Never mind, Luffy was the one who was going to get it.

Hoku set a new glass down and reached for another. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Come on, now, dove," Shanks coaxed. "I promise I won't tell a soul if that's what you're worried about. You did such a grand job with my flag, I know you gotta be magic with those hands at the sword then—"

Hoku bit down on the boastful pride that threatened to escape and swallowed it whole. "You seem awful fixated on Pokian works."

"I'm a fan!" Shanks said, looking surprised. "A true admirer, you know! I used to sail with a man from Artopoki and he always told the best stories. I just made the little connection when I saw how good you were with your hands."

"It wasn't the hair?" Hoku said flatly.

Shanks tutted at her, looking amused. "There's more to it than just hair."

Makino hummed a little louder.

"You know, I get what this is," Shanks said suddenly. He straightened up from the counter, turning to face her fully and he offered her a hand, lips curling into a wide, charming smile. "I'm Shanks, lovely dove. Captain of the Red Haired Pirates. Could you do me the honor of that lovely name? And the price I have to pay to have my sword coated by those wonderful hands?"

"Ten million beli," Hoku said.

"Ten million—" Shanks slapped his hand over his mouth. He eyed Hoku over the top of his fingers, watching her suspiciously.

Hoku continued to clean the glasses. Mau sat on the counter beside her, ringing with laughter.

"Alright then."

The glass slipped from Hoku's hands. Her jaw dropped, nearly smacking into the counter as she almost toppled from her chair.

Shanks caught the glass with his pinky, just by the handle. He twirled it in his hand, grinning wide from ear to ear and Hoku turned to him with narrowed eyes. "You would not pay that ridiculous amount just for your sword—"

"I'd pay any amount to have quality work done by a quality lady, Ten million beli-chan," Shanks said sweetly. He waggled his brows, setting the glass down and tipping it from side to side. "Are you prepared for when I bring you that money, dove?"

Hoku scowled. Shanks tutted. "Come on, that's no face to make—"

She had a sweet voice, sultry and lovely. Hoku listened for a few seconds to the ringing laughter and hopped off the stool, throwing her hand in a carefree motion over her shoulder at Shanks.

"I'll coat it if you want, but you better stop sneaking meals in the middle of the night. There's crumbs on your coat and it sticks to your stubble."

Shanks almost bumped into the barstool beside him. His sword missed the edge of the counter by a hair and he whirled around, shoving his hat up over his head as he gaped after her. "How did you—"

Hoku shrugged carelessly, doors swinging shut behind her.


"Come now, lovely little dove," her voice crooned. "Won't you play with us?"


"You seem very interested in our Hoku-chan," Makino said lightly, restacking the mugs.

Shanks beamed over the counter. "She's a funny little thing, that one. Plays harder to get then Luffy but just as fun to tease."

Makino hummed, "Not because of anything else?"

Shanks laughed, patting the counter. "Come on, Makino-chan, I'm no monster! Just having a little fun is all. Something about her makes me want to rough her around a bit, you know? All in good fun."

"Is it the hair?" Makino teased idly.

Shanks grinned, drumming his fingers over the counter.

"You know, it's a funny thing," Shanks admitted. "Sorta like… like I won't quite find a little thing like herself anywhere else. Is that it?"

Makino inspected her countertop, satisfied with her work before she responded, simply.

"Have fun as much as you'd like, but Hoku-chan is my precious employee so if I hear anything from her, you'll have to find yourself a new bar."

"Aw, come on, Makino-chan, I mean no harm."

"Luffy won't stand for much either, you know."

"And I—that anchor? What's he got to do with Ten million beli-chan?"

"She's also nine."

"I—what's that supposed to mean?"

Makino hummed.


"Does a beautiful lady like you know how to use that?"

Mau was laid lovingly across her lap. Her fingers were covered in the Pokian coating used on swords, running smooth fingers up and down his blade without a single cut. Sun caught off the pretty color of the ore he was forged from and Hoku sighed loudly through her nose, willing Luffy to come running back with the dog she'd brought to life for him any minute now.

They always love him, traitors. Hoku glanced over her shoulder.

Shanks flashed her a charming grin, leaning up against a barrel and watching her work.

Hoku looked back at Mau without another word, missing the way Shank's lips turned down into a pout.

A sultry laugh rang through her ears, amused. Mau shifted with the breeze, faintly intrigued.

"It's a beautiful sword," Shanks tried again, taking easy strides from the barrel to the log she sat on.

Hoku's chest puffed with pride. Her chin rose up a bit and she felt her lips curl upwards, fingers running up and down Mau's side with care. "You're damn right it is—only one of the best! He's made with the best freaking care and he's her favorite sword no matter what she says—"

Hoku stopped.

Shanks grinned like an idiot beside her.

"Go onnnnn."

Hoku stood up from her spot. She adjusted the sash around her waist, sliding Mau back into his sheath with a soft click. "Sorry, I'm just about finished here."

"Aw, come on, dove," Shanks crooned. "Give a man an inch. You're always giving me the cold shoulder, was it something I said?"

"You're fine," Hoku said.

Shanks rubbed his chin, brushing past a bit of stubble. "Is it cause I'm a pirate?"

I just think you're too important for your own good and Luffy is enough and I'd rather not get caught up in anything with you no matter how damn handsome you are. "Gloomy swordsmen are more up my alley. Luffy can love you enough for the both of us."

Shanks looked confused for a moment, muttering to himself her own words and looking strangely unsettled. Hoku used that moment to get several steps past him.

A soft click settled in the air.

Mau thrummed to life against her back.

Hoku turned over her shoulder in disbelief as that same, sultry laugh filled the air around them.

Shanks' hand rested on the hilt of his sword, having inched it up just enough to show the blade. Her voice crooned the same as his, coaxing the two of them just a little closer. If they so much as dared.

"Come on, dove," Shanks' eyes glittered mischievously, "say the two of us have ourselves a little wager?"

Hoku's ears pricked at the words. She kept her feet rooted to the ground. Hoku swallowed, unable to help the faint interest at what the Red Haired Shanks could possibly be so interested in trying to gain from her that'd he'd offer a wager. Then again, this man was currently or would soon be the strongest out there on the Grand Line, he could muse and do as he wished.

What could I get out of it?

Reasonably, the clear answer should be no. Didn't matter what Shanks had up his sleeve, if it even so much as involved their swords, the leagues between them were as far as the Grand Line. Hoku didn't stand a chance. Pirate though he was, Shanks didn't seem like the type to swindle, especially from anyone he might remotely like, and he might be a trickster but—

There had to be a chance for her to win, otherwise he never would've offered.

"What's your game?" Hoku said warily.

Shanks' eyes sparkled, "Luffy said you liked to gamble."

Luffy, I'm so kicking your ass after this. You and your dumbass, big mouth

"Maybe," Hoku said.

Shanks grinned. He slid his sword back into place with a soft click. His hand reached up and he pulled his beloved hat off his head, setting it down on a cut log beside them. "Say this, you use whatever means you'd like, and if you can get me to draw my sword, it's your win. I'll do whatever you'd like."

Hoku waited. Shanks' smile widened, as though in approval.

"If win, and I can do so by either you giving up or," Shanks nodded to the wine colored ribbon she'd used to tie off uneven strands in a little bunch to the side of her head. "I snatch that pretty thing, then I get something in return, alright?"

"Don't you have seas to be sailing or treasure to be finding?" Hoku questioned.

"There's treasure to be found everywhere," Shanks grinned.

Say no. Say no. Say no. It's not worth it. There's nothing from him you could possibly want

"Deal," Hoku said.

Shanks clapped his hands together, face lighting up. Hoku quickly took two steps back, resting her left hand on Mau's hilt as Shanks rocked back onto his sandaled feet. His eyes were alight with mirth, hands resting easily at his sides. "Alright, dove, look alive—"

"On guard!" Hoku called.

Shanks' eyes bulged from his head.

Mau's draw was swift, like a breeze. Hoku raced forward, leaping into the air. Her hand shifted along his hilt and she swung, an arch billowing like a sharp slash several feet away. Shanks' eyes shone brightly and he merely stepped to the side, dodging the swipe. "Well! Dove, you've got more in you than I expected—whoa!"

Hoku kept her feet light, sliding across the ground and rushing forward with Mau drawn close to her chest. Shanks' face twisted into something funny, a strange, unsettled look of similarity flickering through his eyes. Hoku almost laughed, using a rock as a push off and launching herself one more time into the air, curving with the movement and bringing Mau down straight upon him so he'd have to defend.

Mau collided almost harmlessly into his raised arm. Hoku's eyes widened. Fuck, you idiot— Shanks' eyes peered from beneath his sleeve, glittering mischievously.

She felt fingers brush against the side of her cheek.

Hoku jerked her face downwards, tucking her chin in and using Mau to almost slide off against his arm. She stumbled back a step, nearly catching her foot on a rock. Hoku steadied herself and gave Shanks a quick look.

"Why the rush?" Shanks laughed, eyes flickering darkly as his lips curled into a grin. "We've got plenty of time, dove."

Hoku twirled Mau once in her hand, catching him in the middle and holding him out before her. Shanks suddenly looked as though he'd seen a ghost.

I can't get him on even terms of a sword fight. Hoku felt along the soft earth with her boot. Play dirty? He might see right through that too…

Hoku let out a soft noise of annoyance. My stupid mouth, how're you going to see yourself outta this one?

Shanks arched one brow, lips curling up at the edges.

"Is it my turn?"

Hoku balked.

He stood there before her, for just a moment. His cape billowed out at his feet, curling at the edges. Shanks grinned.

And then he was gone.

Mau whispered in her ear the same moment she felt fingers graze her ear.

Hoku lunged forward. A foot came out, as though to catch her in the act and lift her back upwards. Hoku's senses flared out for a second, several voices growing louder before she shut it out and dragged her finger through the dirt as she slid, barely missing Shanks light kick. He's just playing around. Hoku peeled the figure off the floor and threw it up, sticking out three fingers.

"Times three!"

A massive wall of dirt enlarged with a pop into the air. Shanks' eyes widened in surprise, taking one simple step back as it came crashing down between them. Hoku moved to summersault back onto her hands until her foot snagged on a rock, knocking her flat onto her chest. She quickly raised herself back onto her hands, grabbing Mau.

"Never said no devil fruit," Hoku wheezed.

Shanks peeked around the wall, lips curling into a smile.

"That'll be no problem for me, dove."

Hoku paled.

Her voice whispered, soft at his side. Hoku used it as the only warning to lunge for another boulder, dragging her finger through the ground and ripping another wall up before Shanks could be on her. Gotta think. Gotta think. How do I get out of this without getting my ass handed to me? Should I just give? I should just call it quits—

Mau's hilt felt heavier in her hand in protest.

A traitorous image of Mihawk flashed behind her eyes and his stare as he said, mercilessly, "You're miniscule." Not even small, or tiny, just miniscule like a bug. "Make use of it while you can."

Ah, well, you two supposedly always clashed, right? Hoku grimaced, twisting Mau in her grip and crouching low to the ground. Training with you must've taught me somethin' useful, even if I'm up against him.

Shanks foot took a single step past the wall.

Hoku scaled the ledge, perching precariously at the top for but a second before she dropped down on him. Shanks looked up, lips twisting upwards as he stepped back, hands reaching up as though to grab her midair. Hoku tucked Mau close to her, bracing her feet as she came crashing down with the blade pointed straight for him.

He's not even afraid of being cut. Hoku narrowed her eyes. Her own skill aside, she could understand. A little sheen of pretty haki and he didn't even have to flinch.

Have you ever been on the other end of a sword made by her?

Mau's blade caught the waning sunlight.

Hoku's eyes sharpened, adjusting the angle.

For a brief, fleeting moment, Shanks' eyes zeroed in on the tip of the blade. His hand shifted, brows creasing ever so slightly before a light sheen of dark began to color up his palm and down his wrist—

A breeze ghosted by her ear, like a chuckle.

Hoku turned Mau in her hand, grabbing onto the blade instead of the hilt. His blunt edge smashed into Shanks' elbow, catching on the corner as Hoku used it to swing herself around, legs latching onto one arm. Immobile. Now the next. Shanks made a noise of surprise, muffled. Hoku twisted, using him as a grip as her fingers barely hooked themselves into the hilt of his sword and—

Mau let out a small sigh of disappointment.

The sword barely kissing her fingertips seemed to laugh, low and lovely.

Hoku craned her head around.

Soft tufts of uneven white brushed against the side of her face. A wine colored ribbon dangled from Shanks' lips. He raised his brows at her, smiling around the object in his mouth almost impishly.

Hoku went limp, unlocking her legs from his arm.

Her head smashed into the ground.

Why are you so dumb? Hoku gripped the back of her head, hissing at herself in disbelief. Why do you not think these things through? If you let go, you fall. You literally could not have done that any worse—

Mau rested on her stomach, a little heavy but content.

"Sorry, dove," Shanks removed the ribbon from his mouth, twirling it around his finger as he grinned down at her. "You came so close with that last one, I couldn't help myself."

"Fair's fair," Hoku muttered. "You won. Congrats."

"Thanks!" Shanks said. "You know, you're a lot faster than I expected. Meaner too. Like a cat more than a dove, hmm?"

Hoku shrugged against the ground.

"You also remind me of a man I know," Shanks mumbled, a little quieter. His brows furrowed as he rubbed his chin. "Makes me think of some strange rumors I heard once with the way you were swinging that blade around like you might've actually cut me—"

"Alright," Hoku muttered. "What do you want?"

Shanks looked amused. He played with the satiny fabric in his hands before he tickled it over her nose.

Hoku snatched it from his grip. Shanks let it go without protest, grinning. She quickly righted herself and scowled, running a hand through her hair once then twice. "If you're just gonna—"

"I'd love to hear that name of yours."

Hoku stopped.

She stared at Shanks in disbelief.

The pirate simply smiled.

"...you know my name," Hoku said slowly. She was starting to feel something a little funny. A brush against the back of her head, almost like a tease. "I know you do."

Shanks tipped his head to the side, like one giant, red haired dog. He grinned at her, "It's not yours if you don't tell it to me yourself."

Hoku's breath caught.

His smile was frighteningly, dangerously warm.

"You're dangerous," Hoku slipped out.

Shanks' smile only widened, crinkling the corners of his eyes.

"I am a pirate."

A beat.

"Does that scare you?"

Hoku stood up, nearly tripping on the back of her heel. Shanks grabbed the front of her shirt, holding it playfully while she straightened herself and then she swatted his hand aside. Hoku dusted herself off, snorting once before she sheathed Mau and made a mental note to pick up training again. Hiking and keeping up with Luffy only kept her so fit. If she wanted to stand a chance against that man for Mau, she needed to stay on her toes.

"Hoku," she said.

Shanks' eyes flickered.

"Now, there's a ten million beli name."

Hoku shoved her hands into the pockets of her pants. She fumbled around for a second, scuffing the dirt with the tip of her shoe before she bit out a bit reluctantly, "You're tough."

Shanks' head snapped back, boisterous laughter ringing loudly through the forest. A group of birds scattered into the sky, cawing shrieks of complaint and Hoku winced, shooting them a look and then scowling at him. "It's not funny—"

"That Luffy knows how to pick 'em," Shanks snickered, eyes flashing at her teasingly. "Maybe you were just jealous I've been stealing your friend away from you, aye?"

Hoku felt her cheeks flush and she ground her teeth.

"I take it back! Give me my name back—"

A bark echoed through the forest. Hoku stopped, looking up as a familiar sensation began to settle over her skin. Luffy and the dog she'd made him burst into the clearing, yapping away as it skidded to a halt, darting around Luffy's legs as he tumbled forward and stopped for a second, staring at the two of them.

Luffy's face swelled up in childish anger and he charged forward with a war cry.

"You're leaving me out of something! You just did something fun without me!"


It was frightening, realizing how weak she could be.

Death wasn't scary. She was fine with dying.

It was the thought of dying in a way she couldn't control. Death at the hands of someone she never wanted it to belong to. A death she couldn't control.

Words and men who smelled like the sun were, in a sense though, very, very frightening too.


"We don't get much rain," Mahina mused once, leaning against the window as the two of them watched water pour down the edges of the hut, trickling into the sand. "A lot of people on the island love it, since it come so rarely."

Hoku watched droplets drip along curved bamboo poles and drop to the ground, never to be seen again.

"I like the sun," Hoku said.

Mahina smiled, looking amused.

"Artopoki's sunny days are always the best."


There were few events throughout the duration of her stay at Foosha Village that could be considered rattling or dangerous.

Dangerous, arguably, considering she spent most of the time trying to find balance and some semblance of control between a boy who was always pulling and pulling and a man who was always pushing and pushing. Rattling, more so in the sense that aside from the series of events slated into their future Hoku sometimes forgot frighteningly more and more about, there was one event that shifted course.


"I think it's a good cloak," Shanks said. "I like it. It's a nice cloak."

Makino giggled from behind the counter. Luffy snorted in the seat between herself and Shanks, arms crossed firmly over his chest. Hoku kept her poker face even, staring dully ahead of her.

A pristine piece of pretty white fabric sat between the three of them, folded and untouched.

Shanks shot pointed eyes her way.

"No," Hoku said.

Luffy's snort turned into a snicker.

Shanks shoved his elbow into his side, nearly knocking the boy off his seat. Luffy's arms flung out, grabbing onto Hoku and she squawked, the two of them shoving into the counter for balance.

The Red Haired Pirates' recent expedition had brought them coasting back safely into Foosha Village's docks. Shanks had come, striding proudly down the village center and flinging open the doors of Partys bar wide open. Luffy and Hoku had been in the middle of a debate about whether or not she could draw a fishing rod intricate enough to be able to catch the huge fish swimming in the lagoon on the side of the island.

Shanks had then tossed a hunk of wrapped, grilled meat Luffy's way. The boy had lunged for it like an animal, snatching it out of the air and nearly colliding back into Hoku from its sheer weight. Shanks took more care with walking up to Hoku, a shit-eating grin on his face as he pulled a folded cloth from his cape and—

"It's a new cloak!" Shanks said proudly, flapping the white fabric in Hoku's face. It nearly slapped her cross-eyed. "Pretty enough to finally fit ya—"

"It's white," Hoku said.

"Aye! And it'll match your hair—"

"Don't you think that's a bit unpractical?"

Windmills creaked along peacefully outside the village. A small breeze was pulling everything along, the sun high in the sky and the bar full with the crew's return and a few other folks visiting from other ports. All in all, a picturesque sort of day.

Hoku's fingers itched to draw.

"Even Shanks can be dumb," Luffy said sagely. Hoku nodded wisely to his words.

"You just drink your milk!" Shanks snapped at Luffy, shoving the glass his way. Luffy fell upon it eagerly, hitting the counter as his signal for bread as well to go with it. "What's wrong with white? It's a fine color! The cloak fit you fine and it even had a collar like mi—"

"I appreciate it," Hoku said. "I just don't need it. My old one is still holding up just fine."

Makino shot a pitiful look to the said object hanging in the back rack of the bar.

Shanks snorted, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Cap'n's just sulking is all," Yasopp called over teasingly. "He got all excited when he saw it and said it'd look real nice and even wanted to get a shirt for Luffy over there—"

"Ah, man," Shanks rubbed the back of his neck. "I think there's just been an opening on my crew."

Yasopp nursed his mug of grog without another word.

"I'll take it!" Luffy shouted, standing up on his seat. Shanks sighed, waving him down as he pouted and looked aside. "Hey! You just said a spot opened up! Take me out to the sea with you too, damn it!"

Hoku sighed, resting her cheek against her hand. "'s nice and all, but it'll get dirty too fast. It stains easily too. Black is more reasonable. It doesn't show as much and doesn't stand out—"

"Nothing wrong with standing out if you can back it up," Shanks muttered.

Hoku's lips parted to retort until she barely caught herself.

It was scary how human these people were beginning to blur before her eyes. Their habits, their mannerism, theirs likes and dislikes. It was becoming familiar.

Take a step back.

Her stomach twisted uncomfortably.

"I'm gonna do something useful and get some work done," Hoku hopped off the stool, ignoring Shanks' pointed look digging into the back of her head. Luffy began to swallow his milk in large gulps, eagerly rushing so he could meet her outside. "Alone. I've just got to help finish bringing in a few more boxes."

"You can do that later, Hoku-chan," Makino offered. "I'm almost done making lunch!"

"I'll just be a second," Hoku said. "Don't let Luffy eat my food."

Makino laughed. A few of the crew made grabs at her, trying to get her to stay but she swatted their hands and feet with muted curses, their laughs ringing cheerfully in the air. Another man slipped out just before her to return to the docks and Hoku followed out the swinging doors, quickly turning the corner against the bar and rubbing roughly at her forehead.

Finding a chance to kill herself with these people around was hard.

Luffy himself already made it incredibly difficult, but when it was either Benn lounging in the corner with a lazy wave or Yasopp getting sentimental about his family or Shanks being Shanks—Hoku was beginning to feel a little pressed.

Maybe I can go foraging and just say I slipped. Hoku reasoned. Come back a bit scraped up and they wouldn't even know.

She snorted. If she even tried to set foot outside the village without Luffy, he'd come hurtling for her, screaming at the top of his damn lungs.

You made this bed, now lie in it.

Hoku roughly turned one more corner where the boxes were stacked against the side of the bar, several lengths away toward the backend, close to the shed. Fresh shipments of fruits and vegetables for Makino to use. She contemplated drawing a little pulley to help her out, but the weight lifting would be good to help keep her in shape—

Hoku didn't often listen to the voices of the living.

They were usually too loud or muted to hear. Cluttered. Shifting. Constantly changing. They gave her a headache and she never wanted to bother. The non-living were always clear, a little faint, but far easier to understand. With animals who never had anything nice to say since it seemed they could sense her lack of will to live or otherwise, or people with too many thoughts to sort through or be bothered with.

Sometimes. Sometimes, they trickled through. When they were loud enough and clear enough and close enough, she could hear it.

Mau was resting against the bar stool, tucked close to her side between Luffy's seat and her own.

"Don't you ever want to set him down?" Hoku asked Mihawk once. "I get being able to carry around one of the greatest swords ever, but just for a second, or while you're—"

"Any swordsman," Mihawk had said. "Is nothing without his blade."

Hoku hadn't thought everything of it, she wasn't one at heart, after all.

Hoku turned over her shoulder.

She could barely see his eyes.

It happened in clicks. A series of flashed against a photo frame and then laid out for her to see, as though someone were guiding her through the whole ordeal instead of her living it out herself.

He was tripled her size. A burly man. He'd been one of the fishermen who'd stepped in after work to grab a drink in the corner. Tattoos decorated his right arm. A grinning jolly roger on the back of his hand with a slashed line through it.

Hoku was fairly quick. She managed training to a degree with Mihawk after all, right?

So why can't I move?

The air felt as though it'd been crushed from her lungs, squeezed straight out her throat and lost the air. His meaty fingers curled around her thin neck and with a simple flick of his wrist, it'd snap. Hoku's eyes watered, choked cries slipping past parted lips as she gagged and hacked, fingers clawing at his thick fist while her feet were easily lifted off the ground.

"We got wind of there being a Pokian somewhere in the Goa Kingdom," he said, voice low, it grated like acid pouring through her ears. "Said she was young. We rushed over as soon as we could and there you were, just up for grabs in a little town like this that looks like it could be burned in one night."

A blurry image flashed behind her eyes. A baseball cap. Running water. Cucumber melon—

Hoku's heart stuttered in her chest. She fought back with renewed vigor, writhing in his grip, digging her nails deep into his skin. She felt blood prick at her fingers, felt it drip around his hand in deep grooves as she choked, trying to speak where his fingers were slowly, slowly crushing—

"I couldn't believe our luck," he said breathlessly. "You even look like you could've come from the island yourself. Got any parents, kid? Or did you lose them too?"

"Fuck...you!" Hoku gargled. She twisted her head and sank her teeth into his fist.

He howled, fingers slackening around her thin neck and Hoku heaved. Her fingers pried his hand apart the rest of the way. She fell to the floor like a limp sack, hacking and wheezing as she rolled onto her side and coughed. Spit flew from her mouth as she sucked in greedy breathes, struggling to pull herself to her feet as she grabbed uselessly at wooden floorboards. Fuck. Fuck. That hurts. That hurts. Ah, what am I supposed to do—

"You little bitch," he seethed. "You're worse than the others."

Hoku saw red.

She hurled herself at him before she even had a chance to realize what was happening. Hands were flying, clawing at his face, trying to do damage, damage, damage—I want you to hurt. Hoarse curses flew from her lips, spat and hissed and screeched as he beat rough fists at her. You're an amateur. You don't know what you're doing. You won't—

Hoku watched his cheek split open from her strike, ribbons of blood streaking down his face.

"Filthy piece of shit!" he roared in pain.

A heavy fist slammed into the side of Hoku's head. A loud clamor rang dully behind her ears. She heard loud noises, shouts. You thought you could kidnap me without anyone knowing? You fucking idiot... Her vision tinted black, fading out before it focus and he grabbed her face, smashing her into the floor. This whole village... can never mind its own business...

If only I had Mau.

If only I had a knife or anything—

Hoku's finger began to trace a pattern into the wooden floorboards, collecting the blood pouring out of her nose and from the side of her temple.

"You're wasting it all," the man spat. The floorboards creaked under his weight. His foot smashed into her shoulder, pinning her to the ground and Hoku let out a gargled scream, fury lining every inch of her voice as she writhed against him. "You know how much vials of your blood go for these days? It's insane."

He spat a wad of blood onto the ground. "The hell are these assholes? Making me do all the work..."

Cool glass was pushed roughly into the side of her head. Hoku hissed, half her vision going blurry where blood was trickling into her eye, making it sting. He began collecting a vial. "You're nothing but walking—"

Hoku peeled the wooden knife from the floor and jabbed it into what she hoped was his side.

Her fingers couldn't reach that far.

His leg would have to do.

He roared in pain, shoving the glass so hard into the side of her face she thought it might've cut above her eye. "You little—"

"Get off her, you asshole!"

Hoku's heart surged into her throat. The man's weight above her shifted slightly, a flurry of sun kissed skin and fluffy black hair flashing in her blurred peripheral.

Luffy's voice was clear.

"Fucking brat! Where the hell did you come from—"

"Lu..." Hoku groaned against the ground, tasting iron in her mouth. Move. Move. Why won't you move? Who do you think you are—

Hoku felt the bruising of his hand around her throat.

She heard water rushing through her ears.

"Screw you, you bastard!" Luffy snarled violently, beating roughly at the man's head, tugging at his hair and punching, punching, punching. "Get your dirty paws off her, you piece of shit—hey!"

Crack!

"Luffy?" Hoku panted against the floor. Panic flooded her system, piercing all the way through to her heart. "Luffy? Lu? LUFFY—"

The weight atop her disappeared completely. Hoku scrabbled to her hands and knees, fingers slipping on a puddle of her own blood. Her left eye was pressed shut, blood trickling from a cut she couldn't see as she turned desperately, eyes searching wildly. "Lu—"

"Lemme down! Lemme down!" Luffy shouted, spitting and swinging his fists into the air as Yasopp held him out of the way, face set in stone. "Let me at him! That piece of shit hurt Hoku, damn it! I'll kick your ass, you bastard—"

Hoku's heart quieted in her chest, everything slowing.

Several men were trussed up and tossed into a limp pile several feet from the bar. Guns and swords had been shoved to the side, face bruised and beaten as they laid there, defeated. His guys—Lucky stood over them, his flintlock in one hand while he gripped the bloodied bone of his meal in the other.

Hoku's good eye traveled upwards.

"Aren't you all just a bunch of pirates too?" the man who'd attacked her spat at them, looking up at the gathered men in disbelief.

Black curved around his heels. A soft breeze caressed the side of his hat, giving it a little flutter, almost lovingly, soothing.

"You ought to know how much they go for these days!" he continued loudly. "They come right under mermaids and giants—you can sell off almost every piece of them! All you care about is treasure, don't you? There's living breathing treasure right here! You're blind if you can't see that!"

Benn had the man at the end of his gun, facing two long barrels.

Blood traveled down his temple where something heavy had smashed into the side of his head. He was missing a few teeth and Luffy's fists were bloody and scraped.

"Shut up!" Luffy shouted at him, a look so angry and livid on his soft features. "Shut up! Shut up!"

"Luffy," Shanks said. "A real man wouldn't let stuff like this get to him, right?"

Luffy's lips twisted, rough, as though he'd eaten something sour. His eyes swallowed her whole greedily, waiting.

"Do you know how much one vial goes for?" the man bellowed, shaking the thin vial of her blood he'd gathered up at them, as though to make them see reason. "Do you even know—"

"Then," Shanks said simply.

Hoku felt her blood turn to ice. Her heart stuttered in her chest, as though afraid to beat.

He smiled.

"How much are you worth compared to even a drop?"

Yasopp turned Luffy away by the collar of his shirt.

Bang!

Hoku flinched, turning her head away.

A beat.

"Toss them out," Shanks said to Lucky. "We'll make it clear who's around here if any of them ever want to try that again."

Lucky nodded, turning to the unconscious bodies before him. Benn stooped down, grabbing the bloodied body by the arms and beginning to haul him off after. Yasopp let Luffy down and suddenly sweaty arms were wrapped tight around her, Luffy's voice loud and blaring in her ear as he tackled into her, pressing closer and closer and saying things she couldn't hear even though he was talking so loud—

Hoku felt blood drip down her chin.

Luffy's hands were reaching for her face.

"Lu," Hoku managed. Luffy stopped, staring at her with those big eyes. "Can you get Makino, please?"

For once, Luffy didn't put up a fuss.

He ran faster than she'd ever seen him run before. Makino's name leaving his lips as loud as he could bellow at the top of his lungs.

"You alright, dove?"

Hoku gingerly felt along her fingers. Nothing broken. Her hands were fine. She touched her shoulder, feeling a spot where it would bruise later. Her fingers reached for her throat and then she hesitated, moving it instead to her forehead.

"'m okay," Hoku slurred. She spat out a wad of blood and grabbed onto the wooden post beside her, urging herself up onto her feet.

"Whoa, there," Yasopp said quickly, suddenly at her side. "You just stay right there until we get you all nice and patched up—piece of shit really went at you—"

"'m fine," Hoku ran her tongue over her teeth, there was a small gap where her canine was supposed to be. That should grow back. "Wanna stand. Asshole only got a few punches in."

Hoku swayed and then hugged the post. Yasopp looked ready to shove her to the ground himself, but she pressed her face into the wood and shook her head once more. Don't wanna be there. Don't wanna be there.

"What an idiot," Hoku muttered. She sniffled, rubbing blood from her nose with the back of her hand.

Hoku pulled her hand away. Blood coated her fingertips and she grimaced, trying to blink her left eye open. "Think he cut me. Not too deep—"

The smell of the sun washed over her.

Hoku looked up sharply.

Shanks' hand reached for the side of her face.

Ah.

Hoku slapped Shank's hand aside.

The older man blinked down at her in surprise, hand hovering in the air. Hoku stopped, rubbing her shut and bleeding eye against her shoulder. "Sorry, didn't mean to be mean, just didn't want it to get on you."

Shanks lips settled into something strange. Hoku mumbled against the side of her arm, "'s permanent without the right stuff to get out and—"

Calloused fingers pushed back her bangs. Shank's thumb smoothed over the curve of her eye, blood staining his fingers. Hoku stared at him with wide eyes, frozen in place as he gingerly touched the thin cut against the side of her head, not even slicing through her tattoo.

"A real man isn't afraid of things that last forever," Shanks grinned, he held a hand out. "Hand me a cloth. Blood doesn't suit this pretty face."

Hoku's heart did something funny.

Shanks blinked once. His brows furrowed and he pressed the back of his hand to Hoku's forehead. Blood colored his skin. "You're not catching a fever, are you? Maybe we should get Makino to give you something to swallow down just in case..."

"Yes, please," Hoku managed, fighting the blush that threatened to bleed across her cheeks and make this situation a thousand leagues worse than it already was.


"You're taking this well," Makino said softly behind her.

Hoku gingerly pressed her fingers into the bandages against the side of her head. Makino had just finished dressing the purple marks along her neck, checking twice for any other injuries.

"'supposed to expect this sooner or later," Hoku mumbled. She winced when she pressed too hard into her bandage. "I was awful lucky not to deal with this before."

Shanks' left hand had been stained with her blood. She didn't know where she'd come across fresh make berries, so she'd have to look to help him get it off.

"Is that so?" Makino questioned quietly.

Hoku mumbled something soft.

"You know," Makino laughed, a light thing. "We heard a commotion and for a second, I thought it was just someone getting a little rowdy outside the bar."

Makino fell silent for a moment.

Hoku turned over her shoulder curiously.

"Then Luffy went running out," Makino said. "And then they all stormed out, following those three men who were running and—"

A soft weight fell onto her small back. Hoku froze.

Something wet began to bleed into the back of her shirt.

"Hoku-chan," Makino choked on a small sob, clasping a hand over her mouth and gripping Hoku's shoulder, as though in fear she'd slip away, "Hoku-chan, why didn't you call for help?"

Hoku sat there in silence as Makino held onto her, crying softly.

Her lips parted and then she let them fall shut.

For a moment, it had almost been as though she'd forgotten she ever could.


"I'm sorry."


Luffy came storming into her small shed of a home the morning after. He loudly took off his shoes, made a commotion about everything before climbing into her small hammock beside her and giving her the most serious pout he could possibly muster, daring her to kick him out.

Hoku, still nine, merely reached out with soft hands, wrapping them around his head and bringing him closer as she shut her eyes. Luffy's hands twisted stubbornly into her shirt, gripping tight.

A wide smile stretched across his lips and he snickered, burrowing closer.


Shanks and his crew disappeared for a month and a half.

"Do I scare you, dove?"

Hoku took a seat on the dock beside him. She kept her legs folded beneath her while Shanks let his dangle over the ledge, hanging just above the ocean's surface.

"I'm afraid of water," Hoku said.

Shanks laughed.

"You'd make for a lousy pirate then, wouldn't you?"


"Look what we found, dove!"

Hoku gaped, eyes bulging from her head.

Benn carefully lowered the heavy pot to the ground. A few leaves dropped to the ground, familiar, curving branches and strange, almost heart shaped fruits that colored a shiny red dotted heavily throughout the entire thing—

"Wazzat?" Luffy questioned, picking his nose.

"It's a kiinohi tree!" Hoku all but squealed, rushing forward and almost toppling face first into the thick branches. She stepped back, fingers trembling as she practically ran circles around the small pot, daring to touch the ripening fruits and brushing against the almost white colored roots. "I – I can't believe this! I haven't seen one of these in years – it's healthy too! It's been taken care of and it's already getting ripe—"

"What are those?" Luffy questioned loudly.

"They're some of the best fruits ever!" Hoku exclaimed, shaking Luffy's shoulders and tugging him closer to the tree. His eyes brightened immediately, mouth starting to water. "They're super crisp and just the right amount of sweet—fleshy and you can make the best sake ever—"

"Here's to that!" Yasopp cheered.

"Where did you find it?" Hoku demanded, eyes shining as she grabbed at Shanks' cape. "I – this is amazing!"

"We crossed path with a sailing nursery!" Shanks said with a laugh. "The old man had fruits stretching all the way through the Grand Line. I recognized them from the smell! The sake you can make with these is one of my favorites."

"Paid a pretty coin for it too," Benn exhaled, pulling out his cigarette.

Shanks shushed him furiously.

"This is amazing!" Hoku exclaimed once more, shaking Shanks' cape and then rushing back to the tree, back to him, and then back to the tree. "This is – this is amazing! I can't believe you guys found one out there—I can't believe this!"

"Believe it!" Shanks laughed. "It has no place on a ship filled with uncut swine like us, you should find it a spot behind Makino's bar—"

"How can I thank you for this?" Hoku demanded fiercely, eyes shining as she grabbed at Shanks' cape once more. "This—"

"Aye," Shanks rubbed at his chin. "Perhaps a coating would be nice—"

"Done deal!" Hoku nearly squealed. She practically leapt into the air, laughing brightly as she rushed to the tree, inspecting its roots and nearly shoving her head into the thickest parts of its leaves, causing a mess to rustle. "Oh, man, oh, man!"

"Doesn't some look prouder than a peacock," Yasopp muttered to Lucky. He munched away noisily, nodding in response.

"Doesn't someone look a bit torn," Benn mused, exhaling a cloud of smoke.

Yasopp and Lucky turned.

Luffy's lips were twisted into a funny grimace. His eyes shone with fierce admiration, staring up at Shanks as he gripped the hem of his shirt. Dark eyes darted back and forth though toward the shifting tree where his friend had disappeared into and then back to admiration for Shanks and then—

Luffy's head seemed to short circuit, smoke rolling out from his ears.

"Lu!" Hoku's head popped out from the tree and she showcased a handful of the bright fruits, urging him over. "Lu, you have to try these! You can't find them anywhere else, c'mere!"

Luffy shot up. He was at her side in an instant, drool pooling from the corner of his mouth and Hoku plucked off the top leaf, pressing the heart shaped fruit to his lips. Luffy's mouth parted automatically, munching down and Hoku pulled her finger free with a pop.

"It's yummy!" Luffy shouted, fruit juice flying in every direction.

"Isn't it?" Hoku demanded. She grabbed another handful, holding them out for him to eat and popping the leaf into her mouth. "You can suck on the leaf too—it's a sort of crispy kinda sweet! You can dry them out and make a tea out of them and there's just so much you can do! I love kiinohis!"

Hoku happily continued to feed Luffy, for once. He eagerly chomped down around her fingers, following her as Hoku rattled on and on about what else they could do with the tree.

Lucky, Yasopp and Benn all turned their heads.

Shanks calmly adjusted his straw hat, grinning all the while and waiting patiently. He dragged his foot along the floor.

"Aye," Benn said simply.

"Aye," the other two chorused.


Hoku had never been one to like holding onto debts.


"You're up late tonight, Hoku."

Hoku played with the tie of her halter top. A white one, different from the black one she'd worn before but almost the same. The air out tonight was summery, gentle and warm, as though the sun had never left.

A wrapped package was tucked under her arm, a loose jacket hanging over her shoulders with a marine patch she hadn't been able to cut out yet.

"Mm," she nodded to Benn, leaning in the corner of the bar with a single cigarette going, an ash tray in front of him. "Just had some things to do."

Benn exhaled slowly, turning away from her so the smoke clouded up in the corner. Yasopp and Lucky snorted in their sleep, noses wrinkling at the smell where they were slumped over each other on the table.

Benn stood, tucking a new pack into his back pocket. He ruffled the top of her head and slipped out of the bar with a single wave over his shoulder.

Low lights kept the countertop lit up. Makino must've left them on for them while she went off to bed.

His hat was tipped back over his head. A slow, quiet kind of drinking night that left them to muse whatever it was they wanted to mull over. Whatever the waves of their minds let wash ashore. Hoku watched the way light shifted over the bright red hair.

Her fingers itched.

Later. Hoku gingerly made her way over toward the countertop. She was careful not to take any unnecessary slips and she pulled herself up onto a stool, shifting the package into her lap.

Shanks' fingers traced the rim of his mug. He grinned at the countertop, "Lovely little dove, come to join me for a drink?"

I wish. Hoku doubted her liver would approve of such choices just yet. She rested her small arms on the countertop, noticing time and time again just how much more this man seemed to exist compared to her.

A flickering thought, briefly amused.

I'd just be a bit older than you by now, wouldn't I?

The sound of a drink being poured made Hoku look up in surprise. Shanks flashed her a wink, nudging a cup her way as he set a bottle down and grinned behind the rim of his own mug. "I won't tell Makino if you won't."

Hoku gingerly took the cup, shooting him a disbelieving glance before she brought the cup closer.

"Lu will be jealous."

"Kid doesn't have much of a taste for booze," Shanks snickered.

So you've given him that too. Hoku snorted. I shouldn't have been surprised. Curiously, she tipped the cup back to meet her lips.

It flooded her mouth, cool and sweet. Traveling down her throat with the faintest of burns, pooling in her stomach with a strangely familiar curl. Shanks watched her down the cup in amusement, cheek pressed against his hand until Hoku set the mug down and exhaled, wiping the back of her mouth with shining eyes.

"It's sake made from—"

"I always loved that taste," Shanks mused, staring out at the case of alcohol before them absently, not really looking. "I am from the West Blue too, you know. It's my hometown."

Hoku made a small noise. She hadn't known that. There's a lot to this world I don't know.

There was a lot to life in general she didn't know.

"Do you miss it?" Shanks questioned.

Hoku pressed her palms flat against the countertop, staring at the tip of her fingers.

"I do," Hoku said. "But I don't miss it too."

She grinned, leaning back a bit onto the barstool, palms behind her. "Does that make any sense?"

I miss you and all of you.

But I won't miss you.

Because you're not really gone—

"Perfect," Shanks said.

He looked almost pleased, absolutely content. Shanks leaned his head onto his palm, the pads of his left hand stained with faint coloring of her blood. The glass mug caught on the warped flicker of the lamplight before them. An eternal smile curled onto his lips, easy.

A glass wind chime rang, like a little sigh. She'd made it at Makino's request, shaped like a windmill.

"There's little bits of you all over this town, aren't there?"

The moon was out tonight, the breeze was good.

Hoku could still smell the sun.

I know why he loves you so much. Hoku stared at her fingers, watching them play with the wrappings of the book before her. There was no dispute about the fact that it wasn't even within her rights to begin with to tell him to take care of Luffy, shove him the right way. But she knew, sitting there, there'd never be a need to utter such words because Shanks was a man of endless seas and shining suns and he'd never see Luffy any other way.

Lu, if you grow to be anywhere near like this guy, ladies around the world are in trouble. Hoku smiled to herself, shutting her eyes. What would you look like twenty years from now? Thirty?

Hoku set the book on the countertop, nudging it his way.

Shanks peeked an eye open, flashing her an amused look as he half turned his head. "What's this? Have I finally worn ya down?"

"You can't keep it," Hoku said firstly. "There's somewhere I need to bring it to. But I figured out of anyone around here at least, you might get something nice out of it."

Shanks looked curious. His hand dropped to the counter and he gave her his full attention, eyes sparkling with unrestrained, open curiosity so much like Luffy's. "Oh?"

Hoku merely jerked her chin toward it and glanced aside.

Shanks hummed, a funny rumble in his throat that still came out smooth. His fingers deftly peeled back the wrapping of cloth, opening up the cover.

Hoku felt everything grow quietly still around her, just for a moment.

Something blindingly wide, quietly wistful, and graciously joyful split across his face. Shanks' face visibly brightened, familiarity and recognition turning the corners of his lips upwards as he turned to her, eyes eager and hands already beginning to find the clasp and pages as though he'd held it plenty of times before.

"...is this...?"

Hoku nodded.

Shank's eyes said it all.

The sound of pages being flipped filled the bar. Yasopp and Lucky were passed out over each other, snoring away in the corner and Hoku traced blind patterns onto the countertop, choosing not to watch as Shanks' eyes devoured the pages, flipping through and skipping ahead chunks, to the places he knew he wanted to see the most and knew by heart.

"You know, dove," Shanks mused, peeking over at her from the top of the pages. "You're carrying something awful dangerous with you."

Hoku shrugged. "You and Luffy are the only ones who know I have it."

I don't feel dangerous knowing that.

Shanks ran his fingers down the edges of the binding. He stared at it for a moment, eyes lost, faraway somewhere across rolling waves and endless seas. He tipped the book back onto the corner of its binding, running a thumb through the pages.

A smile curled over his lips. Shanks' eyes turned toward her, holding her in place. They glittered mischievously.

Hoku had the strange sensation of being faintly at someone's mercy.

"Did you read it?"

A heartbeat.

Hoku snorted. Shanks looked amused then, resting his chin on the palm of his hand as he watched her with half-lidded eyes, lazy and playful. Hoku ran a hand through her short locks and shrugged, tracing the curve of the half heart over her eye.

"Not really up my alley," Hoku said. "Didn't really feel like reading it."

Shanks laughed, loud and clear. "It's the greatest adventure of all time in here, you know! If you stuck through long enough, you might just find out some truths to this world that would send you flying."

"I believe it," Hoku said. "The author's note makes that clear, and he can't lie about that. I'm just not interested."

"What," Shanks teased. "No dreams of seeing this vast world? It's all been done in here, you know."

Hoku thought about Luffy.

She thought about eight lives she still had to lose.

"Not in particular," Hoku said simply. She leaned her cheek onto her palm, almost mimicking Shanks' position as she watched the flame flicker within the lamp.

Shanks made a low sound, "Come now, that's no fun."

Hoku shifting, folding her arms under her chin and eyeing the ceiling thoughtfully. The book sitting between them seemed to laugh, an old, deep sound.

"To be honest," Hoku said, thinking about bright eyes and a stupid boy who hadn't given her a single moment to herself since being here with him. A stupid boy who made her feel stupid and made her forget stupid things. "I think it's more fun to think about what comes next."

Shanks looked curious, eyes turning to her avidly, "Next?"

Hoku hummed.

"You know, what greater adventure could possibly be told after that?"

The cubes of ice in the cup between them clinked, shifting with a faint breeze. A droplet of water rolled down the side. Hoku watched it.

She didn't see the expression Shanks wore, watching her.

"I have to know, dove," his voice was innocently curious. Hoku instantly felt alarmed, eyes darting to his face where curious eyes seemed to be studying her particularly carefully. "If you didn't read the book, how'd you know?"

Ah.

Hoku felt a bead of sweat travel down her neck. Shanks watched her.

Right.

Hoku quickly turned her face away from it, burying it in her arms as she coughed. She couldn't risk being too obvious about a lie at a time like this and with a man like Shanks who could easily call through her careful poker faces. "Ah, well, you know."

"I don't know," Shanks said playfully. She felt his eyes boring into the side of her head. "Mind explaining?"

Hoku ran a hand through her hair, racking her brain for any viable excuse before—

"It's a secret."

Shanks tossed his head back to laugh. She was surprised Yasopp and Lucky hadn't already woken up from how loud the man was, but she also guessed they must've been used to such things at this point or they'd never get any sleep on a ship like theirs. His hand slapped the countertop and he grinned, almost breathless. "Fair enough! He was always like that too, that damn, wonderful man."

Hoku shot up to attention, whipping her head around. "You knew—" of course he knew him, you dumbass, they sailed on the same ship! "What was he like?"

A man from Artopoki had been on the pirate king's ship. He'd been the one to illustrate all their travels and journeys perhaps up until the very end—the kind of Pokian who'd sailed those seas and had enough heart to illustrate such a thing—

"Tit for a tat, dove," Shanks tutted, wagging a finger at her. "You have your secrets, I'll keep mine."

Hoku sighed, turning forward with a pout. Shanks laughed, drumming his fingers along the countertop and turning his palm over, running a thumb where her blood stained his fingers.

"To be honest, I'm a lil' disappointed you didn't read it," Shanks sighed, tipping his head back. Hoku shot him a curious look. "But what can a man do?"

"What," Hoku said. "So you could remind everyone just how amazing of a pirate you are?"

Shanks' lips curled into that familiar grin. Bright like the sun, just as dangerous, if not too careful.

"If you'd known how it ended," Shanks said. "I would've had to steal you away onto my ship."

The bar went silent. Hoku went carefully still as he let the implications behind his words sink in. The chimes clinked softly.

Shanks' eyes glittered.

Hoku swallowed.

A rough hand swung out and smacked her back. Hoku wheezed, nearly toppling over the countertop as Shanks burst out into uncontrollable laughter, grabbing at his stomach as tears pricked the corners of his eyes. "Dahahaha! Come now, little dove! Don't look so scared shitless—I'd never let a little thing like you onboard a pirate ship like mine. You're too small! You wouldn't stand a chance out there, you know."

You idiot, I can't believe you actually thought for even a second—

Hoku furiously fought the blush that crept along the edges of her cheeks. She hid her face in her hands, muttering curses at the man beside her as he continued to laugh, slapping the countertop.

You're even older than him in spirit, how could you let a guy like this...

"But, hey, give it maybe ten years or so and I'm sure you'll grow up to be a fine woman," Shanks mused, bringing his cup up to his lips as he stifled a few more chuckles, shaking his head. "Fine enough then that maybe I'll come back and steal you away as pirates do, aye?"

"Yeah?"

"Aye!" Shanks said merrily, swinging his gaze back to her. "Ten or so more years and you might just be able to—"

Shanks' words came to a slow halt.

Golden light caught off the curls of her hair, turning it into a molten sort of silver. It warmed her shoulders, curling softly around her slender frame as she leaned against the countertop. Hoku's eyes watched the man before her, faraway, half-lidded. Her fingers reached into her hair, cupping her faintly rosy cheeks as she watched him.

Shanks stared, mug frozen in mid-air.

"Then," Hoku said slowly, voice a little soft around the edges. "In ten years, when I grow up to be one hell of a woman..."

Hoku's eyes flickered, Shanks watched them for a moment, entranced.

She offered him a small, little curl of a smile.

"You might find it'll be more than you can handle, don't you think?"

His throat bobbed once with a swallow.


Realistically, the whole thing probably looked ridiculous.

Hoku had eventually slipped out of the bar, with as much of her dignity in tact as she could, and reasoned with herself that hot, open-chested, handsome man that he was—in spirit despite her nine year old frame, she was still a few years older than him.

Since she wouldn't be seeing him next to ever after this, she deserved to get him back just a bit, didn't she?


Shanks stared at the sloshing amber liquid in his mug, at a loss for words.

The easy, playful teasing had shifted. Something had changed. His poor, sea faring brain was trying desperately to wrap itself around the strange, almost bewitching experience he'd just encountered and tried to make some sense of how he ought to feel—

Yasopp's laughter finally blew past his lips, hand slapping the table as Lucky covered his mouth, stifling his laughter. Benn slipped back into the bar, cigarette dangling from his lips.

"C-Captain's flirtin' with—"

"I never realized you went for the younger ones—"

"Shut up, ya idiots!" Shanks shouted quickly, slamming his mug on the countertop. "You don't know what you're talking about—and none of this in front of Makino or she'll—"

"You should be looking out for the other one," Benn exhaled. "If he's as much as like you as he already is, he won't take kindly to—"

"Ah, I'm heading back to the ship!" Shanks threw his hands into the air, fighting the smile of his crew's infectious laughter. "You can all sleep on the deck tonight for insubordination."

"Come on, cap'n, give us ten years and we might be more than you can—" He shoved a foot out, catching Yasopp's teetering chair and sending him flying into Lucky as the two toppled over with a squawk.

Shanks slipped outside the bar, warm winds touching softly at his cheeks and tugging his hair.

He set his hat down firmer over his head, shaking it back and forth and heading off to his ship above the ocean waves where everything always made sense.

For a strange, fleeting, intoxicating moment—


He'd had to wonder if he was speaking to woman far beyond himself—


"Is that what I think it is?" Hoku shoved Luffy's face aside and the boy squawked. She hopped over a barstool and stopped at Benn's side. The older man glanced down to her curiously, holding the object carefully in his hands. "Can I see that?"

Benn lowered it carefully into her grip. Hoku's hands instantly left where his had been, sliding automatically from memory to the top of the neck and to the lower half—

"It's a dantra," Hoku said dreamily. "I haven't seen one of these in forever..."

"A what?" Luffy questioned loudly.

"A dantra!" Hoku hobbled from the weight of the large instrument. Benn slid out a chair and she nodded to him, setting it down onto her lap as she sat down.

Her fingers traced up and down the sleek wood, catching the thin carvings running up and down its curved side. All the strings had been kept in silky, perfect condition. Wood shiny and polished. "It's an instrument from Artopoki—we played them all the time at festivals and celebrations – it came with a flute looking thingy right? It should be shaped like a shell—"

"Right here!" Lucky shoved the stick of meat into his mouth, opening up the box in his hands. Hoku's eyes brightened, shiny in excitement. A thin, pearly shell was carved out, hollowed from a small conch. "It came with these too—"

"Picks!" Hoku said. She slid them onto her fingers, flexing them once to test the feel and then she gingerly held the conch flute in her hand. "I never thought about seeing one of these again..."

"It's a funny looking thing, isn't it?" Yasopp questioned. "Do you play it like a violin?"

"You pluck it," Hoku explained, she drew one finger down the strings and—

The silken threads trembled. A sweet, dreamy sound filled the bar.

"Perfect condition," she murmured. Luffy looked interested, pressing closer and closer to her elbow. "I can't believe you guys found one of these—"

A resounding clap echoed throughout the entire room. All eyes and heads instantly turned toward Shanks leaning against the counter. He turned on his chair, eyes shining brightly as he grinned over the tips of his fingers.

"Well! If it's an instrument—you gotta play it, right?" Shanks said, eyes growing brighter by the second. Hoku raised a brow. The men around them began to shift, hands flying toward bottles and mugs as wide grins started to stretch across their faces. "Can you play it, dove?"

Hoku snorted, "It's been awhile, but you're not from Artopoki if you can't play one of these—"

"And if I heard right," Shanks continued slowly, "you said they're a must at every festival and celebration right?"

Hoku felt something funny twist in her chest. Her brows slackened, hands slumping. "I can't—"

"Then it's a party!" Shanks roared, tossing his hands into the air. Luffy cheered beside her, jumping high for joy at the famous words. The entire bar erupted into a chorus of cheers, mugs clinking together as life sprouted forth. Hoku jolted, eyes growing round. "Come on men—roll it out!"

"You don't have to if you don't want to," Benn whispered at her ear as he lit a cigarette and took a seat across from her. "They'll party like idiots just fine without music."

"My beautiful, wonderful lady!" Shanks gestured grandly to her from his seat, standing up and holding his mug of grog high into the air. "Little dove, would you do these swindling pirates the honor of playing them a song on that lovely little thing?"

What are you doing, wasting your time here?

"What are you trying to play at?"

Any song from Artopoki could work. They always played the best music for festivals. She loved the song they played at the dance just before a wedding – it brought everyone from their homes and huts to celebrate the couple in the square—

But you're not Pokians and this is no wedding. Hoku bowed her head, fingers hovering across the instrument as she counted beats in her head, thinking about the notes she'd learned to play the dantra and the sound of a song from sea to sea. If I get it wrong, don't blame me, okay?

Hoku blew a soft note against the flute, a signal to start.

Her fingers plucked the notes softly once against the board, testing the notes. Benn's eyes lit up from across the table. All heads turned to her, craning to listen. Luffy's eyes were shining.

Shanks waited across the room, lips pulled into a curious smile.

Hoku shut her eyes and her fingers slid down the strings, tugging and curving along.

Slowly, loudly, a familiar, playful tune began to fill the air. It picked up in volume and speed, settling into its rolling, loving laughter of notes that sweetly rang through all their ears. It bounced off walls, lapping, like waves pushing as hands along the bow of a boat—

Shanks slapped his hand against the counter, starting off the count.

Everyone's lips parted.

The room sucked in a sweet, soft breath.

"Yohohoho, yohohoho! Yohohoho, yohohoho! Yohohoho, yohohoho~"

Hoku laughed, her fingers plucked along the strings. A piano had always seemed to complete this song, but the one in the corner of the bar would have to sit it out, just for a bit. Luffy leapt to his feet beside her, high voice rising to blend in with the cacophony of pirates singing their hearts out all around her.

"Gather up the crew, it's time to ship out Bink's brew. Following the sea breeze, riding on the waves!"

Lucky clapped his hands together, chomping down onto bone after bone. Yasopp cheered. A few men clambered onto tables, tossing arms around each other. Their voices blended together, a mess, a beautiful sound, ringing and boisterous as it filled the entire room and threatened to escape back into the sea itself.

"Far across the salty deeps, the merry evening sun, painting circles in the sky, birds singing along!"

Two men hoisted Luffy up onto their shoulders. He cheered, singing along as loud as his heart would allow. Hoku laughed, fingers skimming across the strings as she kept in time, bouncing, the tune rolling and lapping at her ears.

"Farewell to the harbor, to my old hometown. Let's all sing out with a DON as the ship sets sail. Waves of gold and silver dissolve to salty spray, as we all set sail to the ends of the sea!"

Boots stomped against the ground. Bodies moved, swaying and clashing.

"Yohohoho, yohohoho! Yohohoho, yohohoho~"

Warm hands snatched hers just before they returned to the strings. Hoku looked up, eyes wide with surprise as Shanks beamed down on her, smile stretching so heartbreakingly wide across his face. Yasopp snagged the dantra from her lap, settling it onto the table. Her eyes darted to where Benn had disappeared, slipping behind the piano in the corner until—

"Going to deliver Bink's sake, we are pirates, slicing through the seas! The waves our pillows, the ship our roost, flying the proud skull on our flag and sails!"

"Just one!" Shanks vowed, sliding the picks off her fingers and hauling her to her feet. Hoku stumbled, grabbing onto his arms as he swept her off her feet and onto the wooden floors. His boots stomped loudly to the beat, lips parting as he laughed and sang along, turning her in his grip and bowing to raise her up as her feet followed clumsily after his.

"It's not right without a beautiful lady to dance with," Shanks sang. "Come on now, dove, pick up your feet!"

Hoku's pace picked up. Lighter, remembering a time of skimming over hot sand and painted streets as people around her danced a laughed, white hair flying and turning almost silver against the fire light.

"Atta girl!" Shanks cheered. He swept Hoku up, twirling her out of his grip and then pulling her back in as he stomped his feet. "Come on, boys—"

"Now comes a storm through the far off sky, now the waves are dancing beat upon the drums!"

"I want a dance too!" Luffy shouted, twisting off shoulders and nearly smashing onto the floor. The men laughed, sweeping out of the way as he rushed to Hoku. "Hoku—"

Shanks nearly swept her off her feet. Calloused hands latched onto her own, twirling her back against the floor and Yasopp grinned wolfishly as he guided her across the floor. Luffy's jaw dropped to the floor as Shanks laughed, tears pricking the corners of his eyes as he held his stomach. "Ten years too early to dance with a beautiful lady, Luffy!"

"That's not fair! Hoku's mine first!"

Yasopp passed her off. Lucky hoisted her high into the air. Hoku's hair flew out, catching against the light and curling past her cheeks. Her lips parted, mind racing to follow along even if she'd butcher the lyrics but—

Shanks clapped his hands, side stepping around Luffy before he finally gave in and lifted him up onto his shoulders. Luffy laughed, eyes instantly brightening as he settled his hands atop the infamous straw hat and sang, loud and off key and with nothing but joy in his voice—

A laugh rang out, lost amidst the singing voices and cheers and stomping boots and clapping hands—

Hoku's heart threatened to burst.


"If you lose your nerve, this breath could be your last, but if you hold on then the morning sun will rise!"


Hoku forgot, how short a year was in the grand scheme of things.

Those days had seemed almost endless.


And time passes.

People come and go.


Hoku had resolved for no more gambles and absolutely no more exceptions.

There just couldn't be any more room in her heart for—

Oh.

Oh. Hoku couldn't help but think. It'd been impossible not to know, no matter how out of touch with the series she might've been compared to any loyal, diehard fan. Her face shifted into something quietly neutral, not quite sure how to feel but the quiet, wondering numbness as the young boy narrowed his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest with a scowl. It's you.

"Who the hell are you?"

Young and lively. A dusting of freckles across his cheeks. Blazing eyes like hot coals. Wild black hair tickling his chin. A fearsome look to his boyish face and every essence of the world—alive.

Portgas D. Ace.

Oh. She wasn't quite sure what to say. What to feel. Oh.

Ace scowled, the only problem he could possibly ever be worrying about simply their mere presence before him.

Hoku felt something strange turn in her chest, a quietness.

You're the one that dies.


"None of you are going to die," Hoku said flatly. "I literally just need some blood. From all of you."


Who put that light, back in your eye? Who's got you singing again? That thing you had, I wish it'd come back, with the right line.

 

 

Chapter Text

There was a reason why Hoku was on a boat.

There had to be a reason why Hoku was on a boat.

Ah, but how do you know you're on a boat? Because one does not simply navigate their way through about nineteen years of life in a world mainly and bodily inhabited by water without figuring at some point what it feels like to be on a boat. She could feel the wood beneath her skin. She could almost hear a rolling energy within the boards, but promptly shut down all notions of listening. She could see the sky, still blazing bright but stained with familiar burning hues of the sun starting to die.

There had to be a reason why, Hoku was on a boat. A boat, and currently not: her hut, on solid land, on an island or waving good bye from a dock.

What the fuck happened.

Hoku squinted at the sky, face screwing up like someone got the cake mixer stuck halfway.

What. The fuck. Happened.

Hoku had her fair share of blurry nights in the past and in this life as well. Most of those occasions were simply from knocking out cold or smacking her head into an object from her chronic clumsiness. She had a system when things like this happened. A game plan of sorts to figure out what she had on her from varying degrees of importance.

Hoku's arms smacked out, palms scratching at the wood as she searched around her waist and by her side with desperate ferocity.

Mau hummed pleasantly by her side the moment her fingers brushed over his smooth hilt.

Oh, thank the goddess. Hoku shut her eyes in relief, scrabbling for Mau and promptly setting him down on her chest, his familiar weight guarding her for a second.

Mau, check.

Hoku's hands flew to any available pockets. This one killed two birds with one stone—if she still had her clothes on—and she should definitely still have her clothes on—her carving knife and favorite brush should be in the pocket of the pants she was wearing today or her boots.

Her fingers closed around the familiar objects. Materials, check. Clothes, check.

Hoku's nose scrunched at the familiar rustle of fabric. Her fingers felt along her now clothed arms, realizing the smooth, bomber jacket sort of material was none other than her jacket. A tan, khaki colored thing she'd picked up at an island after setting off. It had 'Call me, call me' lettered thinly on the left side and a white star patched in on the right shoulder, so it'd felt almost like destiny.

It also had a smile with the tongue sticking out like the girl from a specific milk candy in another life and it was the first thing Hoku used to smash into a certain marine's face so...

Focus, girl. Why are you wearing a jacket? 'Because it's cold, dumbass.' Almost left her lips, but Hoku promptly squinted suspiciously at the sky.

Mayman only got snow for one week in the entire year.

She hadn't been wearing her jacket this morning.

Morning. Today. Help the monks fix up the roof. Meditation hour. Pack. Pick clovers with the kids. Paint a new mural. Head back to the temple for food and then—

Hoku dug her heels into the ground, lurching upright.

Her face smashed into the smooth, hardened curve of a katana sheath.

Hoku fell back onto the floor, grabbing at her nose.

"She's up," Zoro said.

Wado Ichimonji's sheath was even beautiful. Perfectly smoothened out, a clear, shiny coating of elaborate white paint. Hoku eyed the guard and hilt with longing eyes. Good craftsmanship. Not every graded sword has that.

"She's been up," Nami corrected. "She just... needed a moment to... collect herself?"

Nami's words implied the gathered lot Hoku now realized surrounded her with varying expression, had been standing here for a decent amount of time and watched Hoku go through her list. A very short list, given, but she liked to consider herself a minimalist. Hoku considered feeling scandalized for a brief second until she settled on more pressing matters.

"She went for her sword first," Usopp said nervously. "Should we be worried about that?"

"Luffy said she would," Zoro said.

"Our beautiful angel has finally awoken!" Sanji said. Feet slammed into the floorboards, carrying the cook away with rapid speed. "I'll prepare you some tea and a snack, my love!"

Hoku considered hearing their voices. Considered the only possible boat she could be on to hear these specific voices she had convinced herself of only hearing for a specially allotted slice of time and never again.

"What," Hoku said nasally. "Happened."

Luffy's face shot into view, casting a shadow and hovering over her.

"Shishishi, about time you woke up! You're always so slow," Luffy said loudly above her. Hoku regarded his face carefully, the brim of his hat casting a pleasant shade against her cheeks, just over her eyes. "You're on our ship, stupid!"

"I can feel that," Hoku said, rasping her knuckles against the wooden deck below her for emphasis. "Pray tell, Lu, why I'm on your ship?"

Luffy's face screwed up the way it always did when prompted with a question he didn't understand. This happened often.

"Because we brought you on, stupid," Luffy patted Hoku's cheek. "Maybe ya hit your head harder than we thought!"

"Stop calling me stupid, stupid," Hoku said. "That's how I'm on your ship. I want to know why when I should be back in my comfy little hut after helping you with that stupid thing—"

Slow, creeping recognition crawled through Hoku's brain, shoving in pictures of memories for her. A smaller Hoku in her mind nodded gravely, pointing a stick at the selected images. Yeah, that's exactly what happened, honey.

"Because," Luffy said, clear as day, looking at her as though she were stupid. "You joined my crew."

Hoku grabbed either side of Luffy's face.

His crew watched, faintly interested in the next set of encounters. Hoku's fingers carded through those airy black locks, traveling up to the sides of his straw hat. Luffy made a face, waiting impatiently as she calmly lifted it off his head and let it dangle from the string by his neck.

Hoku then grabbed Luffy's head and smashed her forehead into his.

"Ka! Like hell I did you hupo—"

Luffy's eyes spun as he let out a gleeful war cry, grabbing Hoku and tossing the two of them into a ferocious tumble.

"S-Should we stop them?" Usopp grabbed his head, eyes darting back and forth between the hissing white haired female now presently on their ship and Luffy's loud, rambunctious laughter as they wrestled.

"No," Zoro said, uninterested. "No one's dying."


Approximately Two Hours before boarding the Going Merry

Mayman Island, the West Coast side, Lost Luck Beach


"None of you are going to die," Hoku said flatly. "I literally just need some blood. From all of you."

Hoku looked back to the materials gathered before her. She squinted, sizing up the pages and the just how far back she intended to go... That should do it. Maybe the size of a fat papercut? "I shouldn't need too much. You guys can use this knife right here and—"

"Why do you need our blood?" Usopp and Nami screeched in unison, ripping their hands clear of her and scrambling back.

Hoku stared at them, holding up her trusted carving knife.

"It's clean," Hoku said. "You're not going to get infected or anything. If it really bothers you, I can get a few more—"

"That doesn't answer the question!" Nami accused. "Why do you need our blood? Do you understand how creepy that sounds?"

Hoku rubbed the side of her face with her tattoo. Luffy flopped down to sit beside her in a familiar spot, a little too in her space but still enough for her to work. Zoro was only half listening, eyes focused more on the blade propped in the sun by the window.

Hoku patted the papers in front of her, "See, I made a... 'promise' with your captain over here a few years back. To do it, I'm going to need a bit of your blood. I'm going to mix it together with mine into an ink and it's... It's a technique basically. Pokian. It'd hard to explain and easier to see."

Hoku pulled out a small ceramic bowl, stained along the inside a soft red. Nami and Usopp paled, the former shoving the other in front of herself for protection. Usopp visibly swallowed, hands shaking at his sides.

There's literally no other way to phrase this. Hoku grabbed a box of bandages for good measure. "Just a small cut is fine—like a paper cut! I swear I'm not summoning a demon or cursing you guys—"

Hoku absently considered what she was doing. Perhaps cursing wasn't the right word. Etching it all onto paper, illustrating it and giving it a life beyond that of words and memories...

It's something irrevocable. Permanent.

A little shiver ran down her spine. She couldn't tell if it was more out of excitement or something else.

Hoku rubbed the bare opening of her left shoulder. A scattering of petals she'd tattooed into her skin, shaped like Manu's tattoo.

He would've loved something like this.

Nami and Usopp still didn't look convinced. A knee hit the floor in front of her, making some of her materials jump. Hoku looked up to where Sanji was already offering his hand to her, rolling up the cuff of his sleeves and bowing his head.

"I'd gladly give you whatever you needed of me, my angel," Sanji said. "My body is yours."

"It's gotta be you guys or it won't work as well," Hoku said. "I can fill in the gaps, but it'll work best with all of you."

A familiar hand prompted itself in front of her face. Hoku didn't have to look twice to know who it was without a doubt.

"Nami. Usopp." The two turned, tears in their eyes.

Luffy grinned up at them.

"You can trust her, I promise!"

Hoku shivered involuntarily. She kept her eyes focused on the task before her, clearing her mind of anything else. All thoughts of the sun and the dangers of how intoxicating its warmth could be leaving as she grabbed Luffy's hand and lowered it to the bowl. Nami and Usopp sniffled, scooting closer and dutifully offering their hands like children getting their first shots.

Hoku pressed her carving knife to Luffy's palm, urging a thin sheen of shiny black to coat the blade as she pressed a quick cut into his skin. Luffy didn't even flinch, watching with childish fascination as his blood rolled off his fingers and into the bowl. Hoku waited for a few drops before pressing a small bandage into his palm and giving the back of his hand a pat.

She grabbed Sanji's hand next. His cheeks flushed, eyes swooning as he watched her fingers curl gently over his hands. You've got soft hands. She cleaned off her knife and repeated the same motion with Luffy, waiting a few seconds and then turning to Nami.

"Make sure it doesn't hurt, okay?" Nami said, leaning her head back and worrying at her lips. "I'm going to have to charge you for this! Each drop is worth more than a hundred beli—eek!"

Hoku made sure her cut was the quickest and softest, soothing the gentle palm lined with hardened callouses hidden just beneath her fingertips. Nami had the kind of hands softer than Hoku's, but promising someone who'd held a pen and held it for a long, long time.

Hoku looked up. Before she could say anything else, Zoro's hand was already hovering before the bowl, a simple gash from where he'd cut himself with his own sword. Hoku huffed a little sigh of amusement, waiting a bit before touching his wrist and the swordsman pulled away with a grunt, crossing his arms over his chest.

She wordlessly turned to the last one.

Usopp's thin arm trembled. Hoku waited as he shakily presented her with his hand, kneeling on the ground beside the rest of his crew and watching her with wobbly eyes. "I-It won't hurt at all! A bit of blood c-c-could never scare off the greatest of warriors—"

Hoku made a clean cut along his palm. Usopp nearly shrieked.

"Some great warrior," Zoro muttered.

"I didn't even scream that loud," Nami said.

"S-Shut up! I have I-can't-lose-blood-or-I'll-dieosis—"

"Thanks," Hoku said, cutting him off. She turned the bowl around a few times, the gathered puddle of blood sloshing a bit. "This'll only take a bit."

Luffy snickered at her side, restlessly shuffling around. He grabbed the top of his hat, tugging it down and grinning brightly. Hoku's lips twitched up a bit. "Oh, man, this is gonna be great!"

Hoku wiped her knife on the cloth she had. She gently pressed her the blade into the skin of her palm, cutting quick and deep. Nami and Usopp winced, faces pale as they watched nervously. Hoku let a fair amount pool down from her hand, watching the bowl fill until she turned her hand and tied it off with a cloth. She automatically reached for the jar of soot at her side, tossing some into the bowl and then a squashed vial of kiionohi. Hoku mixed the entire thing with her brush.

She glanced up.

Several pairs of eyes were all turned toward her, watching.

Hoku snorted. You guys are really somethin' else.

She pushed the thought of all of them to the forefront of her mind. Hoku considered each person. She fell back to everything Manu had taught her. She thought of nothing else but her subject, about the story she wanted to tell with them in mind and—

Hoku shut her eyes.

Their story.

Her brush pressed into the first page.

The ink immediately spiraled out from there, spreading across the thick page and weaving itself into patterns and arches. The first page was easy. Nothing but ocean and a familiar island and his back as he thrusted his hands into the air. Colors came pouring in right after.

Excitement thrummed off Luffy like brilliant rays, infectious.

Hoku grabbed the next waiting page, moving her brush. The images etched themselves in time, moving her brush to follow the stroke as the ink trails curled and jerked at corners. Zoro's legs stiffened. The first to join. A rough goodbye with a boy with cherry blossom pink hair.

Usopp squawked. A village came in full color on the page. A fated clash. A beautiful girl's warm smile and a gentle wish. The birth of a ship that would carry on into the toughest of waters and sail a crew worthy enough till the end of its days. A strange man stuck in a treasure trunk on an island of strange creatures.

Hoku kept her gaze rapt on the pages bleeding to life in front of her, grabbing the page and the next in rapid succession, focusing hard on the details shouting for attention in the mixed blood ink at her tip. She listened in corners, followed orders on the finer linings of other details, and supplied color tones for a shift in the mood meant to be illustrated.

Nami let out a little gasp, leaning forward with shining eyes. Usopp was watching in disbelief, following each rapid trail.

Voices flooded her head. A chorus of different shouts and laughs and curses. Hoku took it all in stride, never faltering with the brush—"Just keep that steady, the rest will come." She grabbed another page. The stack she'd set down began to dwindle, page after page filling with illustration after illustration.

She dipped the brush back into the ink. The bowl receded an inch, as though the brush had soaked up a hefty amount.

"That's—" Sanji started, unable to finish.

A floating restaurant. A foolish pirate. A page dedicated to a bit of fun just before the first hurdle threw itself into play.

Hoku took a little more care with the next page. She filled in the detailed illustrations of a man with golden eyes and a sword with a haunting ring and voice like velvet and night. I can do this part myself. The ink spread beneath her brush, fondness lined with the familiar longing of wanting to see someone again pressed into the colors coming to life from the dark ink of his boots to the precious golden cross bared in his hands. Right at the ferocious youth standing across from him.

A shouted, tear filled declaration. A single sword thrusted upwards into the air, to split the sky. Hoku finished off the light catching its blade and she turned to the next page.

A rift in the gathered spirits. Haunting pasts and shackled dreams locked into a single room. A head bowed low and a tearful thank you followed with the single, farewell call of a father not to catch a cold.

Hoku's eyes were focused vividly on every stroke and page unfolding at her fingertips. A bead of sweat rolled down the corner of her chin, disappearing beneath her neckline. She dipped the brush back into the bowl and returned to the page as though they'd never parted.

She made the internal decision not to include the pages of pasts. That didn't belong here—it'd already been worn, etched into each of the characters of this story for them to play the part of the current tale unfolding. That stayed with them. Belonged to them.

Vibrant colors exploded on the next pages. Jaws lined with teeth. Furious declarations and tear filled shouts. Blood splattered. The hopeless, reaching copy of a past that built a monster. A tear filled utterance for help.

The destruction of a room made eight years a prison. A battle. The collapse of a building that struck fear and despair into the hearts of many—

Standing figures in victory.

Hoku dipped her brush one more time. The bowl nearly empty.

A page for celebration. A promise made at a grave. A farewell made with a running leap and shouts and a promise to return.

Hoku grabbed one more page. A ship spilled out from her brush, setting sail and cutting straight through the ocean for its next destination. She sniffled once, setting her brush down. Hoku gathered all the pages together, setting two blank ones down on top of the first. She evened them out, reaching up for a fair sized lock of hair and cutting it clean. Usopp and Nami gasped. The uneven strip fell back into her hair and Hoku carefully tied off the ends.

She bound the papers together with practiced ease, tying it off so it'd be easy to unravel and add new pages.

Hoku thumbed through the stack once. A soft fwip fwip fwip filled the hut. A chorus of voices spilling into her head before she set the book down. They quieted with a rumble, like shutting the door on a loud party.

Hoku's vision turned blurry. She absently rubbed the corners of her eyes, sniffling once and shaking her head to clear the tears.

A part of her wanted to laugh a bit. She'd seen most of it all unfold before right? Under someone else's hand, on a different screen—

The vivid voices were all real. The emotions were raw. Such thoughts didn't belong here and especially not when she'd just put it all out on display for them to see. This was their story. Hard earned, crafted – endured. Each page and each stroke. They suffered these wounds and scars. They climbed their way out of nothing and set forth on so they could find everything.

The people they'd meet later on, the onlookers, the ones who'd hear rumors and stare at the posters—they wouldn't know about this. They didn't know about what each of them endured to stand where they were and where they'd be. Didn't know about the blood spilled or the tears shed and the laughter that belonged only to these memories—

They did not know the story of the Straw Hat Pirates.

Hoku ran smooth fingers over the newly made book in her hands.

But the world would know the story of their adventure.

"Tell the story of this world. Tell it true, maka."

The blood would never lie.

Hoku rubbed the corner of her eye on her shoulder, making sure the stupid tears were gone. She shuffled, turning to face Luffy.

Their eyes met.

People always said not to stare at the sun.

"Here you go, Luffy," Hoku said. She presented the book to him with both hands, smoothing the corner to make sure it wouldn't fold up. "Promise kept. It's all here."

The grin that split his lips was so, so painfully wide. Luffy teetered back and then forward, grabbing onto the book with such a sturdy and surprisingly gentle grip. They both held onto it for a moment of passing. His eyes were shining.

"Chapter one," Hoku said. "Of the greatest adventure to ever take place. The story of the Straw Hat Pirates."

Hoku let her hands fall into her lap. Luffy took the book with starry eyes. He eagerly opened it back up, despite the fact that they'd all had the chance to witness everything that'd been poured into it just seconds before.

"This is awesome!" Luffy shouted eagerly, flapping the pages in his hands and spreading it on the floor for the rest of his crew to see. "Isn't this awesome? So cool!"

"It's all here," Nami said, eyes wide in disbelief. She turned the pages after Luffy, pausing at Arlong Park and running her fingers down the illustrations. "All of it is here..."

"This is how you and that idiot muscle head wound up together?" Sanji pulled his cigarette from his lips. "Should've figured..."

"Fat lot of good coming from you. Didn't know your head could bow that low, shitty cook."

"I'm gonna wring your neck—"

"It even shows how brave I am!" Usopp declared, shuffling the pages back to Syrup Village. "Look! It's got every moment I triumphed as a hero—this really is the truth!"

"Yeah, it's got you crying too," Luffy said. "That's awesome."

Usopp spluttered. The colored pages came back to life and Hoku began to shove her materials together, piling them up in her arms and standing up so they could crowd around and get a look. Luffy thrusted it back up into the air with a woohoo! Usopp and Sanji quickly tried to grab it from his hands before he ripped it in two.

"How did you do this?" Nami said, looking up at Hoku with wide eyes. Hoku's halter top showed off a splattering of different tattoos—a sword and feathered flower at the base of her neck and petals scattered on her left shoulder. Another one peeked out from her hip on the left side, hard to make out. Nami eyed those curiously before Hoku glanced over her shoulder.

"With some blood," Hoku said, a bit amused. "You can thank the Island of Artopoki for that."

"Can all Pokians do this?" Usopp questioned. "Can you imagine how easy this would make everything? This is amazing! You got all this from our blood!"

"The blood never lies," Hoku said. "And no. I'm an illustrator so I learned how to utilize it the best. I promised your idiot of a captain over here that I'd put those skills to use and draw out his adventure as far as he'd been up to this point. The pages are pretty resilient, but try not to do anything too crazy with them, yeah?"

"You saw it all?" Zoro questioned, arms crossed over his chest.

Sanji tensed in front of them.

Hoku played with her answer, "Just enough to tell the story."

He looked faintly satisfied at that and Hoku figured leaving any of the past out was the best choice. She gave the swordsman another once over and couldn't help mumbling out, "Nice try, yeah? Not everyone lives after going against a sword that amazing."

Zoro grimaced, but his eyes focused on her with new attention, slightly narrowed. Hoku turned. She dropped her things into the duffel bag she left by the side of the wall, grabbing another bag she'd had ready and shoving it in.

I guess I should get going after they leave. Hoku set her hands on her hips, surveying the rest of her hut. There were a few more things she should grab. She needed to visit Old Man Wishbone and make sure they had everything else together before she departed too. Is there anything else after that?

"Luffy," Nami said suddenly, glancing to the apple shaped clock ticking away on Hoku's wall. "The wind should be picking up by nightfall. We should get going if we want to get there by tomorrow."

"Already?" Luffy looked up from where he had the book spread open in front of Usopp's face. Nearly smashing into his long nose.

Nami nodded, trying to get a peek at the weather outside from the windows. Zoro yawned, resting a hand on his sword and leaning back against a wall. Sanji placed a cigarette into his mouth but waited to light it, glancing to his captain.

Arms suddenly wrapped tight around her shoulders. Hoku jerked, tugged by the sudden weight and barely planting her feet firmly enough until Luffy came rocketing at her in the close distance of her hut. She stumbled, "Ka! Don't do that in a damn house—"

"Shishishi, thank you, Hoku!" Luffy shoved the side of his face into hers. She could feel the pull of his grin on his cheeks, urging hers upwards. "You're the best!"

Hoku's chest twisted that funny little way it did sometimes.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," her hands hesitated for a second before briefly wrapping her arms tight around him. Luffy beamed, burrowing deeper into the returned squeeze and Hoku shut her eyes, soaking up just a bit more sun. "It's one hell of a story so far."

"Right?" Luffy crowed, jerking his head back to look at her. "The greatest! Nothing's gonna beat that!"

And I wonder what comes next.

Hoku patted the top of his straw hat, feeling the familiar material between her fingers.

Maybe, just a bit, she might miss it. Only a bit.

Maybe a life or two in I'll see something good. Hoku pulled her fingers from his hat, letting them drift once more down his hair, curving along his cheek briefly and following the huge curve of his trademark grin before dropping her hand. I'll keep an eye out in the papers for ya, Lu.

The way he'd barreled into her up at the mountain top was enough. Anymore sun than that and she might find herself with a burn.

She had some things to do before kicking the bucket for this world. Catching a headliner in the news about the storm these lot would create couldn't hurt her too bad.

Another thought lingered on the lips of her mind, but Hoku didn't dare think it. You're not allowed to think things like that with what you wanna do, dumbass.

"Good winds are coming," Nami said thoughtfully, a breeze tickling her face where she stuck her head out the window. "We should get going."

Hoku turned on her heel instantly, eyes shining.

"You should definitely get going," Hoku said. "Waters get a bit gambl-y out here. Never know what you're gonna find unless you're lucky."

"We got tons of these," Luffy said, pulling down Usopp's bag and showing fistfuls of four leaf clovers. "We won."

"You're welcome to take anything you need," Hoku said. Nami perked up instantly. Sanji swooned, ushering praises for her kindness and generosity. Usopp peeked with his nose over the book of their adventures now safe in his hands. Luffy was wiping dust off his shorts and adjusting the bandage on his hand. "I can set you off with some food and supplies. On your way out the town's got plenty of stuff too."

"You're an angel!" Sanji crooned. "An absolute angel, were you sent from heaven to help guide us on the way? Sweeping by my heart and—"

"Well," Nami said, twiddling her fingers. "Since you offered, what can we get for free around here?"

Hoku reached over, shuffling through her cabinet. She pulled out a small box, inspecting the contents before she tossed it over to Nami. She caught it quickly, eyes curious as she lifted the lid. Two large jars were nestled inside, cushioned on either side.

"That'll fetch a nice price in the market wherever you're going," Hoku said. "Tell the old lady at the market stand you came from my place and she should set you up with something nice."

Nami's eyes twinkled. Hoku threw her another box and Nami's eyes lit up with new beli signs. "More—"

"That one's for you," Hoku said. "If you're the navigator, you've got maps to draw, right?"

Nami looked up, fingers holding tightly onto the box. Hoku kicked over a basket, shuffling through an assortment of things before she found a sealed off satchel. She stood, handing it off to Sanji who took it with gracious arms. "What is—"

"Just some stuff you might find useful," Hoku said. "This island has some interesting teas they make from the clovers here." It's got shit I've been piling up from this island to give to you bunch in case I ever did have to deal with this. That'd be enough and she could send them on their way. Some funny things Usopp could play with. Maybe a bag or two of dried kiionohi because a person could never have enough of that.

Almost there.

"And here," Hoku grabbed a vial hanging suspended from a rope, one of many. She tossed it Zoro's way and he caught it midair, inspecting the contents with a disgruntled frown. "For the sword. Don't know if you'll run into someone who can do it right for ya, but I'm sure you can figure something out."

Zoro's eyes flicked up to her.

Hoku crossed her arms over her chest, satisfied. Usopp had the book tucked safely to his chest, the way it ought to... nothing else to do, is there?

"Well," Hoku said with a pleased sigh. "Honestly a pleasure to meet you all! Thanks again for making sure this idiot doesn't lose his head or drown. Sorry for all the trouble he's given you lot."

Hoku pressed two fingers to her chest and then to her lips, saluting them with it. "I wish you all nothing but the absolute best. May nothing but good winds and luck come your way."

Hoku thought, a little bit, about a bunch of others things to come.

"Blaze on," Hoku said. A little louder she added, "And make that adventure a good one."

She beamed, satisfied with herself. Hoku turned, not catching the strange looks Nami and Usopp were flashing each other. Sanji looked a little lost. Zoro merely yawned, ready to be done with this whole ordeal. "I can even walk you out to the docks if you'd like—"

That's a perfectly decent goodbye. Hoku reasoned. I'll see them off and then head out myself. I'll maybe finish up a few things, see what trouble I can cause and where that gets me. I'll just follow along a bit, try to stay updated and enjoy the news until I'm done—

Hoku turned back to them, knocking her forehead onto Luffy's suddenly present one with a twang. "Ow! Damn it, Lu, don't stand so close."

Luffy snickered, "Hoku you dummy, Nami said we gotta get going!"

"Yeah, I know," Hoku said, rubbing her forehead and then smoothing a hand through her hair. Her bun came loose. "That's why I said I'd walk you out to the docks."

Luffy clasped a hand over her shoulder, lips stretching from ear to ear, "So hurry up and grab your stuff! We gotta get going, stupid."

"Don't call me stupid, stupid—" Hoku stopped.

"...what did you just say?"

"I said you're stupid."

"No, shut up. Before that, you idiot."

"I said hurry up and get your stuff!" Luffy complained, "We gotta get going."

Hoku stared at Luffy.

Luffy stared back. He reached up and stuck a finger into his ear, wheedling anything out.

Hoku squinted. She tipped her head to the side, "Lu, this is my hut."

"Duh," Luffy said.

"I'm not going anywhere."

"Just grab whatcha need," Luffy said. "You said it yourself. It gets hard leaving here, so let's go already."

Hoku pressed a hand to the bottom half of her face. She regarded Luffy for another minute before carefully and clearly articulating, "Luffy. I'm not going anywhere."

"You're not going anywhere, stupid," Luffy rolled his eyes, flicking whatever he'd found into the distance. "You're going somewhere."

"Luffy, you dumbass. I mean I'm not getting on your boat."

Luffy made a face. Usopp scuffed the edge of his toe awkwardly along the floorboards. Nami busied herself with tucking the boxes into the pockets of her skirt.

"Of course you are, dummy," Luffy said. "You're part of my crew."

Dangerous alarm bells flashed in Hoku's head. She stared at the rubbery teen in front of her. The very same one she'd wound up spending years with beyond her normally planned program. The very same one she'd only promised to do that thing for and then part ways with for the rest of her time on this world.

You're part of my crew were fighting words.

"No," Hoku said. "I'm not."

"Yeah, you are."

"When did I ever agree to that? Never. I never agreed to that—"

"You said you were gonna tell the story of the greatest adventure ever," Luffy said, jerking a thumb to the book in Usopp's hands. "That's our story. You gotta be with us to do that. Stuuupid."

"I said," Hoku stressed. "I'd tell whatever part of your adventure you had."

Luffy frowned at her as though she'd said something completely incomprehensible. "The adventure isn't over yet."

Hoku pressed her fingers to her lips. She counted very carefully to ten in her head and then another ten for good measure.

"Luffy, I'm not joining your crew and I sure as hell am not getting on your boat."

"But you promised," Luffy said. "And I won. You can't go back on your word, you liar."

"I'm not," Hoku said, thoroughly offended. "I kept my promise! I never promised to join your damn crew!"

"You said you'd draw the greatest adventure ever!" Luffy protested. "You gotta be part of my crew to do that! I dunno why that's so hard for ya to understand—"

"Because it makes no sense—" Hoku whirled around on the assembled crew. "He didn't tell you anything about this, right? He never said he was adding someone to the crew—"

"Well, uh," Usopp started awkwardly. Nami shoved him forward with her elbow, clearing her throat. "You... We were... kinda under the impression we were... um... picking someone up?"

Hoku stared.

"My dear angel," Sanji said graciously. "I would never let them force you into anything but... aren't you coming along with us?"

Hoku stared.

"Oh, no," Hoku said. "No. No. No. No. No, Lu. I am not doing this. We are not doing this. I'm not gonna join your crew and I sure as hell am not—"

"Just take her already," Zoro said. "This is going nowhere."

"Zoro!"

"You stupid marimo!"

Hoku shot the spearmint headed swordsman a look of deep, one sided betrayal. She mentally took back any well wishes she'd wanted to give to him after his clash with Mihawk. You son of a—

Familiar fingers curled around her wrist.

Hoku looked down to where Luffy grabbed her hand and then back to his simple stare.

"Too late," Luffy said. "You already promised to join my crew. No takebacks."

Hoku promptly began to march away, jerking rough feet against Luffy's grip toward the back of the hut. There was a back door and if worst came to worst, she was definitely running. This wasn't happening. This was not how it was supposed to go. Sailing on that ship meant bad things and it made getting her shit done a lot fucking harder.

"Nope. Nope. Nuh uh. Not happening. I'm not going anywhere near that ship and I'm not joining your—"

Hoku's foot caught on the edge of Mau. Her eyes widened into saucers as a startled chuckle filled her head.

Normally, someone holding on to you would stop you from falling, pull you back.

Luffy's arm promptly stretched.

Hoku's body fell forward. Tripping.

Her head smacked into the side of her cabinet.


"You know, you might not think it," Manu said once, watching her wrestle to free several twisted balls of silver yarn from each other. "But I think you must've been born under an auspicious star."

"I dunno what you're talking about, Papa," Hoku said back. Her foot caught on the edge of a book and she fell onto her back.

Manu watched where a weak part of the table Mahina had been meaning to fix came loose, crashing onto the ground inches from where she was.

"Just," Manu said. "A hunch."


"Did she just knock herself out?" Nami questioned incredulously.

The hand Luffy had wrapped around Hoku's limp wrist stretched upwards, patting her cheek.

No response.

Luffy's arm smacked back into place. "Yup!"

Hoku was out cold.

"Is she okay?" Usopp squawked.

"My poor darling!" Sanji cried, rushing forward and quickly kneeling by Hoku's head. He gingerly lifted it into his lap, cheeks flushing and steam puffing out of his nose. Nami smacked the back of his head. "Luffy, you idiot! How could you be so rough with a lady?"

"I wasn't," Luffy said. "Hoku's just a real klutz. It's pretty funny. One time she tripped over nothing and fell into this huuuuge pile of mud."

Luffy stretched his head from side to side. "Yosh! Time to get going, right, Nami?"

"Well, yeah," Nami turned to Luffy with bulging eyes. "But what about—"

Luffy's arm stretched out across the room. He looped it several times around Hoku's waist and promptly jerked her flying through the air toward him. He tossed Hoku's body over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, snickering at her passed out face for a second. Luffy stretched out his free hand, snatching Mau from where he'd almost clattered to the floor and tucking that under his arm as well.

"Alright!" Luffy said. "Usopp, take care of that book. Sanji, grab all the food you can carry!"

"That's it?" Nami exclaimed. "We're just going to take her and leave like that?"

Luffy made a face, scrunched up in thought. He shuffled around, Hoku swaying over his shoulder. "What else would she need? She's got food and Mau and—" Luffy patted Hoku's pockets. Sanji let out an incomprehensible sound from his throat as Luffy's hands patted along her ass and sides before nodding. "Her brush and stuff. And food—"

"How about clothes?" Nami barked. "And personal possessions? Valuables?"

"The kidnapping?" Usopp added.

"Oh, yeah. Sure," Luffy picked his nose. "Can ya grab that too?"

Nami pulled her hand over her face with a groan. She flashed Hoku's passed out figure a look before glancing to Luffy and then promptly clapping her hands. "Okay! We're doing this, I guess. Usopp! You're in charge of that book. Grab all her supplies from her desk and every bottle and vial you can find and carry! Sanji! Rations and—"

"Oh! Bring that!" Luffy shouted, pointing eagerly to two potted plants by the fridge. One a tree with almost white roots and the other a shrub, berry-like bush. "Hoku loves that!"

Nami glanced over, "Which one?"

Luffy frowned, head tipping to the side. "I don't remember."

"Sanji! Both of those!"

"Yes, Nami-swan! I love it when you take charge—"

"Zoro!" Nami shouted. Zoro grunted, shooting her a look. "You grab that duffel. It looks prepacked and important."

"And what are you going to do?" Zoro questioned roughly.

"I'm," Nami said flatteringly, pressing a hand to her chest. "Going to get her clothes. I can't leave that to men like you lot. I'm also going to grab anything that looks valuable and find her savings because, well, she's going to need to pay something for that blood I spilled and her recruitment fee!"

Zoro and Usopp shook their heads in unison.

"Rob her of everything she's got, more like," Zoro grumbled.

Luffy turned on his heel, nearly knocking Hoku's head into the side of the table. "Alright! Let's go guys, we're setting sail! When Hoku wakes up, we're having a feast to our new member too!"

"If she wakes up," Usopp murmured worriedly, eyeing the stars that seemed to be spinning in Hoku's eyes. "She hit her head pretty hard—"

Luffy stopped just short of the hut's doorway. He paused, head swinging from left to right as he surveyed the entire home and then turned around to face it properly, Hoku swaying and smacking into her own door.

"THANK YOU VERY MUCH," Luffy shouted, roughly bowing his head once, Hoku almost flopping over his shoulder and then shooting back up.

"Uh, Luffy," Nami started, hands already rifling through anything that looked like a purse or bag. "Who are you thanking?"

"Hoku always says we should thank stuff," Luffy said simply. "Makes them happy."

"Makes who happy?" Usopp continued. His eyes went wide. "Don't tell me there's ghosts after all—"

Luffy cocked his head to the side. A soft breeze swirled through the hut, warm and gentle. Every dangling object rang softly, wind chimes clinking together and the entire home seemed to gather itself up and exhale one soft, warm sigh.

You're welcome.

The breeze billowed. It brushed past Nami gathering an armful of clothes. Jostling past Usopp as he scrambled to stack supplies into his arms. Rifling through leaves as Sanji hoisted the pots into his arms gingerly. Ghosting by Zoro's hands as he lifted the duffel onto his shoulder with a grunt.

It rustled a stack of papers on Hoku's desk, flapping several drawings in the air.

The breeze brushed past Hoku's cheek, caressing it with ghostlike fingers as strands of her hair were pushed from her face, brandishing her heart.

"Sure, sure," Luffy said. "She's my nakama, you know."

A wind chime clinked.


"Take care of her, wild boy."


"Miss Hoku's leaving now?"

Luffy blinked, looking over his shoulder. Hoku swung around, smashing into his back.

A gathered group of rag-tag children stood a few feet from the dock of the ship. The rest of the crew paused, turning over their shoulders with Hoku's possessions in hand. Nami quickly recognized the young boy who'd helped them, the one Hoku had said was Little Wishbone...

A few of the elders of the island hobbled over. Canes clacked, feet shuffled along and a small crowd was soon gathered by the docks, watching the bobbing ship anchored and the unconscious girl thrown over Luffy's shoulder.

"Yup," Luffy said. "She's part of my crew so she's coming along."

"You sure you're not just kidnapping her?" a little girl cried. "That's what pirates do, isn't it?"

"Nope," Luffy said. "She's gonna tell the greatest adventure ever. That's ours. She's gotta do it if she wants to tell it!"

"You better take care of her!" Little Wishbone said hotly. "Miss Hoku's mean and trips a lot and breaks stuff, but we like her! She helped fix this island up even though no one else did and—"

"Now, now," Old Wishbone laughed, patting his grandson's back. "No harm, here. Miss Hoku was always talking as though she'd be leaving at some point. Said every now and then there'd be a group of people she'd have to take care of... you all seem to fit the bill just fine."

Luffy shuffled, sandals slapping on the wooden boards of the dock. Old Wishbone motioned another old woman forward. She smiled softly, reaching out with shaking hands and holding out a small bag, tied up with a green ribbon at the end.

Luffy took it politely.

"For Miss Hoku," the old lady said. "We all figured she ought to be just fine, but a little luck never hurt. Mayman has a funny way of paying back favors in kind."

"Sure," Luffy said. "Thanks!"

"See her off safely now, dear!" another grandma called.

"Do write!"

"If you ever need a snack, come back and visit!"

"Put on a jacket, dearie, it looks cold!"

"Maybe they're all senile," Zoro said, looking over the duffel at the gathered lot. "I'd sure as hell be suspicious if a group came and took someone from my island."

"You'd probably get lost on your way to do something about it," Nami accused.

"Hoku knocked herself out," Luffy said, turning to face the crowd. He tipped the brim of his hat up and stooped low in one quick bow, Hoku flopping over his shoulder and back. "But thanks for takin' care of her and stuff! She's my nakama, so don't worry."

Luffy grinned, shooting back up. Hoku's head smashed into his back. "When we sail all the way around the world, we'll come back and make sure she gets to say hi!"

"That'll do just right by us," Old Wishbone said happily. "Tell her when she wakes up we'll make sure her hut stays just fine."

"That place used to be such a dump!" an old lady mused. "We offered her all these other places but she was insistent about that one... patched it up just fine so it's rightfully hers now."

"Thanks!" Luffy beamed, turning on his heel and marching up the plank to board the Merry. "I'll let her know!"

"Make sure she eats well!" an old lady hobbled forward, quickly ushering for them to take a basket filled to the brim with fruits and dried goods. Sanji took it quickly, setting the pots down onto the deck and running back and grabbing it. "A hearty appetite, that one!"

"Put a jacket on her, it'll get cold out there!"

"Do you need some help getting out of the port?" two fishermen called, bobbing up and down with the sway of their colorful ship. "We can help tow you out, you should be just fine!"

Nami's eyes sparkled gratefully. Luffy pursed his lips in thought.

"Nah, it's fine. If we're not meant to make it out of here then we won't."

"Luffy!"

"We won," Luffy reminded them simply. "We'll get out. Why're you all so scared?"

"Because it doesn't hurt to have some help—" Nami started woefully, Usopp ushering her along with understanding nods.

Old Wishbone laughed. "I'd expect nothing else from a man who says he'll be king of the pirates!"

The gathered children looked back at Luffy with renewed eyes. Their gazes sparkled, quickly chattering and watching in awe.

"You make sure Miss Hoku has lots of fun then!" a boy shouted. "If you make her cry, you'll get lots of bad luck from us!"

"Okay," Luffy bobbed his head once.

"Make sure you feed her!"

"Make sure she doesn't trip too much!"

Luffy bobbed his head several more times.

Their eyes watered. A few kids broke ranks, running back toward the town center, shouting out farewells. A few others began to disperse, backing away and waving toward the ship.

"All ready to go, Luffy," Nami said. Her eyes dropped down to Hoku's unconscious form, brows creased. "Are you sure this is fine?"

Luffy glanced back over his shoulder at Hoku. He grinned, turning back toward the island with bright eyes, "Yup! Hoku hates goodbyes. She becomes a total crybaby. So we'll say it for her."

Luffy inhaled deeply, nearly inflating from the force of the action. Zoro hauled up the anchor and the sails unfurled, catching wind instantly.

"HOKU SAYS THANKS FOR EVERYTHING EVERYONE!"

A chorus of laughs went up. Hands flew to the air and a whole cloud of clovers were tossed high into the sky. Smoke began to trail up from the highest peak of the mountaintop, bells tolling in the distance—seven rings.

"Good luck, pirates!" Old Wishbone called as the ship began to sail off from the port, fishermen waving from their boats, tossing clovers into the water. "Best of luck to the lot of you!"

"Thank you, Miss Hoku!" Little Wishbone shouted, snot dribbling down his lip. "We'll pay ya back for everything! So come back soon!"

"This really was such a nice little island," Nami murmured, tucking a wave of hair behind her ear. "She picked a real nice place to stay... I feel almost bad we're making her leave."

"Captain's orders," Zoro shrugged, stepping away from the deck and dropping Hoku's duffel by the door. "I'm gonna go take a nap."

"Spoil sport," Usopp called.

"Nami-swan, if you're hungry, I can make you a snack!"

"It's alright. I'll wait till Hoku wakes up and we can chat a bit~"

"Of course, Nami-swan!"

Luffy grinned, waving largely to the people still gathered by the docks. A warm breeze tugged their sails harder, urging them past a turbulent swirl of ocean crashing against an alcove of rocks. A bird above them let out a loud cry, beating heavy wings before it took off. Luffy turned, giving it a funny look.

"Something wrong, Luffy?" Usopp shouted from the crow's nest.

"Nah," Luffy adjusted Hoku over his shoulder and grinned. "Sounds good to me."


"Funny fool," the bird called, laughter in every note as it flew away. "World keeps moving. Fool stands no chance."

A beat of wings.

"See what you can do."


"Something about that little hut just doesn't seem to last," an old woman mused, crossing her arms over her chest as Old Wishbone smiled. "That man didn't stay long either."

"You guys always talk about that hut," Little Wishbone complained. "It was just some old creaky thing until Miss Hoku fixed it up."

"You weren't born yet," Old Wishbone said. "Funny man with a very similar hat stayed there a few days—built it in a night and then left after exploring the whole island. Said he was gonna turn this world upside down and didn't need any luck to do it."

Old Wishbone hummed, turning back toward the path. "Better let the monks know she sailed off just fine. Wonder whatever happened to that odd fellow."


"Hey, gramps," Old Wishbone looked up. Hoku turned to him, hair pulled back out of her face. Paint smeared her cheeks and dirt gathered all along her hands, clothes a mess from all the work they'd been pouring into fixing up the rest of the island. "Does anyone live there?"

Old Wishbone turned. A sagged in, fair sized hut was slumped along the corner of Lost Luck beach. They'd all left it to be after so many years, none of the tides ever coming high enough to claim it back and set up just far enough on the sand and grass that the forest never took to it either.

"That old thing?" Old Wishbone's eyes turned with recognition. "A man once lived their years ago. But no one's touched it in ages! You can stay at the inn we just fixed up closer to town."

"If it's not too much trouble," Hoku patted the ox made of dirt beside her, hoisting up several new bamboo stalks onto its back. "I might just fix it up. I'm just hanging around for a bit till I gotta go again. I might be meeting up with some people."

"It's no skin off anyone's teeth here," Old Wishbone said. "But are you sure, dear?"

"Yeah," Hoku made a funny face. "It's got a nice voice."


Present Time, Going Merry


"Unbelievable," Hoku panted.

She crouched on her hands and knees, sweat dribbling down the side of her face, a bruise starting on her hip. Luffy laughed on the floor beside her, spread out on his back and huffing happily. Hoku stared at the ground, face pale.

"Absolutely unbelievable. Ka! No it isn't—this is exactly something you'd do. Only you would take me from my house when I was passed out and just haul me onto a ship..." Hoku bowed her head. "I was so stupid... so careless..."

"You said take anything we need!" Luffy laughed. "So we did!"

Hoku smacked the top of his head. She fell back onto her ass, pushing her hair from her face and staring in disbelief the rolling blue surrounding them for miles. Evening was coming. The Going Merry was set on course at this point for none other than the Grand Line.

Un-fucking-believable.

Okay. Hoku reasoned. Okay. She could be in a worse situation than this. She definitely could—she could be locked up in a cell by the marines with no access whatsoever to do what she wanted. Yeah. That's it. She could be locked up in a cell... surrounded by water... her stupid, son of a bitch of an uncle taunting her... yeah, yeah. Those were way worse alternatives—

Or you could be happily on your way out of here without Luffy and his crew and without problems and—

She could roll with this. Hoku liked to think she was good at adapting. There was an out to this. She wasn't doomed.

"Just drop me off at the next island." Hoku demanded. "What's the next island, again?"

"We're set to pass by Loguetown early tomorrow," Nami said, checking her compass and the sea and then back to Hoku.

Hoku cursed.

"I'm taking a nap," Zoro declared. "You guys work this out."

"Stop saying dumb stuff," Luffy said from the floor. "You're part of my crew now."

"I'm not—"

"Yeah, you are."

Hoku moved to strangle Luffy.

"Come on now, no need to fight!" Usopp quickly stepped into the middle of the fray. Luffy pursed his lips, looking a little annoyed by Hoku's insistence and Hoku shot the sniper a sharp look. Usopp gulped. "I mean, sorry for, uh, the abrupt change of scenery—but the Going Merry's a great ship! She's gonna be the best ever! And this crew is pretty great, you know. It's got me, the toughest hero ever and—"

"I know," Hoku said. "I wrote your book."

Usopp looked torn between being flattered and frightened.

"Look," Hoku rubbed the bridge of her nose, easing of the crease between her brows. Arguing with Luffy would lead to nothing but endless circles. Painful, ridiculous circles that'd drive her closer off the rail than anything else. And Hoku didn't plan on drowning anytime soon. When he set his mind on something—bastard really set it.

"I held up my end of the deal. There's no reason for me to stay here or join your crew, yeah? It just doesn't make sense—"

Luffy pointed wordlessly to her hand.

Hoku stared at him for a moment, eyes dropping to the bit of cloth she'd wrapped around her hand. "What?"

Luffy held up his own bandaged hand and grinned.

"'s a sign," Luffy said. "With this, you're part of my crew now. No take backs."

Hoku stopped. Her eyes darted around and realized everyone gathered around her, save for Sanji who'd run off to the kitchen, still had their bandage around their hand from where she took some of their blood to help write their story—

"You're the only one who's gonna tell the story of the greatest adventure ever," Luffy said, eyes never faltering from hers, dangerously bright and just as dangerous at sweeping anyone into that... that pace. "That's what you said. It's gotta be you and no one else. I don't want anyone else. If it's not Hoku, I don't want it told at all."

Something funny broke through the panic and frustration. A funny, dangerous feeling she'd almost forgotten about in the past two years she'd been away from Luffy. The kind of feeling only he could somehow manage to pull and—

Hoku reminded herself very sharply of the sun and just how dangerous it could be.

"Lu—"

"Your snack, my lovely, dear, angel Hoku~" Sanji sang, nearly leaping from the railings of the top deck and skidding down the side to come to a smooth landing right before them. Hoku turned and Sanji bowed, offering up a cute plate decorated with freshly baked cookies and oh, wow, that does smell really good—

Hoku's stomach demanded retribution.

"Shishishi! You're just hungry!" Luffy laughed. "That's why you're so cranky. Sanji! Food! I'm hungry too! I'll get cranky!"

"This snack won't be near enough for her," Sanji said, eyes growing wide. "I'll make dinner right away!" Sanji shouted, racing off and nearly kicking up smoke in his wake. "It won't be long, Hoku dearest! Just a moment!"

That doesn't solve my issue. Hoku ran a hand through her hair and stopped, pressing a hand to her stomach.

A furious growl roared through her intestines, demanding a sacrifice.

But fine. Food first.

Luffy snickered. "It's a feast!"

"No, it's not."


She wasn't dying on an empty stomach.


"It's just been me in here," Nami said. "Well, I guess you knew that, huh? I haven't had much time to really personalize everything else yet either... so there's plenty of room for you!"

Hoku set her duffel down against the wall, out of anyone's way. There wasn't much point in unpacking it now if she was just gonna make a fat break for it.

Nami had offered to show her the woman's quarters while Sanji rushed to make a feast in celebration of their newest addition. "Guest," Hoku had said. "Just a guest." A fair enough distraction and it meant she could avoid being dragged around by Luffy to get a tour of the ship as he'd tried to demand.

She didn't need to see more of this.

"Hello."

"Hammocks are here," Nami started, pointing to a spot on the ceiling where they could pull them down. "You can put your clothes in here, I grabbed everything you had since you didn't have much... and all your supplies in the drawers by the desk right here..."

Nami trailed off, turning over her shoulder and pausing.

Hoku had her fingers running up and down the wooden boards of the quarter's walls. Her eyes were a little warm, half lidded and curious as she tipped her head to the side.

"Hoku?" Nami questioned curiously.

"Hmm—sorry," Hoku gave the wall a pat. "Just thinking."

Nami turned, leaning back against the desk. She ran a finger down the edge of a new chart she'd been working on. A picture frame was propped up in the corner.

"Are you sad you didn't get to say goodbye?"

"Huh? Oh, no, nothing like that," Hoku shook her head. "I mean, sure, I'll miss 'em. But I'm real bad with good byes. I'd rather just leave. Can't hold myself together for shit..."

Nami couldn't help the smile that curved over her lips. Luffy's right on the money then. Hoku rasped her knuckles against the wall and continued, "This is just a really good ship. Can't help but notice that."

"Well, it's gotta be if it's going to get us to the Grand Line," Nami said. Her eyes brightened. "You know, speaking of craftsmanship..."

Hoku turned. Nami reached into her trunk and hauled out a large sack. It clanked against the floor and Hoku arched a brow as Nami undid the top.

Several very familiar wares peeked out from the opening.

"I took the ones that looked the nicest," Nami said happily. "I mean, the most precious looking ones of course. We haven't really discussed your recruitment fee just yet, and there's also the blood I spilled today to help..."

Ah. Hoku fell back onto the couch. She mulled over everything Nami had gathered up. Considered the fact that Nami seemed to have missed the envelope of cash Hoku had shoved beneath the rest of her drawing supplies—that Usopp had carried and left in a box for her—and the fact that in the grand scheme of things, helping the navigator make some cash wasn't really much of a problem for her. Maybe they'd even get by easier later, who knew?

Hoku hadn't really been a fan of the idea of selling their wares. She just made them as she went for herself or per request of a necessity by someone in town. Manu had rubbed off on her more than she expected, and she tended to try to get her funds by other means.

But... Nami could be a bit of an exception... right?

"Tell you what," Hoku said. "You had a pretty good eye for what you picked. Those are real Pokian wares, you know. They'll fetch a price plenty good in the market. How much is this 'recruitment fee'?"

Nami examined her fingertips. "How worth we talking?"

Hoku grinned.

"You know, I dunno if Luffy's mentioned it, but I'm a little fond of a good gamble. Give me a little cut, interest free, and these are gonna fetch one pretty beli tomorrow..."


Nami nudged Luffy awake, lightly kicking his side.

Luffy groaned, blinking once, twice, and then wiping drool from his chin. "Is dinner ready yet—"

"We should keep her," Nami said. "I like her."

Luffy blinked. His lips curled and he laughed, sitting up and crossing his legs, "Shishishi, I told you she's great! Just kinda weird and dumb sometimes. And—"

"If we keep her on board," Nami said, a little dreamy, "I don't think we'll ever have to worry about funds again..."

Zoro snorted from his position resting against the side of Merry's head. His sword tucked in his arms as a prop for his head.

"Sweatshop witch."


"Dinner tonight is a massive, home-styled dish of spaghetti carbonara. Marinated pork belly from the lucky boars of Mayman island, drizzled with sweet orange sauce and a lemon zest. Garnished of course, with the edible glazed clovers and served with a side of fine, sweet fortune berry juice graciously gifted by the people of Mayman as well."

Hoku appreciated half of what Sanji said and appreciated all of the smell and sight of the food laid out before her.

"Dessert," Sanji added warmly. "Is a surprise!"

"Oh," Hoku said dreamily. "Sanji, this smells amazing."

Sanji flushed with the praise. He twisted the platter in his hands, quickly slapping Luffy's own hands away when he tried to dig in immediately. Luffy blew on his fingers, shooting Sanji a bitter look across the table. "Sanji! I'm hungry—"

"You've got your own helping! Go for that first!" Sanji snapped, shoving two giant plates in front of the table. Luffy clapped his hands together and started inhaling the noodles, Zoro and Usopp beside him quickly snatching for their own portions before Luffy took it all.

Hoku experimentally swirled her fork through the pasta, pushing it past her lips.

Hoku saw stars.

"Nami-swan and our angel Hoku get their own," Sanji cooed, setting a steaming hot plate in front of Nami who smiled, taking a sip of her water. "Please, feel free to dig in right away—"

"Can I get seconds?"

Sanji blinked in surprise. A bit of sauce clung to Hoku's lip and she licked it, holding out her plate and waiting patiently as she used her free hand to grab a loaf of bread, shoving it into her mouth. "Pwleuf?"

"I love a woman with a hearty appetite!" Sanji crooned, eyes popping into hearts as he quickly swiped Hoku's plate and leapt back to the pot. She barely blinked and he reappeared, setting down dish after dish in front of her and quickly filling the bread basket once more. "Hoku dearest, I didn't know you could eat! That's—that's—"

"Worrisome," Nami said, a forkful of pasta waiting by her lips. "You don't... eat as much as Luffy, do you?"

Hoku dug into the new plates set out in front of her, glancing to where the noodles seemed to defy gravity on Luffy's side and slip into his stomach instead.

"No," Hoku said carefully, considering her still fairly empty stomach and just how much more she could go for. A lot. "Not as much as Luffy."

Nami sighed in relief. She hadn't been sure if their funds could handle such ridiculous appetites on this ship.

"Hey, shitty cook, we need more alcohol."

"No more for you, moss head! Tonight we're supposed to be feasting on our lovely Hoku's behalf—"

"That's right!" Luffy shouted, standing up and nearly knocking the table over. Usopp choked, grabbing at the sides and Zoro shoved it back down before it all teetered. "Tonight's a feast! We're finally setting sail for the Grand Line and we got Hoku! Now we just need a musician and a doctor and—"

"Just feast to the fact that you're alive," Hoku said, grabbing her mug of juice and jerking it up into the air. The food was delicious. The air was warm. She could humor this much if it meant getting to eat some more of Sanji's food. For tonight.

"To being alive!" Usopp cheered. Thrusting his cup into the air and almost falling over the table. Zoro rolled his eyes. "Let's keep it that way!"

Luffy laughed loudly, sweeping his arm across the table and shoving every available edible thing into his mouth. Zoro and Usopp shot up, reaching hands across the table to grab him.

Hoku slurped happily at the pasta on her plate, inhaling it greedily with eyes shut in bliss. Nami watched her skeptically, seeming to rethink Hoku's answer.

"Hoku, my angel, dearest," Sanji said, taking a seat beside her. He lit his cigarette, politely exhaling in the other direction and turning to her with an absolutely charming smile. "Is there any kind of lovely name I could call you? Nami-swan has such a wonderful one, I must do the same for you!"

"Hoku's fine," Hoku said. "You don't need to do anything else." I'm not going to be here long.

"Nonsense! A paradigm of such lustrous beauty deserves as much! Angel? For the beautiful white of your hair, like freshly fallen snow? My artisan goddess? Hoku-chan?"

"Hoku's fine," Hoku said. She contemplated a fourth plate, munching on another roll of bread for now.

Sanji gazed adoringly at her hair, dropping to her eyes and to the heart curving around her eye. "A beautiful mark around such lovely eyes... and your hair... soft and feathery—dove? Hoku, my dove?"

Hoku choked. Bread lodged itself in her throat, threatening to rob her of another life—do you really want to lose one to choking? She hacked unattractively, Sanji jolting to attention to soothe her back and Nami quickly shoved water her way.

"Not that one," Hoku croaked. She fanned her cheeks, letting the little bit of red that had flushed out go down under the guise of the choking. "Something else, please."

"Maybe some hot water and honey to soothe that," Nami suggested.

"Hoku Honey!" Sanji shouted, hearts in his eyes. "Of course, lovely Nami-swan would come up with it. Hoku Honey, I'll get you some hot water and honey right away with that dessert! Hold on!"

Hoku swallowed greedy gulps of water, setting the glass down with a sigh of relief. Nami eyed her curiously, propping her cheek onto her hand, "Don't like birds?"

"Yeah," Hoku said honestly. It wasn't a lie, technically. "Never been a big fan."

"Here, Hoku Honey," Sanji crooned, setting a dish down in front of her. A sweet, curiously familiar smell wafted up to her nose and Hoku paused. He left a saucer and cup of sweet smelling tea beside her as well, doing the same for Nami. "And for you, my Nami-swan. Tonight's dessert, a berry tart!"

"Oh, Sanji, this looks delicious," Nami praised, taking the plate and small fork.

Luffy drooled from the other side of the table. Usopp bit his thumbnail and Zoro tried to drip out the last half of the bottle in his grip. Sanji carelessly shoved a tray of the tarts their way, clasping his hands and teetering back to the women.

Hoku eyed the color, inspecting the tart before she let out a huff of amusement. "Sanji—"

"Yes, Hoku Honey?"

That's going to get annoying real quick. "What berries did you make this with?"

"Oh!" Sanji perked up. "I crushed them with some strawberries we picked up on the island. We brought along the two potted plants you had—Luffy said the other one was your favorite after eating both—"

"How else were we supposed ta know?" Luffy demanded, shoving two tarts into his mouth, crumbs covering his face.

"So I thought I could improvise after tasting this one!" Sanji continued. "I've never seen berries like these before. They almost look like strawberries but they taste like melons, what are they?"

Hoku gingerly pushed the tart away from her, "Make. Berries from my hometown. That's real sweet of you, but I can't eat it, sorry."

Sanji deflated. His eyes turned wide, quickly turning to her and pressing a hand to his chest, "Does it look burnt? Is there something not to your liking—"

"Make berries are poisonous," Hoku said.

Usopp spat, crumbs and berries flying. They splattered over Zoro's face.

"To me," Hoku said. "They're just poisonous to Pokians. Anyone else can eat 'em."

Zoro grabbed Usopp's collar, shoving his face into the rest of the tart.

Hoku pushed her tart Luffy's way and he swallowed it without thinking twice, licking his lips and grinning happily as he lunged for the juice next. "There's just something in them that doesn't work well with our bloodstream. Pretty painful death. Rather not experience it again—"

"Again?" Nami questioned.

Sanji's face had gone a deathly pale. His knees hit the floor of the ship. Hoku jumped. Nami watched over the rim of her teacup as Sanji's cigarette fell from his lips as well.

His forehead hit the floor with a bam!

"Ka! Are you okay—"

"How can I ever ask you to forgive me?" Sanji shouted, blubbering against the floor. "I almost poisoned someone with my food—how could I be so careless? I don't deserve to face you after doing something like that—punish me however you'd like—"

"I swear it's fine," Hoku said quickly, urging his head up. "It's an honest mistake—"

Sanji grabbed her hands, clasping them tight in his own. He looked up at her with dewy eyes.

"How can I make it up to you, Hoku Honey—"

"Shitty cook's been striking out," Zoro said, wiping his hands clean of Usopp's beating. "What an idiot."

"Oh, yeah? I saw you waste that tart you stupid—"

"The poisonous one?"

A bit of Sanji's soul seemed to escape his body. Hoku's lips quirked. Nami's lips moved behind her tea cup, eyes crinkling slightly.

Luffy laughed, standing up in his chair.

"Alright! We're not done yet—tonight's a feast! Sanji! Bring out more food! To our newest member—"

Hoku kicked his chair out from under the table. Luffy toppled over with a shout.

Now rubbery arms shot out, grabbing Hoku's shoulders.

She flew over the table, smashing into his form. The two of them crashed to the ground.

"You idiots! Don't break the table!"

"Luffy, you brute! How could you do that to a lady?"

"I'm gonna kick your ass—"

"I'm strong now. I'll beat ya!"

"Hey, hey, are we gonna be alright?" Usopp murmured, wiping cream and berries from his face. He leaned closer to Zoro, as though the two of them were the only ones sharing this secret.

Zoro popped the cork of a new bottle he'd swiped from the cupboard.

"No one's dead yet."


Trying to sneak off the ship in the middle of the night wouldn't do her any good. It was miles on end until the next island and her drawings were bound to get tired before finding a suitable place to land. Not to mention, someone was on watch tonight and it'd cause a ruckus with Luffy she didn't feel like dealing with.

She'd stay the night, short and simple.

In the morning, Hoku would be gone.

Mau kept silent against her back, but she felt a word lingering on his lips, a little too loyal to tease her with it.


"It's been awhile since I shared a room with someone."

Hoku peered through damp wet strands of white. Nami had lent her a towel free of charge this time. She'd stuck to the shower, not having taken a proper long bath in years. Hoku wasn't sure if she could ever miss it.

Nami was already setting out a fluffy comforter that would drape over the two hammock's, acting as blankets. She fluffed out a pillow and tossed her a grin over her shoulder, a loose dress as her pajamas hugging every curve in the right spot.

Hoku absently patted her sides. Definitely not as well defined, and she could live with that.

"Me too," Hoku admitted, tipping her head back in thought as she brought the towel to the lower half of her face. "It's just been me for a while."

"That's right," Nami mused, turning around and leaning back against the hammock with a little sway. "Luffy said you two grew up together, but what happened after that?"

"Split ways cause of a promise," Hoku said. "I set off first. Spent a year or so doing this and that before I ended up on Mayman. Stayed there for... half a year? I sailed out from the island back and forth though."

"So you've been waiting for Luffy all this time?" Nami questioned curiously, crossing her arms below her chest.

"I wouldn't say that," Hoku said. "Just happened to be in the right place at the right time, I guess." For him that is. Can't say the same for my shitty luck.

"How old are you?" Nami asked.

"Nineteen," Hoku said.

Nami pouted. "Eighteen. I guess that makes you one year my senior... treat your cute junior well, alright?"

Hoku hummed. The room was warmly lit, a gentle rocking beneath their feet that promised good, steady waves. Mau was nestled neatly against the side of the couch, polished off and shiny from a day of rough housing.

Hoku leaned back into the soft leather of the couch.

It was comfortable.

Albeit dangerously so.

Nami's footsteps were soft, hips swaying slightly as she moved across the room and then sat down on the couch with Hoku, leaving a bit of space between them. She crossed one leg over the other and turned her body to face Hoku, a slow smile curling over her lips as she propped her cheek on one hand.

"What?" Hoku asked defensively.

"Well," Nami said, tracing a finger through her hair. "I've been stuck on a ship traveling with nothing but these muscle headed lugs. Can't I be happy to have a little bit more... feminine company on board?"

Hoku eyed her warily.

"...yes?"

Nami grinned, pleased like a cat. She batted playfully at Hoku's knee and turned, a little more excited. "Come on! Luffy said you were always really good at telling all kinds of stories. Tell me some!"

"That dumbass seems like he mouthed off quite a bit," Hoku said dryly.

"Maybe," Nami said. "But it'll cost you to find out."

Hoku snorted.

"Let's start here," Nami tapped the side of her left eye, beaming at Hoku. "What's this one for? I can appreciate a pretty lady with a nice tattoo."

Hoku's eyes flickered to the one on Nami's shoulder. She stared at it, recalling a story more than worth its place in this world.

"This one comes from my hometown," Hoku said, touching the heart. "My papa thought it'd fit. It's a coming of age thing."

"It's beautiful. How about the one on your neck?" Nami asked curiously. "You've got that really pretty one on your shoulder too."

Hoku rubbed the back of her neck, fingers trailing to her shoulder. "Personal mementos of important people."

"Lovers?" Nami asked slyly.

Hoku smiled, "People I love, yeah."

Nami pouted. "Boo. I know you don't mean the same thing." Her eyes dropped and she curved a brow, a small smile. "You've got one more in a pretty nice spot, how about that one?"

Hoku made a face, brows scrunching in thought before she blinked. Her hand sought out her back, slipping under her shirt and dipping just a bit below the waistline of her cotton shorts, touching the spot she knew another tattoo to be. "This one?"

Nami nodded eagerly, scooting closer. "I couldn't see it earlier, what is it?"

Hoku easily turned, lifting her shirt a bit. Nami easily tipped the waistband of her shorts down and Hoku jumped, flashing her a narrow eyed look.

"The suits?" Nami said. Four card suits in their respective colors were inked into the lower part of her back. Spades. Diamonds. Clubs. Hearts. Her lips pursed, "Don't tell me it's because you like a good card game."

Hoku grinned, Nami unable to see the little curl of her lips. Sure, let's go with that. She merely offered a hum in response and Nami let her waistband snap back into place, sitting back and crossing her arms under her chest with a pout.

"Last person I shared a room with was in a holding cell," Hoku said conversationally. "How about you?"

"That sounds like something that needs more explaining," Nami said. "But it was with my sister Nojiko—ah, but you probably already know her, right? From the blood..."

"No," Hoku said honestly. And she didn't. She knew Nojiko the character who belonged to that story, but she didn't know Nojiko. "What's she like?"

Nami's smiled turned wide. "Hmm, where to start..."


Nami was nice.

And she smelled like tangerines and vanilla. Hoku liked that.


Falling asleep in new places was always hard.

A salty, cool breeze tickled her cheeks. Everything around her hummed a bit, with the slow, rhythmic rocking of the ocean beneath them and the boat keeping them steady.

A flap in the sails. Wood creaking beneath her bare feet. Hoku had switched back to her regular clothes, tip-toeing out of the room and folding the blanket so it engulfed Nami whole instead.

Voices thrumming just below the surface.

The deck was empty, not a single soul in sight for as much as she could see. A breeze rustled through the leaves of Nami's tangerine grove and Hoku stepped out closer to the railing off the right side of the ship, turning her eyes up to the mast and glancing at the crow's nest.

No one out on watch? Hoku frowned, squinting to make sure. Well, I guess nothing really happens to them on the way... right?

A familiar screech pierced the air, a low little sound. Hoku scowled, patting her empty pockets with nothing but her brush and Mau tucked snuggly against her back.

"Fool sails again," the albatross called down to her, beating massive wings until it coasted to a stop on the railing. Hoku considered shoving it off. "Fool sails. Fool hates the sea. Fool looks for death by ocean in the end?"

"You're getting chattier and chattier," Hoku said bitterly. "Scram, bird. I'll be out of here soon enough."

The albatross clacked its beak. "Fool still a fool. Fool always fool."

"And you're still a bastard," Hoku said.

It cocked its head, peering at her with one wide, solid black eye. It was a shame the bird was so annoying—it had a pretty coloring of bright white feathers leading to dark gray and black wings.

"Fool has chosen to shake world," the albatross sounded almost amused. "World does not take kind to wrongs."

"I'm not doing either of those things," Hoku said smartly. She played with the edge of Mau hanging from her back and touched the corner of her eye, tracing a smear.

"Just gonna watch a few things burn."

The albatross flapped its wings without warning, taking off from the railing. Hoku took one step back, watching it rise upwards into the sky with narrowed eyes. It sneered one final thing at her.

Hoku thrusted her middle finger up in the air.

It took off without a second glance back.

"Stupid ass bird flapping its stupid wings, comes whenever it wants," Hoku muttered. "Does it have my card or somethin'? How the hell does he always find me..."

Hoku stopped.

A low, quiet hum mused past her ears. A voice she hadn't heard yet. Only the lick of a whisper but strikingly clear. At least promising to be clear.

"Does my star dare?"

She just might. Hoku peeked around the corner of the ship.

She blinked in surprise.

His feet were kicked out pleasantly in front of him, almost slipping past the rails. Zoro's body took up the entire length of the walkway, stretched out like a cat. His arms were crossed behind his head, eyes shut and brows creased perhaps eternally. He really does sleep a lot.

Hoku's eyes zeroed in on the one thing that had brought her here.

Wado Ichimonji was stretched out beside him, catching off a bit of moonlight.

Hoku's mouth started to water.

Come on girl, it's supposed to be a great sword but... you've seen better! Hoku eyed the sword from hilt to end, gauging the length. Mmm, but that curve along the pommel... Its guard looks like it even has some light etching done into it... He doesn't even know its name right now, does he?

Hoku swallowed.

She could just... touch the sword, right?

Hoku silently crept to her knees. She shuffled forward, glancing once to Zoro's sleeping face and then back to the katana creeping closer and closer to her fingertips.

Up close she could see how nicely the crafter had designed the guard. The sheath was meant to be a simple tone. Straight and true. It could get lost if someone didn't know what to look for.

Who could ever mistake something like you? Hoku's fingertips reached forward, almost trembling at this point. She struggled to keep her breathing as even as possible, sensing Mau's amusement at her back.

Her fingers brushed against the smooth paint.

Like water. Slicing clean. Straight, clear. Easy to understand with perfect, perfect clarity. No rasp or tint, no suave or slur or purr—simply true.

"Strange girl," he said. "Seeks strange things."

"I didn't take you for a thief."

Hoku screeched, catching her hand back. Her foot slipped behind her and she fell forward, chin smashing into the wooden floorboards. Her nose an inch from Wado Ichimonji.

Zoro regarded her from propped arms, looking unimpressed.

"To set the record straight," Hoku said. She worked her jaw for a second, feeling along the tender, soon to be bruise. "Wasn't trying to steal. Just wanted to... take a look."

Maybe feel it up a little... give it a swing... Hoku thought longingly, eyes traveling back to the sword in front of her face.

"Yeah?" Zoro's eyes caught a bit of moonlight, making them glint. Hoku was reminded of a freshly sharpened blade. "You know how to use that?"

Mau grew warm against her back, rolling with a bit of energy.

"Yes," Hoku said. "It's rude to carry around a sword you can't use." And you don't need to know that I still did it until I could learn and who I learned it from.

Zoro sat up, face twitching with interest. His fingers curled around Wado Ichimonji.

"Oh, no, I know where this is—" Hoku planted her hands flat, hauling herself back to her knees. Zoro watched, quirking a brow. "I know where this is goin'. Sorry, I'm not looking to clash swords with you right now. It's late. I'm tired."

"Scared?"

Her fingers twitched to grab Mau's hilt. Zoro's lips curved into a dangerous grin.

"Your people are supposed to know a thing or two about swords, aren't they?" Zoro pressed, cocking his chin. "For all your talk about that coating business. You should be able to handle a good sword—"

"They knew plenty!" Hoku grabbed Mau, slipping him from his holders and thrusting him forward in front of her. "See this? Nothing but the absolute best. He's made from real stuff you can only find back on my island and he was crafted by one of the greatest swordswomen ever."

Zoro opened his mouth, brows creasing, suddenly disgruntled. Hoku quickly slid Mau from his sheath, brandishing him in the moonlight and showing off the pretty red casing that ran straight down his blade. The fine edge. Zoro arched a brow, rubbing his chin. "And his cuts. Clean and smooth like butter. With the right amount of elbow grease, he could give some real people a run for their money—"

"I didn't ask—"

"And – and," Hoku swept on eagerly, cheeks flushing a bit as she held Mau out. "He might not be graded, but he stands easily at—"

The butt of Wado Ichimonji pressed into her mouth. Hoku stopped, staring cross eyed at the end of the sword.

"Quit yer yapping," Zoro said. "I get it. Good sword. Means nothing less I see it cut myself."

Hoku's eyes flashed indignantly.

"But it sure looks like it can cut," Zoro tipped his head, eyeing her blade appreciatively. "Caught my eye back there earlier too. It's got something to it."

"Right?" Hoku shouted excitedly, pushing Wado Ichimonji to her cheek and Zoro blinked. "You really can't walk by without noticing a sword like him—"

"I didn't realize you were such a freak about this." Zoro leaned back, kicking his feet out and regarding her with slightly newfound interest. "What are you doing wandering around this late? Planning to jump ship?"

Ain't that a thought. "I'm not really a fan of drowning," Hoku said. "I'd also sink like a hammer."

Zoro stopped. "You're a—"

"But hey, since we're talking now and we've broken the ice a bit," Hoku said conversationally, hands creeping along the floor. "I'd love to get a look at—"

Hoku fell face forward. Zoro snorted, unimpressed as he jerked Wado Ichimonji out of her grasp, swift and easy. He stood, cracking his neck and then regarding her from where he stood.

"Don't let just anyone touch my sword," Zoro said. "Especially not number six."

Hoku made a face. "Wha?"

Zoro smirked, turning on his heel and waving with his sword as he stalked off to the other end of the ship. "For the record, shitty cook is five, and he won't ever touch this."

Hoku laid there on her stomach for a moment, staring after his retreating figure and beautiful, wonderful Wado Ichimonji growing farther and farther from her grasp.

Hoku set her chin down on the ground, glowering. Mau laughed playfully against her back, sending soothing words her way and she scowled, turning her face sideways and letting her cheek press flat to the floor.

"Stingy," Hoku muttered. "And here I was gonna even offer him a coating..."

"Shishishi, why're you sleeping on the floor, dummy?"

Hoku almost screamed. Almost. Instead, her head jerked backwards at Luffy's face suddenly appearing, neck stretched out in an eerie and outrageously creepy angle from where he dropped it to look at her. Her head smashed into the railing and she writhed for a moment, grabbing her head.

Luffy snickered, "You're such a klutz."

"Whaddya want?" Hoku said. "Isn't it past your bedtime?"

"I'm the captain," Luffy said. "I don't have a bedtime."

"Alright, captain," there was something light to that title, a little funny in her chest, "what are you doing up?"

"I asked ya first," Luffy said.

"I asked second."

Luffy scratched the side of his head in thought for a moment, brows scrunching up. His lips pursed in deep thought before he finally said, "But first comes before second. Wait... yeah! First comes first... huh?"

"Just wanted some fresh air," Hoku said, turning to lay on her back and facing the stretching canvas of black and speckled white and gold.

"I was on watch duty!" Luffy said proudly. "I fell asleep though. Then I got hungry."

He pulled out several links of sausages he'd shoved into his pockets. "I'll give you one if you don't tell Sanji."

Hoku considered the offer, "What else you got?"

Luffy lifted up his hat, turning it over.

Dried kiionohi berries gazed back at her.

Hoku wordlessly dug her hand in, nodding as her signal of their wordless deal. Luffy's lips stretched wide and he plopped down cross legged beside her, shoving the sausages into his mouth and inhaling them like noodles.

Hoku's shoulders relaxed a bit. The sweet, crisp taste of kiionohi spreading along her tongue. I'll never get sick of this taste.

Waves lapped against Merry's side. The ship rocked, slow and easy. Hoku's fingers itched for her sketchbook, watching moonlight ripple.

"You've been busy," Hoku said, chewing. "But looks like you've been having some fun."

"Lots of fun," Luffy corrected. "The greatest adventure needs to have the greatest fun!"

Hoku snorted. A breeze tugged at her hair and fluttered the rim of Luffy's hat.

"I bet I did way more than you," Luffy said boastfully, lips turning up at the corners as he grabbed a handful of kiionohi and shoved them into his mouth. "Wuf yuh bwen doin'?"

"This and that," Hoku said airily. A smile curled at her lips, "I saw Ace."

"Ace?" Luffy shouted. Hoku shushed him and Luffy snickered, whispering, "Aaaccccee?"

Hoku shoved his arm, "There's only one idiot with that name. Still can't wear a shirt to save his life. You know, he's gotten pretty strong. Still an idiot but he's doing really well for himself. Hooked up with a pretty ferocious group."

"Oh, man, I miss him," Luffy said, grabbing his ankles and rocking back. "Super strong... I bet I could beat him now!"

Hoku snorted again. Luffy thrusted his hands into the air, flexing his rubbery arms. He stretched the skin, trying to make muscles appear. "I can too! Watch! When we meet up again, I'll kick his butt!"

"Yeah, we'll see," Hoku said, propping her cheek onto her hand. "That'll be a fun one to bet on."

"You like gambling too much," Luffy said. "I don't get what's so fun about it. But if Ace is doing well then that's all that matters! What else did ya do?"

"I met a fishman," Hoku said. Luffy's lips formed into a little o.

"Did you have to beat him up?"

"Nah, nah, he was cool. Helped me out. Sailed together for a bit," Hoku grinned, as though sharing a secret. "Ran into a few marines too. Caused a little trouble here and there—"

Hoku reached for more kiionohi and stopped, fingers touching on soft velvet. She pulled it from Luffy's hat, staring at the small bag. "Lu, what's this?"

Luffy looked over, about to shove more fruit into his mouth. "Oh! The nice grandpa gave it to us back from that island! He said it was a present for ya!"

"Why'd you wait so damn long to give it to me?" Hoku muttered, shoving him with her elbow. Luffy snickered.

"My bad! I forgot."

Hoku curiously pulled open the bright green ribbon, feeling the soft texture fondly. She tugged the bag open and turned it over into her palm, shaking out the contents.

A dried bundle of four leaf clovers tumbled out. A heavier vial slipped into her palm, cool to the touch. Hoku frowned, tucking the clovers back gently and turning the vial over in her fingers.

"Wazzat?" Luffy shoved his cheek into hers. "Is it tasty? Can you eat it?"

Hoku held it up to the moonlight. A bit of gold glimmered in the soft, green colored liquid.

"It's clover juice," Hoku said in realization. "They gave it to me once but I gave it away... said it took forever to make and..."

"It's super tasty?" Luffy finished, mouth watering.

"I dunno about the taste," Hoku said. "But it's supposed to bring good fortune to whoever drinks it. Saved their old ruler from sickness... helped a kid miss getting struck by lightning... stuff like that."

"Isn't that just cause you won?" Luffy said.

"Helps push the odds in your favor," Hoku said. She swirled the vial around, watching it for a moment longer, eyes lost in thought before she tucked it away. "I'd like to think it works, at least. That's real nice of them to give me another when it's supposed to be really precious."

Hoku sighed through her nose, leaning back onto her palms. She tossed another dried kiionohi into her mouth. "One hell of a place..."

"Did you miss me?" Luffy asked.

Hoku almost choked on her fruit, swallowing roughly and hacking air. "Excuse me?"

"Did ya miss me." Luffy repeated, face completely blank, just simply staring, simply asking.

Hoku stared.

Luffy stared back, chewing.

Hoku felt the memory of the sun on her skin.

"Not," Hoku said. "One bit."

Luffy's lips curled into a wide, beaming grin.

"Shishishi, you always sucked at lying."


"The world won't be wronged," the albatross had laughed at her, flying off. "But world will shake!"


I promised you I wouldn't run but – my voice it won't be heard and it's too hard to end and it's absurd so we're still, together for now.

 

Chapter Text

Hoku woke up to the sound of birds.

She hated waking up to the sound of birds.

"My star," Mau mumbled in the back of her mind. "Morning has risen."

Hoku laid there for a moment.

Morning.

Morning on a boat.

Morning on a boat with seagulls flapping by and chatting noisily and—

"How long was I asleep?" Hoku shouted, sitting up. Uneven chunks of hair from where she'd sliced bits off stuck this way and that. "Where are we? What's happening?"

"You seemed pretty tired," Usopp said. "Everyone woke up ages ago. Found you sleeping out here with a couple blankets."

"If you raise it again, I'm not buying it anymore," Nami warned. Hoku's head swung over to where a News Coo clacked its beak once, taking her money and promptly taking off.

It was morning.

She was supposed to have scrammed before any of them woke up and ditched— Hoku roughly rubbed at her head, cursing herself. What the hell, Hoku? How'd you fall asleep for so long?

Hoku squinted. Her eyes felt heavy. Sanji had fed her too well last night and Mahina always said too many kiionohi's could really slow a person down—god damn it! She dropped face first into the floor.

"Oh, what's a newspaper or two?" Usopp said.

"If you read one every day, it's good for the brain," Nami held her hands up. "Right, Hoku?"

Nami looked over. Hoku had a glazed look in her eye, a bit of drool still sticking to the side of her chin as she squinted through the bars of the deck's railing, lost to the world.

"Hoku sucks in the morning," Luffy said, jumping from his favorite seat. "She needs food or something. Hey! Sanji! I'm hungry!"

"You're done collecting money now, aren't you?" Usopp added.

Nami huffed, "Don't be stupid! Now that Arlong's gone, it's time to make some money for myself. I don't want to be a penniless pirate. And Hoku's gonna help with that, right, Hoku?"

Hoku rubbed uselessly at her eyes. She hauled herself to her feet, paling at the sight of the ocean lapping beneath them and promptly staggering to the side, shaking her head and dodging past Usopp's set up work station. She grabbed a paint brush from her pocket and tucked it between her teeth.

"Or drawing," Luffy said, clambering up the deck and flinging himself toward Nami's tangerine grove. "That always wakes her up."

"See? Already hard at work. We're going to be the perfect duo!"

"Stop squawking!" Usopp said. "I'm trying to develop the ultimate, killer pepper sauce! Anyone who gets this in their eyes..."

Hoku bent down, idly drawing the first pattern that came to mind in her head. Gotta draw daily to keep those exercises up. No one ever became a great drawer without drawing, geniuses be damned. A small whale started to come to life beneath her bush.

She also needed to consider the mode of transport for her break. A horse? Something fast and fairly inconspicuous...

"Hands off!"

"Argh!"

Luffy sailed over her head, smashing into Usopp. Liquid chili powder squirted into his eyes.

"Argh!" Usopp yowled, flopping onto his back, limbs flailing about. Hoku peeled the little whale from the wooden floorboards, eyeing the detail on the flippers before she traced a fan out from the floor as well.

"What? Can't I have just one?" Luffy demanded.

"No!" Nami huffed.

Hoku unfolded the fan, turning around and absently fanning a flailing Usopp with it as he howled in pain.

"This is Nami's tangerine grove!" Sanji shouted fiercely. "I won't let you touch them—Hoku Honey! Are you awake? Would you like me to prepare breakfast for you? How did you sleep?"

Hoku looked at Nami, "Can I have some?"

Nami seemed to mull it over, eyeing Hoku slyly over the top of her paper.

Hoku ran a hand through her hair. "I'll... pay you back?"

"Alright then," Nami smiled, settling back onto her chair and flapping out the paper once. "That'll be a hundred beli—but I'll give you a discount. Fifty for my new partner."

I'm pretty sure that's still supposed to be outrageous but who cares. Hoku moved to stand so she could get one, but three were quickly presented before her. Sanji dropped to one knee, offering them up. "Would you like me to peel them for you, Hoku Honey?"

"'s okay, I like peeling them," Hoku said, taking the tangerines.

"Of course, my love!" Sanji raced back to the grove, returning to his post. "Nami, I shall guard this grove with all the love in my heart!"

"Aw, thank you Sanji."

"She's got him wrapped around her finger," Zoro grunted, leaning back against Merry's head.

Hoku dropped down, sitting cross legged. She peeled the first two, licking at her fingers and casually tossing one back.

Luffy snapped it up like a fish out of water, swallowing the entire thing whole. His lips curved up into a huge grin, showing the orange pieces. "Shishishi!"

Hoku snorted, popping a piece into her mouth.

Both of them grimaced in unison, jaws falling open as their tongues rolled out and faces scrunched up—"Shit, that's sour." "Nami, they're sour!"

"You just have bad luck!" Nami snapped. "Those tangerines are the best of the best!"

"Okay," Luffy said. "Maybe next time. I'm in too good a mood to fight. We're finally sailing for the Grand Line!"

Usopp let out another howl of pain.

"The world sure is in turmoil," Nami said thoughtfully. "There was another coup d'etat in Vira..."

"Can I see that when you're done?" Hoku questioned, looking up from a pursed mouth of sour tangerines.

"If you—"

Fwip.

They all turned their heads to the paper that slipped from Nami's newspapers, sliding to the floor with a little breeze.

Hoku snorted in amusement, turning around when she realized exactly what it was.

"AH!"


 

Naval Headquarters, Grand Line


"Commander Brandnew, we need to clear out the room for the next meeting!"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm on it," Brandnew said, adjusting his glasses. He sat up from his chair, unpinning the posters from the wall after the recent debriefing. "Do me a favor and give Fleet Admiral Sengoku a call. I'll have the updates delivered to him."

"Sir, yessir!" a marine shouted, bowing his head and saluting before he rushed out of the room.

Another marine came up with several boxes of posters they would be distributing out to locations around the world. Brandnew grabbed the ones he'd been using, pausing at the latest one and its subject's beaming face.

Thirty million beli. He shook his head. For a brat like this?

"Commander," the marine spoke up and he glanced over. "Should we send out the new batch of these posters as well?"

Brandnew glanced over to the box sitting on his desk. Freshly printed posters done on the daily for the usual bout. "Sure, send them along. Worry about their distribution later. These are all petty criminals we're on the lookout for."

"Yessir!" the marine shouted, stooping down to the pick up the box.

His fingers fumbled for the side, shaking the neatly arranged stacks. A chunk of posters all bearing the same face slipped sideways, revealing the other batch below it that had been bound together.

White hair resembling the inside of freshly baked bread flew across the photo, as though blown by some unseen wind. A marking etched in reddish ink curved around her left eye, smearing at the end. Her face was half turned along with the upper half of her body, as though she were caught mid-jump. Blue eyes mixed with gold staring at something else, bright, perhaps teasing. A brush was tucked behind her ear. Lips turning up into the beginnings of a grin, revealing a canine.

A set of numbers were lined neatly below the photo.

The marine shifted, papers sliding back into place. "Petty criminals you said, sir?"

"That's right," Brandnew said. "They've got bounties lower than the other outstanding criminals. Most are people of interest we try to bag anyway. Thieves. Troublemakers. Arms dealers who haven't gotten too big yet. Underground marketers. Vandalizers."

"Vandalizers?" the marine said. "Of the law?"

"No," Brandnew said. "I mean vandalizers. Didn't you hear about what happened to our navy base on Tretar?"

"No, sir," the marine looked surprised. "What happened?"

"It was vandalized. Very vandalized."

"W-What did the criminal do to make it so awful?"

"Burnt more than half the base down!" Brandnew exclaimed. "Left nothing but a wall standing and we can't even get the paint off! The fiend!"

"B-B-Burnt, sir?" the marine said, wide eyed.

"That's right, burnt nearly the whole thing down!"

...

...

...

"S-Sir, forgive me, commander, but isn't that just an arsonist then?"

"I told you, they vandalized that wall!"

"R-Right, excuse me, sir. Vandalizers."


People clamored all around them. Carts rolled. Feet hit the streets. Doors swung open. Bells and chimes tolled, signaling customers. The entire town moved, alive.

Loguetown.

The town of the beginning and the end. Hoku stood beneath the archway of the town's entrance. Merry had been docked safely behind them. The rest of the gathered crew stood beside her, gazing around at the town in mixed wonder and thought.

The last island before hitting the Grand Line.

Hoku's knowledge of this world was spotted. She'd always been a lot better at remembering parts of the plot or random shit no one else cared about that struck her interest. But repeated reruns and remakes of the first saga of their adventure usually weren't too hard to follow depending what it came to.

Loguetown was the place shit was supposed to go down. Plenty of madness. People popping up all over the place. Marines. A particularly annoying one was supposed to show up and almost botch Luffy's escape, but Hoku couldn't remember for the life of her who. There's too many of them to remember sometimes. And like hell she'd give two shits about remembering any marine's face save a select few. But all in all, chaos was meant to ensue before this lot took off for the Grand Line so the legend could begin.

Which meant, of course, the perfect chance to book it.

The town, Hoku thought happily, where their story's gonna begin and mine's gonna end. I'm out of here, suckers.

Loguetown was though, a bit tempting to draw.

I can leave them with one more paper.

"This place is huge!" Luffy exclaimed, tipping his head far back and throwing his arms into the air. "Woohoo!"

"The place used to be full of pirates on their way to the Grand Line," Nami explained, smoothing out her dress. "It should have everything you could ever need!"

"Alright!" Usopp said happily, eyes only still a little bit red from earlier. "I'm gonna go get equipment for our upcoming great adventure!"

"I can probably get some good cooking ingredients here," Sanji mused, a puff of smoke rolling out from his cigarette.

"Right! I'm going to see the execution scaffold!" Luffy declared.

Hoku snorted, "I'm surprised you even said that word right."

The three who'd spoken turned, looking at Hoku.

"What?" Hoku asked defensively.

"Gonna come with me?" Luffy said. "It's the place the King of the Pirates was executed. I wanna see it."

Hoku felt a chill run down her spine.

The place where it truly all started.

The weight of an old, worn down book in her hands. It's raspy, rumbling of a laugh. The place she'd set it down to rest for now, if it didn't mind waiting there.

Hoku swallowed.

It'd be one hell of a place to draw.

Dangerously tempting.

"You're welcome to help me shop, Hoku Honey," Sanji added, shaking her from the sudden stupor. "I'd be more than honored to have your company with me—"

"We can look for stuff together!" Usopp offered, jutting a thumb to his chest.

Hoku stood stock still. She blinked at all of them, startled by the sudden offers and slowly and dumbly realizing it was because they clearly thought she didn't have any plans of her own and was feeling—

"I got stuff I'll look for too," Hoku said, and it was... basically the truth. "Just scram."

Luffy grinned, quickly shooting off. Sanji exhaled from his cigarette, looking a little lonely but promising he'd buy all the best for her and Nami. Usopp walked off as well, arms swinging at his sides as he whistled out a tune.

I guess I should stock up before I take off. Hoku reasoned, adjusting the strap of her backpack. She'd gone for her jacket this time, pulling her hair back into a ponytail, uneven strands framing the sides of her face and covering half of her tattoo. I technically have time to kill before shit goes down... maybe I can see if there's any good ink around I can use with my mixture...

"There's something I want to buy too," Zoro said, rubbing his chin.

Hoku froze, perking up at his words.

Loguetown.

Her eyes dropped to the single Wado Ichimonji at his hip.

"I'll be glad to lend you some money... at three hundred percent—"

"Mind if I tag along?"

Nami and Zoro turned, looking at Hoku.

Hoku twiddled with her fingers. She smoothed them out over her pants and offered them a nervous grin, trying not to appear too eager as her eyes flickered to his katana and then back to the sky. She squinted at the sun and then focused instead on a weird spot on their shirts.

"You're looking for new swords, right?" Hoku said. "I can help a bit... if ya want..."

Zoro offered her half a look.

"I was thinking of going clothes shopping," Nami offered cheerfully. "Are you sure you don't want to come?"

Hoku tried not to look to desperate. Slowly shaking her head and managing a tight lipped, awkward smile.

"You look constipated," Zoro said. "Why do you wanna help?"

Hoku gave Mau a loving pat. Zoro's face clouded in recognition. His lip quirked to the side and then he shrugged, turning around and starting to walk off. "Suit yourself."

Hoku thrusted her fist into the air. Nami raised one eyebrow, slapping a wad of cash into Zoro's hands as he walked past. Hoku quickly followed right after him, lips pulling into a stupid, dopey sort of smile.

"Strange girl," Hoku heard, clear and rich, flowing like water. "Is a funny thing."

"Swords," Nami said, shaking her head. "I'll never understand people with swords..."


Hoku did have some time before things all went to hell so...

It couldn't hurt to be there for a scene solely dedicated to swords, right?


"Dear! I can't believe you really went out of your way to by the darn thing..."

"He said it was an authentic original!"

"You've always been too fond of those old things, having one can be dangerous, you know! Those people from that island are all scattered now and nothing good comes after you hear about them..."

"But the craftsmanship is just too good, honey. Look at this – a real, Artopoki original!"

Hoku's foot snagged on a cracked ledge of cobblestone. Her body lurched, hand shooting out to grab a potted vase decorating the street. Zoro glanced over his shoulder, raising a brow with hands in his pockets.

I haven't heard something like that in a while. Hoku waved to him quickly. He snorted, turning around and continuing on. She glanced over her shoulder at the couple that'd spoken, standing in front of a vendor selling cutlery.

Hoku shot Zoro's slow paced, lazy walk a glance and quickly rushed over to them. He should be headed straight down the street toward the first sword shop—the best in town, according to locals, so they'd meet up. "Excuse me, sir!"

The man stopped, looking up with a very pretty vase in his hands. Hoku's eyes swallowed it up, quickly following arching, pale blue lines and a soft pattern of flowers that only—"Where did you buy that beautiful vase?"

"This?" the man flushed with pride. "You see, we have a wares shop in town. The old man's a bit of a crook sometimes, but he always get the best items! I think he's got a few more just like this."

His wife hit his shoulder. The husband lowered his voice, "You have a good eye, miss. This vase right here is nothing else but—"

Hoku watched his hands move. The bottom of the vase turned over and she tipped her head a bit.

Familiar curves. It was a style of crafting that only so, so few practiced. And just to make sure—her eyes dropped to a thin, barely noticeable ridge. A small emblem was painted in.

Someone's coming of age mark. The way they all marked any of their works.

"Can you tell me where it is?" Hoku questioned hastily.

"Of course! You might have to haggle him down though. He charges quite high."

Hoku's heart thundered a little louder.

"It's no problem."

Clang! Clang! Clang!

An older woman jumped. The wife nearly shrieked, turning at the sharp clatter of objects. The vendor she and her husband were just about to buy some cutlery from was frozen, the new case he had in his hands had slipped, falling to the floor with a crash.

"My word!" the wife exclaimed. "Are you alright?"

Her husband was busy offering directions to the young miss with strikingly white hair. She shuffled around, stooping to help the vendor pick up his things. "You're so pale!"

The burly vendor was pale. Deathly so, almost as though he'd been leeched of all his blood and left standing. His lips blubbering, spit flying in every direction. He jolted, the wife setting his items in his hands. "Come now, what's got you so spooked?"

"I-I just..." the burly, bristly vendor trailed off. His eyes darted to where he kept a fancy sword he made hanging on the wall of his stall, just for decoration because... "Thought I saw a ghost, is all."

"In broad daylight?" the woman shook her head. "You haven't been drinking again, have you?"

"No! I just—" the man's eyes bulged from his head.

The young woman bowed, waving to the woman's husband before she ran off, disappearing into the crowd.

Sunlight caught off a beautiful finish of glossy paint—the kind many tried but could never recreate. A silver guard and a white wrapped hilt etched with the finest of work—

He could never forget a short sword like that.

He fell to the floor with a shriek, eyes darting fearfully left and right for the chance that—that man would be following right behind.

"My!" the woman exclaimed. Her husband turned in surprise. "What in the world has gotten into you?"

"S-S-Someone, call a marine!" the vendor spluttered, face growing paler and paler. His giant knees knocked together, eyes wide with fear. "Hurry!"

"Whatever for—"

"Hawk-Eye Mihawk might be here. In Loguetown!"


A leisurely breeze fluttered through a thick, arguably fluffy plume.

Though the plume's owner, a brooding, dark hat owned by an equally broody, dark man, would never utter such a description.

"Hawk-Eye" Mihawk reclined in his throne. Noir cruised along beneath him, easy and calm. The winds blowing toward his intended designation were favorable. He'd make it to the island within the next hour.

Yoru was strapped snugly and familiarly to his back. Sunlight made the ebony colored blade glisten, as though baring the hints of an amused smile, jewels encrusted along the hilt sparkling—eyes twinkling in faint mirth.

A glass of wine seated itself in one of his hands. The other occupied with the latest paper flown directly his way—express delivery by the fools running the Government to get the word out. A new bounty. Another new pirate. More fools running about these seas without a single cell in their brain to figure out how to play the song the waves hummed.

But perhaps, this one would be different.

Mihawk straightened the paper out. The edge fluttered with the wind.

A ridiculously stupid smile beamed back at him. Bright. A rather recognizable scar curving under his eye. A hat whose name he seemed intent on trying to live up to.

No. Mihawk mused. Not trying. Simply doing.

He scoffed, vaguely interested.

If the one armed fool he was visiting was so fond of this fool, he had to muse that the straw hatted fool ought to be something. Ought to be something indeed, for causing such a ruckus with his other fool. And all these fools couldn't seem to stop running into each other.

Mihawk took another sip of his glass.

The man was surrounded by fools, it seemed.


"I took my eyes off you for one second, where the hell did you go?"

Zoro didn't look impressed.

"The shop."

Hoku stared at him in disbelief.

The two stood in front of the best weapons shop in Loguetown, directed to by several of the townsfolk. Hoku recognized the front well from hazy scenes, one great one in particular. People bustled right on their left, a shiny display window on their right showing off several fine edged katanas and sabers.

"No," Hoku said slowly. "I went the way we were supposed to. Straight and a left. You... you were nowhere. How did you end up here too?"

"What are you talking about?" Zoro said, looking disgruntled. "If that was the only way to get here, how the hell am I here then? I sure as hell didn't see you since someone decided to take their sweet time."

"I was picking up some useful information on some valuable products," Hoku said defensively. "I don't know how you—you look a little pale, you alright?"

Zoro's lips curved downwards. Sure enough, the little lack of color to his normally sun-kissed tan had faded. A bead of sweat rolled down the side of his face and he crossed his arms roughly over his chest, turning away from her and toward the door. "I don't know what you're talking about. Let's get this over with, klutz."

"Maybe you just need something to eat—the hell did you just call me?"

"I was weak," Zoro muttered to himself, shaking his head.

"Hey, spearmint, I'm talkin' to ya over here—"

Zoro ignored her, twisting the knob and stepping into the store. Hoku snorted like a bull, shaking her head and rolling up the sleeves of her jacket as she followed after him.

Stupid, mint-haired muscle head. I'm only tagging along because I wanna see the other swords—

A cacophony of voices assaulted her senses, flooding her mind.

Hoku flinched for a second, wincing. Some of the voices were smoother than others, warmer. Others were loud and chatty. Some shouted curses—angry. A whole collection of hundreds of different personas and personalities and she'd let her guard down for a second, forgetting where she was.

Hoku soothed fingers over her temples, carefully toning it all down, imagining each stroke of her finger was another dial turned lower. That's it. Filter it out. The loud, chorus of voices came a quieted sort of murmur, low radio chatter. There we go. She stood in the entrance of the doorway, counting to ten to make sure she had herself together.

"Strange girl listens," Hoku's eyes flickered to the white sheath, pressed against Zoro's hip. "She listens well."

"Maybe convince your guy that too," Hoku whispered to the sword. Mau hummed in amusement.

"You gonna just stand there or let the door close?" Zoro grunted.

Hoku blew the sword a kiss where Zoro couldn't see, letting the door slam shut behind her. Zoro glanced over his shoulder, giving her one more once over before rolling his eyes, hands sliding into his pockets. "Hey, I want a sword."

"Oh! Yes, yes, yes! Welcome, please come in and look around!" a man popped up from behind the counter, nearly knocking over a shield he'd been polishing. Hoku eyed the wings of his hair jutting out on either side of his head and the particular up-do. I kinda want to draw that. "My name is Matsu, I own this shop! Old swords, newer swords, brand-new swords, we have 'em all... and a solid reputation of over two hundred years in the business!"

Sounds fair. Hoku wouldn't have heard so many voices to start with if half of these weapons weren't made with some kind of meaning. Doesn't mean each voice is a good one. "Are you looking for anything in particular as well, miss? We have decorative coats and kimonos. I happened upon a new box of silver rings as well!"

Zoro snorted. Hoku took no offense, experimentally hefting up a giant axe. It cackled in her grip, throaty and taunting. Never held one of these before. "I'll think it over. Thanks."

Maybe I can find you new holders. The twin circlets she slung Mau through along her sash were becoming a bit chipped. She'd wanted to wait to find some good material before drawing herself new ones, but maybe just something sturdy would do...

"I have 100,000 berries," Zoro said, setting several bills onto the counter. Matsu grimaced, looking clearly unsettled by the small amount. Hoku curiously checked the price of a pretty, silver saber perched on the wall beside her, a lovely little tune whistling back. Maybe I can cover the extra for him and he'll let me feel up—

Hoku nearly slapped herself. His money didn't matter, didn't it? He'd get those swords fine in the end...

A strangely chilling thought flickered through her mind.

I mean, it's not like... that'll change, right? Hoku shot a worried glance over her shoulder. Well, whatever. I'm here, so if he needs cash, I'll spot him.

"Sell me two swords," Zoro finished.

"Two swords for 100,000 berries?" Matsu huffed, crossing his arms over his chest, clearly disinterested in their patronage. Rude. "You'll only get a blunt sword for 50,000... got it?"

Zoro grunted, seeming to settle with that. Hoku set the mace she was checking out down, walking over and sidestepping a few chatty knives. "I'll take whatever you've got. I'm low on cash right now."

"If it's not in too bad shape," Hoku said, peeking around Zoro's side. He shot her a look. "I can sharpen it up for you pretty nice."

Matsu's eyes lowered to Zoro's waist.

His eyes almost popped from his head.

"Er... um... c-could I have a look at that sword?" Matsu almost panted, fingers trembling against the side of his face.

"Why are you shaking?" Zoro questioned, arching a brow as he slowly handed the owner Wado Ichimonji.

Oh. Hoku thought in amusement. He recognized it.

Matsu's face shifted immediately, eyes growing round and hands shaking as he unsheathed Wado only an inch, catching the light against the beautiful blade. Hoku watched, albeit enviously. He didn't let me unsheathe the damn thing...

Matsu practically panted, holding onto Wado Ichimonji and staring at it for several beats.

"This sword's no good."

Zoro's hand fisted itself into Matsu's collar the same moment Hoku slapped her palm against the table. "What?"

"I-I'm sorry, I lied," Matsu quickly apologized. "L-Look! Here, friend, maybe we can work around your lack of funds. This sword is nothing special, but it might be worth something—"

"How could you say that about him?" Hoku squawked. Zoro raised a brow. "That's just plain rude!" Matsu looked startled. "Wado Ichimonji is—"

"Wado what—"

"I'll give you 200,000 berries for it!" Matsu interrupted swiftly. Hoku's lips turned, expression souring. I thought this guy likes swords but maybe I was wrong. "Then you'll have 300,000 and you can buy three swords for 100,000 each!"

"What are you talking about?" Zoro questioned.

"500,000 berries then!"

Hey, come on. Hoku glanced to the beautiful katana laid out peacefully across the counter. How much are you really worth? Let's show this guy.

"Gold," water traveled through her ears, absolutely harmonious. "Will not deem the sharpness of how I strike."

Hoku eyed the blade longingly. What a sword...

"I-I'll give you 650,000 berries for it!" Matsu shouted.

"Listen," Zoro's brows furrowed, a sigh slipping pas this lips. "This sword isn't for sale at any price."

Something warm thrummed from the blade on the counter at Zoro's words.

The door chimed behind them, signaling another customer. Hoku crossed her arms under her chest, resting her weight on one leg with a frown. She'd been trying to sort through the crowded voices, too afraid of risking the massive onslaught again. Hoku had no idea what a cursed sword and a pretty sword like the other one would sound like, but so far she hadn't caught sight of those familiar hilts and...if I can just find them so he can get 'em, we can get out of here...

Hoku frowned. She took one more sweep of the shop, skimming over a short haired woman with glasses looking around. I feel like I'm forgetting something... something's missing...

"Whoa! That sword—could it be?" a feminine voice nearly shrieked, excitement filling the air. Hoku stumbled back, the woman with glasses nearly barreling into them in her rush to lunge for the counter. Zoro's face twisted into a hurried grimace, panic flashing through his eyes as his face paled.

She jerked her glasses upwards, "This is... the Wado Ichimonji, the Straight Road of Harmony!"

Zoro frowned, "I already asked – 'Wado' what?"

"That's his name," Hoku said to him. "A damn good name too."

But her eyes were instantly drawn to the young woman who'd rushed up, eyes sparkling at the sight of Wado Ichimonji and a strangely... familiar face. She almost looks exactly like—Her eyes darted back to Zoro and to the woman. But... why does that feel important? Is it? Is this some kind of freaky coincidence?

Hoku couldn't help but feel as though this were the moment Luffy would be sticking his tongue out and calling her stupid.

"Why didn't you tell me this earlier?" Zoro grunted.

Hoku shoved her elbow into his side.

"You—"

"Look at this blade," the woman gushed. Hoku shot Zoro an indignant look, pointing furiously to where a stranger was holding his sword that he wouldn't let her even touch—

Zoro stuck his tongue out. Hoku made to strangle his neck.

"S-Sure," Matsu started nervously. "That's its name, just like you said! But it's no great shakes—"

"'No great shakes'—are you nuts? This is one of the O Wazamono—one of the twenty one, worth ten million—"

"You tryna say it ain't worth shit?"

The woman stopped, blinking in surprise as she held a booklet in her hands. Her head swung over to where Hoku was gaping indignantly at the man across the counter.

That's like saying Mau's nothing more than a hunk of steel—and he isn't!

"You know it too?" the woman gushed eagerly, cheeks flushing a bit and Hoku flinched. "Oh, you must like swords too! I haven't met many women who appreciate swords so much—you understand how beautiful it is too, don't you?"

Zoro stood a foot behind the two of them, clearly disgruntled.

Hoku's lips pursed into an awkward grimace. Glasses seemed nice and all, but there was still a heavy weight in her gut that she was missing something crucial to this whole scene. I just came for the cool swords—why hasn't that happened yet?

"You idiots!" Matsu shouted, slapping a fist to his counter. "Why'd you have to tell him that? Why, you... I'll sue you for damaging my business!"

"D-Damaging your business? I'm so sorry! Did I say something wrong?" Glasses babbled. "I've never seen such a beautiful sword! I couldn't help myself—"

"Who're ya calling an idiot, idiot?" Hoku snapped, chomping her teeth at the man as she smacked a fist into the counter right back at him. "Yer the one saying 'okay sword this' and 'it's alright that'—ya blind?"

"Well, er, I—"

Wado Ichimonji's hilt smacked into the side of her head. Hoku lurched, almost slipping on her own foot and barely catching the counter. She whipped around, grabbing the side of her head, "What the hell was that for?"

"You were in my way," Zoro said simply, sliding his sword back to its rightful place. "Quit yelling, you're rowdier than you look."

"I'm just—"

"And you!" Matsu quickly blubbered, turning the tides. Glasses flinched. "You're here to pick up Autumn Rain, right? I've polished it!"

Zoro shoved Hoku's head down and she squawked, the blade sailing over her head. Glasses stumbled, narrowly catching the sword thrown across the room at her. "What's a novice like you doing with a famous sword anyway?"

Glasses teetered back. The weight of her katana sent her stumbling into an entire line of swords gathered up against the wall. The clattered roughly to the floor and Hoku winced at the shouts of protest. "What are you doing now? Leave that sword and get out!"

"I might take you up on that offer," Hoku muttered darkly, shoving Zoro's hand off her head.

Zoro's eyes flashed with amusement, sharp. "Yeah? You'll be up against three swords instead of one soon enough."

"Listen, those idiots—" Hoku narrowed her eyes. "That idiot girl saved you. But she's right. That sword's wasted on someone like you who doesn't know its value. It is a famous sword."

Matsu pointed to a barrel stuffed full with varying swords and blades, grumbling, "Swords in there are worth fifty thousand each. Pick two."

Hoku's eyes flickered to Wado Ichimonji.

"Be unbothered by such things," he said calmly. "They matter not, in the end."

Oh. Hoku thought longingly. You just keep getting better and better...

"What's he so mad about?" Zoro muttered, turning around and heading to the barrel.

"Huh?" Glasses looked up, several swords spitting curses at her as she moved them aside from where they'd fallen. "I met you on the street earlier!"

Hoku perked up. Earlier? Her eyes flashed to Zoro, who's face had shifted into one of obvious discomfort, eyes dropping back down to the barrel full of swords.

Hoku quirked a brow.

"It's nice to meet you too miss," Glasses offered quickly, turning to Hoku with a warm smile. Hoku made an awkward face, more constipated than anything else. "Your friend was very helpful earlier... But three swords at once, you must like them! It's just like that bounty hunter!"

Hoku froze.

"Bounty hunter?" Zoro questioned smoothly, unsheathing a sword. Hoku gaped at the obscenities flying from it and quickly pushed it back into the barrel for him, shaking her head.

"Haven't you heard of him? His name's Roronoa Zoro," Glasses said.

Hoku shot her a look of disbelief.

Zoro looked faintly amused, unsheathing another sword. He quickly shot Hoku a look of annoyance when she pushed it back with her pinky. "I know the name well."

"That's the name of a master swordsman who's famous throughout the East Blue," Glasses said, voice growing somber. "But it's an evil name! Using a sword to make money... that's unforgivable!"

Hoku's lips pursed as she gingerly took another sword from Zoro's hands.


Mau slammed into the back of the man's neck, sending him skidding across the floor.

Hoku snorted, shoving one foot into his back. His eyes spun, a tooth chipped from his crash into the floor. She slung Mau over her shoulder, bending down and hefting the bag of winnings up into her rightful possession.

"I saw you switch those cards, asshole," Hoku spat. "If you're gonna gamble, you gotta be willing to take the risks."

She patted her shoulder with Mau, shaking her head and stepping off. Coward.


"Just pick one for me if you're gonna keep shoving them all back!"

"I can't help it," Hoku muttered, albeit sheepish as she nudged another one away from Zoro's grip. His temple throbbed, lips pulling into a scowl. I don't remember the hilt... What the hell is a cursed sword supposed to sound like? Would it even talk? "It's not that easy, you know—"

"And you, miss," Matsu spoke up, pouty from behind his counter. Hoku shot him a look, regarding him similar to that of a bug. "I-Are you going to buy anything?"

Hoku reached behind her. Glasses' eyes dropped down to her waist, growing impossibly round. Hoku thumbed Mau's hilt fondly, testing the strength of the rings holding him in place. "Maybe. You got any—"

"T-T-T-That's—" Glasses spluttered. Hoku and Zoro looked over at her. Her eyes nearly bulged from her head, hands tightening on her sword as she took a step back. "Is that—"

Matsu squinted, leaning over the counter to eye the short sword strapped to her lower back.

His eyes did bulge from his head.

"By the devil himself!" Matsu shouted, clambering over his counter and nearly falling flat on his face in his haste to run over. "That's—but it can't be—"

Glasses' head nearly shoved into her stomach. The young woman had stooped over, staring at Mau against her back with wide, shining eyes. Her fingers trembled, not reaching for the short sword. "That's real—isn't it? It's a real, Pokian sword! From the Island of Artopoki itself – the etching in the hilt is carved through the metal! It's a signature style by the smiths of the island!"

Something warm rushed through Hoku. Her heart melted a bit at the flashes of memories, wild, untamable hair and eyes that cut as sharp as her own swords.

"You've got a good eye, I'll give you that," Hoku couldn't help but concede, pride flooding her voice as she slipped Mau from his holder, unsheathing him a bit so Glasses could see. Zoro was quiet beside her. "People always recognize the vases and bowls, but not everyone catch the weapons."

"I-I read all about them!" Glasses said hastily, eyes sparkling in awe. "Some are even mentioned in my book!" she quickly flipped through the pages, hurriedly turning. "Every sword made on the island is forged with a special coal from an underground volcano—the real ones are crafted with a special ore found only on the island – Popo! But it's not just the greatness of the metal, each sword is always known for its skill because the coating technique used by Pokians was one of the finest! A simple coating could keep a sword from rusting for years and sharpened without regular tools."

Zoro watched Hoku nod along, face completely blissed out and expression making her look like an idiot.

"But this one is beautiful," Glasses said. "I-I've only ever seen an actual Pokian sword once... Is that rosin incased in the middle of the blade? It's lovely!"

"Mau," Hoku said. "And he says thanks."

Glasses seemed too absorbed in taking in every single inch of her sword to question her phrasing. Zoro flashed her a curious look. Hoku was practically floating on cloud nine—how could she not? Hearing people praise Mau was the same as hearing time and time again the words her mother deserved to hear because—

Your swords were amazing.

"There's a story I always read about," Glasses babbled on. "It's in one of my other books! There's stories about legendary swords, some of them are even of the Twelve Supreme Grade! But apparently, there's an ancient sword that was lost to the island. They say it used to be a blade capable of carving anything into any surface or person but... well, the story goes that it was cursed because its wielder failed to uphold a promise and... it's lost now..."

"I've never heard a story like that," Hoku gave Glasses her full attention, eyes wide with curiosity. A story about an ancient sword? There's no way Mahina wouldn't tell me something like that... what's this all about? "A legendary Pokian sword?"

Glasses nodded eagerly, "I'm not sure of its grade, since Pokian swords were never graded, but it's fabled to be simply amazing!"

Could also be a tall tale...just like the first artist's brush... Hoku reasoned, biting her bottom lip. I'll keep my ears peeled for anything about that.

"But so few of them are floating around these days," Glasses murmured, a frown touching her lips. "Majority of the ones made on the island were all—"

"Confiscated," Hoku finished, sliding Mau back into place with a click. "By the World Government. And then they were distributed to their militia and forces."

Zoro's eyes bore into the side of her head.

"And a good lot are lost to markets and others all around the world," Matsu finished. They turned. "But the one you've got there—I only ever had the honor of seeing one of her blades once."

Hoku turned around to face him fully. Her eyes were wide.

"You know the crafter?" Hoku whispered.

"Not personally," Matsu shook his head, leaning back against his counter with crossed arms. "I recognize that seal, though it looks customized. She always used moons, not stars. That woman... only the right people knew about her. She wanted to make one of the greatest swords the world had ever seen."

Hoku's heart stuttered. Her chest flooded with pride, fierce and furious.

Mau was warm.

"Damn shame," Matsu said, shooting Glasses a dark look. She flinched, grabbing onto her sword tighter. "Lost to history, just like the rest. I hope all her work ended up somewhere good."

"They will, if they're not already," Hoku said. Matsu looked up, brows furrowed. "Swords never stay with the wielders they don't like long. A sword that isn't in tune with you will always get you killed."

The shop owner stared her down for a minute longer before he shook his head, walking back to his spot behind the counter. "I hope you're right, miss."

Hoku paused, swinging her head back over her shoulder. Zoro regarded her with something like lazy curiosity, thumb absently sliding a sword up and down from its sheath as he watched her.

"What?" Hoku said.

Zoro shrugged, looking away.

This guy—

"Strange girl," he hummed, a ringing tone, "is a strange, strange star."

"D-Do you really think that's true?"

Hoku and Zoro turned their heads in unison.

Glasses' cheeks were flushed. Her eyes were bright, staring at Hoku intently. They shone with something fierce and she clutched her katana closer to her floral patterned shirt. "What you said, about the swords—do you really believe that?"

Hoku regarded her curiously. There seemed to be something hopeful in the way she asked that. Leading. Hoku slid her hands into her jacket pockets, tipping her head to the side. "Yeah, I do."

Relief flooded her dark eyes. Glasses nodded, smiling at her sword, "I... I hope so too! There's so much evil in the world today... All the famous swordsmen are either pirates or bounty hunters. And most of the world-famous swords are in their hands. Those swords—they must be crying."

Hoku felt a sharp stab in the side of her gut. Not from pain or anything tragic—well, arguably tragic. It was the kind of rough stab you felt when you realized something crucially awkward. When something you felt had a different meaning speaks to someone else, but only because they read it a totally different way and it's the kind you can't... really get behind, though the sentiments were appreciated because—

I can't agree with that statement because I'm biased. Hoku settled, a much, much simpler answer. Yikes.

The most prominent example in particular—a dark and somber man with piercing golden eyes, matching boots, who liked his sea king sautéed over simply charred on a skewer, with a beautiful, haunting sword whose voice always rumbled through her mind like the smoothest of velvet and was definitely not crying, and a fluffy plume she was always chasing—

Hoku turned her head to the side, letting out a soft, nervous whistle.

"Well, there are probably good reasons for that," Zoro said simply. Hoku thanked him for speaking and she wisely chose to keep her mouth shut, saving them all one awkward conversation. "A man's got to do what he can to eat in these hard times."

"But it's not right!" Glasses protested fiercely. "Those swords can't possibly be in-tune to wills as broken and bent as theirs—even one of the Twelve Supreme Grade swords, the esteemed Yoru, belongs to a criminal—"

"The Greatest Swordsman in the World," Zoro said, with a hint of a grumble.

"Exactly!" Glasses said hotly. "How could a man with such skill—with such an amazing sword, be alright being known as a criminal—"

"Who cares what they're called if they get to do what they love?"

Glasses stopped, looking at Hoku in sharp surprise.

Hoku shrugged. Her head was turned, keeping her eyes fixed solely on the barrel of swords beside them.

"E-Even so," Glasses started, "those swords are crying out against the injustice—"

"You might be surprised," Hoku's lips curled up this time. She offered Glasses a half lidded look, finger pushing one sword toward the back of the barrel where it sneered back at her.

"Not every sword wants to do what you might consider good."

Hoku didn't see Zoro's eyes boring into the side of her head.

"My lady," a voice filled the room, fierce and loving. Hoku's eyes dropped to the katana held tightly in Glasses' grip. "Seeks only true good. And true justice. She attempts to do more than you may, girl who seeks the end."

Hoku had to give Autumn Rain that one. Mau rumbled against her back, but she reached back and set her hand on him fondly, stroking the hilt with her thumb. She ain't wrong. I ran my mouth a bit there.

Matsu's laugh broke the thundering silence, slapping his hand on the counter. "I like bad guys! This shop used to be filled with men who wanted to sail the Grand Line. Then that monster took over this town. And what happened? The customers stopped coming."

Glasses' nerve seemed to flood back through her, flustered words of defense shooting from her mouth, "Monster? Captain isn't a—"

"He's got the power of the devil fruit!"

Zoro stiffened to attention behind her. "Devil fruit?"

"M-Miss, what you say may be true—no, it probably is, in regards to the swords," Glasses' eyes shone fiercely. Autumn Rain sang with her words, crackling with energy Hoku wondered if her wielder could feel. "But in any case, I'll use my Autumn Rain to hone my skills as a swordsman! Then I'm going to collect all the famous swords that have fallen into the hands of the evil men of the world. I'll get the Twelve Supreme Grade swords, the 21 Excellent swords, and the 40 Fine Grade swords... even if it kills me!"

Hoku whistled. She had ambition. Hoku could give her that.

Autumn Rain thrummed with life and Hoku addressed the sword, in simple and complete honesty.

You'll have to help her train pretty damn hard then, Hoku slipped her hands back into her pockets. Yoru won't be beat by just anyone.

Autumn Rain seemed to clink back at the challenge.

"Do you plan to collect this sword too?" Zoro questioned behind her, sounding a bit amused by the idea. "The one you call Wado Ichimonji?"

"Huh?" the fire in Glasses' eyes instantly dispersed for a flustered apology, "Um, oh, no! It's not that I want all the swords. I just don't want evil men to have them!"

"Yeah?" Zoro swung his head back to the barrel. His knee shot out, butting into Hoku's back. She floundered, almost crashing into the entire barrel. "Oi. We've spent a damn long time here 'cause of your yapping. Pick one then if they're all such bad talkers."

"Don't make fun of me!" Hoku snapped. "And it's not just me, you've been a part of this conversation too—"

"This sword!" Glasses exclaimed. "I've seen it in my book!"

Matsu flinched, looking up sharply. Hoku's eyes flickered to the woman and she held up a tightly wrapped blade. It had an elegantly curved guard, a scratched up hilt, worn down by countless hands but—

Oh.

"It's Kitetsu the Third!" Glasses said. "This one! Take this one! Mister, you said these swords were 50,000 berries each, right?"

"Er... yeah..."

Hoku's eyes couldn't leave the sword, mesmerized by the strange sound. Zoro's hand came up and clutched tightly at the hilt, carefully sliding it from its sheath.

"Wow!" Glasses gasped. "This is a genuine Fine Grade sword! It's worth a million berries! This sword's predecessor, Kitetsu II was an Excellent Grade, and the original Kitetsu was a Supreme Grade!"

"No!" Matsu shouted, slamming his palms onto the counter. "Not that one! I can't sell that one!"

"Huh?" Glasses questioned in surprise. "Why not?"

Zoro pulled the blade clean from the sheath. Eyes never once leaving the blade until it came free into the air before him.

The strange, haunting hum cleared into a voice. Broken. A dark, smooth baritone. It slipped past her ears and drove straight into her chest, exhaling, as though it could grip her heart any moment.

"What death," he almost seemed to laugh, "do you seek?"

Hoku swallowed.

"This sword's bewitched," Zoro said calmly.

"You've heard of it?" Matsu said, looking up sharply.

"No," Zoro's eyes remained trained on the katana in front of him, his grip firm. "I can just tell."

"Hahaha," Hoku eyed the sword. "This one... many years... since a hand... like his..."

"Well, you're right!" Matsu said, face growing dark. "The first Kitetsu and its successor are all good blades, but they're all cursed! Famous swordsmen have died tragic deaths because they wielded the Kitetsu swords. These days, no swordsman in the world uses a Kitetsu... and if he did, he wouldn't be around long."

Kitetsu thrummed with energy, vibrant. Hoku could sense several of the blades near it recoil or rumble to the crackle. Autumn Rain's energy went taut.

Wado Ichimonji was still, unmoved.

Mau was firm against her back. A thin thrum of energy.

Hoku pressed a firm thumb onto his hilt. You're just like mama. Cursed or not, you'd love to give it a whirl.

"I'd like to get rid of that sword myself," Matsu said. "But I might be cursed for it."

"P-Please forgive me!" Glasses bowed, eyes wide in horror. "I didn't know it was so dangerous! And I was so pushy—"

"Hah!" Matsu shouted. "Thought you were an expert, eh? Show off!"

The air shifted.

Kitetsu thrummed, violent and lively.

"I like this sword," Zoro's lips curled up into a ferocious grin, eyes glinting. "I'll take it."

"Are you a fool?" Matsu spluttered. "I can't sell you that sword! If you died, it'd be like I killed you myself!"

"You're the fool!" a woman shouted, coming from the back door of the shop and smacking him upside the head. Hoku and Glasses looked up in surprise. "Just get rid of that thing!"

"Agh! Honey bun—"

"How 'bout this then?" Zoro's grin was feral. Hoku's head snapped around to attention, eyes glittering. "My luck... versus this sword's curse. Why don't we find out which is stronger? If I lose, then I'm not man enough to possess it, am I?"

Zoro's grip slid to the bottom of the hilt, his eyes met hers. "How's that sound?"

Kitetsu cackled.

Hoku swallowed, transfixed.

"He's game."

Zoro smirked, tossing the blade up into the air. The moment Kitetsu left his grip, he extended his left arm.

Fwip. Fwip. Fwip.

"Stop fooling around!" Matsu screeched. "You'll lose your arm! That blade's razor sharp!"

Zoro shut his eyes.

"Dauntless fool." Hoku's eyes followed each new catch of light against the dark blade. "Ambition. Ferocious. Humiliated. I feel it all."

The blade followed its curve through the air. Kitetsu's blunt edge kissed Zoro's arm, curling like a ghost around it.

"The only... death... you will settle for—"

Kitetsu slid up to its guard into the ground, having sliced clean through feet of wood and concrete.

"Let us see."

Zoro's eyes slid open. His lips curved up, ferocious.

Matsu fell to the floor. Glasses' knees came crashing down as she slumped, pale as a ghost.

Hoku felt the breath she didn't know she'd been holding escape her lips.

"I'll take it."

Her heart thumped, loud in her chest. Her fingers itched. She engrained this scene into her memory, vivid and sharp.

She'd draw this as soon as possible.

"Klutz," Zoro said. Glasses and Hoku looked at him. Zoro smirked, looking amused. "Our klutz, any other ones got a voice worth hearing?"

Glasses flushed in embarrassment. Hoku scowled. "Keep calling me that and I'm going to give you the worst one possible."

"Wait right there!" Matsu shouted. They all turned as he rushed toward the back of his shop. A loud clatter broke the air and then he came running right back, setting a stand down before them. Hoku's eyes brightened at the familiar sheath. "This sword has a black lacquered sheath, and the blade has midareba. Yubashiri, or Snow Chaser, is a Fine Grade sword. I'll guarantee its sharpness! Our shop has nothing fancy, but this is the best sword I have."

Zoro slid Kitetsu in right alongside Wado Ichimonji. A strange thrum of energy mixed before it settled, strangely at peace. "But I can't buy it. I told you, I don't have money."

Zoro glanced to Hoku, "Wanna sell some blood?"

"You've got one hell of a mouth on ya—"

"Never mind the money!" Matsu rushed out quickly. "Just take it! And you can have Kitetsu for free too, of course. Forgive me for trying to trick you earlier. It's been a while since I've looked into the eyes of a real swordsman. A sword chooses its wielder."

Matsu's eyes were bright, expression firm.

"I'll pray for your good fortune."

Zoro's eyes slid sideways. Hoku raised a defensive brow.

"Well?" Zoro said.

"I cut," her voice was cool, almost soft, elegant, "true to his word."

Hoku snorted.

"She could use a better man than you."

Zoro's lips curved into a dangerous grin.


"If you're traveling with a swordsman like that, I understand why you're ballsy enough to go around so daringly," Hoku stopped just before the door, turning over her shoulder.

Zoro had just stepped out ahead of her, his trademark set finally complete.

Matsu looked at her from behind his counter, arms crossed over his chest.

"But be careful out there," he continued, face grim. "I'd hate to see that sword taken from its rightful owner."

Glasses was still on the floor, gathering her wits about her. Matsu's words made her freeze, looking up in confusion at Hoku.

Hoku tucked a strand of white behind her ear, a small grin curling over her lips.

"We'll endure."

Glasses' eyes went wide, "You're—"

Hoku pressed a finger to her lips, eyes flashing mischievously before she slipped out the door, tugging it shut behind her.


"Hey, mister, looking to buy a good sword?"

Matsu stopped, looking up from his stand. Was this woman an idiot? She'd get robbed.

The young woman looked amused. Perhaps a dozen swords were strapped to a sling she was carrying on her back, sticking out and catching the sunlight at different angles. Shop owners and vendors alike were eyeing the wares with clear desire, but a secondary presence several steps behind the young woman was warding them off.

The young man with piercing gold eyes was browsing through a collection of sabers, critical. The silver haired woman pursed her lips in thought. Matsu—then a younger, still albeit foolish, stingy man—caught sight of another sword strapped snugly to her lower back.

"What kinda sword you looking to sell?" Matsu said. "I came all the way from the East Blue and—"

"You ever use a sword?"

Matsu swallowed nervously. The woman tipped her head to the side.

"Once," Matsu admitted. Compelled by some unseen force to speak. Her swords? Did he really want them? "It was a good sword... I was a fool. I couldn't live up to what it deserved."

She looked curious this time. A sound behind them made her glance back to where the golden eyed man was waiting, the vendor in front of him frothing at the mouth in fear.

"See, I'm not super fond of selling these willy nilly," she admitted. "Too many hupos out there, you know?"

Matsu didn't know, but he nodded regardless.

"But my pal and I are looking for some cash to catch a boat," she explained. "He suggested other means but... I'm an honest gal, on certain occasions."

Her fingers fondled each sword slung against her back, mouth twisted as she listened for something and then pulled one free.

The stalls around them grew quiet. Eyes were watching intently.

The sound of a wooden sword being slid an inch from a wooden sheath filled the air. A soft, resounding clack. He stood still. Her lips curled and people spying turned eyes away.

"He's just a good pal of mine," she waved Matsu's pale face away. "If you can't handle a customer like him, you can't handle a sword like one of mine but... your buddies seemed fairly fond of you."

Matsu frowned. Who the hell was she talking about? "Who are you—"

"Just trust me," she said, eyes flashing. He caught the gold glimmer in them reflecting back from the blade she set suddenly into his hands without him even realizing it—"This sword can make a pretty coin."

"Mahina."

She grunted, flashing the dark haired male a sour look. "I'm doin' business. Go beat another idiot or something."

He remained in his spot.

"What do you say?" Mahina, he figured, urged. Her eyes were shining, curling his fingers around the sword she'd given him. "I think this one is worth at least—"

Matsu shoved a bag of coins her way.

She blinked, looking surprised. Matsu's fingers were beginning to tremble. This sword had weight to it. He'd barely looked—it was missing a sheath, hadn't been built one yet—but it was crafted well. Frighteningly well. This was a blade that could cut. It'd need a sheath soon to contain it. But the workings on it and the markings etched with such detail to the hilt—

Something possessed him, fearsome and excited.

"Alright," Mahina said. He hadn't spoken a word, but her eyes glittered, amused. She stepped back. "I'll leave that to you then. Nice doing business with you, sir."

This sword was a good sword.

"Come back again," Matsu said suddenly, words flying from his lips before he could think twice. "And if you can make something better than this—it'll sell at my shop."

Her eyes flashed. Her lips curled. The young man behind her loomed like a dark shadow.

"You'll have to make it a big shop," she said. "You'll be selling one of the best swords in the world."


Zoro let out a hefty sigh through his nose, rocking back into an almost swagger. One hand rested on the hilt of all three swords, shifting comfortably at his side.

Absolutely satisfied.

"Having three swords makes me feel whole again."

Hoku's mouth opened to say something witty and snarky.

Her right foot tripped over the left, sending her chin smashing into a barrel, hands stuck in her pockets before she could even try to catch herself.

Zoro glanced over his shoulder at the commotion.

"For someone who's all bark about this and that," Zoro said. "You're just a klutz."

"That phrase is all mixed up on you," Hoku said. She rubbed her sore jaw, wincing at the growing bruise. How many is that today? Fucking hell.

Zoro watched her wrestle her hands from her pockets out from under her. He watched her struggle for another minute before picking her up by the collar of her jacket, hauling her up onto her feet with infuriating ease.

"All bark," Zoro said. "Just a klutz. With a fancy sword."

"He ain't fancy, he's fantastic," Hoku spat. "Give me the flattest field possible with nothing in sight and I'll show ya."

Zoro snorted, "You'd probably still eat shit."

"Imma—"

"Where to?" Zoro interrupted, turning on his heel and ignoring her. Hoku chomped her teeth at him, rolling up the sleeve of her jacket to reel back a fist. "The execution platform?"

"I'm gonna go the west side of town," Hoku said roughly. "There's something there I wanna check out. You can go on ahead." Shit's gonna go down eventually and I'll just scram when it does.

"You don't want to say goodbye?"

Hoku winced, starting to walk toward where she needed to go. Footsteps followed lazily behind her. I can just... get a peek or something. I can write a letter! Yeah, yeah, that works the best—footsteps?

Hoku stopped, turning swiftly over her shoulder.

Zoro stopped, an inch from bumping into her smaller frame. His hands were in his pockets as he raised a brow at her.

"What, don't know where it is?"

"No, just," Hoku blinked. "You're coming?"

Zoro looked at her as though she were stupid.

"Why split up? It's a waste of my time waiting there for everyone."

Hoku stared. Her mouth opened and then she shut it. She turned on her heel, refusing to look back.

"Do whatever you want," she mumbled.

Zoro eyed Mau tucked snugly against her back. His gaze traveled slowly upwards, catching the feather and sword tattoo along the back of her neck.

"Tell me about that voice thing of yours," Zoro said. "Or are you actually nuts too, klutz?"

"Sure," Hoku said simply. "Basically everything worth a damn has a voice, and they all say fuck you."

Zoro's foot shot out. Hoku tripped with a screech of fury.


Unbelievable.

Hoku stood in the middle of a crowd of people walking in and out around her, not even sparing her a glance because—well, why the hell would they? No one gave a shit about some random woman standing in the middle of the street with a face that said what the fuck?

Hoku looked left and right. For good measure, she even looked up and down and did an entire circle.

It was official.

In a span of less than one minute, she'd lost Zoro.

Unbelievable.

Hoku stood there for a moment. She counted to ten.

Hoku started walking.

They'll all end up back with each other anyway. Hoku reasoned. If I have time to spare after this, I'll go out of my way to look for him.

She'd barely made it a few feet in when Hoku's feet slowed to a stop.

A tacky billboard that promised equally tacky lights to come on and flash a little bit at night. A man sat crouched in front of the building, weeping. Another man sauntered past the doors, eager with a pouch jingling, heavy with coins.

Hoku inhaled the scent of cigarette smoke and booze, biting her bottom lip.

Her eyes flickered upwards.

Beginnings and Ends Gambling House!

Hoku felt for her side pouch, strung up along her sash. A thin wad of cash from what she had left from Mayman, typically living fairly day to day without spending much on that island, so her funds had stayed pretty low...

Hoku tipped her head to the side in thought, crossing her arms over her chest.

I mean... I can see what damage I can do in seven minutes, right? Hoku eyed the sun from her spot, gauging how much time she could kill. Where were we supposed to meet again? Did we even decide on a meeting spot?

Hoku's face twisted into an ugly grimace. A woman walking past her jumped in surprise, hurrying off.

The fuck? Why don't I just ditch them here?

Hoku shrugged, stepping past the swinging doors.

A little gambling couldn't hurt.


"You're better off taking this haul with you and getting out of town while you can," the woman behind the counter advised, shoving one more shirt into Nami's findings. "A storm's coming."

Nami's eyes darted to her barometer. The air pressure teetered a line she'd been watching out for, but so far, things were bound to be alright... "Why do you say that?"

Nami's fingers played with a necklace hanging on the counter's rack. A pretty thing—simple with a glass orb encasing what looked to be a flower. Too fragile for trips.

The lady shook her head. Her hands smoothed over the few clothes Nami had picked out for Hoku—they'd caught her eye and Hoku literally had three outfits—she could pay her back later. The shopkeep leaned over the counter, as though about to conspire some unheard secret. Nami's eyes flashed with interest.

"They're saying," the woman whispered. "That Hawk-Eye Mihawk's come to town and he's out for some pirate's head."

Nami's normally skillful fingers slipped.

The necklace shattered on the counter with a smash!

"What?"


It feels nice to have money for once. Hoku thought absently, stepping past the swinging doors. I like not being poor. It's nice.

She'd drawn herself a new backpack from the fabric of the red curtains inside, shoving all her newly tripled earnings in with a whistle. The owner of the establishment and the men playing at her table had tried to hassle her into another round, eager to win their beli back, but Hoku had caught another conversation about that Pokian stand and remembered just why she wandered to this part of town in the first place.

Her hobby-hoped-to-be-occupation had her on the harder end of the economic spectrum in the past. True to her word with Nami, she tended to steer off selling Pokian goods because parents rubbed off on their kids and people who only wanted Artopoki born things just for the sake of it being Pokian could have a make branch shoved up their ass. Hoku bet most of her funds on gambling houses and so far, they'd done her right just fine.

I'll give half of this to Nami. Hoku decided. Get her to send me on a course to the next best island and go from there. Who said you couldn't improvise shit as you went? That's what life's all about! Rolling with the punches.

Hoku exhaled through her nose, a prideful little puff of her chest and she turned. According to the bartender inside, the stand ought to be somewhere right around this corner by—

Hoku's eyes zeroed in on a rainbow colored tarp.

"Fresh frozen treats!" a man shouted happily, ringing a cowbell as he gestured to his stand. "Get your fresh frozen treats! Ice cream made with the creamiest milk before the Grand Line—it's Grand Ice Cream!"

Hoku swung her gaze to the stand right next to it.

Wares from the Worlds of those who Dare.

Tacky. Hoku decided. Hopelessly tacky. But at least it'd been easy to find. She side stepped a cute little girl running to get her ice cream, her father lagging behind and bee-lined straight to the vendor's stand, intent on seeing some of this herself. If it really is stuff from Artopoki, chances are it's a Pokian selling it and maybe I can get some more information—

"We have flavors from all across the Grand Line!" the ice cream man shouted happily. "Try our latest, Adventurous Apple!"

Hoku turned sharply on her heel. That stand isn't going anywhere. "Excuse me, sir, did you say apple flavored ice cream?"

"That's right miss!" the man turned, smiling brightly. "Would you like a sample?"

"I'll be fine, how many scoops do you go for?"

"As many as you'd like! Another ten beli for each upgrade."

Hoku considered the fat wad of cash in her backpack. The little girl one place in front of her looked troubled, eyeing the modeled tower to show just how tall the scoops would be. "Daddy, can I get five scoops?"

"Five?" her father squawked. "You probably can't even finish two! What'll you do if you drop all that?"

"I won't!" the little girl promised quickly. "I'll be super careful! There's so many flavors I wanna try—please, daddy? Can't I at least do three?"

"Come on, sweetie, you know it might be too much for you—"

"Five scoops of apple for me," Hoku said, pointing to the cup offered instead of the cone. "Five for the girl."

The little girl's eyes went wide, looking up at Hoku in awe. Her father spluttered, cheeks flushing, "That's alright miss! You don't have to—"

"No, no, it's fine," Hoku glanced down to the wide eyed girl. "Life lesson, kid. You either go big or you go home."

The ice cream man blinked, seemingly satisfied enough since it meant good business. He handed Hoku the tall cup of scoops, glistening apple chunks peeking out from the smooth, crisp creaminess of the ice cream. Hoku's eyes turned loving, quickly paying the man for her ice cream and the girl's. Hoku turned and gave the girl a pat on the back, setting off for the wares shop.

"Thanks, miss!" the little girl shouted, a wide smile splitting her face. "I'll always go big and never go home!"

"Now, honey, that's not what it's supposed to mean..."

Hoku set to work on her ice cream, pulling aside the flap for the wares shop and stepping inside. "Excuse me, 's this where I can find some authentic Pokian wares?"

A bald head, shaped perfectly like an egg almost bumped into the countertop. The man at the front shot up, turning around quickly with fogged up glasses as he shoved some papers aside. "I'm sorry miss, what was that?"

"Pokian wares," Hoku repeated, already skimming through the shelves. "I heard you could buy them here."

A confused look flickered over the man's face. "Pook Ions? I'm sorry, I don't think I'm completely familiar."

"Poke-ian," Hoku said.

"Oh! That style of art from that island, perhaps? Is that it?"

Hoku regarded the man albeit cautiously. He stared at her, waiting with a small smile.

"Yeah," Hoku said slowly. "That's it."

Hoku experimentally pressed two fingers to her chest and then touched them to her lips. The old man simply continued to smile.

"I'm sorry then," the old man shook his head. "You see, I don't carry items as rare as that. I do share this shop with another man however, but he packed up and left for the next ship after selling his last item! He was fairly fond of those... perhaps that's what you were looking for?"

His words seemed genuine enough. Hoku's shoulders slumped and she shook her head, shoving a larger spoon of ice cream into her mouth. "No, it's alright, thank you, sir."

"Sorry I couldn't be more help!" the old man called after her as she trudged back to the entrance. "He might still be at the docks if you hurry!"

Just another flop. Hoku waved over her shoulder, spooning another mouthful. She was down to about two scoops now. She pushed past the flaps and frowned at the floor. Should I head to the ports after all? I should consider my getaway too while I'm at it...

"Sorry, my pants ate up all your ice cream. Next time, try for six scoops."

"Thanks, mister! I'll go big!"

"T-Thank you, Captain!"

The heavy scent of cigars filled the air, wispy.

Hoku sighed. Ah. Chasing every whisper I hear is getting tiring though. There's gotta be an easier way to do this...

Hoku's foot smacked toe-to-toe with another foot.

Her entire body lurched forward.

The remaining half of her ice cream splattered onto a bare, heavily muscled chest.

Hoku stared, watching it drip down finely defined muscles. A ridge of abs.

A soft little thing broke in her heart for the ice cream. Food didn't deserve such tragic deaths. In any kind of life.

"Ah, shit, sorry," Hoku said instantly, tugging her sash around. She pulled her brush from her pocket, dipping it quickly into a vial she kept on the side of her hip and drawing a simple square. She peeled off a square cloth, turning around and quickly beginning to wipe at the man's chest. He only seemed to be wearing a jacket—weird, if you can wear a fur lined jacket, put on a shirt. "My bad. I wasn't looking and I was thinking—sorry about that—"

"You."

Hoku stopped.

She didn't quite recognize that voice. Cigarette smoke hung heavy in the air, telling her she ought to. Something about that voice meaning it was very important to remember, because she might just be hearing it more and more and she should've heard it... before? A deep male voice and...

Anytime someone addressed her as "You" the odds were never really in her favor.

Hoku glanced upwards.

Smoky white hair, slicked back over his head. Broad shoulders covered in a fur lined, trademark jacket. Two cigars hung from his lips. Eyes that never looked the slightest bit amused. Ice cream still dripping a bit down his chest.

None other than Captain "White Chase" Smoker of the Marines, headed by the World Government stared.

A troublesome, tenacious, and tough as hell to shake off— man.

A few thoughts processed through Hoku's mind in that moment.

One – ah, that's it. That's the marine who's in this town that gives Luffy and everyone so much trouble. I forgot it was him. That's a pretty dumb mistake. Two – this was the very same Captain Smoker Hoku had the unfortunate chance of meeting before this moment in the storyline, his first supposed real introduction. Three—

She'd just spilled ice cream on this man.

And Hoku would gamble he didn't intend on offering her the chance to get more scoops in apology or kindness.

Especially if she was technically sorta wanted criminal. A petty crime. Miniscule in the grand scheme of things and all those other nasty guys out there.

Hoku somberly counted to ten, hand moving robotically against his chest as she wiped off another apple chunk.

Hoku dug her heel into the ground. Her hand snapped upwards, flinging the rag with a splat into his face. Her eyes bulged, face a pale blur as she turned on her heel, arms already pumping as she lunged for the street.

A gloved hand fisted itself roughly into her jacket, catching the strings of her halter. Hoku gagged, her feet suddenly ripped from solid ground as she was hoisted up into the air. Her limp body was turned, coming eye to eye with an expression that was none too amused.

"That trick," Smoker exhaled, several clouds of heavy smoke curling around her face. Hoku coughed, nose crinkling. "Won't work twice."

"Well," Hoku said simply. "It was worth a shot." Her left hand barely slipped into her sash, tugging her brush free with slender fingers. "It's not real nice to see you, though. Seems like rotten luck for both of us to meet."

"Think so?" Smoker said darkly, eyes narrowing. "Seems like awful good timing to me."

Hoku absently swung her feet through the air.

"As an artist, it really depends on perspective—"

"Cut to the chase," Smoker said roughly, grip on her jacket tightening. Hoku frowned. "What the hell are you doing in Loguetown? Looking to vandalize something again?"

"It's a free-fucking-ocean ya know."

Smoker's eyes narrowed into slits. Hoku scowled right back at him.

"You're still wanted," Smoker said darkly. "In case you forgot, you criminal. Petty or not. Small bounty or not. You're on the higher spectrum of making the cut. You only haven't had much grief because that old broad has stakes on your bounty."

"Hey," Hoku said, "To set the record straight, I told her she ought to—"

"And you only got away," Smoker continued roughly, shaking her once for emphasis and Hoku scowled, baring her teeth at him. Small canines glinting. "Because of nothing more than the devil's luck. You were lucky and a group of pirates happened to be breaking out."

"You getting off on this?" Hoku said. "Reminding me of this and that? Got nothing else better to—"

Smoker's free hand sharply grabbed either side of her face, nearly squeezing her cheeks flat. Hoku stared back at him, a bit cross eyed as he scowled, expression similar to that of what one would wear when looking at—

Nice try. Hoku thought with a dumb huff. I'm used to that by now.

"Captain Smoker! I'm so sorry I'm late! Did you hear? We got a call saying that someone thinks Hawk-Eye Mihawk is here—" Hoku's eyes swiveled sideways and Smoker's eyes followed, brows furrowing. "Captain? What are you doing?"

"Glasses?" Hoku said—but Smoker's grip on her cheek made it come out as "Guwashes?"

"Tashigi!" Smoker snapped. "Where have you been?"

Wait. Did she just say?

"And what the hell," Smoker said angrily. "Would a Shichibukai be doing here and how did he get here—"

"Is he really?" Hoku said excitedly, heart doing a little dance in her chest. Her legs kicked. Smoker shot her a look of something vile. "I mean...oh, who's—" Who am I kidding? "Is he really? Where the hell is he? How'd he get here—"

"You," Smoker said. "Shut your mouth."

Mihawk? Hoku thought in dizzy bliss. How the hell could he be here? He's not supposed to be, right? Right! So why the hell is he here now?

"W-We haven't confirmed sightings of him, sir! I'm sorry! I'll get ready right away," Glasses—Tashigi? Wait a fucking minute—Hoku's head spun, trying to sift for pieces here and there and I didn't pay attention to other characters that much, give me a fucking break! A marine quickly handed her a jacket and she quickly slipped it on, adjusting her glasses. "Thank you. I'm a little off today but Captain—"

"You mean more so than usual?" Smoker barked. Hoku winced, avoiding a spray of smoke and spit.

"Forgive me! B-But Captain!" Tashigi exclaimed. Smoker raised a critical brow. "What are you doing to that nice lady? You can't manhandle someone like that!"

Hey, thanks Glasses. Smoker's already raised brow rose higher in disbelief, face twisting. Tashigi hurried forward, one hand holding Autumn Rain while the other quickly gestured to Hoku. "I met her in a weapons shop today! She's very nice and she's a fellow woman of the blade! And she's—"

"Sergeant Tashigi," Smoker growled. Tashigi flinched, looking up in surprise. Hoku grimaced. "Do you recognize this woman from anywhere?"

Tashigi frowned, fixing her glasses. "Well... the shop I just mentioned—"

"No!" Smoker barked. "That just means you don't study the lesser wanted posters at all! She's a wanted criminal for a petty crime—a pretty damn large crime if you ask me. This brat is responsible for the burning that happened at Tretar!"

Hoku's fingers adjusted the piece of fabric hiding between her fingers, making sure the shape was right enough.

"T-The vandalism case?" Tashigi spluttered. Her eyes went round and she turned from Smoker to Hoku in disbelief. "You're Hoku the—"

"Not just vandalism," Smoker said roughly, pressing harder on Hoku's cheeks. She glared at him over the top of his hand. "That entire base was basically burned down aside for a few walls left with your mark."

"You did that?" Tashigi questioned, eyes growing a bit accusatory. She looked a little hurt, gripping the hilt of her sword. Hoku sighed through her nose, turning her eyes sideways like a petulant child. "You're a criminal? But you said all that about—"

Tashigi's eyes grew wide in understanding. She seemed to finally piece several things together and her grip on her sword tightened. Tashigi looked betrayed. "Then what you said about the swords—you may not be doing anything evil, but it's still wrong! You can't just burn a base down like that—"

"You don't deserve that sword," Autumn Rain accused, her voice tense. "Lady Tashigi is just and she thought you—"

"See," Hoku stiffened, feeling Mau grow hot against her back. "If you can cut as sharp as you talk."

Yikes. Hoku used her free hand to pat Smoker's arm, waggling her eyebrows hopefully. His grip on her face loosened. "You know, funny thing is, I burnt that base down without killing anyone. That one guy did break an arm. I apologize for that."

"You think—" Smoker started.

Hoku's canines flashed, "Better than what some people did, right? Burning a whole island and killing plenty—"

Tashigi flinched, fingers trembling. Something strangely thoughtful flickered across her face as she gripped her sword for comfort.

Smoker's fingers tightened back on her face. Hoku hissed.

"Captain, wait!" Smoker's face twisted into something akin to quickly growing annoyance. Tashigi was at his side, holding his arm steady. "Don't be so rough with her—"

"Don't tell me you're going soft on a criminal Tashigi—"

"No! Nothing of that sort," Tashigi said quickly. "But sir, if she's a criminal like you said, then she should be brought in for a proper trial and I... and I think, a recreational teaching and service can be done!"

"What?" Smoker and Hoku chorused.

Smoker shook her for speaking in time with him and Hoku bared her teeth at him.

"What you did was wrong," Tashigi agreed, eyes dropping to the ground. Her grip on her sword tightened, eyes rising with renewed strength. Hoku raised a brow. "But I don't think you're a wrong person—you love that sword! I could see it in the way you talk about it and you obviously love your culture—you've just been wronged and you're... you're getting revenge! It's not right, but I understand and—"

You're really going out on a limb here. Hoku stared at Tashigi, a bit in dumfounded disbelief. She didn't know what Tashigi saw—whether it was because she was happy there was someone who liked swords as much as her that didn't have a pair swinging between their legs, or because it was—

Guilt?

Something ugly bubbled up in Hoku's stomach. Completely unnecessary. A feeling she should treat with more caution and maturity because in a way—she was just being nice, right? Tashigi was going out of her way to say this and that about someone she didn't even know. But if what Tashigi was saying stemmed from something like—

"Pity."

"Tashigi," Smoker barked. "We don't make exceptions for criminals. Are you coming up with excuses for pirates next?"

"T-That's not it," Tashigi protested. "Captain, you know this case is different because she's—"

"Sorry," Hoku said. Tashigi and Smoker turned, the later narrowing his eyes. "I'm on a bit of tight schedule—can't really do time right now, you know? You're better off saving your breath, Glasses."

Hoku's lips curved into a sneaky grin, "I could give two shits about what some World Government dogs have to say to me."

"You've got a lot of nerve," Smoker said slowly. "For a criminal who's just been caught."

Hoku's eyes flashed over his glove. She roughly twisted her head, mouth coming free just over the top of his hand.

"You've got a lot of nerve," she sneered. "Working for people who'd massacre an entire island for ink."

She slid her brush back into her pocket, fingers smoothing out the small object she'd drawn in her hand. She held out five fingers.

Smoker's face tensed, his poker face was a good one—she had to give him that. His fingers along the back of her jacket were the only tell, flexing against their grip. Hoku's legs tensed, muscles tightening.

"You—"

"Captain! Captain Smoker! It's an emergency! Code red—"

"What is it?" Smoker snapped, head swinging to the side. Tashigi jumped, looking around. A marine skidded to a halt, face growing pale. "What is it now?"

"The pirates causing a ruckus in the square—they've got a civilian held hostage! It's Buggy the Pirate and—"

"Times five!"

A massive, cloth made elephant—rather poorly and awkwardly drawn this time—exploded forth with a pop. The massive figurine ballooned between the two of them, turning Smoker's arm into smoke. His fingers twisted. Hoku dropped to the ground. Smoke instantly shot out, his hand disappearing as his head turned back to her with a furious glare but—

The massive elephant swelled to the full size it'd been ordered. Tashigi let out a shriek of surprise, stumbling back. "A-A Devil Fruit?"

The walls around them of the narrow street cracked. Rooftops began to rip, shingles shuddering until the elephant finally stopped. Immobile and lacking the familiar glint of life in its eyes. An awkwardly drawn trunk folded in on itself, nearly smacking into the marine who'd been caught in the midst of it. "C-C-Captain?"

Smoke gathered back up, Smoker's visage quickly appearing as a deep, heavy scowl marred his face. Tashigi quickly unsheathed her sword, slicing clean.

Fabrics of cloth fell in tatters and strips all along the floor. The giant elephant collapsed, rendered to pieces.

Townspeople all around stopped, gawking at the sight.

Smoker exhaled, eyes narrowed.

Hoku was nowhere in sight.

"Let's go," Smoker said roughly. The marine jumped, quickly following after him. Tashigi, flustered and a little dazed, sheathed her sword with a nod.

"Y-Yessir!"

White Chase Smoker was not known for letting criminals escape his grasp.

But there were bigger fish to bag. And Smoker knew from years of experience now that when all the big fish were gone.

Finding the small ones was easy.


That, Hoku thought resolutely, chest rising and falling rapidly as she panted, hands on her knees. She stood to the edge of a gathered crowd, back to the wall as she kept her head low and caught her breath. That right there, is what you call shit luck. Born under an auspicious star my ass.

Hoku wiped sweat from her chin with the back of her hand, eyes skimming over the crowd and down both streets. Trails of smoke weren't anywhere near her. For now.

Gotta haul ass. Hoku exhaled. She'd run far and fast until the crowd thinned out a bit. She wished she had her cloak on her, but wearing a hood might just draw more attention than she'd want. But this jacket—Smoker would catch that in a heartbeat. What part of town am I in?

Glasses being a semi-more important character than she remembered shouldn't be too awful of a problem. Only now did a rather funny scene taking place in a kingdom of sun and sand remind her of that. I didn't even know her name, Hoku you idiot. She'd almost felt bad about how sad she'd looked, realizing who Hoku really was but, well...

You're going to meet a lot of people worse than me. Hoku narrowed her eyes, peeking around a corner. She could understand where she was coming from. A bit. If she tried hard enough. Acted mature. Tried—ka, forget it.

If she were a better person, it'd all roll over. Hoku would understand that Tashigi came from a different place and a different perspective. If she were kinder, she'd get that sometimes lines blurred and it wasn't like the damn girl was the one to massacre her people. Neither was Smoker. Hoku knew that much after spending time with Garp. Tsuru.

But Hoku wasn't a good person. She could open up slabs for people who deserved it—people who earned it. But she didn't have that with either of the two. She was bitter. She was angry. And if she wanted to burn a few bases down and cause some fucking hell before kicking the bucket, she'd reap what she'd sow from that. Fair and square.

Graffiti doesn't mean shit against the other shit in this world. Try looking under your nose first.

Or above. Hoku's eyes flashed in realization, stepping back and eyeing the rooftops above her. She quickly dipped her brush in the ink jar on her side, sketching out a ladder and pulling it free. She scaled the item, hauling herself onto the nearest rooftop. There we go!

Rows and rows of buildings rising a little higher than her own cluttered spaces. Alleys and wide streets. People were still rushing about, but she could spy the town center from where she was, dotted figures littering the square with a massive podium at its center. That's where shit's going down—that marine earlier mentioned that clown, is it starting already?

Hoku experimentally tested a faint, faint link. A little sliver of herself had been used to keep a specific bird crafted for one delivery alive, and if the rumor was right, it should be somewhere close by because she left that little wooden bird with Mihawk...

Nope. Hoku frowned, disappointed. The connection was still weak, barely a little tickle in the back of her mind but alive. The bird was still with Mihawk and they were both somewhere far away. Just a rumor after all I guess...

Hoku turned her eyes skyward, watching the gathering clouds. The skies still rolled blue, spotted.

A storm was supposed to be coming, right?

That means... Hoku stood. A breeze tugged a bit heavier at the braid along the side of her head. Her hair curled out around her. That means it's time to scram. You can just drop some stuff off for them on the ship and catch another one leaving the port...

Hoku curved a hand over her eyes, shading them as she squinted—there! In a street before the plaza, she caught sight of Nami's bright orange hair—she broke off from the group of four, another following her UsoppThey're headed back to the ship—what are they carrying? Hoku narrowed her eyes. That's Sanji and Zoro then... they should be headed to Luffy... yeah... this is the right time...

Clouds gathered but nothing promised to break.

Hoku swallowed.

I mean, he's going to end up being okay regardless, right? Hoku reasoned. That's how it all works out so...

Hoku stared in the direction of the plaza.

It should all...work out...

Luffy grinned brightly at her, hands reaching out.

Her lower back burned.

Hoku rubbed furiously at her head. Her feet quickly doubled back and she quickly skidded to a halt in front of a cobbled wall, jerking her brush out and fishing for a bottle of ink. Ka! Luffy! I swear to god, if you actually let yourself get killed by a clown like that—Hoku slapped her brush to the wall, drawing as quickly as she could. She peeled the animal free, drawing a second and grabbing that one as well.

Hoku ran to the side of the roof and dropped the first, tapping three fingers out. "Times three!"

A rock, cobble-stone horse popped into existence. Hoku cupped her fingers around her mouth and blew quickly. Light filtered into its eyes and it shook its head, rock mane swaying as it stamped a hoof and let out a little whinny.

"You go help Nami and Usopp haul ass back to the ship," Hoku ordered. It flicked its tail back at her before blowing through its lips, galloping off down the street with a few surprised shrieks filling the air.

Hoku turned to the second, tapping out three fingers once more. "Times three."

She blew at the drawing and it expanded, a gaping, rock leopard baring teeth. Its stone tail smashed into the roofing below it and Hoku quickly clambered on, hearing it mutter in angry protest and she muttered right back. "Come on! I don't give a shit how you feel but I'm making sure Lu gets on his ship and that's it."

At the mention of his name, the leopard perked up. It dug heavy claws into the rooftop, muscles bunching up beneath it before it gave a massive lunge. Hoku cursed, grabbing onto sleek stone ears and straining for a hold. I should've drawn handles—

"Save boy," the leopard growled. "Like boy."

"Yeah, yeah, all of you always do—now come on!"


"We should go back to the square and help Luffy!"

Usopp and Nami raced down the street. A sack filled with clothes slung over Nami's shoulders while Usopp hauled the fish Sanji had bought behind him, straining with each heavy step.

"What good can we do there?" Nami shouted.

"We could help him! After all, I did kill one of the big fishmen—"

"We have bigger fish to fry right now," Nami said gravely. "A storm's going to his this island."

"What?" Usopp squawked.

"The air pressure and temperature have been steadily dropping," Nami continued hurriedly. "And I saw dark clouds in the eastern sky. This is the calm before the storm! If there's a commotion in the square, there'll be soldiers. What'll we do if we try to escape and the boat is gone—huh?"

Nami's feet screeched against the ground, braking sharply. Usopp shrieked in surprise, smashing into her back and nearly tripping over the giant fish. "What the—don't just stop! You said we need to hurry—"

"Usopp, do you see what I'm seeing?"

"You mean that we need to go—huh?"

The two stopped, staring with wide eyes.

A rather large horse stood in the middle of the street before them. Its body shone, smooth with rock and stone. Nami stared in disbelief and Usopp's eyes bulged from his head at the strange creature, realizing not a single speck of real flesh and—horse were present at all. "A-A horse?"

The horse stomped a hoof, trotting toward them.

"H-Hey!" Usopp shouted. "Wait a second! Where do you think you're going—stay back! I'm not afraid to hurt you—"

The horse huffed, bobbing its head. Its stony tail flicked out, nearly smashing a vase with the force and Usopp paled. "I—"

"Wait!" Nami shoved her hand into Usopp's face, practically knocking him into the ground. "This thing..." Her eyes focused on the familiar marking painted around its eye. "...Hoku?"

The horse bobbed its head eagerly, prancing impatiently.

"Hoku?" Usopp shouted from the floor, head shooting up. "What in blazes—you can turn into a horse?"

"No, you idiot!" Nami smacked the back of his head. "I think Hoku made this horse—that's her tattoo! She must've sent it our way somehow..."

"A Devil Fruit?" Usopp exclaimed, eyes wide.

"Maybe..." Nami's eyes flashed with understanding and she jogged forward, unraveling the pack on her back and hefting it onto the horse. It gave a grunt of protest, shifting legs to adjust to the weight.

"Oh," Nami said, a wide grin stretching over her lips. "If Luffy doesn't make her stay, will. Come on, Usopp! Get me some rope and let's get this fish on—we've got a storm to race!"

The horse turned its head, staring at the giant fish behind Usopp.

It let out a long, heaving sigh through stony lips, bowing its head.


"Here."

"Here?" Hoku repeated in disbelief. "Here?"

The leopard flicked its tail. Stone smashed into the rooftop below them and Hoku pat its back, hitting smooth rock. "Okay, okay, here, fine."

It steadied its claws into the wooden thatching. Hoku gave the building a quick glance, making sure their combined weight wasn't about to send them crashing through the three story building or falling face first into the stone balcony below them.

"I feel what you feel," Hoku warned. "That's double the 'ouch' for me, don't forget that."

Its tail smacked the roof once more. Hoku shushed it, steadying herself.

Heavy rolls of clouds were beginning to pile into the clearing, but still not a single lick of rain or the crackle of thunder. Hoku's eyes skimmed over the crowd gathered in the plaza, people looking on in disbelief and muttering quickly to each other. A larger group of boisterous, heavily armed men were gathered beside the wooden scaffold, holding any people who got too close at bay.

At the top of the massive wooden structure, a hopelessly familiar pirate cackled, raising his cutlass and shaking a dismembered hand into the sky. Of course, for some ungodly reason—or really not so ungodly, Luffy and his group really did a number on this guy but he had it coming, or, well, the book didn't really lie so—he had it out for Luffy and wanted him dead. He was shouting something else and Hoku rolled her eyes at the clown, dropping her gaze lower.

Luffy's expression soured, lips pursed. His head was locked snuggly between the wooden blocks used to hold heads in place before they rolled.

She knew this scene but god damn did it bother her seeing him there.

This is what I get. Hoku thought gravely. For getting on the wrong ship.

"We strike," the leopard purred beneath her, stone rumbling. "We can take. Strike."

Hoku felt a chill run down her spine. Something heavy filled the air, making her fingers twitch. The familiar ache traveled from the tips all the way to her palm.

A place favored by history. That's what Manu would've called it.

Hoku's eyes glittered.

"Any last words?" Buggy said with a bit of a sneer. "You have a big audience."

Luffy's lips pursed further. Hoku had half a mind to smack the guy and remind him he ought to be stretching those legs and kicking some clown's ass.

"Aw well, never mind that. No one wants to hear it," Buggy dismissed. "You—"

Luffy inhaled.

"I AM GOING TO BE KING OF THE PIRATES!"

A heartbeat.

Hoku felt her own loud in her ears, thudding to the beat of her fingers sketching absent patterns into the leopard's back.

You gotta draw this.

Hoku swallowed.

The entire crowd shifted into an uproar. People were shouting in shock and disbelief, stepping back almost in fear. Famous words declared, never dared by anyone else and uttered at the final resting place of the very man who'd made it all happen—

"Is that all you have to say, Rubberhead?" Buggy demanded. Hoku pulled an object free from the ground beside her, tapping out two fingers.

Luffy shut his eyes, grinding his teeth together—not even in pain—are you just thinking of more to say, you idiot?

Hoku drew the string back. It was a little stiff, probably wouldn't hold many shots with the weak wood it was made of—but it'd do.

"Stop the execution!"

Buggy jolted, looking across the crowd in sharp surprise. Hoku huffed a little sigh of relief, Zoro and Sanji's voices shouting across the clearing as they barreled their way through the crowd to make it to Luffy. Okay. Okay. Her eyes shot to the sky.

"Sanji! Zoro!" Luffy shouted, lips stretching into a wide grin. "Help!"

"So you've come, Zoro!" Buggy exclaimed. "But you're a second too late—eek!"

A stone tipped arrow smashed into Buggy's cutlass, nearly knocking the sword from his grip. His hands popped off instead, hovering in the air. Ah, ka! His eyes went round and he swung his head to the side, finding the source and his painted lips parted. "You—who shot that arrow?"

The leopard beneath her let out a ferocious growl, ripping across the clearing with a frightening echo. People gathered beneath her building let out shrieks of terror, scattering in every direction. Hoku tested the wooden bow in her hand, figuring it was up for one more notch. She drew another arrow into the leopard, peeling it off and holding it in place.

"Hoku!" Luffy shouted, looking absolutely giddy. "Hey! I knew you'd come! Hurry up and get me out of here!"

"Dumbass!" Hoku shouted.

"You're the dumbass, dumbass!"

"Hoku Honey!" Sanji cried, body swaying through the crowd with hearts in his eyes. "Look at you—my goddess!"

Zoro simply tied his headband over his head, placing a sword into his mouth.

"Tear down the scaffold!" Zoro said. "You get our captain!"

Hoku notched the arrow, taking aim as the leopard beneath her shifted to put her in position. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

"Get 'em men!" A beautiful woman beside the scaffold shouted. Pirates rushed forward into the crowd, shoving townsfolk aside.

Zoro and Sanji threw themselves head first into the fray. Swords smashed and slashed and Sanji's feet swung through the air with deadly precision. Hoku nudged the leopard with her knees. It bunched its legs along the edge of the roof, preparing itself.

"You!" Hoku's grip on the arrow almost slipped, eyes snapping down to the stone balcony in surprise.

Smoker stared up at her in disbelief, eyes slowly filling with anger.

"See?" Hoku muttered. "You picked the worst spot."'

The leopard grumbled, "Sorry."

A single sword caught a glint of light, held high into the air.

"Bwahaha! You can see the whole thing from over there!" Buggy shouted. "Your captain is dead—eh?"

The second arrow smashed into his sword before he could swing, forcing him a few staggering steps back. Buggy's eyes nearly popped from his head, almost following over the side of the tiny scaffold's platform. Luffy laughed merrily. "Nice shot, Hoku!"

"What are you doing here—"

Hoku offered smoker a single finger nestled between four others. The leopard beneath her let out one more thunderous growl and launched itself from the roof, smashing into another. They quickly raced across several more buildings, throwing up roof tiles in their wake. Hoku pressed close, hugging tight to the leopard as they leapt across a gaping space and smashed into another building. It scrabbled for a grip, digging heavy claws in before they hauled themselves closer.

The clouds above them rumbled.

It's all supposed to work out. Sanji shouted something from the clearing below. Zoro slashed his way through a crowd, ferocious and eyes blazing as they darted from Luffy to her and—it's supposed to work out but—

Hoku didn't feel like gambling on a bout of lighting.

Not with that smile.

"That won't work a second time!" Buggy snapped, grabbing his sword and raising it up into the air. "This is it for you, Straw Hat—"

Hoku and the leopard launched themselves from the final rooftop, flying toward the scaffold.

Buggy's eyes did pop from his head this time, floating briefly midair at the sight of a hunk of stone shaped into a leopard and a furious Hoku came crashing into him and—

Hoku tossed the broken bow in her hands at Buggy. She reeled a fist back.

The leopard's paws smashed into Buggy's chest, knocking him down. Air wheezed out of his lungs and Hoku's knuckles collided with his cheek in that same instant, spit flying and—

"Not," Hoku ground out, eyes blazing. "The hat."


"I swear, I'm going to throttle you Shanks—" Buggy squawked, young, ambitious, and maybe just a little bit stupid, toppling to the floor. The sword in his hands went flying, impaling itself into another mast post.

Rayleigh would have their heads for that later.

"Listen, Buggy," Shanks, young, lively and bright as the sun, sighed. He crouched down beside his fellow cabin boy, tipping his hat back over his head. "You can try to hit me wherever ya like, but come on."

"Not the hat!"


"Who the hell are you?" Buggy shrilled, eyes detached from his sockets and staring at her in disbelief, as though he'd suddenly seen a ghost. "Saying something like that wait—"

The two of them fell rapidly from the platform. Buggy's face went pale, limbs flying and he suddenly shrieked, "A-A-A ghost? Are you some kind of ghost—wait, no! That's impossible!"

Buggy let out another, shout—more of a shriek—Hoku flinched back in surprise, almost startled as his cheek started to swell and he blubbered out. "Y-Y-You're one of them—we're falling you idiot! We're going to die from this height—"

"Sounds good to me."

The leopard sneered.

Buggy's eyes smashed into her face—what the fuck? Eyes? What the actual fuck—his entire body suddenly shifted, splitting apart and Buggy laughed blatantly in her face, eyes popping right back in as his body slipped from underneath the leopard's grasp and he cackled, "I don't care who you are, you—you crazy freak! You're about to be a ghost with this—"

The leopard's stone paws smashed into the stone floor, creating massive craters. Hoku nearly toppled off, grabbing its ear and whirling around on Buggy as she drew Mau.

"Damn it!" Buggy shouted. "But you're too late! All of you are too late anyway!"

"Hoku!" Zoro shouted. "The scaffold!"

Hoku's eyes snapped to Buggy's hands—his missing hands. Her eyes went wide with horror, shooting upwards as her heart leapt into mouth.

Buggy's detached hands hovered high in the air above the scaffold, holding his sword steady.

Buggy's grin was wide and victorious.

"This is it!"

The leopard beneath her bunched its muscles, prepared to scale the climb. Hoku's gripped Mau with knuckle white fingers.

"Zoro!" Luffy suddenly shouted. "Sanji! Nami! Usopp!"

"Hey, don't you dare—"

"Hoku!" Luffy said.

The clouds above them rumbled.

Hoku was already climbing.

"Sorry," Luffy's lips stretched from ear to ear. The sword came crashing down. "I'm dead."

"No!"

"Don't talk crazy—"

"Luffy—" Hoku's fingers stretched outwards.

Crack!

Light flashed before Hoku's eyes. Brilliant, vibrant, crackling with energy and powerful and—

"It is not your time to die."

The albatross' annoying, annoying voice flittered through her head and as the entire scaffold lit up in flames before her eyes. Lightning crashing down in one massive, magnificent bolt of power and force as it smashed into everything and Buggy was falling, burnt to a crisp and wood creaked and—

"This world will not be wronged."

The leopard beneath her slammed heavy into her back, barely catching her fall. Soft drops of water hit Hoku's cheeks. They dusted smoke from her eyes, forced ash to hit the floor as rain came rushing down in one steady, heavy fall of a storm and—

"World will shake!"

The entire scaffold came crashing down.

A single hat fluttered briefly through the air. Rain rolled off the woven straw as it settled with a soft sigh onto the ground. Familiar fingers stretched out, plucking it from the floor and setting it down on top of his head.

Luffy's smile was blindingly bright, impossibly wide.

"Shishishi, I'm alive," Luffy said. "Lucky me!"

Rain came pouring down around them.

Droplets rolled down Hoku's chin, plastering her hair to her face. The leopard beneath her rumbled with something like a purr, lumbering towards Luffy with her on its back.

"Do you believe in a higher power?" Sanji questioned, stepping over fried pirates unlucky enough to be caught in the strike.

"Don't talk nonsense," Zoro said flatly. "Let's get out of here. We're not the in the clear yet."

Her heart hammered in her chest, eyes unable to leave Luffy's blindingly stupid face.

Luffy looked up at her and beamed.

"Right, Hoku?"

Rain dropped onto her hands. Slid off the sides of her face, drenched her hair and clothes and—

Hoku's heart thudded, loud, heavy and demanding. Her hands shifted restlessly in front of her, barely able to figure out what she could possibly grab onto in this moment except the only thing she needed more than anything else—

Draw.

Draw.

Tell this story!

Something funny and wild and frightening seized her. Hoku's hand shot out, restless and without thinking.

Luffy clasped it with a resounding clap. Warm and wet and rubbery.

"Get on you absolute idiot," Hoku said, breathless, eyes shining. "We have a storm to beat."

Luffy's grin threatened to swallow her whole.

"Surround the square and capture the pirates!" a man bellowed. Hoku couldn't stop the energy thrumming through her as the leopard flicked its tail, baring teeth in a furious growl. "Don't let them escape!"

"Here they come!" Sanji said.

"Got room for two more on that thing?" Zoro grunted.

Hoku flashed him a look through drenched locks. The leopard seemed to chortle, shifting beneath her and Luffy as he wrapped his arms around her waist and laughed, shouting something about this whole thing being so cool. She pushed damp bangs out of her eyes, slicking it over the top of her head.

"Try to keep up, Spearmint."

Zoro's temple throbbed.

"Hoku Honey, even drenched in the rain, you're gorgeous!"

And with Luffy's laugh as the signal to start—

They were running.


Bang! Bang! Bang!

Rain roared around them, crashing into the ground.

Hoku could feel the leopard straining a bit to dig its claws deeper into the ground. Stone slick and wet wasn't proving for the best of traction, but it should do for now.

They raced through the streets. Zoro and Sanji tight at theirs sides while Luffy whooped for joy, holding his hat tight to his head and glancing back over their shoulders. "Hey! Those guys are super persistent. Wanna stop and fight 'em?"

"The wind's come up," Zoro said.

"We don't have time!" Sanji responded. "Nami told us to hurry back to the ship!"

Luffy pouted, turning to face forward. Hoku flashed a quick look over their shoulders as well, scowling at the throngs of marines advancing on them. They're like ants, I swear. "Faster we get to the ship, Lu, faster we eat."

Luffy's mouth started to water, washing away by the rain pelting his face.

"To the ship guys! Come on, cat, move it!"

The leopard sped up an inch at his request, hurrying.

I swear—all of you! Hoku roughly pushed her hair back over her head, slicking it over. Always the same!

"Hey!" Sanji shouted, a heart shooting out from his eye. "Who's that beautiful—"

"Roronoa Zoro!" Hoku's eyes snapped forward, jolting in surprise. Zoro grunted.

Tashigi stood before them, undaunted. Her eyes shone fiercely.

"Sergeant Tashigi!" the men behind them exclaimed.

"You're Zoro!" Tashigi shouted. "You didn't tell me you were a pirate! You were making fun of me—I won't stand for it!"

"What did you do to her?" Sanji demanded.

"Well, you never told me you were in the navy!" Zoro called back lazily.

"What're they talkin' about?" Luffy peeked over her shoulder.

"Samurai stuff," Hoku said simply.

"Oh, I see."

But come on. Hoku urged the leopard on and it grumbled. Maybe we can jump for the roof and scale it—wait, Zoro's got this handled! We'll just barrel through and take the side way to the port—

"I'm going to take Wado Ichimonji from you!" Tashigi declared, drawing Autumn Rain. Zoro's eyes flashed at the challenge, lips curling. "And you—Hoku! You're under arrest and you're coming with me!"

"Me?" Hoku spluttered.

"Yes, you!"

"Hey!" Luffy barked, grabbing Hoku's shoulder to steady himself as he stood up on the moving leopard. "You can't have her! Hoku's mine! Back off!"

Tashigi's eyes widened. "Straw Hat Luffy—"

"Let's see you."

Tashigi's head snapped upwards. Her sword whispered something fierce, catching rain and rushing upwards. Zoro's sword came crashing down.

Clang!

"I'll take care of this," Zoro grinned, eyes flashing to the side. Hoku met his gaze. "Don't screw up, klutz."

Hoku's lips parted to throw one right back at him.

Sharp voices, clear and resounding slipped through Hoku's ears as they raced past. Sanji spluttered, shouting at Zoro and Luffy grabbed the back of his shirt, hauling him along as they raced down the street.

"Lady Tashigi will prevail," Autumn Rain said fiercely. "I will see her through!"

A dark chuckle clouded the conversation, but Wado Ichimonji's voice came through, cutting clean and clear like water rushing through a gateway.

"Strike true," he said calmly. "For I will not leave these hands till the end of his days or my own."

"Good luck," Hoku said, a little bit of awe in her voice.

Zoro looked as though she'd slapped him silly.

"How far is the port from here?" Sanji shouted. Luffy set him down just on the edge of the leopard's back and Sanji scowled, setting his hands on Luffy's shoulders while Luffy set his hands back on Hoku's waist. "Hey! Luffy! Switch places with me!"

The leopard raced beneath her. Hoku eyed the streets, testing out a thin search as she prodded along—there. The resounding connection of the bit of herself inside the horse she'd drawn echoed back. "Not far! We're almost there—"

"Hey!" Luffy shouted. "Who's that guy?"

Hoku's heart dropped ten feet below them.

"Not again," Sanji muttered. "Another marine?"

"No," Hoku said. "This guy's a lot more annoying."

"So it's you... Straw Hat Luffy," the embers from his cigars had all but fizzled out. Rain slicked his hair back further and Smoker narrowed his eyes, standing to face them head on. "And you... to think you've turned tail coat and resorted to piracy..."

Hoku spat onto the side of the road, lost to the rain.

"Who are you?" Luffy questioned with a frown, raising a fist.

"The name's Smoker," Smoker said, stepping back to steady himself. "Captain Smoker of the Navy."

Hoku's eyes went wide. His arms disappeared, rapid plumes of smoke rushing forward—ah, shit! "Guys! He's a devil fruit user—Logia—he can turn into smoke! Physical attacks won't work so—"

"Nice try," the leopard lurched, growling furiously as smoke slammed into its side, knocking the stone animal over with a mighty shove. "But I'm not letting you get away!"

The three of them toppled to the rain slicked floor. Hoku heaved, double the impact slamming into her side. The leopard growled, scrabbling to its feet as Luffy jumped up and Sanji rushed to her. "Hoku Honey! Are you alright?"

Asshole. Hoku nodded, grabbing his outstretched hand. She tapped a finger to her chest. "Return."

Light faded from the leopard's eyes. The stone animal remained still. Hoku quickly fished out her brush, dipping it into her ink jar.

"Hey!" Luffy demanded. "What's your problem?"

"Lu!" Hoku shouted. "I said punches won't work on him—"

Smoke rushed toward them. Hoku jolted and Sanji rushed in front of her. Smoker's eyes narrowed, "I don't have time for small fry—White Fist!"

Sanji's eyes went wide. Smoke barreled hard into his stomach, knocking him into a nearby building. Luffy's jaw dropped and he whirled around. Hoku quickly hurried, yanking the drawing from the wall.

"Gum Gum Pistol!"

Luffy's fist went sailing through clouds of smoke. His entire body lurched with the action, eyes growing wide as Smoker disappeared. Smoke trails quickly rushed toward her, the other concentrated half suddenly materializing as a hand gripped the top of Luffy's head.

"You're the one worth thirty million berries?"

Luffy's face was smashed into the floor with a grunt. "Oof!"

Smoker slammed on top of him, smashing his head into the ground and grabbing his jitte.

"Times four!" Hoku heaved, the massive weight suddenly crashing in her hands. She staggered back, teetering onto her foot.

The wooden fan expanded. Smoker's head whipped around.

Hoku sent it downwards with a heave. A wild flurry of wind burst from behind the force of the fan—spiraling and arching down the narrow street. Smoker's eyes went wide, smoke billowing past him and shooting back, scattering in every direction until he honed it in and solidified it back to his body—

"Hoku!" Luffy said, peeling his face off the floor. "Lemme beat this guy!"

Hoku came crashing through the clouds of smoke and rain, Mau arched over her head as she brought it downwards.

Smoker's eyes narrowed. "That won't—"

A thin blade sheen coated the underside of Mau's blade, sleek against the rain.

Clang!

Hoku's arms strained. Metal clashed with precious metal. Smoker's jitte letting out a resounding echo. Mau's sweet, ringing tune bounced off the walls, clashing hard into his weapon. Smoker narrowed his eyes at her as Hoku pressed down.

"Haki?" Smoker hissed at her.

"It's tough times to be Pokian," Hoku grunted. Her canines bared at him. Feral. "You have to learn to defend yourself."

Smoker's eyes flashed, "If you've become a pirate, things are different. Don't think I'll just sit by on her account."

"Go for it," Hoku's foot swung out. Smoker's middle disappeared, smoke rushing out to her and she twisted, bringing Mau down in a swift arch. Smoker's eyes narrowed and he swung his jitte around once more, slamming hard into her blade as she smoothed her hand down to the tip of its point. Hoku tipped the entire blade, flinging the black coated surface toward Smoker's shoulder.

He swiftly sidestepped it, eyes flashing to her and Hoku grabbed Mau before he hit the floor, standing between Smoker and Luffy.

"I'm doing temp for the future king of pirates," Hoku's smile was breathless, wild. "Don't think it'll be that easy."

Smoker's face darkened.

Luffy looked disgruntled, "You're not temp—you're permanent!"

"You can flash funny tricks," Smoker said, gripping his jitte and rushing forward in a flurry of smoke. "But you're still outclassed, brat!"

Hoku held Mau in front of her, rushing forward with narrowed eyes. Smoke billowed around her, slamming into her face to cloud her vision. Hoku listened for a heartbeat and swung outwards, metal smashing into metal. She recoiled, stepping back as smoke wound tighter and tighter around her, holding Mau steady and twisting around.

Gloved hands locked around her foot.

Hoku tripped.

"You're fucking kidding me—" Hoku's face smashed into the cold wet ground. She scrabbled for a grip on the slick floor, rising to her knees until the tip of metal pressed into her back and fuck.

Hoku's muscles trembled. Her grip on Mau weakened. Every ounce of energy seeped from her limbs and escaped her, forcing her to fall back to the floor with a heavy pant. Fucking sea stone, I forgot—ka!

Sea stone didn't make you feel like ripping your own head off. It wasn't excruciating pain like a thousand needles being shoved into your body—it was a lot rawer, a lot more different. It made you feel weak. Woozy almost. Nauseous in some dosages. Unsteady. Bad. You just didn't feel good. Felt drained and awful and weak, weak, weak—

"Screw you," Hoku slurred from the ground, rain pounding into her. "'s dirty."

"It's tough times," Smoker said above her. "You learn to survive."

Hoku's lips formed a weak effort to try to spit onto the floor. She couldn't.

"Paws off Hoku, you jerk—ack!" Smoker's free hand smashed Luffy's face into the ground as his fist whistled past his own face, smacking back into Luffy's body with a rubber twang. "Sorry, Hoku. Give me a second."

"Dumbass," Hoku managed.

Ah, think, think. Hoku thought dazedly, the sea stone tip pressing into her lower back. Luffy won't sit still. He can't land a hit, but if he can get this off me... I'll grab us and make a run... too hard for him to bag both of us at once... or Zoro...

"Looks like your luck ran out," Smoker said roughly above them.

"Whose luck did you say?"

Hoku's eyes shot upwards.

Luffy let out a muffled noise of confusion from where his face was pressed flat into the wet floor.

Smoker's hands were occupied holding both of them down. The realization seemed to dawn on him the same moment Hoku made a funny noise from her mouth, staring in disbelief at the sight unfolding before her because—holy shit this is it.

Cloaked, towering, dark and a force to be reckoned and feared. Wind whooshed past them, howling and ferocious, whipping the tattered ends of his cloak black. A red inked tattoo—familiar ink—Hoku thought dazedly. Could it be—?

"You...!" Smoker started.

Monkey D. Dragon's lips curled upwards.

The head of the revolutionary army.

Smoker's hands were occupied in the face of the most wanted man alive.

Hoku immediately felt the jitte lift off her back. Energy came rushing through her with a snap! Her fingers scrambled, fishing her brush out from under her and quickly drawing as best as she could into the slick floors, thanking everything that Pokian ink was truly the best.

"What?" Luffy shouted as Smoker gripped his jitte tightly in defense, staring up as Dragon stared down. "Who is it? Hoku?"

"The government's after your head," Smoker said coldly.

"The world is waiting for our answer," Dragon said.

A ferocious gust of wind came crashing through. Hoku barely peeled the drawing from the ground as the wind slammed hard into marines, lifting bodies left and right. Luffy was flung from Smoker's grip and Hoku tripped over her face, summersaulting along the floor as she barreled past a steady pair of legs and—

Her eyes went wide, catching blazing dark irises in the midst of her tumble—

"Ah," Dragon said, eyes glinting. "Will you tell the story?"

Her breath caught.

And then a marine's boot smashed into her jaw, sending her flying across the rain slick floor like a hockey puck.

A hand snatched the back of her jacket. Hoku gagged, floundering for a second before she was heaved onto someone's shoulder—

"Took you long enough!" Hoku blubbered, rain and grime still clinging to her face from her little slide.

"Shut up!" Zoro snapped. His hand shot out, snatching Luffy off the floor. "Come on! We need to run you idiots!" Zoro's foot swung out, smashing into Sanji's side. The cook shot up, eyes blazing as he ran after Zoro with fury. "We're gonna be trapped on the island! It's a humongous storm!"

"Ack!" Luffy flailed in the air, eyes spinning. "Lemme punch the smoke..."

"Yeah, yeah, good job, nailed it," Hoku grabbed the drawing in her hands. She tossed it several feet ahead of them.

"Stop dragging your feet!" Zoro shouted.

"What is it?" Luffy said. "What the heck is it—"

"So this is what Nami was talking about!" Sanji said in awe.

"Times three!" Hoku shouted through the rain.

A large, sled-like object appeared with a pop! Zoro's feet scrambled and Hoku pat his arm, jostling him. "Get on! There's enough rain running through these streets—let's go!"

"Hoku Honey, you're a genius!" Sanji praised, leaping onto the sled. Zoro hauled on, swinging her on his shoulder and dropping Luffy at their feet.

The sled lurched from the force of impact, catching nothing below it and rushing forward down the street. Air whistled past their heads, whipping damp hair this way and that as Hoku tried to turn over Zoro's shoulder, grabbing the back of his head and twisting around.

"Is this the way to the port?" Zoro shouted.

"Hoku Honey wouldn't be wrong, you bastard—"

"Woohoo!" Luffy shouted, throwing his arms into the air. "This is fun!"

"It should be!" Hoku said loudly, blinking through the rain and swiping water from her face. "Straight shot down this street and—"

"What's that?" Sanji questioned.

Rain roared around them, picking up in ferocious fury.

"What?" Zoro and Hoku shouted. Luffy continued to whoop for joy.

"I said," Sanji shouted louder, "What is that—"

The sled caught against the ledge that stopped the street just before the port.

A short distance remained.

Nami and Usopp were standing on the deck of the Going Merry, Hoku's horse behind them. Whatever Nami had been about to shout was halted, both their eyes bulging from their heads as Usopp tripped back with the rope and Nami's lips parted—

The sled lurched.

Physics worked its magic.

Four figures went flying through the air. Zoro's face twisted into something funny, teeth gritting together. Sanji's eyes were filled with hearts, hands outstretched toward Nami and reaching for Hoku. Luffy's was shaped into one of absolute joy, a wild laugh leaving his lips.

Hoku's face was the kind one would make before throwing up.

Four bodies smashed into the deck of the Merry. Usopp leaped back with a jump and Nami whirled around, already rushing for the front of the ship.

Luffy was the first to stand, rising to his feet and slapping his sandals in place.

"Everyone!" Luffy shouted, throwing his hands into the air as rain and wind came crashing down around them—

"Set sail!"


"There's a light!"

It happened in a series of beats.

Hoku heard a flurry of voices rising up around her. A storm raged on. Rain pelted her face where she was plastered to the floor, staring up at the raging storm of a sky in disbelief because—why am I back on this ship?

Wind roared. The storm grew in size. Rain came rushing down.

Hoku almost couldn't hear it from the sound of her heartbeat hammering loud in her head and her chest, thrumming against the wood as she tried to catch her breath. Wet. Shivering. Wet. And—and—and—

"That's the guiding light," Nami said. The gathered crew all staring out as the ocean raged on around them. Waves crashed into the Merry's side, jostling it left and right. Daring the ship to falter. "Beyond that light is the entrance to the Grand Line."

Merry's head faced onwards, never shifting.

Nami turned. Rain plastered her hair to her face but her eyes were shining, almost breathless, "So, what's it gonna be?"

Hoku blinked repeatedly to get the rain out of her eyes.

"Do we have to do this in the middle of a storm?" Usopp wailed, grabbing onto the railing for security.

Luffy's grin never faltered. Zoro smirked.

They were headed to the Grand Line.

They were really, really headed to the Grand Line and this time Hoku was with them and—

Rain washed over all of them.

"Leave it all behind."

Klunk. Hoku's eyes snapped to the side. Sanji set a barrel down in the middle of a deck, soggy cigarette hanging between his lips. "Okay! Let's launch this ship into the great ocean!"

"All right!"

No. Hoku thought dazedly. Oh, no. No way—

Feet stomped on the floor. Luffy and Zoro stood on either side of her as they all gathered into a tight circle around the barrel.

The entire world raged, shaking furiously as the storm came crashing down around them.

Sanji's foot settled on top of the barrel. "I'm going to find the All Blue."

Luffy's foot smacked forward. "I'm going to be King of the Pirates!"

Zoro set his foot down with a smirk, "The World's Greatest Swordsman!"

Nami set her foot down, grinning, "I'm going to draw a map of the world!"

Usopp struggled for a second, almost slipping. "I'm going to become a brave warrior of the sea!"

The wind howled.

Hoku heard it all, loud and tremendous and final in her ears.

Without even speaking or giving her another glance, Zoro and Luffy stretched their hands down. Fingers latched around her ankle while another pair grabbed her shoulder, hoisting her up onto one foot and planting the other firmly down onto the barrel.

They all stared at her, waiting.

Oh, no. "No," Hoku said, eyes overcome with something funny and shining. Her fingers twitched restlessly at her sides. She was soaked to the bone. Her heart was racing. She was going to throw up. "I can't—"

"D-Don't be a coward!"

"Hoku Honey, you can do it!"

"There's a fine if you don't. One million—"

"Do it."

Luffy's lips stretched wide, eyes blazing.

Hoku was frozen in time. Her lips moved. Possessed. They must've been. They had to have been—

The world let out a shuddering breath.

"Tell the greatest story ever."

A flurry of grins stretched over faces.

Five feet rose upwards over the barrel.

Hoku's foot slipped on the rain slicked floors beneath her. Her whole body lurched backwards, foot flying into the air.

Six feet came crashing down.

A barrel splintered.

The adventure started with one resounding, echoing crash!


 

Sometime Before, A Certain Island


"Oh, lighten up! This is a time for celebration! Why the long face?"

A chorus of cheers rose up around them. Some drunken into a stupid stupor, others loud and boisterous. The air was merry. The heat was good, warming between shaded palm trees and dappled the ground in crescents. Men rushed this way and that, linking arms, tripping to the floor, cheering with arms thrust toward the sky.

Mihawk remained impassive. He kept still on his seat on the log provided, Yoru slung over his back. Somehow his mug had been filled again, though he had said otherwise.

"Dahaha! You're not done already, are you?" Red Haired Shanks nudged Mihawk without any fear—there never could be. An action only so few dared and he'd earned, time and time again. "Come on, I know you could polish this all off if it were a bit of wine—"

"I suppose the life of a fool has been good to you," Mihawk said flatly.

"It's a time to celebrate, you stick in the mud!" Shanks laughed, slapping Mihawk's back. He didn't move but his eyes narrowed. "Aye, what should I tell you next? Luffy... that kid's already on his way!"

"A long way though," Benn said from the shade of tree, lighting a new cigarette.

"But he can do it!" Lucky cheered, chomping down. "He's gotta! It's Luffy!"

Yasopp couldn't take his eyes off Luffy's wanted poster, turning it this way and that. "I swear on my life, if that isn't my—"

"You know," Shanks said amiably, happily swirling around his mug of grog. Someone behind him shouted that he'd be playing with the devil on that hang over. "To think you came all the way out here to find me, just to deliver this bit of good news..."

"It was simply a whim," Mihawk said.

"Right, right," Shanks appeased, lips curling. "You know, you've still got to tell me how—"

Shanks stopped. He blinked once, face clouding in realization. He swiped the wanted poster from Yasopp's hands, ignoring his shout of protest and smoothing it back out. Shanks frowned, staring at the poster in wonder. "This was the only one?"

"Well, I'm sure he's sailing with a crew if he's got something like that on his head," Lucky piped up. "Has to be!"

"Of course he is!" Yasopp shouted. "Because that's my boy right there—"

"No, no, you're all right, I'm sure," Shanks frowned, staring at the poster curiously. "I just had to wonder... Dove ain't with him? He made such a fuss, maybe she slipped out after all..."

Benn smirked, exhaling a cloud of smoke, "Might make finding her later a lot harder."

Mihawk looked vaguely amused.

"You've got info don't you—he's got info on Hoku-chan!" Yasopp accused. "Come on, what is it? Spit it out!"

"Aw, come on, don't be like that," Shanks turned to Mihawk with a grin, slapping his arm. Mihawk didn't look amused. "What is it? A little rumor? A tidbit? I've got a barrel with your name on it if you—"

"She," Mihawk said simply, devoid of emotion, but the sword on his back hummed with enough for the both of them. "Sought me out amidst the start of her journey."

"Oh, that's no fair—"

"I wanna see how cute she's gotten!"

Shanks let out a little whistle. He raised his hand, rubbing the other side of his shoulder where the other was missing, but his fingers traced a marking that'd been etched from the start of the missing edge to his shoulder. "Even not here, lovely little dove's finding ways to hit me where it hurts. Come on, don't be a tease."

"This," Mihawk said. "Came out some time after."

Mihawk unfolded another paper for the man to see, carefully undoing the creases from where he'd kept it tucked on the inside of his coat. Shanks leaned forward eagerly, crowding into the other man's space until Mihawk's boot came and shoved him another inch back, holding out the paper.

Shanks took it, smoothing it out once more and staring.

Blue eyes seemed to skim to just right over, that bit of gold flashing.

A slow, wide smile curled over Shanks' lips. His eyes drank in the sight of the photo, running an idle thumb and tracing the pattern shown with blazing clarity around her eye. Her own lips hinting the start of a smirk, a cute canine peeking through—

His eyes settled on the numbers printed at the bottom.

Shanks tossed his head back, a thunderous, bright laugh bellowing past his lips.

"I want to see!" Yasopp demanded, shoving Lucky aside as they raced over. Mihawk carefully kept his place, somehow directing them away from crowding him with sheer force of will and intimidation. "Don't hog it all captain—"

Benn stood up, peering over all their shoulders.

"Well," Benn mused. "Someone's gone and grown up right under our fingers."

"She should put on a jacket," Yasopp said. "It looks cold—she should put on a damn jacket!"

"I told you all she was going to grow up to be a dame," Lucky said, biting down happily. "Bet she's had her run—"

Yasopp and Benn shoved him back the same time Shanks' foot came out to trip him back.

A chorus of laughter rang up. Cheers filled the air. Luffy's name chanted and stories exchanged about the once younger boy and the strange girl always lurking a bit in his shadow.

Shanks' eyes shone, smile bright and blazing.

"Well, dove," Shanks' finger traced the curve of that mark once more, eyes flashing, "What's next?"

Mihawk wordlessly took the poster from him. Shanks looked up as though he'd been slapped, gaping at Mihawk as he folded it back up neatly and slid it inside his coat.

"Aw, come on now! Don't be stingy! Let me keep that one—you work for the government! You can just get a new one—oh, don't give me that look! Come on!"


 

Wanted Dead or Alive

Hoku the Immortal

Beli 10,000,000 Beli


"Someone, please," Hoku begged, rain cascading down her face but her eyes were shining, shining, shining. She was going to go crazy if this brush didn't touch paper right now.

"Get me the book."


But you called 'bout a thousand times, wondering where I've been. Now I know that you're up tonight, thinkin' "How could I be so reckless?" But I just can't apologize. I hope you understand.


 

 

Chapter Text

 

"Is this really necessary?"

Usopp attempted to look the very face of dead seriousness.

It worked, to a degree. Hoku could give him that. His arms were set steadily onto the table, fingers laced together as though he were about to conduct a life or death interview to determine her fate.

Which, well, he might've been.

Sanji was leaning against the counter of the kitchen behind him, smoke rolling lazily from his cigarette. Zoro sat on Luffy's right side, resting his head in his hand, vaguely interested. Luffy was trying to fish out the remnants of the sweet drink Sanji had gifted them all, sitting on Usopp's right. Nami sat on his left, smiling with her map beneath her fingertips.

Hoku sat across from all of them, Mau resting comfortably on the spot beside her.

They all watched her.

"Yes."

Hoku groaned, rocking her head back as she slumped on the bench.

"But it takes time to explain all this," Hoku said, pushing her hair out of her eyes and over her head. "We're kinda pressed for that, aren't we? About to sail up a mountain and enter the Grand Line—"

"But we're a crew now about to start our journey on the Grand Line," Usopp said, jerking a finger her way. Hoku frowned, opening her mouth to protest. "That means all cards on the table! We went into this without knowing anything!"

"You didn't ask," Hoku said.

"Yeah," Luffy said. "Does it really matter? It's just Hoku. She's kinda dumb."

"I'm gonna—"

"This can't be avoided," Nami said surely, spreading her fingers calmly over the map. "You're the newest member so just think of it as... an initiation!"


 

Roughly Fifteen Minutes Before


This whole ordeal might've been avoided.

Maybe.

Minutes before, rain pouring steadily outside the ship and lathering the deck, Hoku was tucked away in the lounge with everyone else minus Nami. She'd had her face shoved halfway into the paper, bits of ink smearing her cheeks and hands—she needed to wipe those off still—from her haste to draw everything that'd transpire into the newest pages of the book. Usopp had been watching over her shoulder, making suggestions here and there while Zoro fiddled with his swords and Sanji cooked up a snack.

Sure, she was stuck with them—but it was temporary. She'd just...tag along, draw a few more pages for them while she was here and when the next chance to book it or meet some kind of untimely, sacrificial death came up—voila! Hoku could bite the dust.

A free ride into the Grand Line and the promise of several events which could offer a chance for either of those things—okay, she could work with that. Work temp for the Straw Hat pirates. Temp.

Hoku would gamble on their adventure for another hand.

"I don't know if I should include Smoker," Hoku said. "He's kinda argh but it's part of the story. Damn. I can't really lie if I wanna draw that part with..."

"Tried to bag us," Zoro said. "Don't."

"That guy was a pain," Luffy said loudly. "I couldn't even punch him. He kicked your ass too, huh, Hoku?"

"Didn't kick my ass," Hoku corrected. "He's just got that stupid stick of his. Dirty trick. If I hadn't tripped, I probably could've shaken him off."

"Klutz," Zoro said.

"And how did you hold up against the missus?" Hoku retorted, smudging the sky in the right corner to get a cloudy look. Usopp clapped in wonder.

Zoro's jaw worked itself into a grimace. "I beat her obviously. Otherwise I wouldn't be here, would I, dumbass?"

"Stroke clean and true," Hoku's eyes dropped down to where Wado Ichimonji was laid across the table beside the other two.

"Could've cut her in half," Kitetsu sneered.

Yubashiri rolled with something like pride for her swordsman and reluctance toward the cursed blade of the trio. Hoku eyed all three of them curiously, wondering if she ought to settle them down for a coating if Zoro wasn't going to say something again—

"That smoky guy talked to you kinda funny," Luffy said, words echoed by the cup around his lips as he turned to Hoku. "Did ya know him?"

"Ah, well," Hoku grimaced, tipping her head to the side and tapping the corner of her brush to her head. "It's... complicated."

"Complicated is hard," Luffy conceded with a nod.

"How complicated can it be?" Zoro said. "Clearly he was out to get all of us."

"N-Not me!" Usopp protested. "He didn't even see me! The navy doesn't know who I am!"

"I thought you're the big shot on Luffy's wanted poster," Sanji exhaled a cloud of smoke.

"I am! Wait—"

"I'll just draw him for the complication that he was," Hoku decided finally, etching Smoker's disgruntled face in with an equally disgruntled look of her own. That he'll be in the future too. Ugh.

"I'm sure anything you draw will be lovely, Hoku Honey," Sanji said with a swoon. "You even do my face justice with those hands of a goddess—"

"This stuff is pretty amazing," Usopp said, rubbing his chin as he played with one of Hoku's pencils. "I heard about it before but they sell it for crazy expensive prices in secret markets—now it's right here!"

Hoku snorted. She elbowed her tin box of inks his way. "Each bottle is different depending on what you mix it with. The colors change depending on what you need, but if you add a little soot to the ink, it works a lot better on wood and if you—"

"Alright, you lousy boys and Hoku," Nami deftly pushed open the door to the lounge, rain dripping off the edges of her coat as she strode into the room with nothing but purpose and slapped her map down onto the large table between all of them. "I've run it over a thousand times. According to the charts, the entrance to the Grand Line is up a mountain."

A beat.

"A mountain?" Usopp squawked, almost snapping Hoku's pencil in half. She gingerly weaseled it out between his fingertips.

Zoro grunted. Sanji exhaled, cigarette between his teeth.

"How come you're not lousy?" Luffy said, turning to Hoku with his glass between his teeth.

"Because I'm not lousy."

"But you're lousy at not being a klutz."

Hoku smacked the bottom of Luffy's cup, forcing his head to twang back and forth. He snickered, swinging his legs under the table into hers.

"Focus!" Nami ordered, slapping her hands neatly onto the table. "When I first looked at the chart, I didn't believe it. But look here... the guiding light was definitely pointing toward Reverse Mountain on the Red Line."

"So we have to run into a mountain?" Luffy said. "We can do that."

"We can cut it," Zoro said.

"No, there's a canal right here," Nami said, shaking her head as she tapped the map.

"A canal?" Usopp exclaimed. "Don't be ridiculous—"

"No, she's right," Hoku said. Usopp looked at her with bulging eyes. Hoku rolled her own, twisting to shuffle through her bag on the floor. She pulled a few loose pages loose before finally digging out a leather bound sketchbook. She tugged it free and flipped a few pages before setting it down onto the table, turning it for all of them to see.

"Is that what it looks like from inside the canal?" Nami said, eyes round with surprise as she took in the towering walls on either side, painted water rushing fast through the paper. "This'll help when moving through..."

"A mystery mountain," Luffy said.

"This is from the side coming into the West Blue," Hoku explained, pointing to where the horizon peeked in the drawing. "You really gotta go this way, no other way to do it. I mean, less you wanna make shit complicated."

"If Nami-swan says so and Hoku Honey agrees, there's no other choice!" Sanji declared.

"Can't you just sail south?" Zoro said. "Why do we have to go through an entrance—"

"No way!" Luffy shouted, leaping to his feet.

"He's right!" Nami said. "There's a good reason for it."

Hoku nodded. Zoro shot her a look.

"It'd feel wrong if we didn't go through the entrance!" Luffy said.

Nami's fist smacked the side of his head. "That's not it!"

"Sun is warm today."

"I think you lost your mind," Hoku said. "It's raining tears out there."

"Hungry."

"Then you all need to make up your minds and—"

Hoku stopped, slapping her hands over her mouth. Everyone in the room had turned, staring at her as though she'd gone insane.

Hoku stared back at them.

"None... none of you just said any of that..." Hoku said slowly. "Did you?"

"Um, Hoku," Nami said. "Who were you talking to just now?"

Hoku's eyes dropped to the floorboards beneath them. Usopp and Sanji turned, eyes landing on the porthole beside her head.

Oh, shit—

"Guess you are nuts, klutz," Zoro drawled.

Hoku's head snapped up, hands making strangling motions at Zoro's throat. He yawned, playing keep away with her by pushing the butt of Wado Ichimonji into her cheek.

"That was weird," Luffy said, rubbing his ear. "For a second, I thought I—"

"The storm's gone all of a sudden!" Usopp said, face pressed into the glass of the porthole.

"He's right, it's calm," Sanji said.

Nami's face paled in horror, head whipping around at their words. Hoku's head snapped up in unison, wobbly feet rising before her foot caught on Zoro's boot and she smacked into the table.

"That wasn't on purpose," Zoro said to her fallen form.

"I know, damn it."

The rest of the crew was already piling out of the lounge, back onto the deck. Zoro shot her a bemused look, offering a hand to help her up. Hoku swatted it aside with a bit of a hiss. She hauled herself to her feet, hand on the corner of the table as her fingers slipped

Zoro's large hand promptly grabbed her face, pushing her upright the rest of the way and shoving her out toward the door.

"What a pain."

"You think don't know that—" Hoku cut herself off, face clouding in realization. "Wait, forget it—we need to get out of here, move your ass, spearmint!"

"Don't run," Zoro drawled behind her as they stepped onto the deck. "You'll trip."

"I'm not joking—"

"But the weather's beautiful!" Usopp exclaimed, throwing his hands wide and inhaling deeply. Sanji nodded in agreement beside him. Luffy was already about to hang off the railing, whooping for joy. "What's the rush?"

"We're in the Calm Belt!" Nami snapped, quickly racing up the stairs to the second floor.

"What's that?" Luffy questioned.

"Wow, the storm's still raging over there," Usopp commented.

"Cut the small talk!" Nami shouted. "Lower the sails and start rowing! We've got to get back to that storm!"

"Aye aye, Nami-swan!" Sanji said happily.

Hoku was already on the floor, drawing long, wide oars and pulling them from the wooden floorboards. Sweat dribbled down her chin, lips pursed as she tried to keep herself as quiet as possible, barely muttering a times three as the oars popped!

"Why're you guys so worked up?" Luffy said. "Row? Don't ya know this is a sailing ship?"

"Why do we have to get back to the storm?" Usopp questioned beside him.

"Just do what I tell you!" Nami shouted.

"But the weather's great," Zoro said behind her, watching Hoku draw. "What's got you two so scared?"

"Do you know how hard it is to talk to—"

"This ship is drifting south just like you said!" Nami said hurriedly, finger jutting toward Zoro.

"So does that mean we've entered the Grand Line?"

"No!" Hoku and Nami snapped. Hoku tossed another oar at Sanji.

"Hoku gets it—see?" Nami exclaimed. "The Grand Line is sandwiched between two other seas. They're the Calm Belts, where no winds blow!"

"Calm, huh?" Zoro looked at Hoku on her hands in knees, drawing desperately. "So there's no wind—so what?"

"So this ocean is—"

"Sleepy."

The entire ship lurched. Merry groaned, her sides rattling and Hoku's face paled in realization as she scrabbled for a grip. Her hands latched onto Sanji's leg and he swooned, quickly offering to lift her up into his arms.

"Hey!" Luffy shouted, grabbing his hat. "What was that—an earthquake?"

"We're at sea, you idiot!"

"No!" Hoku blubbered, "It's—"

A long, rolling, thundering yawn filled the air. The sound of seawater rushing down over a cascade of towering objects. All around them, shiny, gaping jaws parted as eyes blinked open almost sleepily.

Dozens of sea kings rose up from the water, surrounding the entire horizon.

Hoku slapped both hands over her mouth, tumbling back into Sanji's knees. His cigarette dropped from his lips. Zoro's jaw sank almost floor level. Foam rolled out from Usopp's mouth, eyes rolling toward the back of his head while tears streaked down Nami's eyes. Luffy gaped.

"T-They're huge!"

"It's a nest..." Nami sobbed. "Of Neptunians..."

Massive tails smashed into the ocean, creating lapping waves all around them. Several of the sea kings sank back into the rolling waters, content with their momentary bask in the sun. A chorus of voices filtered lazily through her head. Hoku kept her hands carefully shut over her mouth, keeping as quiet as possible.

"Now listen," Zoro said quickly, grabbing two of Hoku's oars and throwing one to Luffy. "When these guys go under again, we row like mad!"

"G-Got it!"

"You too, klutz!" Zoro whispered harshly, tossing an oar toward Hoku. "What are you—"

"Itchy," Hoku paled, the rumbling voice beneath them idle. "Itchy."

"Who's itchy?" Luffy said aloud.

"Lu!" Hoku said desperately. "Don't talk—"

A variety of differently shaped heads turned. Curious eyes blinked over at them, their ship resting peacefully on the tip of another sea king's snout. Colors, vibrant and different all littered the entire scene as dozens of sea kings watched them curiously.

Usopp fainted. Nami started to sob.

"Voice," a sea king almost resembling some kind of tropical fish said. "Little one has a voice. Strange human hears?"

Hoku choked on her own spit.

"Hungry," another said simply. "Hungry."

"Smells good."

"Itchy."

"There's a whole bunch of fish over there!" Hoku hollered, throwing her arms over the railing to the right.

A dozen heads swung around in the direction she gestured toward.

The sea king beneath them sneezed.

The Going Merry sailed through the air. Hoku snagged a screeching Usopp by the back of his overalls, stopping him before he flew over the side of the ship.

Her knees hit the railing and Hoku's body lurched, Usopp pulling along.

"Oh, fuck—"

"Gotcha!" Luffy's hands clamped down around her waist, winding in loops before he promptly swung Hoku and Usopp back over onto the deck.

The two of them landed with a smash onto the wet floorboards. The entire ship shuddered, bobbing precariously before it promptly settled back onto lapping waves as the storm resumed raging around all of them.

Hoku wheezed, Usopp's head digging into her stomach. His nose in particular.

"I was tryna say," Hoku slurred, eyes spinning. "Bargaining with sea kings... is complicated."


 

Present


"So go on," Usopp said, crossing his arms over his chest, nose high in the air. "Spill it! What else should we know?"

"Aside from how to bargain with a sea king," Zoro said.

"What you look for in a guy," Sanji proposed.

Nami smacked the back of his head.

"Just tell a story like you always do," Luffy said easily. He swung his feet, hitting hers beneath the table and grinning. "All the stuff you've been up to while you were gone!"

Hoku made a face. She shut her eyes in thought, tipping her head to the side with a sort of constipated frown.

"Nothing much, really."


 

Roughly Two Years Ago

Edge of the Calm Belt, Several Miles from Mt. Colubo, Dawn Island, East Blue


Hoku wished there was nothing much to do at the start of her journey.

But there was.

A fair handful.

Her small dinghy bobbed with a few lapping waves. A single flag mast was built in behind her, an empty black flag flapping along with the occasional breeze. A few barrels filled with fresh water and burlaps of supplies were tucked behind her. Her own worn, trusted backpack was sitting snugly at her feet, stuffed to the brim with everything she'd need to bring with her since freshly departing from the coast of Mount Colubo and Luffy and everyone else.

She'd left the hefty chunks of sketchbooks she'd filled out back in the little shed Makino had given to her so long ago. A shelf was stuffed full in the back of an old tree house in the middle of a forest-jungle. Two kiionohi trees and a make bush now grew on Dawn Island.

Mau. Her art supplies. A pair of clothes on her back and her cloak clasped around her shoulders. Black fabric ripped at the ends, but other spots were all sewn back together. A single, clean white stretch of fabric stitched on her back in the shape of a star.

Hoku shot one quick glance over her shoulder. Nothing but ocean for miles gazed back. The sun beat down above her and Hoku pulled the hood of her cloak up over her head, sitting down at the front of the boat.

"Blaze on, my star," Mau murmured.

No going back now. Hoku patted her cheek, shaking her head. She'd overstayed plenty. Months were not supposed to turn into years and years weren't supposed to turn into an entire chunk of her adolescent life. She'd now grown up with those two idiots—and a third, she thought, a little quieter in her heart, even if he wasn't here anymore. Or maybe I was the third idiot to him—the declaration to depart when they reached seventeen was the perfect chance for her to do what she needed to do. It was a chance to leave.

Luffy would be starting his wild journey in two years. She'd promised she'd get his book started for him once he found her holed up on the second to last island back here in the East Blue before Loguetown. Ace was already blazing through the world, cheeky, canine sharp grin flashing on any piece of information she got her hands on and—

And now, Hoku realized with mixed feelings, she really had some things to do.

She had seven lives to go. Seventeen. A hefty amount of time before she'd say she was overdue for her original goal. She could do this. Plenty of the things she wanted to do might help knock one or two down.

The taste of Makino's dried kiionohi tea, made especially for her, still lingering on her tongue. Her side was sore from how hard Luffy had grabbed her. It'd only been a few hours, she could probably still find his gross tear stains on her cloak. The mayor and everyone back on the island and Da—

Hoku sniffled. She rubbed dumbly at her nose and shook her head. Her thin braid woven in with a wine colored ribbon slapped her cheek. Mau chuckled with amusement in her mind.

A seagull screeched something incoherent above her. Hoku pulled her crumpled list from her pocket, smoothing it out.

The hefty amount of items set out for her to accomplish stared back.

Hoku huffed.

Nothing's going to get done just staring at it. Hoku stood, shoving the list back into her pocket and rubbing her palms together. Her boat bobbed beneath her. Miles of calm ocean stretched out endlessly. First day of the journey should start off with a bit of a bang right? I might as well make the most of this and have some fun while I'm at it. Raise a little hell. Yeah! It can't be that bad. You're gonna be fine.

Hoku hesitantly peered down into the lapping waves beneath her.

A sharp shudder raced down her spine. Hoku jerked her head back, keeping her eyes level with the sky.

Just do it. It's not going to bite. Counting to ten, Hoku turned her eyes back to the sea.

It lapped softly beneath her.

Hoku's face paled a bit. Being surrounded by miles of ocean wasn't going to do anything great for her nerves, especially on a boat this small. Her back up plan should Plan A go to shit was already ready to go, but this was the fastest, most efficient way and if it did work—

Well, it'd be one hell of a story to tell.

Hoku peered weakly into the sea's rippling surface.

"Hello?" Hoku said.

A bird squawked overhead. Her empty flag fluttered behind her. No one was there to laugh at her except an old book who'd laughed enough, Mau, and the sea.

This is so fucking stupid. I'm such an idiot. Hoku dragged her hands over her face, staring dully down into the shining, rippling surface. Any sane person would just do the next best thing—Plan B. One of her living objects should be able to get her far enough if she tried hard and kept her energy up. But the journey was far. She knew the dinghy wouldn't stand a chance hauling up that mountain and there were too many complications otherwise—if this way worked out, she'd be there in a matter of days.

"You should just join my crew if you gotta go so far, I'm seeing the whole world," Hoku glowered at the memory, shoving her hair back over her head as annoying canines peeked out in his familiar grin and he towered over her. "I'll give you first dibs—you can even be my first mate."

Of course you could manage somehow to get a tiny ship like this and make it to the Grand Line.

"I'm going to make sure I'm known throughout the entire world!"

And Luffy had slammed all of them into the ground, shouting and throwing a fit about how she was supposed to be on his crew and he had dibs on her first and yada yada.

What the hell are you doing over there anyway? Hoku thought glumly. Just watch. I don't need either of those idiots, right, Sabs?

A bit of excitement thrummed beneath her fingertips and she swallowed, tipping over the side of the boat—but extremely careful not to fall—and cupped her hands over her mouth.

"HELLO?" Hoku shouted into the sea. "ANYONE OUT THERE? HELLO? I NEED—"

A massive head promptly breached the surface of the water. Rivulets poured down the side of its head like a waterfall, making shiny, pretty red and silver scales glisten against the sun. Hoku's jaw hit the floor of her boat, eyes bulging as the serpentine creature kept rising higher and higher until it towered over her and her tiny little boat, a massive shadow casting over the sea around them as water continued to drop down.

Shiny fangs the size of her boat peeked out on either side of its mouth. Bright silver eyes swiveled to the left and then to the right, blinking massive eye lids. Its head was shaped almost like a dragon of some sorts, snout mid-sized. Its patterned back alternated like a tiger's, striped with red and silver scales and a long, finned tail splashed out of the water several leagues behind it.

The sea king cocked its head.

Because here, at the edge of the Calm Belt, silly, stupid, crazy Hoku had wondered if there was a way she could possibly talk to one of these guys and—

"—a favor," Hoku finished weakly, voice cracking.

—hitch a ride?

The sea king blinked once. It turned its head down to face her.

Hoku got a front row view of all its frighteningly beautiful teeth.

"Human speaks," the sea king said. His voice wasn't as deep as she expected, almost amiable. Lazy. He sounded a bit surprised, contentedly so. "Little one speaks strange things. Strange."

"Yeah, well, I've seen a lot stranger, believe me," Hoku said. The sea king cocked its head, looking confused. "I said—I'VE SEEN A LOT STRANGER!"

"Little one is strange."

"Yeah, I get that—" Hoku sighed, cupping her hands over her mouth. "WOULD YOU, UM, MIND LOWERING YOUR HEAD A BIT...SIR?"

The sea king looked equally as puzzled as she felt. Hoku figured it must've been acting on pure, dumbfounded curiosity to not have opened its jaws up and just flat out tried to eat her yet. Maybe you guys are more peaceful than I thought? He slowly sank back lower into the sea, body disappearing beneath the waves and forcing her boat to bob dangerously until his head was only about a tree length above her.

"Thanks," Hoku said, a little dumbfounded herself. I'm talking to a sea king. He's talking back to me. I'm actually talking to a sea king. We're having a conversation.

"I have heard stories from deep about such strange things," he said. "Human is one of the strange ones."

Hoku hastily tried to steady her boat as the sea king peered down at her, watching curiously. She probably only had a few seconds to do something more interesting before it decided the most logical thing in this clash of two species was to pop open his mouth and take a bite.

She'd never had the chance to ask Manu what happened to Pokians who got eaten. But she couldn't imagine it being anywhere near an ideal death.

"Listen, sea king...sir?" Hoku wondered for a moment if she was going insane. Was this normal? For this world's standards—was this even sane?

The sea king waited.

"This is, uh, my first time doing this," Hoku said awkwardly. Sweat rolled down her neck and she fiddled with her fingers. "You see, this giant strip of ocean you and your buddies live in is called the Calm Belt."

"Calm," he echoed. "Home."

"Yes!" Hoku said. "And see, it's normally really difficult for anyone to get through unless they've got some major power or handy things, like other sea kings or sea stone but if someone could get across, it would make getting to the other side of the world... really easy."

The sea king turned his head. He stared at the endless expanse of ocean stretching out before them and swung his massive head back to her.

"And I need a favor," Hoku said slowly.

"Favor," the sea king said. "What is a favor?"

"It's, uh, it's when you do something for someone," Hoku said. "Out of the kindness of your heart or because you don't mind or..."

A thundering rumble filled the air.

For once, Hoku knew it wasn't her own stomach.

The sea king cocked his head at her, staring. A long, pink tongue rolled out and swiped across his jaws.

"Hungry," he said absently.

"Or we can make a deal! Yeah! Let's do that—let's make a deal!" Hoku babbled, sweat dripping down her face as she moved her hands hurriedly. The sea king peered down at her, curious. "Have you ever heard of that before? A deal?"

"What is deal?" the sea king asked. "Can you eat deal?"

"No, not really. Uh – It's when you do something for someone and someone does something for you so you both get something out of it," Hoku said. "It's kinda like a promise!"

"Promise," he said. "Promises are important."

"They are—"

"Strange human once," he said. "In an old story. Deep down. Strange human could not keep promise."

Hoku swallowed.

"I'll keep this one," Hoku said, surely. The sea king turned its head, fixing her with one silver eye. "I promise. Is there anything you want? Something you need? Uh... a sea king you wanna meet up with? What can I do for you?"

He parted his mouth, revealing rows of pearly teeth. "Hungry."

"Do you... have a favorite... meal?" Hoku whispered nervously.

"Fish," the sea king said. "Boats do not taste good. Only a bit."

I wonder why. Hoku laughed nervously. "Okay, fish. We can work with that. Listen, how about if you help me out, I'll get you a ton of fish?"

The sea king didn't look impressed. He shook his head, sinking lower into the ocean. Hoku grabbed onto the sides of the dinghy as it swayed, his head lowering deeper so that he was now almost within arm's reach, his massive head staring at her just above the surface level.

"I can get fish," he said.

Right, of course. I'm dumb. Hoku pushed her hair back, making a face.

"Humans," the sea king said suddenly.

Hoku felt her heart freeze for a second, fingers slipping.

"H-H-Humans—"

"Humans do something strange," he said, eyes wide with curiosity. Hoku blinked. "Strange smells. Delicious. Want to try. Only tasted a bit, when I ate one ship."

"You..." Hoku trailed off, looking lost as she stared back at the sea king. "Are you... are you talking about cooking?"

"Cooking," he echoed back, eyes sparkling. "Strange smells. Tasty smells. Cooking?"

"Yeah," Hoku said slowly. "Yeah, that's... that's probably cooking. Are you saying you want to try cooked food?"

His eyes shone with interest.

"Always want to try," he said, like admitting something to someone you'd just sat down on a bench with and happened to be striking conversation to for a bit. "Island too hard to come close. Never close enough. Land. Humans run."

Hoku pressed a hand over her mouth, staring at the sea king in disbelief.

He blinked back at her.

"Okay," Hoku said slowly, because she couldn't really believe these words were coming out of her mouth while speaking to a massive sea monster willing to listen to her instead of eating her. "I can do that. I can get you cooked food. I'll get you enough delicious food to fill this whole boat—okay?"

The sea king's jaws parted. Hoku wondered if that was a smile. "Strange little human will get the strange food?"

"Yes," Hoku said.

A deep rumble filled the air around them. Hoku blinked. His eyes curved at the ends, as though he really was smiling.

"Strange little human said a deal," he said. "What does strange little one want?"

"I just need you to help me get from here," Hoku said, gesturing to the area around them. She pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper from the fold of her bra, tucked close to her chest for safe keeping and showing him the paper as it fluttered in her palm, drifting forward. "To the other side of the Calm Belt, where this paper seems like it's pointing."

The sea king blinked. "Travel?"

"Yeah," Hoku said. "Is that... is that okay?"

The sea king lowered his head deeper into the water. Half of his face was submerged now so he was eye level with Hoku, staring back at her.

"Okay," he repeated after her. "Strange little human will get strange food. I will take little human to where you wish to go."

Hoku clasped her hands together over her mouth. She counted to ten, making sure this was all very, very real, before she stuck her hand out.

"Okay," Hoku said again, a little star struck. "It's a deal."

The sea king stared at her hand.

His massive tongue flickered out, lathering up along the entire length of her arm and barely brushing her cheek before it returned back to the water.

"Deal," he said. "With strange little human."

"You can call me Hoku," she said, rubbing her face against her shoulder. "Strange little human is probably a mouthful, right?"

His jaws parted, revealing once more his rows and rows of sharp teeth. Hoku almost threw up.

The sea king seemed to laugh.


"What's it like being a sea king?"

Hoku leaned over the side of the boat. A massive, wood parasol had been drawn and propped up above them, casting a bit of shade over the top of the sea king's head and over her dinghy. Hoku had strapped the boat to the top of his head, wrapping it around once so the small boat sat at the top like a strange hat. His body moved seamlessly through the water, streamlined and quick as they traveled easily across the Calm Belt.

Several other sea kings had stopped, peeking glaring eyes over the top of the water. His size so far seemed to deter most of them from getting closer to sneak a quick snack—and her placement at the top of his head meant attacking his face, so she was okay for now—while others seemed to brush past with idle chatter, floating words slipping through her ears.

"Sea king?" he said, rolling his eyes up to her.

"It's what we call you guys," Hoku said. "Humans call you guys sea kings or neptunians."

"I see," he swam along, seemingly contemplative. "I have heard neptunians before... sea kings... a strange term."

"It's because you guys are huge!" Hoku said. "You're literally kings of the sea."

He seemed amused, "The sea has no king or queen."

Hoku hummed, charmed by his words. She leaned over the side of the boat, watching the way the sunlight and water rippled back against his pretty coloring of scales. "What's it like then? Living in the sea?"

"Humans live in the sea," he said.

"A bit differently than you guys though," Hoku said. "Throw me a bone here. What's your life like, then? Got... family? What do you do all day?"

"I live," he said. "The sea is my home. But the sea is endless. My line of territory is thin. I am one of many who traverse these seas."

"So some of you like to stick to one place?" Hoku questioned.

"Yes," he said. "They mark them as their domains. I do not grow complacent. I must go."

Hoku crossed her arms under her chin. A lazy, light breeze whistled past them, curling against her cheeks and pushing droplets of water across the top of his head.

"I can relate to that," Hoku said, a bit quiet. "It's scary to stay in one place sometimes."

He laughed, amusement rippling through him with a rumble.

"I do not fear staying, strange Hoku," he said. "I merely have my fill and go."

Hoku grimaced.

"Do you fear it? Staying?"

"Yeah," Hoku said, honestly, unbidden. "But that's just between you, me, and the sea."

He swam along beneath her, waves parting past them as they glided through the sea. He turned his head when Hoku turned her palm, following the direction of the paper beside her.

"What is... family?" he said.

"Family?" Hoku said in surprise. "Well, it's people related to you—usually by blood, but it doesn't have to be like that. You can be family without blood too, it's... what's another word for it...?"

"Kin," he said. Hoku snapped her fingers, nodding. "Yes. I have kin. I was born along with three others. Two male kin and female kin."

"Then they're your brothers and sister," Hoku said. "You talk to them often?"

"The eldest of us perished," he said. "Killed by humans."

Hoku went silent.

"I hope he hears nothing but the best of sounds, next life," she said quietly.

"As is life," he said simply. "Sometimes we are eaten. Sometimes we eat. We live on. The others... Many seasons have passed, but our seas mix, on a moon or two."

"Miss them?"

"No," he said, content. "They are home."

Hoku let her head fall onto her arms, watching the horizon around them stretch out in a way that seemed almost endless. In a way that was sort of endless.

"Do you have kin, strange Hoku?"

"I do," Hoku said against her arm. "Well, I did. And I do. None of them are blood related anymore though—there's one guy I still share blood with, but I'll kill him myself if I ever see him again."

"Ah," he said. "Internal strife. It happens on occasion, for dominance."

"Sure, we'll go with that," Hoku laughed. "But the others... hmm... idiots? I can only say that because they're not around to say it back to me. One's out there really blazing more like a star than I could ever be, the other one's smoldering, I guess, getting ready to burn this world."

"Do you have a home, strange Hoku?"

Wind brushed her bangs back, letting her hair curl along the ink against her cheek.

"Yes," Hoku said. "I do."

"Do you travel to or away from it?" he questioned.

"Right now, I'm heading somewhere else first," Hoku said. "But I'm heading home next. It's... It's not in the best condition right now, but if you're ever in those waters, I'll cook you up something good, yeah?"

"What has happened?" he said curiously. "To home?"

Hoku leaned back against the side of her boat, letting her head roll back to watch the sky.

"Destroyed," Hoku said. "By humans."

They swam along in silence for a moment.

"My condolences," he said with a low rumble.

Hoku crossed her arms behind her head.

"As is life."


"Say, you got a name?"

The entire sea before them was dark. Only stars and a thin sliver of the moon lit up the sky above them, casting flickering lights against the lapping waves. A small bit of light was offered by the little fire Hoku had started in a controlled space on her boat, untying her dinghy from his head so they could bob side by side—as 'side by side' as one could get with the smallest boat possible and a massive sea creature—and Hoku turned over another fish in the fire, several hunks of sea animal flesh on skewers.

He'd disappeared for a moment beneath the surface, hauling up a carcass of some poor, strange fish who hadn't been as lucky. He'd watched with waiting, eager eyes and Hoku rolled up her sleeves, setting to work.

Silver eyes caught off the flickering flames, gazing back at her.

"Name?"

"Something you're called," Hoku explained, pressing a hand to her chest. "I'm Hoku—it's my name. They're important, you know?"

He rolled his head to the side of the ocean, half submerging it in a contemplative expression.

"No," he said. "Neptunian?"

Hoku pursed her lips. She leaned back from the fire, crossing her arms over her chest in thought.

"Do you mind if I give you one then?" she asked. "It feels weird to keep calling you sea king or something else in my head. Someone as charming as you deserves a name, anyway."

He blinked large eyes at her. "I do not mind, strange Hoku."

Hoku grinned. She rubbed her palms together, pressing the tips of her fingers to her mouth in deep thought. Naming something was no joke. Serious business. He struck her as a more simple kind of man though, so it wouldn't do to be anything to flashy or outstanding... something fitting and telling... straight to the point.

Fire flickered off his scales, turning them scarlet and molten silver.

"How does Maudo sound?" Hoku said finally, watching him worriedly. "Maudo."

"Maudo," he echoed. "Maudo."

"It means red from where I'm from," Hoku explained, gesturing to him. "If that's too dull though, I think—"

"Yes," he said quietly. "Maudo will do."

A massive smile split across Hoku's face. She hauled the larger skewer off the fire, teetering for a second before she launched it toward him. His massive mouth opened instantly, swallowing the entire piece of food and licking shining fangs eagerly.

"Good," Maudo said with a bit of a groan. "Food is good."

"There are humans who dedicate their whole lives to this thing called cooking," Hoku explained eagerly, sitting down by the fire and grabbing her own skewer. "So you haven't even tried the best yet."

Maudo's throat rumbled in pleasure.

"Heroes," he said.

"Heroes," Hoku agreed. "Truly."


They traveled together for a week.

Hoku and Maudo.

A wayward Pokian and idle stranger to this world and a charming sea king with a fondness for human made food.

Truly, Hoku can't help but think, one hell of a story to tell.

She tried to draw him when she could. Getting his entire visage was a bit difficult with his sheer size and that he was usually mostly submerged under water. They shared stories. Maudo would tell her about younger days, of stories seen only beneath the ocean's surface—which Hoku had to admit to him, she'd rather never ever go , though he merely laughed at this, remarking on her fear as something small—of days spent exploring sunken human ships and watching the world just lapping above the surface.

Hoku told him about an island with sand hinting pink. About many lives. About men and boys who smelled like the sun. About an annoying bird and how most creatures willing to speak never had many nice things to say to her. About shitty people he should consider eating if he ever saw them.

Hoku didn't say it aloud—there wasn't really a need to, and something told her Maudo could sense it in that strange way only souls different from their own could.


I think I needed someone like you, at just this moment.

So thank you.


"This is about as close as you can get without causing a ruckus," Hoku said. "So wait here and I'll hold up my end of the deal, alright? It might take me a few minutes, so just be patient."

Maudo blew bubbles below the water's surface, eyes peering up at her with his rumble. The paper in her hands had finally settled once they neared its coasts—an island called Stepps on the edge of the South Blue and the Calm Belt. The dockside town's docks were deep. Enough so that Maudo was able to swim sneakily below the surface and bring her close enough to disembark on one of the port sides.

The port to her left was bustling with life though, so her partner would have to lay low while she secured the goods.

"If you do not hold up deal," Maudo said with an open mouthed grin. "I will eat dock."

Hoku snorted.

"You hate the taste of boats," Hoku said. "Be back in a second!"

Maudo sank below the surface. Hoku quickly raced through the town, skirting edges and hauling a sack from her bag as she followed the quickest lead to her search—

Her stomach.

Several people turned heads as she rushed past them, cloak flapping wildly at her heels. She kept her eyes peeled, all the while, for any familiar flashes of clothing or the glint of metal. Hoku weaseled past two men and finally skidded to a stop in the middle of one massive plaza. Her chest heaved, puffs of air rolling past her lips as a vast array of tantalizing scents clouded her nose and filled her lungs and—

Hoku nearly slammed into the first counter. The woman behind the stand jump. Massive slabs of grilled squid were dripping sauce from her stand and—

"I'll take all of it," Hoku exhaled breathlessly.

The woman blinked once. She wordlessly pointed to the squid she was grilling in front of her.

Hoku shook her head, spreading her arms wide.

"All of it."

Hoku repeated this same issuance at every stall that smelled the most tantalizing, being extremely adamant about the whole thing when she came upon a stall that sold all different types of fish—from grilled to sautéed.

People in the plaza had watched the crazy, hooded young woman running to every stand as workers from each stand piled on their entire product onto a wagon about the size of a dinghy she'd drawn up. She bought as much as the money in her bag of funds could buy—which meant every damn beli except enough to make one bet with—and only stopped when her money was finally spent.

The entire wagon was piled high. Various different foods wafted up into the air, a cultivation of tantalizing scent mixing into something that might've not been as tantalizing—but who the hell cared.

Maudo was getting it all.

Hoku checked the wagon to make sure it was secure, offering quick thank yous to every stall she bought from before she quickly drew up two oxen. They surprisingly for once didn't put up as much of a fight, seemingly content with what their purpose was this time. Hoku shoved a stick of candied fruits into her mouth and pushed from behind the wagon while they pulled, exiting the plaza and rushing back to the docks.

"First that man comes into town," a man shook his head. "Now this..."

People watched the mountain of food disappear around the corner.

"Have you ever seen anything like that before?" a man questioned absently, scratching the side of his cheek.

One lady shrugged.

"A woman's stomach knows no bounds."

"But that was enough to feed a sea king—"

"A woman's stomach knows no bounds."


Maudo smelled the food before she arrived to the edge of the docks.

His snout peeked out from the water's surface, breaching beside a boat. Two fishermen were on their way to their side of the port, so Hoku hauled ass, pushing the cart along with the oxen until it finally made it to the edge of the dock.

"Alright," Hoku heaved around the now empty stick in her mouth, "Come and get it, partner."

Maudo's massive head rose from the surface. Someone shrieked several steps away, something crashing onto the floor. Men several lengths down started to shout in surprise, waving their arms to people further back in alarm. Alarm rose up in a matter of seconds, but Hoku's grin was breathless and wild.

Maudo's eyes were shining. Drool left his parted jaws in a waterfall.

"The smell," Maudo said with a deep rumble.

"It's a sea king!" Someone shrieked. "He's going to eat that woman—someone, help!"

"I know," Hoku laughed. She touched the oxen and they stilled into statues, life flickering from their eyes. Hoku braced herself at the edge of the wagon and heaved, lifting it up from behind and—

The entire, towering mountain of food came rushing down in a glorious, monstrous cascade.

"Dig in!"

Maudo's jaws parted as wide as possible.

All the food came rushing into his waiting mouth. Sauces splashed, meat and fish and fruits and sautéed vegetables crashing down and filling every available crevice of his parted jaws. Hoku laughed, shoulders shaking and rushing around the empty wagon to perch over the side of the dock. Maudo's jaws snapped shut, jaws working with frightening power and dexterity for several minutes as he kept silver eyes shut in absolute pleasure and—

Maudo's tail rose up several lengths from them at the other end of the dock, smashing sideways and destroying a nearby rock alcove.

"Glorious," Maudo roared.

"Damn straight!" Hoku laughed, tossing her arms into the air as Maudo threw his head back, jaws parting in pure mirth as he rose higher and higher from the ocean's surface.

Someone screamed in terror behind them.

"Now you gotta scram," Hoku said breathlessly, rushing up as far to the edge of the dock as the water would allow. Maudo turned his massive head to her, barely fitting between the slabs of wood. "Big as you are, humans are pretty good at killing things, yeah? Get out of here before someone makes you into food."

"As if life," Maudo chuckled deeply. The sea king lowered his head eye level with her, dwarfing her with his sheer size. "My thanks, for the meal."

"Thanks for the ride," Hoku said, a hopelessly stupid smile on her face.

Maudo pressed his head forward. Sleek, warm scales pressed into her skin and Hoku turned so her cheek pressed back, hands coming up and laying themselves along his head.

Maudo's jaws parted.

"It's going to eat that woman—"

"Should you seek another deal, strange Hoku," Maudo rumbled, laughter in his voice as he pulled away and the water around them sloshed violently, his massive body twisting in the small dock as he turned his entire head and body and dove into the sea.

"I will be home!"

A wave lashed out, splashing her feet and knees. Hoku stood there, salty breeze rough on her cheeks at the edge of the dock as people ran around behind her in a complete mess.

She rubbed at the edge of her face, snorting as she tried really hard not to cry.

"Jerk," Hoku said, voice wobbling. "That's endless."


It took her a moment to shake off the heavy and lingering sadness that always came with any kind of parting—and it also took a moment to shake off all the frenzied fishermen and sailors screaming their heads off about a sea king by the docks.

Hoku had slipped off, skirting around the plaza to avoid any more attention then she'd already snatched. Her choice so, so many years ago to keep the hair and the looks and wear it proudly was a statement, strong and true, but it came with consequences and troubles and tedious repeats of "Are you a—" So she usually took some care in making sure she didn't stand out too much otherwise.

Feeding a sea king was otherwise.

The town seemed fairly busy. Quaint. A bar squabble every now and then—sadly, no casino or gambling parlors, so she'd have to make due. Hoku was currently tucked behind the edge of a two storied restaurant, hiding beneath the shadow of the balcony patio while people moved about, not sparing her a second glance.

This literally makes no sense.

The neatly folded paper in the palm of her hand shuffled, not budging an inch in any direction.

It'd calmed down in terms of movement the moment she stepped onto the island. Hoku had been trying to keep her ears peeled for a familiar voice like velvet, but he was never the chatty sort to begin with. She'd followed it this far to where she stood now, but the paper in her hands merely...fluttered.

Hoku squinted, bringing her palm close to her face. The edge of the paper almost poked her eye as she watched.

It fluttered once more, not budging an inch in any direction.

"Listen, buddy," Hoku whispered. "Might be my first time using one of these, but your track record is supposed to be good. You can't just fail me now."

The paper fluttered once more. A little hop.

"You're not going anywhere," Hoku said harshly. She jumped in place. "That's it! That's all you're doing—"

"Mama," a boy said, tugging at his mother's skirts. "Why's that lady jumping and talking to herself?"

"Let's keep walking, sweetie. Don't look."

"You're just hoppin'—" Hoku stopped.

If vivre cards could, Hoku figured it was giving her one hell of a look.

Hoku's head slowly turned upwards, feet shuffling back to peer up at the balcony right above her.

The vivre card jumped.

"I'm sorry," Hoku apologized instantly, heart beginning to thump loud and fast and yes, yes, yes. "My fault. Thank you."

Hoku tucked the card back close to her chest, slipping it into her bra. She quickly backtracked, ducking to the wall beside her and drawing out a ladder. Tugging it free and bracing it against the lower half of the balcony and ignoring the few strange looks, Hoku quickly scaled to the top, hands rushing fast and willing her clumsy feet to just keep climbing—

Hoku's hands snatched the railing of the balcony, hauling herself halfway over. Her heart leapt into her mouth.

Yoru saw her before he did.

He sat on the other side of the balcony. Only a few other people dared to remain in the restaurant, eating quietly closer to the inside of the second floor. He wasn't alone—a man and his sword. The balcony provided a hawk eye view of the town around him and he reclined back, heavy coat hanging over the back of his chair. Pristine white sleeves lifted as he raised a dark glass of wine to his lips. His back and head were turned away from her. His hat settled on the chair beside him, thick, rolling plume fluttering with one light breeze.

The picture of perfect, contented ease.

Hoku's heart did something funny. Her nerves sang beneath her skin as she clambered over the railing. She could hear the murmur of surprise, the velvet chuckle brushing through her ears with such welcome familiarity and fondness. You're as handsome as ever, Yoru.

The sword stood, leaning against the table. His cross-shaped hilt catching the beginnings of the evening light, making him almost molten to the touch. He rumbled back in amused pleasure and Hoku's feet settled softly on the ground.

A little breeze whistled past.

Hoku ran.

Her boots hit the balcony floor. Her arms pumped fast at her sides, eyes wide and shining. Her lips were already starting to move fast across her face, cheeks hurting from the sheer force as she ran—closing the distance between them and her hand shot for Mau, sliding him out and drawing him before her.

Mihawk stood instantly. The glass of wine barely shifted on the table. His hand shot for Yoru, senses flared out the moment he heard a sword being drawn. His feet shifted on a dime as Hoku launched herself into the air.

For a moment, his gaze was cold. Dark, threatening, only a touch curious to see who could possibly be stupid enough to try and attack the Greatest Swordsman in the World—

Mihawk's gaze cleared, stopping Yoru mid-draw. He held it up just enough.

Hoku came sailing through the air, hands steady on Mau's hilt. She brought him down with a resounding clash against Yoru's side. A sweet, haunting melody resounded throughout the entire area, rattling the glass along the sliding doors and trembling the glass on the table and—

Mihawk's gaze sharpened.

In a series of seconds, Hoku slid Mau along Yoru. Two chuckles and gracious greetings of old friends. But Hoku's body came flying through the air and didn't stop and—

Hoku's legs slid over his shoulders. She locked her ankles tight, clamping down around his neck. Her stomach smashed into Mihawk's face and her arms came quickly around his head, fingers sliding through slick ink black locks.

Hoku's entire body enveloped Mihawk's face and head, clinging to him like a koala.

Mihawk's body never shifted. His feet carefully placed to steady and support both their weights. He remained there for a moment, head and face entrapped and wrapped entirely by the body that had literally come flying through the air to latch on to him. Mihawk gave it a moment, a minute to process. His hand smoothed over Yoru, adjusting his blade so it would not fall, and he calmly took Mau from her hand, setting it onto the table.

Hands now freed, Mihawk carefully supported one on her lower back. Only once he did this, initiating contact, did he calmly pull his head back enough so he was no longer smashed into skin and turned his face upwards.

"M-Mihawk!" Hoku blubbered instantly, unbidden, without any restraint. Tears dripped fast down her face in a stream, snot threatening to dribble from her nose as she openly sobbed, clinging to his head with star struck eyes. "I missed you!"

None of this came out as said. Hoku's words blubbered through as "Ah mwus uh!"

The corner of his lip twitched upwards, a phantom of a smile.

"Dun fwuh meh whet!" Don't fight me yet. Hoku sobbed. Her hands came up to his face, cupping his cheeks and touching his hair and feeling the scratchiness of his beard. "Ah mwus yuh, damn it!"

"So you've finally come," Mihawk said calmly.

Hoku started crying louder at the sound of his voice, clutching tighter to him. Hoku tried to force years of parting all into the single squishing of herself into his face. Her bawls caused fear to flash across any lingering customer's faces, looking on in horror.

Mihawk calmly wiped a tear that was not his own from his cheek, regarding her with a look that made truthfully clear that he was not impressed. Hoku continued to cling to him.

Several feet from them, the people inside the second floor of the restaurant had either dropped to the floor, foaming at the mouth, or started running toward the exits because some crazy bitch tried to attack Hawk-Eye Mihawk and now she's crying!

"Calm yourself," Mihawk said flatly.

Hoku tried to sober up. She quickly wiped her eyes on her shoulders, sniffling hard several times before she tried to face him as earnestly as she could.

Her lip started to tremble.

"Do you weep," Mihawk said, sounding faintly amused, "because you are admitting defeat?"

"That's a bad joke," Hoku blubbered. She sniffled several more times before leaning back a bit to get a proper look of him. "If you want Mau, ya gotta pry him from my cold, dead hands—that's gonna take seven times by the way. Even you can't have the patience for that."

"I manage," Mihawk said. His hand came up and promptly fisted itself in the back of her cloak—to which he noticed with a touch of amusement, hadn't changed—and ripped her off his face. Hoku hung in the air like a pup, arms and legs limp as she simply stared at him imploringly and longingly, lip trembling with the beginnings of a whimper.

Mihawk easily set her down onto her feet. He released her collar and his hand drifted to her face, cupping her cheek. His thumb brushed the curve of her mark.

"To whom did you give a life?" Mihawk questioned lowly.

Hoku's eyes fluttered shut for a moment. She tipped her head a bit into his hand, contemplating her answer.

"A couple of fools," Hoku said finally, offering him a small smile. "Including myself."

Golden eyes flashed with brief amusement. His hand dropped to his side and he picked up his glass of wine, settling back easily into his cushioned chair. "The bird you had sent me collapsed one day. I had considered sailing out for a moment, but you sent another soon after."

"Looks like you've been keeping up the coating pretty well," Hoku praised, eyeing Yoru's unblemished blade lovingly. Mihawk took a sip of his wine.

Hoku's chest puffed with pride. She slipped Mau back into his sheathe, setting her hands proudly on her hips. Mihawk noted with a faintness that Yoru was no longer tripled her size. Hoku grinned like an idiot, clearly pleased with herself.

"I've gotten better and better at coating, you know. I think I'm just about worthy enough to coat any of the Supreme Grade swords without any problem."

Mihawk regarded her over the rim of his glass.

"It seems," he said. "Proud enough to have it inked into your skin."

Hoku's cheeks flushed. The sword tattoo along the back of her neck burned.

Mihawk took a sip.

"Alright, Mihawk," Hoku grabbed a chair, turning it around and plopping cross-legged into the seat. Her cloak fanned out around her briefly and she had to dislodge it from the back of the chair in a way Mihawk was familiar with another foolish man doing—interesting. "It's been years. We've got a lot to catch up on, don't ya think?"

Mihawk looked vaguely amused behind his glass of wine. He cast one glance to the cowering waiters and waitresses inside, inclining his head. One worker shoved another and they rushed into the kitchen, tails between their legs.

"So it would seem," Mihawk said slowly. "If you have finished weeping, you may join me for a meal."

Hoku's eyes brightened, impossibly so. She shuffled the chair closer to his table and Mihawk leaned back, crossing one leg over the other and reclining.

Mau and Yoru rested beside each other, content.

"Mind spotting me this time?" Hoku questioned, a bit sheepish. Mihawk raised a brow back at her.

"I'm a bit low on cash."


Yoru's voice, velvet and smooth.

"It has been too long, little one."


They talk late, late into the evening, the two of them.

Time doesn't seem to pass. It barely flew by Hoku's mind. In between hurried, rapid stories and grand gestures of her arm, waggling fingers and sweeping movements of her whole body to convey what she wanted to express to the stoic, brooding man beside her—she sneaked glances. He was leaner, sturdier. Mihawk appeared to have never ceased once in keeping to his shape and keeping to his blade. But he was clearly, utterly healthy. Taller. Broader. Still a force to be reckoned and feared. No new scars, nothing but the new polish to his boots or a lighter shade of his plume and—

Hoku's heart swelled, stupidly, in stupid happiness.

She told him everything.

Hoku drew some moments, into the napkins scattered around them just so he could get the entire view and image. She told him about a boy who smelled like the sun. About fools with rusted pipes. Shitty nobles who'd watch this world burn one day. About a little village with creaking windmills, a fearsome jungle that never stood a chance to a collective force of an exiled noble, a wayward, spitfire of a soul, and a rubber boy.

Mihawk listened, for the most part, as he always did. Nodding occasionally, going through his bottle of wine steadily. Every now and then he fixed her with a look that showed vague interest—when she explained her meeting with Garp, the Hero of the Marines—and more often than those moments, he allowed her a look that seemed wholly and entirely unimpressed—her discoveries of not being able to eat tiger meat – ever, that alligator wasn't that bad, skewered sea king was still amazing but now she was a bit guilty about eating it.

Mihawk would grace her, occasionally, with a new extension of his word count. An absent tale here. A collision there. He'd sliced five marine ships in half for trying to come after him in an attempt to make him sit in on a meeting for the Shichibukai.

Content, free sailing across an endless ocean aboard Noir.

Hoku soaked it all up like a sponge.

She didn't want to miss a bit of it.

His lips cracked a touch, at the mention of Red Haired Shanks.

"You knew, didn't you," Hoku accused. "That he was coming to that island. I dunno how, but you knew he might be heading there."

"I had vague ideas," Mihawk said leisurely, unaffected. "We clashed once, before he returned to the island. It was after the battle that we spoke and I noticed the marking on his hand."

Hoku gaped at him.

"He fought you while he was at the village? Why the hell didn't that asshole say anything after you guys talked?"

Mihawk didn't look the slightest bit interested. He wasn't. "He is a whimsical man that is no longer of any interest to me. He left the East Blue missing one arm and was no longer suitable for any fights worthy of titles."

It did explain to Mihawk, however, the red haired fool's almost petulant nature after learning who had been schooled briefly in his tutelage. "Almost lopped my head off, you know? You're the devil for teaching dove that."


"Picked her up from the island, kept her under your wing until she decided to leave on her own, just to get on the wrong ship..." Shanks mulled over the stated information curiously, rubbing at his chin as he leaned back onto the log they were seated on.

Mihawk took a sip of the grog in his mug. Wine would always be his alcohol of choice, but it would have to do for now.

Shanks had laughed, loudly, obnoxiously by his ear when Mihawk informed him of where Hoku's original destination was meant to be. Slapped the log beneath them and shook his head and admitted he might've paid a pretty beli to see "Dove"—Mihawk contemplated the nature of such a name and his own vague musings toward it, deciding ultimately it was a fool's name given by a fool—in a uniform threatening to tear his ship out of the water.

It was when Red Hair admitted though, such a place with such rules and laws might find it insidiously difficult to contain someone like that, that Mihawk deduced the fool under his wing with too large tear ducts must've gotten along well enough with the red haired fool.

Red Hair spoke most animatedly as well, about a strange, funny boy back in the village he'd been frequenting.

"What else?"

Mihawk stopped the mug by his lips. His eyes slid sideways, staring blankly at Shanks.

The man looked eager, leaning both arms onto his knees and grinning hugely as he always did. "Come on now, Hawky—what else is there? You had dove with you for such a long time, tell a story or two!"

Mihawk stared at him as one would, of course, a bug.

"Why." Mihawk said.

Hawk-Eye Mihawk did not tell tales. Of anyone.

He was not about to start.

"Mihawk! Mihawk! Look at this—isn't this a nice hat? Have ya ever thought about changing your hat? Maybe I should draw myself one... hey, can I see your—"

"But if I just try drawing a blanket from all this, I think it'll work. We'll be sleeping on clouds!"

"Mihawk!"

"Did you see that? Yoru, did you see that? I just cut that off with Mau and it looked great—"

The distinct memories of a single face smashing several times into different objects came to mind. The ground. A tree stump. Doors. Walls. His back. She'd lost a tooth once or twice.

The stupidly wild grin of a fool.

Mihawk shut his eyes briefly.

No. Mihawk mused. I will never start.

"Oh, don't be like that!" Shanks whined, recognition dawning as he stared at Mihawk's face. "I'll even—"

"Why," Mihawk said dully. "Would I tell you anything, Red Hair?"

"Just a tale or two for the road—"


"His sword," Mihawk said absently, "was in impeccable condition."

"For the record, you're my only regular customer," Hoku said instantly. "I don't send him new cases. Even if I knew where he was, I still wouldn't either."

Mihawk's lip twitched, hidden by the next sip of his wine.

"Whispers of a strange rumor made it my way," Mihawk said, reclining back. Hoku looked at him curiously. Stacks of empty plates of pasta rested on the table behind them, monstrous stacks. It'd been awhile since she had a spaghetti marinara that good. Or several.

"Something about a hooded woman buying up all the food in the plaza and carting it off somewhere..." Mihawk glanced to her. "I suppose that was not you?"

Hoku grabbed another loaf of garlic bread, "They have to be more specific than that."

"Though considering how much you ate," Mihawk said. "It seems it was not for you alone. You came with a companion?"

"Parted ways," Hoku said, feeling a little stab of sadness in her chest. "Pretty great guy. You two would get along."

"I see."

Hoku pouted, she rocked back into the chair, tipping her head to the side. "For the most part though, sounds like you've been just fine, huh."

"You thought otherwise?" Mihawk questioned, raising a fine brow.

"No," Hoku said. The wind played with the thin braid along the side of her hair, woven in with a wine colored ribbon. Mihawk watched it for but a moment. Her eyes turned a little dopey, a silly smile curling along her lips as she turned an eye crinkling grin his way.

"Makes me happy."

A moment. A pleasant beat.

A man. A girl. Two swords.

"Take him up," Mihawk said, standing. He didn't finish the rest, already moving as he grabbed Yoru.

Hoku's lips turned upwards. Her fingers found Mau's hilt with ease, following quick at his heels as Mihawk grabbed his coat and Hoku fixed her own.

Let us spar.


"I want to go back to Artopoki."

Mihawk looked over.

Two flasks of water were discarded to the side. The wide clearing Mihawk had led them to devoid of all life but the green and a flock of birds passing overhead. The moon was soft tonight, contemplative and peeking through wisps of clouds. He sat on a freshly cut log, hands resting on his knees, Yoru strapped to his back.

He hadn't even broken a sweat.

Hoku had huffed the words out, back plastered to the floor. Sweat dribbled down her brow and trailed the side of her face into the grass. Mau was an inch from her fingers, resting against the ground beside her and rolling with contented energy. Clearly satisfied.

Mihawk said nothing. Hoku wiped sweat from her eyes, keeping them shut as she continued, knowing it was her cue. "I'm gonna go, I mean."

Hoku panted, smiling a little breathlessly as she threw an arm over her eyes, "I kinda... made a bucket list. I'm gonna head back. There's stuff I need to do."

A low, old chuckle.

"An old friend I need to drop off," Hoku said, free hand reaching absently for her backpack.

Mihawk laced his fingers together. He turned his head, regarding the young woman beside him for a moment. Golden eyes flickered.

"You will have to sail the Grand Line."

And I can't count on getting lucky with another sea king. Hoku laughed a little breathlessly. "I know."

"You have a ship?"

"I have a dinghy?"

Mihawk regarded her with a dull expression. Hoku shrugged uselessly against the floor.

"I've been learning some neat tricks," Hoku said. "I might as well make this fruit useful while I've got it."

Hoku pulled her arm away from her eyes. She stared up at the sky. Too hard to catch the glitter of any stars tonight. But that was fine. She felt bright enough without them, just for the evening.

"...I was going to ask though," Hoku admitted sheepishly. She rolled over onto her stomach, pushing herself up by her hands and tucking her knees under her as she faced Mihawk. Hoku pushed her bangs over her head. "For a favor."

Mihawk waited.

"I don't know what's been going on over there," Hoku said. "I keep trying to look for information and read what I can, ask around, but there's next to nothing. I know you're not really buddy-buddy with those asses or anything, but... do you know what's been going on? Is there a base now? Anything I should look out for on the way there?"

Hoku rubbed the back of her neck, staring at the floor. Mihawk stared at her, golden eyes silent as he kept his fingers laced together, resting on his knees.

"I know it'll be a bit rough," Hoku said, "but I've got seven lives and I might as well lose one or two if it means coming home. When I... when I met that Pokian I told you about in Goa, it made me... it made me realize just how much got lost."

Hoku reached up, brushing her hair over her head. "I guess I thought... I thought there'd be more people as gung-ho as I was about keeping everything. I thought people would fight to keep it alive but..." Hoku shook her head. "Not everyone had someone like you to tell 'em not to dye their hair or had the means to feel safe enough to stay the way they are."

Hoku dropped her hands onto her lap. She kept her eyes trained on the floor where a bit of moss clung to her boots. Tiny tufts of grass grew at her feet.

Mihawk was silent.

"I gotta..." Hoku started and stopped. "I have to go back. I don't know what it'll do, but it's where I've got to start and who knows how damn long it's been since someone gave them a proper—"

"There are no bases stationed nearby," Mihawk said. Hoku's head snapped up. His face was calm, staring back at her evenly. "There are, however, ships stationed in areas to patrol. Frivolities."

"Okay," Hoku said, nodding. "Okay, that's not so bad—"

Mihawk rose from his seat. Hoku stopped, words dying on her lips as she watched him curiously. His steps were even as he walked toward her, stopping just at her side and casting a long shadow.

Hoku blinked up at him, eyes round with curiosity.

In a simple blink, the lowest of whispers, Yoru was drawn and in his hand and—

Hoku screeched, hitting the ground as the beautiful blade swung over where her head would've been. Her cheek smacked into the dirt, grass shoving up her nose briefly. Hoku quickly rolled out of the way and Yoru pierced the spot she'd been laying. "Holy shit, Miha—ah!"

Hoku lunged. Her foot caught on a root and she smashed her head into a tree stump. Mihawk followed after her. Hoku quickly rushed to her feet, drawing Mau and nearly snapping her heel. The short blade collided roughly into Yoru's side. Mihawk's arm didn't even tremble as she held both hands to Mau's side, pressing back against him. "If we were going for a round three, you could've just said something—"

"You have improved," Mihawk said flatly. Hoku looked at him over Mau's edge, eyes round. Golden eyes pierced back. "But not enough."

"Well, I've only been trying to be strong enough to beat up assholes and defend myself—"

"Observational," Mihawk ordered.

"Can't see the future," Hoku said. Mihawk pressed harder. She paled. "B-But it's good. Bad good sometimes. I hear it all a lot easier—more than I wanna—"

"Armament," Yoru's blade colored ebony.

Hoku's face dropped.

Mihawk's eyes narrowed.

She quickly jerked Mau away, ducking to the side in a roll. Mihawk lowered his blade, waiting for her as Hoku warily stumbled to her feet, face set in a grimace.

"Not..." Hoku blew a sigh through her lips. "Not as good... with that one."

Mihawk relinquished Yoru back to his spot against his back. Hoku tentatively slipped Mau back into his sheath with a soft click. Mihawk crossed his arms over his chest, fixing her with an unreadable look.

"But," Hoku said, holding up a finger. She quickly bent down, wrestling for a brush and digging it into the dirt. Mihawk watched in flat silence as she sketched something out and then finally pulled it free. "Times three!"

With a pop, an entirely dirt made Mihawk appeared. Perfect to the finest detail. It stood, immobile with arms crossed over its chest.

"I've gotten faster!" Hoku said proudly. "I've been testing some stuff out and I can bring quite a bit to life. Bigger ones take up more energy though. And they've all got shitty attitudes, well, to me at least. If I have too many spread out though, it makes me kinda stupid."

Mihawk looked at her.

"Yeah," Hoku explained. "It's a really weird feeling. Probably because they're all bits of me? I sorta become a mindless zombie or just really slow and—"

Mihawk raised his hand for Yoru.

"Okaywhat'syourpoint—" Hoku spluttered, grabbing onto dirt Mihawk's leg and staring up at real Mihawk with trembling eyes. "What're you tryna say—"

"Your mistake," Mihawk said. "Was your answer. I have not stripped you of Mau, though you clearly cannot best me—"

"Well, no shit," Hoku said. "Who do you think I am?"

"—so I will amend my claim," Mihawk strode forward. His hand reached out, snatching Hoku by the scruff of her cloak and hauling her up off the ground. Her feet only dangled a few inches from it now. "You will not set foot on that island unless you can somehow manage to come by me, without losing a single life."

"But—"

Mihawk stared at her.

Hoku's lips blubbered. She opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it once more.

Mihawk's golden eyes were daggers.

"Okay," Hoku said. Mihawk relinquished his grip on her, dropping her onto her feet. Hoku's hand instantly shot out, gripping the edge of his sleeve. He raised one brow. "...that means what I think it means, right?"

Mihawk fixed her with a simple look, perhaps contemplating how many brain cells she still had left since their parting.

Hoku's lip started to tremble. Her eyes watered and she sniffled, staring at Mihawk like a complete and utter idiot because yeah, she needed to get to the island, but how dumb had she been to think—and here he was—and he—

"Cease," Mihawk said dully. "This needless weeping."

"Buh ywuh sho nwuce!" Hoku managed. But you're so nice—

Hoku screeched, hitting the floor. Yoru swung with a chuckle over the empty space of air.

Dirt Mihawk was sliced through evenly, crumbling to the ground.

"Consider," Mihawk said simply, a touch darkly amused, "holding to those words until I am finished with what is left of you."


Mihawk stared.

"It's not much," Hoku said amiably, drawing ropes into the ground and pulling them free so they could use them. Mihawk had said they would tether her ship to his for the duration of their temporary journey together. "But it got me across the Calm Belt. I've grown kinda fond of the thing."

Mihawk raised Yoru an inch from his sheath.

Hoku threw herself in front of the small boat with an incoherent screech. She floundered, teetering between the edge of the dock and the boat and wow, that's a lot of water, hate that stuff—before finding footing and throwing her arms wide protectively. "No!"

"You should consider," Mihawk said. "Other means of transport. This is kindling."

"I like her!" Hoku said, staring at him in disbelief. "Leave her alone!"

Mihawk narrowed his eyes.

Hoku coughed. "...please?"

Yoru returned with a dark chuckle and a click. Hoku slumped in relief, the dinghy bobbing gratefully beneath her weight.

Mihawk regarded the empty black flag resting against the small mast post. Faint amusement flickered through his eyes and he stepped onto Noir. "They say it is an ill omen to sail with a blank flag."

"My luck's shot anyways," Hoku sighed. "What can some more do?"


Hoku only lasted an hour after hearing that.

The two had set sail, Noir towing Hoku's little boat behind it with something comical in appearance.

She'd sat in front of the empty flag for another hour though, brush between her lips and her nose as she stared in heavy concentration. Mihawk made the single and only suggestion of just scrawling her name on the thing and being done with it.

"Wouldn't be right," Hoku had said.

The ocean rocked beneath her. A soft sigh of air. The sun warmed the back of her neck.

Hoku stared at the rusty little hinge that clasped her flag tight.

Mihawk didn't inquire as to what the emblazoned heart and diamond meant. The other side was painted with a spade and club. Hoku settled back against the mast, content.

I'm only out here because of you.


Hoku almost cried in triumph, dodging Yoru's swipe.

"I taught you to fight fluidly, a dance," Mihawk's foot swept out and Hoku smashed her face into the floor with an ugly noise.

"You fight," Mihawk said, regarding her with a hint of disdain, "as though you've been fighting nothing but wild beasts."

Hoku turned her face to meet his gaze. Her forehead was bruising now and there was dirt under her eye.

She thought about her time by Gray Terminal and its wild forests and wild beasts.

She thought about Ace and Luffy.

"That's 'cause I have been," Hoku said flatly.

Mihawk regarded her as one would, a—

"Oh," Hoku said, limp and happy and stupid against the floor. "I missed ya too."

"Regardless," Mihawk circled her once and the tip of Yoru's blade lifted her chin. She could hear him rumbling with low, velvet laughter. Such a tease. Golden eyes narrowed, thin, cutting slits.

Yoru's tip dug into the ground beside her cheek and Hoku swallowed.

"Whether you fight beasts or men, you will fight like you dance."


Mihawk worked very, very hard to keep true to his word.

Because he was still determined, it seemed, to beat the living crap out of her clumsiness.


"It can't be done," Hoku said weakly, voice hoarse. Her cheeks were smeared with dirt, bruises up along her arms and legs. Her limbs swayed, entire body slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes as Mihawk walked them back to the inn. "It's... a curse..."

"So," Mihawk said darkly, sleeves rolled up, "it would seem."


He kept her for four months and some.

And it's more than Hoku could've ever asked for.


I missed you.


"This island will be your best option," Mihawk said. "It is three days travel under the radar back to the island."

Hoku almost laughed the moment the words left his lips. They'd just docked both their boats along the portside of an island called Nueva in the West Blue. Because, of course, that's always how it was, how it'd always be, starting the journey without asking for the end—

You come so suddenly.

Mihawk stood on the front of Noir's bow. Yoru called out a pleasant farewell, Mau warm against her back in turn. Hoku stood on the dock, smooth concrete beneath her newly furbished boots. Her cloak curled around her heels.

Hoku's mouth opened and then she pressed her lips tight together. Her eyes dropped to the floor, unable to stare at Mihawk's waiting expression.

She'd known, of course, that she'd have to leave him again—she'd been ready to do so the moment she first ran into him. The items on her list were still heavy in her pocket and meeting up with him had been first, and it had meant it would end with a parting so she could keep going.

Hoku had planned for it. The four months had just been a blessing she hadn't accounted for.

But the words "Would you like to come with me?" hung heavy on her tongue. Hoku could taste it. He could always say no, and it wouldn't hurt to ask. He took her from that island, after all. It'd be almost fitting to return with him.

But I can't make you do that. Hoku stretched her fingers out and balled them into fists at her sides. And I need to go back there as I am.

No longer five and crying and absolutely useless.

Seventeen, not crying at this moment, if she could help it, and just a little less useless.

"Okay," Hoku said. She squared her shoulders, facing Mihawk evenly. Something flickered through his eyes, a ghost of warmth she didn't dare try to read into. "Gotcha. Thanks for everything, Mihawk. The training—all of it."

Mihawk merely inclined his head. Hoku's hands twitched. Her foot moved, prepared to launch herself the short distance it would take to wrap her arms around him.

"I'll write," Hoku said fiercely. She bit her trembling lip and turned on her heel, racing for the inner part of the island as fast as she could without looking back. "ByeMihawkI'llmissyou,thankyouforeverything!"

Hoku almost knocked a man over, shouting out a congested apology as she turned her head up to the sky and don't cry, don't cry, you're not crying again you dumbass, crybaby!

"It's alright," Mau said warmly. "To feel sorrowful at partings."

Hoku choked on an ugly sob. "Ey nwuh!I know!


"Fool," Mihawk said, a touch amused. He watched bright white hair disappear around the corner, almost toppling into another before rushing away.

She'd only need ask.

But telling a fool something she ought to know was, of course, simply not his style.

His eyes flickered briefly over the horizon. A lone, familiarly patterned ship was sailing closer to the island. A regular patrol.

Mihawk pushed off from the dock, reclining back onto his throne and crossing one leg over in quiet, dark ease.

Happening to destroy a naval ship because it was in his way, however, was perfectly in like with his character.


Nueva was a trading port kind of island, much like Continuar was.

But it became quickly and inherently clear that it wasn't as nice.

Bazaars promised some unseemly business. Hoku made the wiser decision to pull her hood up, keep her items close to herself with Mau attentive at her lower back. Vendors argued with customers, a few chatting amiably with smoke rolling from their cigarettes and cigars. The buildings were sturdy, but deep cut signs of wear and tear.

And a lot could be said about an island with more than one bar and several gambling parlors.

The people of the island kept mostly to themselves. Burly men slinking around corners and slipping into buildings. Hoku spotted a kid or two, which usually meant fair enough, and she knew Mihawk wouldn't have dropped her off somewhere he expected her to get her head lobbed off or a knife in the back—but maybe he knew that, Hoku thought absently, and expects me to be fine because of his training?

The first thing she needed to do was find a boat. Or anyone at least that would be sailing close enough to the island that she could tow Lucky along before splitting off. She could navigate fair enough on her own with the compass to get there, and there'd never been eternal log poses for Artopoki made off island—meaning no one ought to have a reason to be heading out there.

Hoku frowned. Nueva is closer to reaching Artopoki through the easiest passage, if it's still there. The island had always been a secluded one, hidden off by sea cliffs and natural buffs that turned most ships away unless they knew what to look for. Manu had always said the island had friends looking out for it, and it seemed the world had been in favor of keeping it tucked away.

But not enough. Hoku watched the cards deal out in front of her with a bit of a sniffle. She should get something to eat after this hand. If her search didn't go well, she could always stay the night and start fresher in the morning. Can't stay too long though. I'll miss a good chance and ask for trouble.

"Crying's not gonna get you anywhere, lass," the dealer snapped. Hoku simply shrugged, still a bit forlorn by the recent parting. "If you lose the hand, you lose."

"Aw, don't be too rough on her," the man playing at her table said. "You new around here, darling? Passing through?"

"He's not worth your time," the man to her right said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. Hoku noticed the gun on the side of his leg. "Women always think they can drink off or gamble it all away, but the only real way to get rid of it is to remind yourself what's better out there. Plenty of others to keep your bed warm at night."

"Right?" the other man agreed. "Hear that, darling? He's just another notch in the bedpost, don't fret nothing."

Hoku, after sniffling through the streets for a bit, had chosen the next best course of action before finding a boat or any of those things—securing funds.

She'd walked straight into a gambling parlor first thing.

"Still gonna miss him though," Hoku said numbly. The man at her side spat into a tin. "'m bad at good byes."

"You know, it's your turn to feed the snails," the man beside her said suddenly, turning to the other man.

"Aw, come on! One more hand. Those bastards can wait another night."

"Yeah, what're you gonna do if we lose another batch?"

"Buy a new one with this money I'm about to win—"

"What's your move?" the dealer grunted.

The sleazy gambling parlor clamored with low noise. Men were bunched up at tables, some howling in despair while others were shoving and clapping each other on the back. A few women sashayed through the frays, weaving in drinks and tips.

Hoku held out a peace sign, matching her bet.

The dealer adjusted. Two hands were dealt to her and she checked her cards. Hoku flipped them over.

The dealer hacked. The men on either side of her sputtered, one choking on his cigarette. All three gaped in disbelief and Hoku sighed, collected her winnings from the table, tucking them into her bag and slipping out of the chair. "Enjoy the rest of your day, boys."

An ace of diamonds nestled against the queen of hearts. Her second hand showed the ace of spades tucked against the jack of hearts.

Hoku slipped out of the gambling parlor, heart a little less heavy and Mau amused against her back. Guess I just got lucky, huh?


"Hungry."

Hoku looked at her stomach in horror, setting a hand over it. A minute passed and she realized no, her stomach hadn't started talking to her. It couldn't have possibly been her stomach because she had a bag of candied fruits tucked against her side she was about to eat and – someone else said that. Or something else. Hoku's eyes turned upwards, squinting.

"Hungry. Hungry."

Her head turned toward her right. The large building she'd barely paid much attention to earlier was the only thing in sight. Hoku frowned, inching closer and peeking into one of the several dirtied windows that lined the edge of the building, darkly tinted to keep unwanted eyes out.

Hoku glanced left and right. Not a single person in sight.

She fisted the scarf around her waist several times around her knuckles, reeling her arm back and punching the glass.

A sharp crack split the air. Quick. Several pieces clattered to her side of the wall and Hoku gingerly brushed a few pieces aside, pushing out a few more and peering inside.

What the hell?

It took her a few seconds to understand what she was seeing – and even then it was still hard for her to understand. Hoku squinted, trying to weasel her head in further without cutting herself on the broken glass.

It seemed as though she were looking into somewhere toward the back of the factory building. The massive hulk of cement and metal was towering enough, with a fairly organized front side and several doors and openings for shipments to roll out. Hoku didn't know for what, but it hadn't been her problem anyway—

Cages.

Long, seemingly endless rows of cages filled the dark, musky room. Several machines were running along the lines of the wall. There were patches of areas that seemed dank and muddy, fenced off like miniature pastures. Rusted cans hung off the sides of the wall, a line of ripped hoses and other tools and supplies and—what the hell is this place?

Hoku stuck her head in further. A bit of glass bit into her palm and she gingerly kept her neck away from any pieces—if I kill myself on some glass, it can't be an awful way to die, right? Her head turned, looking below her.

Several pairs of wide, round eyes blinked back.

What the fuck—Hoku almost screeched, back pedaling and ripping her head from the opening of the broken window. She panted, standing a safe distance from the wall and holding her hands out warily.

Nothing followed after.

"Tired."

"Cold."

"Hello?"

Hoku winced. She rubbed the side of her head, gingerly soothing her ear. She carefully inched closer, peeking back into the window and moving so more light filtered in to get a look.

The small, huddled shapes suddenly became clear. Hoku's eyes went round in surprise. Pairs of eyes turned, bobbing and swaying weakly as the little forms shifted along their containments, moving and turning toward her. They were all clustered together, cramped into the tight little space of the barred cage sitting just below Hoku in the dark.

Transponder snails.

Hoku blinked in disbelief. Den Den Mushi. Fairly aged ones and babies—not yet hooked up to any devices but – so many of them. Her eyes scanned the entire building, glancing to the rows of cages and back to the snails staring at her in something akin to curiosity and fear. Is this... is this some sort of snail farm?

Hoku had never seen any kind of transponder snail farm or... whatever they were called. She'd seen shops, where the little guys were sold as appliances in a pet-store like simulation. She'd heard most were technically a wild species and just bred by shop owners for use but...

Hoku brushed aside a chunk of glass, sticking her head through.

It was ridiculously clear to see that this wasn't right.

"Are," Hoku whispered experimentally. Several eyes turned back to her instantly, round and attentive. She could barely make out their little faces and bodies. "Are you guys... okay?"

"Hungry. Tired. Cold."

"Sun."

"Miss the sun."

Seems like a big fucking no. Hoku thought grimly. The Den Den Mushi were beginning to inch a little closer. Thin streams of sunlight trickled in from where she stuck her head in, and they pushed closer to the side of their crate. She could start to see now their different patterns. Never seen a white one before. Steel metal bars covered the top like a grate. Hoku did a sweep of the large room they were being housed in—not a single person in sight.

Is this even legal? Hoku knew next to nothing, in all honesty, on any kind of animal rights that could exist in this world. Did any? There had to be a group of creature conservationist out there, right? Save the island whales or...

This government lets islands get burned down and people sold as slaves. Hoku thought bitterly. Who the fuck is going to care about a couple of snails?

Hoku slumped her head forward a bit. The snails below her bobbed their eyes to the motion. God damn it.

"Okay," Hoku said, turning her head to face them. There were about seven in this crate, making her feel a bit better. That's a lucky number. Something good is coming from this. "I'm... um... I'm new to this. Can... Someone explain the situation?"

The Den Den Mushi stared at her with round eyes.

You fucking idiot, how the hell do you expect these poor guys to give you an entire police report what are you thinking—

"Born here," one snail's voice whispered. Hoku turned. His eyes watched her, bobbing and bending, forlorn. "Many of us. Some taken from homes."

"Try to train us," another snail said. "Feed us little. Leave us here."

"Hungry. Cold."

"Want to see the sun."

Hoku figured she'd heard enough.

"Hold on, buddy," Hoku wrestled her arm through the opening, grabbing the sack at her side. She carefully inched it through, trying not to cut herself on the glass as she opened the bag up.

Candied fruits dropped down. They clattered through the bars of the grate, landing with soft thumps on hay and wood. The Den Den Mushi crawled forward, eyes bobbing curiously. "Go ahead! Sorry, it's not the most nutritional thing right now, but it'll have to do."

One inched forward, tentatively nibbling on a candied strawberry. Its eyes went wide, swaying and turning to its companions with an open mouthed smile. More snails crawled forward, nibbling on the candied fruits.

"Yummy."

"These are yummy!"

"Happy."

Hoku noticed one still tucked in the corner. She frowned, shoving more of herself through. "Hey, aren't you hungry too? It's not much but there's enough—"

"Don't want," the snail was small, eyes narrowed, blending darkly into the shadows. "Won't last."

"I know, but I'll come back with more—"

"Kindness."

Hoku stopped.

Kindness won't last.

Hoku glanced downwards. Several of the snails were watching her with round eyes, bits of crystal sugar sticking to the edge of their lips.

"Okay," Hoku said, more to herself, heart thundering. "Okay. Abused snails. Okay. Just do what you would do if you saw a room full of abandoned puppies... same difference. You can do this."

"Do what?" the snails chorused.

"Help you," Hoku said. "You want that right, to leave?"

The snails all looked at her with wide, round eyes.

"Leave?"

"We can leave?"

"Yes," Hoku stepped back from the glass. A sharp stab on the side of her wrist told her she'd cut herself. She balled her fist back up into her sash, winding her arm back. "You can—"

Slippery, almost leathery fingers clamped down onto her arm.

Hoku's lips parted to scream.

A large hand clamped over her mouth. Hoku's blood raced. Her heart shot into her throat and her free hand quickly dug blunt nails into the thick skin of the man's wrist. Her fingers could barely close around it. Nostrils flaring, every instinct in her rushing out as fear raced up her spine like a shot of adrenaline as memories flashed, blurry and vivid behind her eyes and she readied to get this fucking hand off her

"Please wait!" he whispered urgently. His entire body was heavily cloaked, casting his face in the shadows. He was large. Big. Clearly a fighter. Hoku grabbed Mau's hilt. "I'm sorry—" his hand jerked free of her mouth and Hoku stilled, entire body wound tight like a wire. "Forgive me, I didn't mean to startle you, but we can't—"

"Hey! Come on! We need to clean the cages out!"

Hoku didn't even glance over her shoulder. Her eyes were trained hard on the man who'd appeared in front of her. She wrenched her wrist free. He released it without a fight. "I don't know what you want—"'

"We have to hide!" the man whispered. "Or we'll be caught and they'll never be free!"

Hoku stilled. "You're talking about—"

His fingers reached out for her. Hoku's eyes dropped, widening at the sight of his appendages. "Come—we must hurry!"

"Leaving?" a soft voice whispered. Hoku's head swung to the broken window. "Miss is leaving?"

Keys jangled. Heavy footsteps around the corner.

"I'm coming back," Hoku whispered fiercely. The stranger turned, looking surprised. "I promise."

Hoku heard a bitter snort. "Won't last."

There was a brief whisper of silence and then—

"Okay."

A little piece of Hoku's heart broke off, tucked aside and saved solely for the purpose of those snails.

The cloaked man raced around the corner and she followed. He ushered her into a door barely propped open, a small building facing directly across the warehouse. Hoku's gut twisted sharply, fear and good sense battling it out before she gambled, ducking her head and slipping in before him.

He shut the door behind them, quickly turning and pressing his head to it. Hoku stilled her breathing, moving and putting some space between the two of them. Her thumb pressed into Mau's hilt, waiting.

A heartbeat.

"They went in," he said, sounding relived. "I don't think they noticed the broken window. That was careless."

"Mind explaining what's going on before I get a lecture?" Hoku said roughly. The man's form stilled, turning. His face was shadowed still. "Hood off."

He hesitated.

Hoku slid Mau an inch from his sheath. A soft click. The man's head half turned, but Hoku's other hand went up, tugging her own hood down and over her head.

"Hood," Hoku said, bright white hair curling around her shoulders. "Off."

There was another pause. His muscular arm reached up to his hood. His body was tense, hidden beneath the heavy cloak. He seemed to mull it over another second before finally relinquishing with a sigh, tugging his hood down.

Oh. Sluggish memories came flooding through. A giant mermaid princess. A kingdom hidden at the bottom of the ocean—a place I don't ever want to go. The memory that somewhere else right now, the king of the pirate's future navigator was suffering at the hands of a man like this but they were a race abused and struggling and people through and through—

"You're a fishman," Hoku said, surprise coloring her face. It'd felt almost funny, saying a phrase so similar to what people often either accused or questioned her of.

His skin was a soft yellow in color, almost beige. It had the leathery, scaly texture fish did sometimes. He was large, older in age with light blue, grayish hair tumbling a bit past his chin. His fingers formed a bit of claws at the tips, webbed on the inner most parts as she'd seen earlier. Brown spots lined the top of his head and beneath his chin a frill sort of gills, looking like a beard.

Her first time meeting a fishman in person.

For a moment, a part of Hoku told her to calm down. This was someone from a group of people who she knew had gone through enough shit as it was. They'd suffered at the hands of people she hated just as Artopoki did, they'd lost enough. They were enslaved, ostracized, beaten—all the same. The man in front of her might not know the sympathy she ought to feel, but still, she had to be careful.

The memory of hands that should've loved crafting and art just like hers smashing into her cheek, shoving her into the ground. A man she still shared blood with on this earth.

Not all humans were good. Not all Pokians were good. Not all fishmen or sea kings or anything in this world was good.

Hoku kept her thumb pressed into Mau's guard, ready to draw.

The fishman's brows furrowed. Something akin to fatigue washed over his face, briefly, before disappearing. His hands reached for his cloak, prepared to pull it back over his head. "I feared you would be alarmed, if you saw me for what I was—"

"Don't care what you are," Hoku said. He looked at her sharply. "Fishman. Human. Doesn't matter. I don't know you. I care about who you are."

Hoku's eyes narrowed.

"Are you a good guy or a bad one?"

The fishman across from her stood, blocking the only exit. His face was quiet, contemplative as he stared back at her. Hoku figured the wood holding this building together was thin enough—she could smash right through with enough force and run if it came to it.

"As a solider," he said, "I must tell you that asking such questions do not normally warrant truthful results."

"Sayin' you're not?" Hoku demanded.

"I want to liberate these transponder snails," he said. He pressed a large hand to his heart, "If you're willing to trust my word, then yes, I am good."

Hoku listened for a moment. Mau cooled at her fingertips, tentative, but making his decision nonetheless.

Hoku carefully slid Mau back into place with a soft click. The fishman's eyes widened with slight surprise and Hoku stood, hands at her sides and facing him evenly.

"Sorry," Hoku said. "I know you said something about helping those snails, so you couldn't have been an awful guy, but ya never know, you know?"

"I can understand your sentiments," he said with a nod. He looked a bit puzzled, staring at Hoku curiously. "...miss—"

"And don't worry about," Hoku made a vague gesture to himself before awkwardly shoving her hair over her head. "Being you. I mean. 's fine. We all bleed the same, right? Just matters if you were out to kick my ass or not."

"I won't be doing that," he promised surely, still staring at her strangely.

"Then we should get along alright," Hoku said. "So? What's your deal? Normally stalk buildings looking for snails?"

He seemed to contemplate his answer for a moment, the kind of look that said he was considering how much to tell her. Hoku leaned back onto an old create behind her, lacing her fingers and letting them hang comfortably in front of her.

"Oh! Are you maybe some kinda animal conservationist—"

"I was informed by one of my subordinates about an illegal Den Den Mushi ring that was going on in the West Blue," he said finally, crossing his large arms over his chest. "You see, the warehouse you stumbled upon is their base of operations on Nueva. Typically, Den Den Mushi are found in the wild and raised in permit based conditions or by legal traders. Several species are rarer and can be traded off market or found by thorough hunting in the wild by professionals."

"I see," Hoku said, because in reality she had known absolutely nothing about the legalities and history of transponder snails aside from that fact that they could make interesting faces and came in different colors. And were, just a bit, cute.

"This ring in particular is one of many, but it's one of the largest I've come across by far," he said. "Also one of the cruelest and most ruthless in their trading of these creatures. There's reason to believe they may be tied to illegal dealings with several larger name pirates and criminal organizations, but we don't have the proper evidence for that. The World Government—"

"Wouldn't give a shit about some snails," Hoku finished.

He nodded, looking a touch pleased at the bitterness in her voice. "I've been observing this group for some time. As luck would have it, I was intending on figuring the best mode of infiltration and whether or not to call back up when I noticed you. I thought you were another civilian until you stopped and broke the window, feeding the snails. I figured perhaps you were trying to do something kind, a local I hadn't spotted, but then I realized you were going to run the risk of exposing security, so I had to stop you."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Hoku said, offended. "I was going to haul those guys outta there."

"You looked like you were going to cause a scene," he said honestly.

Hoku opened her mouth and then closed it. She internally debated whether or not breaking a window was really causing a scene, but decided to keep silent for now.

"Why haven't you and your conservationist buddies come and just..." Hoku held up a fist, punching the air. "You know?"

He looked amused. "I was informed to try and perform this as covertly as possible. This trading group is favored by many underground dealings who would be quite angered to find their supply halted. There's a specific plan I have in mind that will both shift the blame elsewhere and allow us to rescue the snails."

"They won't be able to hold out much longer," Hoku said, heart twisting. "They've got it rough in there. If there's anything I can do to help make this plan happen soon, I'm game."

"They?" he repeated. "Who are they?"

"The snails. So we can—"

"You... you can communicate with the snails?" he said, looking astounded.

"Sorta," Hoku said. He continued to stare at her in disbelief. "Yes. Enough. It's not always this two way thing and sometimes they're not very nice—it's complicated."

"Fascinating," he said. "This will be of great assistance if it works as I hope it does."

"Complications?"

"Your communication skills," he said, motioning to her. "Having a middleman between us and the snails will aid in their escape tomorrow night."

"Tomorrow?" Hoku said, eyes round. "We're breaking them out tomorrow?"

"If I can secure the final points," he said, surely, "yes."

His eyes glanced up to her, dark and curious. "Will that be an issue?"

"Won't last."

"No," Hoku said, conviction in every inch of her voice. "It won't."

"My name is Hack," he said finally, extending a hand. "Forgive me for not introducing myself sooner."

"Hoku," Hoku said. "Our names are kinda similar. That's cool."

Hack seemed to be contemplating the intelligent nature behind such a statement, or lack thereof.

"But snails," Hoku said instead, shifting gears of the conversation so he didn't have to think any more about her possible lack of intelligence. "Snails. Let's save those snails, yeah?"


The first action of Hack the soldier of animal conservation rights and Hoku the hungry started with the most basic of needs.

Food.

Hoku had asked him to wait for her—which Hack hadn't minded since he'd been trying to keep his presence as scarce as possible on the island due to the nature of treatment regarding his species—and slipped out into the plaza. She'd returned only half an hour later with several skewers in her mouth, large sacks of food and supplies tucked under her arm with a cart she'd drawn towed behind her. Stupid horse giving me a stupid attitude.

"I have to admit," Hack said, a plate of hot and spicy vegetable curry in his hands, "it has been quite some time since I ate this well."

"Buddy, stick with me and you'll eat like a king."

He'd inquired about the several large sacks of the freshest produce and bread Hoku could find. Jugs of water to add to it.

"When those snails get out," Hoku had said flatly, eyes blazing. "They're going to eat within an inch of their lives."

He calmly and carefully told her that malnourished snails couldn't handle such an intake and Hoku told him to shut up and eat.

Hack spent the rest of the evening informing her of everything she needed to know. Majority of the guards were nameless thugs, small time, petty criminals who'd been hired by someone further down the line to manage to warehouse farm. The workers switched and changed often. Lazy, brash men. All the exits, the amount of snails they'd been needing to transport.

A ship that would be waiting for them toward the east side of the docks. Sailing deeper into the West Blue before heading for the Grand Line to reach Hack's animal buddies' base of operations.

"Say," Hoku had spoken up when Hack explained their getaway vehicle for the snail heist, "you and your pals wouldn't happen to mind towing a dinghy and dropping me off somewhere, would you?"

"If all goes well and we succeed," Hack had said. "Hoku-san, my friend, I would gladly see you off to your destination."

Hoku couldn't help the grin curling over her lips. Maybe my luck's turning around after all.

Hack mentioned as well, that he'd been considering enlisting the back up of a comrade of his. A fellow animal conservationist, Hoku figured. Apparently he was extremely adept with knocking out folds of armies in minutes and was charmingly skilled with the use of a pipe. Hoku had waved the notion off, saying they'd be just fine on their own.

"Two of the main guards who hold the keys to the cages are fond gamblers and drunks," Hack explained, pointing to two circles Hoku had drawn in the ground for them by the firelight as they worked out a game plan. "My idea was to catch one off guard and steal the keys, sneaking in. We'll need time and luck on our side however. The shifts are irregular due to their lazy natures and we need all the time we can get to transport the snails out."

"Gamblers?" Hoku said, "You know what they play?"

Hack looked hopelessly confused, staring at her as though she'd grown a second head. "...they gamble."

"Yeah, but what's their table? Five card, slots, black jack—"

"Black jack," Hack said. "I see them frequent the establishment toward—"

"Got it," Hoku's lips curved into a mischievous grin. "I think I've got a good idea to add to this plan, pal."

Hack stared.

"You know, I know we've only known each other for a few hours, but some respect would be kinda faith, buddy."

Hoku waited a second.

"Actually, I'm sorry, there's something I have to warn you about that might go wrong at either the worst possible moment or just not matter at all."

"What is it?" Hack said, looking serious. "Are you injured?"

"No," Hoku said. "I'm a bit... I'm clumsy."

Hack stared.

"I just—you know what, forget it."


"There's something I have been meaning to ask, Hoku-san."

The lamp between the two of them crackled, small flame whispering its last farewells before it would part for the night.

Hack had led her to where he'd been retiring for the past few nights. Hoku had observed the piles of hay with a bit of familiarity before patting him on the back and setting her cloak down. Hoku happily drew them up two hammocks and set it up for them.

Hoku rolled over in hers, cloak pulled tight around her body like a blanket.

Hack laid on his back. The weak light casted vivid shadows along both of them. His eyes were turned to the ceiling, thoughtful.

"You are one from the group whose island was attacked twelve years ago... condemned for treason and having all inhabitants of the island executed except those born off the shores," Hack said, staring upwards. "Artopoki. The island of crafters and artists."

Hoku's eyes flickered to the lamp. Half her face was covered by her cloak. "Yeah. I am."

"Forgive me," Hack said. "I know how it is, to be identified solely for a culture or race... I have not come across one of your kind for quite some time. My group has offered asylum for some of your people, when we cross paths, but all seem adamant about keeping to themselves, no matter the cost."

"Without the island to come home too, there's nowhere that really feels right to stay," Hoku said, eyes a little faraway. There's not much some animal conversationalists can do either, except make some people offended. "We're... a funny group. All risk takers, usually. Like to play death a bit. I haven't met a single one of us that could ever be happy staying still."

"Even when the island existed?"

"Not stationary," Hoku said, laughing a little at the hidden joke and lifting her hands out of the cloak. "All this... hunting that goes on, it makes everyone too scared to do the stuff they've always loved to do. Been born to do. We've always gotta be moving our hands. We want somewhere we can stay where we can do that. But assholes wise up and they know what to look for to find us so no one does what they ought to be doin' anymore."

"A bit different," Hack said. "From us, it seems. One cannot... cease being a fishman or mermaid. You simply... are."

"Doesn't mean you guys had it any less shitty," Hoku said with a bitter snort. "Assholes."

"There are many I would like to perform the fighting techniques of my home on," Hack admitted.

"Yeah, me too. Fuck the World Government."

Hack laughed. A deep, throaty sound a bit like a chortle. "I think, Hoku-san, you might find solace with my group."

"Seems like you'd have to like animals a whole lot," Hoku said. "They tend to hate me. Especially birds."

Hack looked confused.

"You actually from Fishman Island?" Hoku questioned curiously, tucking her hands under her head and getting comfortable as the hammock swayed beneath her.

"Yes," Hack said proudly. "I was a great follower of Fisher Tiger himself. I did not partake on the adventures of his crew, but I believed in his ideals and am close friends with one of his compatriots."

"He's..." Hoku racked her brain, blurry memories of a character coming to mind before she bitterly shoved them aside. She didn't want to remember someone who seemed so good like that. He didn't deserve that. "A good guy, right?"

"Extremely," Hack said, admiration deep. "He was the captain of the Sun Pirates and led many of our kind to freedom after attacking the Mariejois himself and..."

The memories came back clearer. Future characters who still had roles to play in this story. Hoku chose to listen instead though, and hear the tales herself. Paint a picture of this man and his actions and what he did for an entire group who were hated, enslaved, constantly cast out by this world and attacked...

She made a promise to draw it, somewhere in the bindings of her books.

"Have you ever seen the island?" Hack questioned finally. "This homeland of yours?"

Hoku shut her eyes.

"Yes," Hoku said quietly. Mau pulsed with a comforting, rolling warmth beside her, tucked tight.

"But you can hide that you were ever from here."

"What was it like?"

Hoku smiled so hard it hurt.

"Absolutely beautiful."

The lamp flickered, sighing a farewell.


The moment the sun set the next day, Operation Snail Heist began.


"Hiya, mister! Fancy seeing you again!"

The man stopped in the middle of lighting his cigarette, quickly looking up at the sound of such a friendly female voice.

His eyes zeroed in on Hoku. He was seated in a dark green uniform, heavy boots and a ring of keys dangling on the side of his hip. Probably no older than his early twenties. Hoku kept note of the gun on the side of his leg. Bingo. Same man from her table.

I wonder if that's good or bad luck.

"Well, if it ain't the sad darling," the man laughed, leaning back and slapping his hands onto his thighs. "You look happier already, miss."

Hoku beamed back at him, happily making her way toward him. He watched the expanse of her open stomach appreciatively, noting Hoku had forgone the heavy cloak she'd worn when they first met. Hoku slid her hands into the back pocket of her pants, stopping a few feet from him.

"I am," Hoku admitted. "I did some thinking on the advice you and your friend gave me the other day."

"Oh, yeah?" he watched Hoku reach up, playing with the braid on the side of her head. "And which piece of advice was that?"

"The whole notch in the bedpost thing," Hoku said with an airy sigh. The man nodded eagerly in recognition. "Remember? Figured you two were right. I shouldn't waste this great life on something like that—"

"You're absolutely correct," the man said quickly. He coughed into his hand, shifting in his seat. "I mean, I'm real glad, darling. You... you, uh, you been taking any action toward that?"

"Not yet," Hoku said. She twirled the braid, peering at him beneath gray lashes. "But you know, I was thinking..."

"Uhuh," the man said.

"Thinking something isn't the same as taking action toward it..."

"That's damn right."

"And well..."

"Yes?" the man all but demanded, leaning at the edge of his seat.

Hoku took another step so they were toe to toe. He swallowed, sinking back as she leaned forward a bit more, settling a light hand on his shoulder and offering him a warm, soft grin.

"Care for another round?" Hoku said, a bit softer. He followed her fingers until they touched his chin and lifted it up a bit so he could stare directly into her eyes. "I was thinking... poker?"

He cheeks flushed a dark red. Hoku breezily stepped back as he clambered to his feet, making quick motions for her to stay as he turned and locked the door to the warehouse he'd been guarding and then turned back to her with the stupidest grin possible.

"I have to say, darling," he followed quick at her heels and Hoku kept her steps light, discreetly curling her fingers into a signal as she walked past another building. "You're a lot more... mature than ya seem."

Hoku smiled, baby canines peeking through.

"I get that a lot."


Hoku, only several minutes later, quietly shut the wooden door behind her. The limp form a bruised, now stripped guard with one heavy bruise on his head disappeared behind it. She mindfully drew up a wall from the cement beside her and slid it in place.

"He wasn't a notch in the post, by the way," Hoku said to the limp figure, looking amused. "Not every girl's problem has to be a man."

But it can always be a good sword. Hoku sighed with a bit of longing, missing Yoru already. Mau chuckled low behind her. I wonder what the person who made him looks like... I could get with that.

She adjusted the boots that were several sizes too large on her feet, making sure they wouldn't fall. Hoku fixed the uniform, held together by belt and several wooden clips sticking awkwardly to her back. She tucked all of her hair up into the cap, bringing it down harshly over her head.

Hoku tossed the gun to the side of the street into a bundle of trash. She happily felt the keys at her side jingle.

Hoku whistled, folding her arms behind her head and heading back to the warehouse.

I love gambling.


The lock clicked.

Hoku carefully shot the area around her one more glance from beneath her cap. Not a single soul in sight.

So far, so good.

The wood wagons she'd drawn up along with a few stubborn oxen were waiting by the back of the warehouse, tucked out of sight. Hack should already be in position to enter from the earlier spot. No one had stopped her coming close to the warehouse, and it seemed everyone else was still out lazing around or having fun.

Hoku pushed the door open softly, swallowing as she stepped in.

The entire warehouse was dark.

Long, eerie shadows inched up against heavy cement walls, stained with mildew and spots Hoku didn't feel like observing longer. Only a bit of moonlight streamed through from the skylight at the top of the second floor.

Rows and rows of cages greeted her.

Her heart hammered in her chest. Hoku quickly gave the entire floor a quick look before shutting the door behind her and locking it from the inside. Need to buy as much time as possible.

Her feet quickly carried her to the cage closest to the long, dirtied window. She walked past a rusted jolly roger on the side of the wall, a grinning face slashed through with a single line. A bit of light streamed in from where the hole she'd broken earlier still remained, untouched. Hoku's chest tightened and she quickly came to a stop by the steel grate, fingers reaching out and tugging the cloth that'd been settled over all the cages off this one.

Familiar eyes blinked wearily, once, twice, before they went round with recognition. All the gathered Den Den Mushi turned, small mouths parting.

"Told you," Hoku whispered, happiness flooding her voice so quick she couldn't help it, "I'd be back."

"Miss is back!"

"Candy!"

Hoku stifled a laugh. She quickly reached for her keys, tugging it free and shoving it into the heavy padlock that matched each of the cages. All the snails crawled forward, crowding by the wall closest to her. "What is miss doing?"

"More candy?"

"You can eat as much candy as you want when I'm done with you," Hoku promised fiercely. "I need you guys to listen to me and listen to me good—and spread the word to every cage and everyone, can you do that for me?"

The snails bobbed their eyes in understanding.

"My buddy and I are stealing all of you," Hoku said. "We're busting you out of here. I'm going to go around and unlock each cage and tip them over and I need all of you to start making your way to the back doors, okay? Can you do that for me?"

"Leave?" one snail said, staring at her with wide eyes. "We are leaving?"

"Can we do that?"

"Miss said we can go..."

"Will it be alright?"

"Where will we go?"

"Masters will be angry..."

"Don't want to hurt again."

"Won't," a voice said darkly from the corner of the age, yellow eyes watching her, "last."

Hoku turned the key with a click. She tossed the lock to the ground at her feet. Her hands grabbed the bars of the grate and she heaved, lifting it up and dropping it as well.

The snails all seemed to hold their breaths, watching.

She gingerly tipped the box over, arms straining for a second before it settled on its side.

"You miss the sun, right?" Hoku questioned roughly.

The snails stopped.

Hoku held her hand out to the first snail in front of her. It looked from her fingers to her face, small, dark eyes watching her with an intensity she never knew could come from the small, sturdy little creatures.

"No one," Hoku said. "Should ever have to miss it."

The snail crawled onto her palm, slippery, smooth underside clinging to her skin. Hoku grinned, setting it down onto the table, free of its cage. Its little arms came round, staring at them in disbelief.

"Leave," a chorus of voices flooded her mind, eager and fast and hopeful. "Want to leave."

"Want to see the sun!"

Hoku's grin widened, eyes brightening. "That's what I wanna hear! Now, I'm going to go around and unlock all these cages—you guys need to explain to situation to all your buddies and head to that back door, alright?"

The group of snails before her bobbed their eyes in acknowledgement, little hands moving.

Let's see some sun.

The snails began to crawl as quickly as they could to the other side of the table, splitting in half and heading to the floor to the other rows of cages. Hoku shoved the key into the next lock as she set to work.

"Won't last," Hoku turned the key, eyes flickering to where the single small, black snail had come to stand at the corner of the cage, gazing at her.

Hoku tossed the lock to the ground. Snails began to pour out from the cage, happy, excited grins on their faces.

"It will," Hoku said, staring back as she shoved the key into a new lock. "The blood never lies."

Within ten minutes time, Hoku and the band of newly almost liberated snails had managed to clean through nearly the entire floor. An entire row of cages was still left at the front of the warehouse where Hoku had started from the back so they could reach the door faster and worked back to the front.

Herds of snails clustered along the floor. Many of the little guys crawled as fast as they could—which wasn't that fast but they were trying—to greet others, clearly separated from batches of family and friends and knocking eyes and shells into each other in pure happiness.

Their chatter was growing louder in her mind. The relief and hope was infectious. Hoku quickly shoved the key into a new lock, all the muddled conversations jumbling together as the new group of snails crowded close to her, excited. Gotta finish this up, quick. Hack should still be on look out and ready to open the back doors when I give him the okay—

"My star!"

Click.

Hoku froze.

She'd been stupid. She let all the voices cloud her mind and she hadn't even heard—

The heavy barrel of a gun pressed to the back of her head. Hoku exhaled slowly, the lock in her fingers growing cold. Her heart hammered heavy in her chest. All the snails along the floor stopped, looking back with wide eyes.

A rush of fear swept over the entire warehouse. A fear that wasn't Hoku's own spilling fast and flooding.

"Master is back."

"Drop," a man's voice said behind her, dark and amused, "the keys."

Hoku's fingers curled tighter around the ring.

His gun shoved harder into her head. Hoku's lips curled downwards, furious as he pushed her head forward, almost smashing it into the metal grate. "I said drop them or your head's gonna be what drops."

I can take that. Hoku's eyes turned sideways, trying to get a glimpse of her attacker. Her free hand curled into a fist. If he shoots, I die. It'll catch him off guard enough to give them a chance to get out... I can catch him by surprise and get the rest—

"I'm going to tell you a secret, doll," the man said. "See this warehouse? It's been a snail farm for almost years now. You've got all our precious merchandise running around the floor, spread out everywhere and it's going to be a real mess to clean—but you know what? This place is built for that. Sometimes you get a bad batch of snails and these little bastards get sick real easy, so you gotta get rid of the whole lot and start again."

Hoku stilled.

"Oh, aren't you a smart one," the man praised, laughing behind her. "That's right. There's gas valves lined up all along the floors of these babies. I've got one guy on the switch. This place fills with toxic gas that'll smell a bit to us, but have these little bastards shriveled up and dead in their shells in—"

His boot smashed into Hoku's hand, crushing it to the side of the table. Hoku hissed in pain, fingers uncurling as the lock and keys dropped to the floor with a thud. All the snails quivered in fear, crawling backwards into the shadows with wide eyes. Pain raced up her arm to her elbow, hot and fast and his boot pressed harder into her fingers, crushing them to the edge of the table.

"That's better." His gun shoved her head forward harder. "You know, this one's a first. We've never had any problems with people and our snails before, didn't think anyone could ever give a damn."

He kicked the keys aside. Hoku exhaled loudly, keeping her eyes trained forward, dark. The man chuckled behind her. "But you probably thought the same, right? I admit, this place's only got a bunch of half time losers guarding it most of the time. But you see, lucky for us, boss wanted a special shipment out tomorrow morning so he had his best guys come in for collection."

A rough hand fisted itself into the back of Hoku's hair. Her cap fell to the ground. He tugged harshly, yanking her head back into the gun. Hoku snarled, baring small canines and eyes flashing as he turned her head to get a better look at her face, boot still smashing her hand into the table.

"Don't talk much, do you, doll?" his face was old. A braided black beard along his chin. The jolly roger Hoku had seen on the wall as tattooed onto his cheek, grinning at her. He looked through and through, by the dirty glint of his eyes and the gold in his teeth—like a fucking asshole. "That's fine too. I like women who keep their mouths shut. See, what I'm trying to say here, is you got some bad luck picking tonight to pull this funny shit."

"Second floor's clear, boss!" a man shouted. Hoku's eyes snapped up to the upper floor where several men leaned over the railing, arms crossed and looking more annoyed and amused than anything else. What the fuck? It was supposed to be clear—how did we miss—

"We were all havin' a quiet night upstairs," Boss said. "Saw our rookie get led off and thought he got lucky and then you came sashaying back and we all had ourselves a hoot. Wanted to see how far you could get and see what you were up to before we realized you were after the snails—the damn snails! Who ever heard of anyone breaking in for a couple dozen fucking snails?"

A chorus of laughter filled the warehouse. Hoku bristled, teeth clenched tight together. The man's grip in her hair tightened and if he moved one more fucking time he was going to lose that hand. His gun tapped the side of her head playfully, knocking against her skull. "Don't know what you were thinking, doll. Mighty stupid of you."

His hand reached down, grabbing Mau's hilt. "I'll be taking this—"

"Get your fucking hand off him."

Hoku's feet shuffled on the floor. Her entire body shifted roughly, twisting painfully with her hand pinned to the table. The man took a step back in surprise, shoving his gun roughly into her temple and forcing her head back. But Hoku's free hand came up, smashing into the side of his face.

Bone met bone. The skin of her knuckles split and the man grunted. He can take a punch. Hoku surged forward, almost dislocating her shoulder as she ducked in—

His gun smacked her across the face.

Hoku's vision spotted black. Her head reeled, pain throbbing hard and fast against the side of her face. Fuck. Her cheek was already beginning to bruise and the man cursed, spitting onto the floor and shoving his gun harder into her head. He used his free hand to grab her other one, fighting with it and pinning it behind her back while his foot crushed harder onto her fingers. "Fuck you—"

"You want to get shot?" the man spat, saliva flying across her face. Hoku snarled back at him. He pressed his gun harder into her head. "You've got some fucking balls, doll. You must want a bullet between those pretty eyes, don't you?"

"Come on, boss, she's figured it out!" a man shouted back with a chuckle. "You can't threaten her like that, you've got to rough her up!"

"Someone start rounding up those snails," the boss ordered. "They won't be going anywhere."

"Pull the trigger," Hoku taunted. "I fucking dare you."

Hack's waiting outside for the signal. Hoku's mind raced. The side of her head throbbed from where he struck her. Mihawk would kick my fucking ass for this. All the snails she'd free so far were huddled together by the door. If Hack was as tough as he looked, he should be able to knock some goons out while Hoku tackled this bastard... if he shot her, she'd come back and hold him off while Hack loaded the snails and got away... He probably heard all the commotion by now and he's playing it by ear.

"Mouthy," he said, chuckling darkly. "Try to keep that, doll. They like lively produce."

Hoku stopped. Her eyes rolled to the side, pinning the man in place. His lips curled wide into a hearty leer, watching the expression on her face shift.

"My rookie thought some kid had broken that window," the man said, "when I asked him about it. Told the idiot to clean it up, we've got a shipment for tomorrow. Dumbass tried cleaning the blood out, figuring someone went and cut themselves and then he held up this pretty little piece of glass—shit should've been dirty as sin and funny enough, it'd gone ahead and gotten a nice little coating of blood, polishing it up... made it almost look like some stained glass window."

He tapped his gun playfully against her bruising cheek. Hoku's veins pumped with fire. Her eyes narrowed into slits.

"Any other guy would've moved on," the boss continued, happily telling his story. "But you see, I used to be a real good trader a year or two back. Messed up on the chance to catch a mermaid—a mermaid! Can you believe it? I would've been rich! So I got demoted, sent off to sell snails."

He shook his head, bitter. The boss stroked Hoku's swelling cheek with his gun, clicking his tongue. Hoku's lips pulled back ferociously, eyes like daggers.

"I thought about what pretty piece of merchandise is out there," he said, "that's got such...useful blood like that. And now look here—I didn't even have to go looking for you. I've got a real, healthy, young Pokian right in front of me and—"

Hoku thrashed against him. His gun shoved her head roughly into the table, pressing hard. Her hand ached beneath his boat, bones trembling and muscles roaring in pain. "Fuck you, you piece of shit—"

The men on the second floor were moving.

"Hack!" Hoku shouted, "Now!"

The backdoors remained shut.

Hoku's stomach sank.

Laughter filled the entire warehouse. Boots stomped. The man above her shook with pure mirth, tears gathering and spit flying as he pressed his gun harder into her cheek. "What did you do to—"

Four men heaved. A heavy body tumbled down the steps to the second floor, landing against the ground with a pained groan. Hoku's eyes went wide, body lurching at the sight of Hack's hulking, sturdy form limp against the ground.

The entire back of his cloak was burnt through, revealing the tattered back of a gi he wore beneath. Hoku's breath caught at the long, angry red scorch marks all along his back and neck. Angry red blisters were starting to form, red and bleeding and painful.

"Hack!" Hoku shouted against the table. "Hack! Are you—"

"Forgive me... Hoku-san..." Hack struggled, turning his head against the floor. Hoku's face paled at his injuries. "I let... my guard... down..."

He was waiting for my signal. He was too focused on me. Hoku's gut twisted sharply. I made him lose his focus—

"Assholes!" Hoku seethed, thrashing violently against her captor. "Kanapapiki! I'll—"

"See, fishmen are real monsters—especially your buddy over here," the boss said, shaking his head. "Knocked out twenty of my reserve men like that. But as tough and rough as they are, these monsters are about as weak as these little bastards when it comes to heat. I've caught plenty of fishmen before in my work, and a little torch and some gunpowder always does the trick."

"You bastard," Hoku said darkly, venom lacing her voice.

"Those snails aren't going anywhere either, doll. The moment I walked in, it was over for you and your buddy." He leaned over Hoku. His breath reeked of tobacco and something foul. "Transponder snails are only about as good as you can train them."

He chuckled.

"I trained them."

Hoku saw red.

Fight back. Hoku's eyes turned forward, growing dark. If he hits you, take the chance and fight back. You can take this one guy. He's big. Bigger than you. Just take the hits and get one in. Hack can't move... they might have guns on the second floor...

Seven lives.

She could take it.

Hoku heard the fear in the air. All the snails were pressed tight to the door, whispering and shivering and cold, cold, cold—

"A Pokian and a fishman," the man crowed, rocking back on one foot and pressing Hoku's hand bone crushingly hard into the table. I can't feel my fingers. "I reckon Mr. Disco will take me back with open arms—maybe even have me auctioning! We hit the jackpot on this one, boys. You two have a one way ticket to Sabaody—"

"It never lasts."

Hoku's eyes flickered upwards.

Along the edge of the cage, the small black transponder snail stood, tucked into the shadows. Its golden eyes weren't spiteful or judgmental—simply accepting.

"You should just escape when you can," the snail said, blinking calmly at her. Almost tired. "We will be sold. Scattered. It is better than being dead. You tried."

I miss the sun.

"A life without seeing the sun," Hoku said softly, voice hoarse. The snail turned to her. "Well... that's not living at all."

The snail lowered its eyes.

I told them I'd get them out.

"Don't care how many lives it takes," Hoku mumbled. The snail's eyes traveled back to her, staring. "You're going to see the sun."

"You would die," the snail said. "For a few snails?"

Hoku grinned. Her cheek was bruised, making her eye swell up. The gun was hard against her temple, making her head throb and her left hand hurt, hurt, hurt but—

"I'd die," Hoku said, "for a lot of things."

The man above her started shouting orders to haul Hack up and bind his wrists. They'd start mobilizing right away and set sail in the morning. He barked out instructions to gather up the snails and—

The black snail crawled into the bit of light. It stopped by Hoku's face, barely the size of her fist.

"There is no button," the snail said quietly, quickly. Hoku's eyes widened. "No poison. I can hear their conversations on the top floor. They're laughing. It was a bluff. We will be fine."

A small, slightly slimy, and achingly cold little arm reached out. The snail's little appendage settled on her cheek.

"Please," he said softly, "let me see the sun."

Hoku saw stars.

"I swear on my name."

"What was that, doll—"

Hoku was fucking tired of this table.

"Move, little buddy!" Hoku roared. The black snail's eyes went wide, crawling as quickly as it could onto her shoulder and clinging tight to her neck.

Hoku's entire body lurched. She pushed, steadying her stance against the ground and shooting upwards. The man behind her grunted. His boot crushed harder into her fingers and he twisted Hoku's hand harder behind her back as she thrashed against him. "You don't know when to quit—"

He pressed the hand behind her back harder.

Hoku's fingers curled around Mau's hilt.

The short sword roared.

Hoku twisted. A sharp pop made white hot pain flash behind her eyes as her left arm went limp. Her right hand pulled Mau free, following the man's grip. His eyes went wide, bringing his gun up as he sidestepped to avoid her strike—but I could give a shit about you, asshole!

Hoku's hand gripped Mau tight. She swung her arm free in one large arch.

The table before her cracked. Wood splintered, cutting sloppily in half. Cages flew up into the air, snails waving arms in surprise as cloth and wood flew this way and that. The man stumbled back, shouting roughly as he raised his gun. "You little bitch—"

A bullet bounced off Mau's blade, knocking into the floor. Hoku's left arm hung limply at her side and she huffed, staring the man down with nothing but pure, unadulterated anger.

"Are you a fool?" the man shouted, waving his hands in glee. "My men have all got guns up there—you'll be shot full of holes, you stupid brat!"

"He's bluffing," the snail said by her ear. "He's the only one with a gun."

"Good thing we didn't gamble," Hoku grinned, feral. "You're one hell of a bluffer."

The man's eyes bulged.

Hoku twirled Mau once, adjusting her grip. Her fingers locked around his hilt and she narrowed her eyes into slits, raising her blade at the man.

He cocked his gun.

"Get her!" another man shouted, boots hammering along the wood of the second floor. "It's only one brat—"

A massive rush of wind shot upwards through the air. Hoku's eyes went wide as saucers, the boss's jaw dropping in disbelief. The force of the gust broke the entire staircase. The second floor lurched unsteadily, men screeching and scrambling as floorboards shattered beneath them and one single figure stood, palms extended and stance sturdy—

"Hack!" Hoku shouted. "You're okay!"

"Forgive me, Hoku-san," Hack grunted, jerking one arm back and promptly striking the remaining staircase with a sharp front kick. "I needed a moment to regain my strength."

"You badass environmentalist!" Hoku crowed. A bullet whistled past her ear, almost nicking skin and she narrowed her eyes. "Alright, asshole, you're next."

"You think you can win?" the man shouted back at her, spit flying as he stumbled over a piece of wood. "You're insane! So what—that fishman is half dead—half burnt into a crisp! You think you can beat me with that little sword against a gun—"

Hoku raised Mau to her face, turning him slowly.

"Don't," Hoku said. "Doubt her sword."

"I'm not sure if you can cut bullets," Mau admitted. "I can cut bullets. I don't think you are quite there yet, my star."

It's called. Hoku thought back harshly. A bluff.

"Ah."

Little buddy snorted by her ear.

The boss raised his gun. Hack threw two men through the ceiling. Another man rushed forward, trying to cut into his back but he spun around, kicking him through the door and breaking a cage along the way.

"You sell better alive," he said darkly. "But they'll still pay pretty for a dead one."

Hoku coiled, light on her feet.

If he gets me, fine. Hoku gripped Mau tighter. Just get him when he thinks you're down—

"No more."

Hoku stopped. Her eyes went round.

"No more."

The man's lips curled into a smug sneer.

"See? I told you—what the fuck?"

Hoku watched the scene unfolding before her in disbelief. Dozens of snails were crawling from the edges of the warehouse. Multi colored shells came shifting past her, moving and bobbing with the entire herd of Den Den Mushi that continued to advance. The boss watched in disbelief, stunned into stupidity by the sight of all the snails, crawling forward in unison—eyes set and narrowed into something mean.

"We want," the snails said, "to see the sun!"

"No more!"

"Can't hurt us!"

"Won't hurt the miss!"

"Is this a joke?" the man said, shoulders shaking with laughter. "Is this a fucking joke? A bunch of snails—" he raised his gun.

Hoku shoved Mau between her teeth. She dropped to her knees, dragging her fingers along the side of her face where blood gathered from her temple. She drew roughly into the ground, pulling the object free. "Tuhms twuh!"

A heavy, large dirt bat popped into her hand. Hoku grabbed the edge, reeling her arm back and launching it. The bat smashed into the man's hands, knocking the gun to the ground and Hoku rushed forward, tumbling to the ground and grabbing it as she hit the other side of the wall.

"You bitch—what the fu—get off me!"

Hoku quickly pushed herself up onto her knees, dropping the gun and grabbing Mau. Dozens of snails had started climbing onto the man's legs. He reached down, grabbing at their shells, trying to pry them off—but they stuck. Their eyes were narrowed, set in pure determination as they continued to advance on him, shell after shell crawling onto his body as he stumbled. "Get off—get off me! Get off me you little bastards! Pieces of shit—"

"We will see the sun!"

He stumbled, tripping over a shell and falling flat on his back. He howled, arms flailing, limbs thrashing and coming back through the air heavier and heavier with more snails. Hoku watched in disbelief, panting as all the snails in the warehouse advanced forward, completely overwhelming the man until—

As if in unspoken agreement, a minute passed, and then the snails happily crawled off the now limp body, gathering in crowds by it. One snail spat a wad of slime out in disgust, crossing small arms over its front.

"My goddess," Hoku said, eyes round and face pale. "Did they just—did you guys just—"

"Den Den Mushi secrete a mucus that allows them to stick to various surfaces," Hack came up beside her, rubbing his elbow. He cracked his neck, crossing his arms over his chest. "I assume he choked on it. Unconscious. Not dead."

"Oh," Hoku said. She slumped back, falling onto her ass. Her dislocated shoulder throbbed immensely with pain. Her left hand ached. "I mean, if he was, I'm going to be honest, I wouldn't really give two shits."

"Understandable," Hack said beside her. "If the snails had not reached him first, my fists would have for that uncouth attack. My back hurts considerably now."

"You're telling me."

Hoku looked up at Hack, "Hey, are you sure you're alright? Burns aren't pretty and—"

"I have gone through worse than this," Hack said calmly. He reached back gathering up the tattered split of his gi. "Heat is truthfully a weaker point for fishmen, but my commander has trained us to overcome our faults and turn them into strengths."

Hoku snorted, "You guys are one hardcore group of environmentalists."

Hack look confused for a moment before his gaze settled onto her limp arm. He reached forward with open palms, touching her good shoulder. "Hoku-san, are you alright?"

"Yeah, just hurts like hell," Hoku said with a grimace. She tentatively touched her limp arm and hissed. "Asshole might've broken one of my fingers..."

"Hold on," Hack's hand shifted to Hoku's left shoulder and she froze. "I will set it back into place—"

"Wait," Hoku said, voice cracking. Hack looked at her curiously and Hoku cleared her throat, patting his wrist with her free hand. "I mean, um, wait please."

Hack waited.

"Isn't there... uh... a better way?" Hoku said nervously.

"It is dislocated," Hack said. "We have to set it back into place."

Hoku contemplated the amount of pain that might entail, no matter how brief.

"You think you can just..." Hoku made a slicing motion by her throat. "Maybe grab that gun and just... ya know..."

Hack stared.

"See, if you shoot me—"

"Miss!" Hoku stopped, turning her head. Dozens of snails crowded around both of them, eyes wide with joy, swinging them around as the snails seemed to bob, swaying and moving their little arms happily. "You and your friend... we are free! We did it!"

"You guys finished him off," Hoku said. "I just kinda got my ass kicked—"

"Thank you!" the snails cheered, throwing small arms up. They crawled forward and Hoku started, shifting as they started crawling up her legs. "Thank you, miss!"

"Candy!"

"Hey, wait a second—"

"Thank you."

Hoku stopped. Her arm was heavy with baby snails clambering up her arm. Several were already making their way up her body and a massive white one that Hack was staring at with bright eyes sat heavily on her legs, content.

The black transponder snail sat at her shoulder, eyes swiveling to turn to her.

"I ought to thank you, Lil' Buddy," Hoku tipped her head. Her cheek smashed into his eyes and he blinked. "You special or something? How'd you get wind of all that?"

"Black transponder snails," Hack said beside her. "They're on the rarer side of the species. Used for wiretapping between conversations. They have a penchant for eavesdropping."

Hoku snorted. Lil' Buddy didn't look guilty.

"I must say though," Hack said. "This will make for quite the story."

Hoku stared at all the newly liberated snails, eyes and bodies swaying and bobbing in joy.

Well. Hoku sighed. I doubt I'll do anything weirder than this.


Hoku fell asleep the rest of the night—nursing a bruised shoulder that Hack had carefully and painfully set back into place for her—surrounded entirely by sleeping transponder snails.

Her good hand reached out, a little slimy and weird, but several shells pressed warmly against her.

She had to admit.

It was nice not being hated by animals for once.


"I still don't get why we have to do this," Hoku said grumpily. Her left arm was hung through a sling Hack had made for her—"You should rest it for a day or two before using it again, even if it isn't broken."—and she stood in front of an entire army of snails swaying at her feet, happy and occasionally crawling over her boots and up her legs.

Piles of fresh produce and food were spread along the floor in drawn up trays. The snails happily partook in their first proper breakfast in ages—Hack supervised the amounts, making sure they could stomach it—absolutely joyful.

A cold, salty sea breeze rushed past all of them. The sky was dark. The ass crack of dawn. Hoku's cloak fluttered behind her, tugging her hair out and letting it flutter around.

Lil' Buddy sat peacefully on her shoulder, content.

"I understand your sentiments," Hack said. "Truly. But for the plan to be completely successful... this is the best option."

A darkly colored ship had finally docked into the empty harbor. No one had come out yet, since it was the least used one on the island. Hoku's dinghy bobbed safely a few paces away. Men moved about on the top of the ship, calling quiet orders and moving boxes.

Only half the snails would be leaving on that boat.

Hoku's lips pursed into an ugly grimace. The baby snails sitting on her limp left arm through the sling mimicked the expression, narrowing their eyes. One even managed to make the color of her tattoo appear. Hoku shoved her free hand into the pocket of her pants, staring petulantly at the floor.

"Why's it gotta be the navy," Hoku muttered bitterly. "They didn't do a damn thing—"

"They didn't," Hack said, sounding just as wronged as she felt. Hoku's brows relaxed a bit. "Not a single inch. But by leaving half the snails for them to take into custody, along with the dealers, none of the angry clients will have any idea who came after them but the navy."

"Covers our tracks," Hoku said, still grumpy.

"Covers our tracks," Hack agreed.

Hoku looked at the snails.

They all turned up to her, reflecting her expression the way snails could.

Watery eyes. Tightly pressed lips.

"If it amounts to anything," Hack said, motioning to the group of snails that would be boarding his comrade's boat. "With the way you sorted out the families, we will be taking the three white transponder snails and four black snails they had in their possession. Along with all the species of video snails. The marines will only be receiving regular transponder snails."

"What's that even supposed to mean?" Hoku said dully.

"Good things," Lil' Buddy said.

"That we," Hack said, eyes sparkling mischievously. "Will be at quite a technical advantage. My commander will be greatly pleased by this."

"Oh," Hoku said, still somber, playing with one of the baby snails. "Guess that's good."

"Hack-san," the two looked over as a cloaked man waved from the lower dock. "We're ready to load the snails when you are. Koala-san is waiting on the joint ship."

Hoku's heart twisted. Hack nodded to the man, turning back to Hoku with his arms crossed over his chest.

"Are you certain you don't wish to keep this one?" Hack said, motioning to Lil' Buddy on her shoulder.

"Seems like you guys can put him to better use than I can," Hoku said, reaching up and giving his shell a stroke. Lil' Buddy shut his eyes. "Not sure where I'll end up next when all's said and done, so I'd rather he have a good home somewhere else."

"Not a fan for eavesdropping?" Lil Buddy questioned, a bit cheeky.

"I hear enough," Hoku muttered back, softly pushing one of his eyes.

His little arm touched her cheek.

"Miss! Miss! Look!"

Hoku glanced upwards. Hack made a pleased noise in the back of his throat, coming to stand beside her as the two watched. Lil' Buddy shifted on her shoulder and Hoku tucked her hair back and out of the way. All the snails around them gathered up closer, pressing tight.

Light peeked over the horizon of the ocean. It crawled, inching upwards. The sky lightened, darkness relinquishing its hold as day rolled in, slow and steady and—

The sun began to rise.

A chorus of happy, joyful cheers filled Hoku's head. The snails bobbed, moving and swaying and swinging their eyes and little arms. A bird called something familiar overhead and Hoku kept her eyes trained on the horizon, baby snails cheering happily along her arm.

Hack smiled. Hoku shut her eyes, letting the faint warmth grow on her cheeks and slowly wash over all of them.

"Thank you," Lil' Buddy said by her ear, eyes shut in bliss as the soft sunlight rose. "Hoku."


Lucky bobbed peacefully beneath Hoku's feet.

She checked over her supplies, tightened her backpack, made sure she was plenty stocked with food – and prepared her heart for the final stretch home.

People would start to fill the docks soon enough. Hack's ship should be swinging around in a second to tow her along. Hoku leaned back against one of the barrels of water, staring at her flag as it fluttered lazily in the wind. Nueva right behind her.

Can't say I'll miss this place too much. Hoku reached for her bag, fumbling around with her right hand and tugging out her sketchbook. She uncapped a bottle with her teeth, dipping her brush in and beginning to draw in the images flashing behind her eyes.

But she wouldn't ever forget what happened here.

"Hoku-san."

Hoku glanced up, finishing the small inking of a black snail. Hack stood before her, a hefty bag slung over his shoulder. "Hey. Everything all set?"

"Yes," Hack stepped forward, stopping just before her dinghy. He gave the small boat a once over with a bit of amusement. "It was wiser for my ship to take off as soon as the snails were boarded. They're headed back to our base as we speak."

"Oh," Hoku blinked, a little confused. "How are we—"

"But you see," Hack set his bag down at his webbed feet. He calmly adjusted the belt of his gi. "The marine ship that normally patrols this area was brought down two days ago—the day we met."

"Huh," Hoku blinked once more, bewildered. "That's... lucky."

"Indeed," Hack said. His lips were curling into a smile, showing razor sharp teeth. Hoku could tell when someone was leaving something out on her.

"What?" Hoku said. "What am I missing?"

"This stroke of good luck," Hack said slowly. "Simply means that our journey westward toward your island should be smoothing sailing in a number of days. No hindrances otherwise."

"Well, that sounds—" Hoku stopped.

She set her brush down beside her sketchbook. Hoku stared at Hack with wide eyes.

"...our?"

"Hoku-san," Hack said. "You helped my comrades and I out a great deal with this... Snail Heist. There is great power and usefulness in these snails, but you did so without motive toward them."

"Because I was kinda stupid," Hoku reminded him.

"Perhaps," Hack said. Hoku winced. "But regardless, I wish to see you through to your destination."

Hack set a hand over his heart. "If you do not mind the company of a... monstrous fishman."

Hoku tried to stop the stupid, stupid smile that was about to split her face in half.

"Sure you don't mind sailing with a dumb Pokian?"

"It would be an honor to help your kind," Hack said, stepping onto her boat.

Lucky shifted, bobbing almost with a heavy nod. Hoku laughed, closing her sketchbook back up and leaning back against the barrel. "I know I'm technically sorta an endangered species, but ain't that joke a bit in poor tastes?"

Hack stopped, setting his bag down onto the boat. He turned over his shoulder, staring at Hoku quizzically.

"You know," Hoku said, motioning to him. "'cause you're an animal conversationalist?"

Hack stared.

"Okay," Hoku said. "Now this is just getting—"

"Hoku-san," Hack said. He stopped, turning fully to face Hoku with curious eyes, simply bewildered. "Did I not... Did I not make it clear, what organization I work for?"

"Animal rights," Hoku said. "Right?"

"...Hoku-san," Hack said slowly, carefully, as though he were worried she wouldn't be able to process his next words. "I am a solider for the revolutionary army."

...

...

...

"You know what," Hoku said, feeling very, very dumb and very, very mortified. "They're... They're kinda the same, at the end of the day."

Hack seemed to contemplate the amount of intelligence within her statement.


Hoku figured, leaving Nueva with a new companion after arriving here leaving one, that she ought to consider herself spoiled so far.

But she'd never said she wasn't a selfish person.


"This buddy of yours just fights all the time with his pipe?" Hoku said in disbelief, huffing as she rowed Lucky along the ocean—Hack offered to take full control of the rowing, but she demanded they take turns. "Isn't that kinda unconventional?"

"He is skillfully wonderful with it," Hack said, in charge of making their dinner today—fish he dove down to catch for them. He'd also offered on several occasions throughout their travel so far to teach her proper diving techniques, but Hoku had said it would all be fruitless—and laughed dumbly at her joke—because she ate a certain fruit.

And she hated water. Hack questioned sorrowfully if she hated it or feared it. Hoku grumpily conceded to the second of the two.

"He learned to beat myself in sparring very quickly," Hack said, shaking his head. "Rose up in the ranks, even our commander has taken him under tutelage because he simply keeps growing. He's his right hand man at the sharp age of eighteen."

Hack had offered as well, to try to teach Hoku fishman karate on several instances. Each time Hoku attempted his force though, she ended up toppling over or smashing into the mast. Hack and Hoku decided the most she could gain from fishman karate was dealing one hell of a nasty slap when she needed to.

Hoku offered to teach him how to draw. Or craft random things. Hack seemed content to just watch her after poorly drawing both of them.

"That's a powerful position for a guy that young," Hoku said, turning her eyes skywards curiously. "But a pipe..."

"Do you have something against pipes?" Hack said curiously.

"No, no, nothing like that..." Hoku said. A bit fonder she added, "Two of my favorite idiots loved fighting with pipes too... Just strikes me funny that Number Two in the entire revolutionary army might come in one day kicking noble ass with a pipe. I'd pay money to bet on that fight."

Hack laughed, "He is a very dear friend of mine. We've gone on many missions together over the past five years... Truthfully, I think the two of you would get along quite swimmingly."

Hoku snorted, amused. "Oh, yeah? What's he like?"

"Very well mannered," Hack said. "Though, perhaps only on the surface. He can be quite brash when he wants to be. A charming young man. Surprisingly selfish. Ridiculously brave."

Hoku hummed. She made a face when she spotted a familiar bird sailing overhead.

"Perhaps you might even fancy him," Hack said amiably. "On missions, he always did tend to attract quite a number of admirers."

"Ah, I dunno," Hoku rowed, tipping her head to the side in thought. "I'm a bit fonder of men with scars... Maybe a little older... Chin length hair?"

Hoku frowned, shutting her eyes. Hack stared at her with curiously round eyes across the boat. "Gotta be able to have a good laugh..."

"Why," Hack blinked, looking almost startled by her pin point description. "That's... I think he would very much suit your fancy then."

Hoku's foot slipped on the bottom of the boat, knocking her head backwards and into the mast.

The flag above her fluttered.


It was in the middle of a wonderful lunch, only about half a day from the island, that Hoku watched almost all seven of her lives flash before her eyes.

A massive, tremendously large geyser of sea water shot up into the sky.

Hoku screamed.

"What on earth—" Hack started, looking just as surprised as he set down his sandwich and Hoku fell flat on her back, practically foaming at the mouth. "It couldn't be—"

"What?" Hoku barked out. Her hands shot out for either side of the dinghy, digging her nails into it with wide eyes. "What? What is it? Tsunami? Tidal wave? I am not drowning—"

Hack squinted out across the ocean. He leaned over the side of Lucky, tipping the boat a bit as he frowned deeper into the water. Something finally seemed to catch his eyes and he stumbled back, grabbing onto the post. "Hoku-san, hold on!"

"Hold on?" Hoku squawked. "Hold on? What do you mean—"

Hack grabbed the back of her top, tucking her tight to his side.

Lucky, beautiful, wonderful boat that she was—was promptly launched several feet into the air.

Hoku screeched, grabbing onto Hack's head and clinging to the mast at the same time like a koala. Incoherent curses and prayers babbled past her lips, eyes watering as she screamed incoherently as the entire dinghy shuddered, slipping down what seemed to be one massive wave and smashing back into the ocean with a mighty lurch.

Hoku's head hit the post. Hack quickly stood, trying to steady the boat. A breathless smile was on his face. "I can't believe it!"

"What?" Hoku babbled uselessly, eyes spinning. "That we're still... alive—"

And then she heard it.

Singing.

Hoku's eyes went round. She laid there, plastered flat against the floor of her boat as it bobbed recklessly for several more minutes. The entire sea was churning strangely, shifting and moving with massive force. Hoku turned her head, pressing her ear to the bottom of the boat and listening.

Long, sweet tunes flooded her ears. Happy, joyful calls and resonating hums back and forth, colliding together in a beautiful symphony that seemed almost miles deep. Hoku scrambled to her feet, coming warily to the side of the boat and peering over the side—

One colossal, leathery head breached the surface. Scars littered the front of its forehead, eyes the size of towns and a body the size of an—

Hoku's jaw hit the floor.

"Island whales!" Hack shouted.

Dozens of heads started to breach the surface of the sea. Hoku stood, turning around in circles to follow each one as Hack carefully maneuvered their boat out of the way. Massive, ginormous whale after whale called out happily, water pumping high into the air and fins casting massive waves left and right. Hoku's heart shot into her mouth, drinking in the scene before her with wide, unblinking eyes.

"This seems to be a space they frequent!" Hack said. "It's been years since I last witnessed a pod this large!"

"This is amazing!" Hoku shouted back. Her voice was breathless, hands trembling as she turned round and round and rushed to the bow of her boat, teetering dangerously. "This is amazing!"

It was simply beautiful.

A single character came rushing forward to her mind. Hoku turned, quickly inching as close as she could to the edge of the boat as dozens of island whales took up the space of the ocean as far as she could see, singing happily and calling to each other.

"Excuse me!" Hoku shouted as loud as she possibly could off the top of her lungs. "EXCUSE ME, ARE ANY OF YOU MISSING A BABY?"

Hack shot her a quizzical look, boat rocking back and forth. Hoku listened eagerly, watching each whale for any sign of a reaction.

"A voice," a rumbling, deep voice shattered through Hoku's mind. She almost fell back from the force—the loudness. "Whose voice calls?"

"I believe they're native to the West Blue," Hack said suddenly in understanding. "This must be where they reside before they migrate across the ocean through the Grand Line..."

Reside... Hoku stopped, standing still as the entire world shifted around her.

"If home's so hard to find," Hoku slowly turned on her heel. "How do you know you're there?"

An island whale broke surface right beside them. One large, beautiful eye turned to face them. Hack stepped back in surprise, but Hoku's gaze was trained on a spot just before the horizon, past hidden bluffs and cliffs and protected—

"You'll know when you're greeted."

"One," the whale rumbled, falling back to the ocean, "Returns."

The beginnings of a familiar shore finally came into view.

A chorus of voices sang down from below. A sweet, summery breeze caressed Hoku's cheeks, curling her hair against the edge of her tattoo like a warm hand. It finally cleared, standing there in all that it was and all that it would ever be.

She wasn't sure who was speaking anymore.

"Welcome home."

Artopoki.


Where'd you go to sleep last night? You said you'd tell me where you'd go. You stuttered when I asked you dear, I heard your heartbeat in your throat.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Hoku had known somewhere in the midst of her travels with Mihawk, that she would come back.

She had to come back, no matter what.

It wasn't until her second run in with a Pokian that it became how clear she needed to come back home. But not just return home—there were things Hoku needed to take care of on this island, and if no one else was going to start or if she was going to get shot on sight for it—she didn't give a shit.

Her island deserved everything.

She'd tried imagining what it would be like – coming home. Hoku fantasized sometimes, with several limbs that weren't her own tossed over her—Luffy wrapped around an arm and Ace throwing a leg over hers while Sabo slept with his head touching hers—how it might go.

The better fantasies, the semi-realistic but optimistic ones, were coming back to the island and finding people there. She'd come running up to the shores by the coast of her side of the island where her family had lived. She'd hear people working, slowly trying to build or put the island together—they've been working. Building. They'd greet her kindly and she could go from there.

The nightmarish ones that would force her out of bed and grabbing her head, sweating bullets and shaking until one of them woke up and had to talk her back to sleep—they usually went the same way. Bodies and carcasses, old remnants still decomposing scattered everywhere in the oceans. Ashes staining the streets with blood splattered along the walls. The island burnt down, dead.

Nothing left.

And sometimes, sometimes, Hoku would let herself play with the ones she knew would never happen. The painful ones. The kind of scenario where she'd come home and she'd find two people quietly and loudly all at once, working hard to set a house back up on the top of a hill overlooking the west beach and—

Hoku tugged her boots and socks off, setting them down inside Lucky.

Hack calmly pushed the boat ashore, running through sand and wading from the clear waters up to where she stood. He offered her a hand, but Hoku gave it a soft pat, just squeezing once and stepping onto the beach.

Sand stained pink rushed past her toes. Hoku sucked in a shaky breath, staring at the ground beneath her, reminding herself it was all real.

The shore was empty. To her right of the small beach, palm trees and bamboo grew up from the ground. Several stalks were shorter than the others. A bit of black still scorched some parts of the ground, barely peeking through. It's been awhile.

"The island will remain."

Hack was silent besides her, keeping by the boat as Hoku took the first few steps deeper onto the shore, feeling her feet sink into the warm, warm sand.

Hoku stopped for a second, staring at a broken, old wooden crate tucked behind a bunch of bamboo stalks. She kept walking then, Mau always so warm against her back as she kept walking along the shore until she could see what she wanted to see past the cliff on her left.

The old trail, mixed with sand and then giving way to soft tufts of grass. Bamboo stalks sprung up from the edges. Flowers. Soft, young flowers that hadn't bloomed yet bobbing to the wind. Hoku turned her gaze upwards to where that trail would wind just a bit and then at the top of that hill, overlooking the cliff—

Of course, the reality was never like anything you could imagine.

The island wasn't burnt to a crisp. It wasn't gone, with bodies and blood strewn everywhere. But the moment Hoku had started walking, she'd started listening as hard and as deeply as she could, searching for anything—

Birds. Maybe a group of animals in the forest to the south. She couldn't hear them as well. The faint, thundering hooves of what could possibly be a herd of horses that had somehow survived everything—

No one else.

Tears rolled over from the corners of Hoku's eyes. She sucked in a sob, reaching up and cupping her hand over her mouth and willing herself to hold onto those tears for now. There was still more to see.

A soft quietness filled her mind. So, so quiet.

"I'm home."


Hoku had decided she didn't have the heart or the courage to venture up that familiar trail. Not yet. Her feet carried her down the familiar path, bare feet leaving sand and grass and touching smooth cobblestone.

The very center of the island.

The main village.

Hack followed quietly behind her, arms hanging in the sleeves of his gi. He observed quietly, kept his steps light and his presence a respectful distance. Hoku reminded herself to tell him later how much she appreciated it.

Hoku walked through the plaza, feeling more and more like a ghost to this world than she'd ever felt before.

The road was a bit broken. Cobblestones were cracked. Different buildings had collapsed from the promise of battle. Bullet holes littered waving old curtains to the houses and shops that would line the plaza. Wooden posts for vendors were sunken in, grass and bamboo springing out around them.

She took it all in with silence, eyes searching every inch.

To her quiet surprise and maybe all of her relief—there wasn't much blood. Hoku could see hints of it, every now and then, lingering on corners, splattered inside homes that still barely stood, scorch marks lining walls and dark soot stains covering massive parts of the plaza. She stopped by the broken remains of a familiar clock tower. The towering building was broken in half, cement blocks dusty and broken on the floor.

Maybe they didn't slaughter everyone on the spot. Hoku couldn't help but think, but she wasn't sure how to feel. Tried to keep it clean... took them all to the cliffs and the pyres...

Hoku's gut clenched sharply. Bile rose up her throat and she swallowed, moving onwards.

It'd been awhile since she felt this alone.

Hoku rubbed the spot above her heart. But you know what that feels like. It's just been a bit.

"It seemed," Hoku turned. Hack's fingers were tracing a mural along one of the broken slabs of wall, stained with ash but still remaining. "You... Your people were... Your people lived peaceful lives."

"For the most part," Hoku agreed. "We were rowdy when we wanted to be. The island was never quiet. Someone was always doing something."

But we were happy.

"Artists and crafters..." Hack trailed off, staring at the massive plaza before him. He ran a finger over a broken marble column. "I would have wished deeply to see it at its finest."

Hoku stared up at the clock tower, imagining it whole.

For a moment, she heard people speaking loudly around her. She saw white hair coloring every inch of the town. The merchant who was always arguing with his wife got kicked out of his home again. The farmer with the bad leg who fed her the best kiionohi was trying to wave her down. Children were tugging at her, telling her to come play with them and—

Silence.

Hoku blinked back tears.

"It was one hell of a place," Hoku said brokenly.


Reminds you what it's like to live.


Hoku had decided it was time to get the hardest thing out of the way.

The only fucking problem—it wasn't there.

Nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Hoku had started combing through the entire island, going to each populated spot—all the way to the north side where two other houses were. Nothing. She'd started panicking, racing back to the cliff overlooking the other beach surrounding the island. The very same cliff that was printed in black and white on a paper she still kept tucked between her sketchbooks and begged Hack to do her a favor and dive down and—

"Hoku-san," Hack said slowly, carefully, as though afraid of what his answer might mean to her. "There's nothing down there."

Nothing.

Twelve years. Hoku's mind raced, trying to do the math. The human body takes about... But our bones are different—unless someone used—no, but that doesn't make any sense—

There wasn't a single body in sight.

"This doesn't make any sense," Hoku said hoarsely, "they... the ones they burned, I understand but... they... they wouldn't actually haul each of us out of the ocean just to get rid of the bodies—"

"It's possible," Hack said quietly. "Perhaps they wanted to clean up every last piece left behind of what happened here."

"We weren't like Ohara," Hoku said. "We were but—but not exactly. Artopoki works a bit differently—our bodies work a bit differently. No one here was treasonous of anything but being too expensive for those fucking assholes to buy—"

"Hoku-san," Hack said calmly, "just think for a moment. There... there isn't any reason to panic. I understand what you might be trying to do—"

"I can't bury them without their bodies!" Hoku shouted, grabbing at her hair. "I can't—how am I supposed to know—"

Hack fell silent. Hoku rushed to the edge of the cliff. Her heart seized up at the sight of the water crashing against the rocks. The truth was that the waves weren't that violent at all—kids often leapt off all the time to show off how brave they were and—

They wouldn't. Hoku thought numbly. Disgust crawled up her throat. Her stomach twisted. They wouldn't. They wouldn't take all those bodies and actually—

Artopoki wasn't a large island. Only so many of them lived here—enough to fit several pages of an island registry she still kept hidden and safe with her so she could make each proper burial—

How many of them had they burned? Who were the ones sentenced to die by water? How had they decided? How did they choose to sort them out and deem deaths to those and—

Hoku felt like throwing up.

"Hoku-san," Hack said suddenly, voice sharp. "Look."

Hoku's eyes wildly flickered to him.

Hack's hand was raised, a single finger pointing off a bit to the distance. Hoku stopped. Her brows furrowed, squinting as she tried to make out what they were looking out. That path leads to the meadows... If you keep walking, the meadow meets a bit of calm water that comes in from the ocean and that's where the flowers she loved grow—

Hoku's eyes went wide. Her heart leapt into her mouth.

Hoku ran.

"Hoku-san!" Hack shouted after her, quickly following behind as Hoku tore down the path, stumbling and almost tripping as her bare feet cut into a rock or two. Bloody footprints followed her permanently. "Hoku-san, wait—"

Grass touched her toes. Flowers started springing up. The meadow was growing closer and closer in sight and Hoku kept running until she came just to its edge, water filling a bay of sorts to her right against the shore and—

Her knees hit the floor. Hoku panted, lungs burning from how quickly she'd raced down the path. Her feet ached but she couldn't feel a single thing because, because, because—

Marble posts rose up from the earth. Smooth, thin, evenly carved like individual branches. Each one was set neatly and orderly apart from the next. Several rows of them filled the meadow. Flowers and bamboo popped up along the sides of each of them—a grave with no body mixed with the earth and the sea, the exact way a Pokian burial was supposed to go—

One massive statue had been erected in the middle of the meadow. A large, black marbled feline curled, expression soft. The white marble statue of a man was on his knees beside her massive body, he rested his head against her side. Her tail curled over his shoulders and his eyes were shut and—

The cat goddess and the artist.

The statue was new. Several years old now. A decade? But new compared to the broken remains of the one that had been eternally placed toward the edge of the plaza. Hoku had never seen this statue before. Someone else had made it and someone else had made all the graves the exact way she would've tried if she could—no, better than how she ever could have hoped to make them—

Someone had built graves. Someone had fixed the monument in place to welcome each of them back to the cat goddess' embrace. Someone had—

Someone had been to the island.

Hoku turned around in a full circle.

At some point since she'd left, at some point after the attack and pillaging and the death trial—someone had come to the island.

Someone had cleaned up the island. A bit. Enough. They'd hauled each ball and chain from the ocean, they'd painted over the blood that splattered the streets. The bigger spots. Someone had cleared up the roads leading to the plaza—that's why none of the positioning made sense. Someone had tried to clean it all up, make it all a little better, even if they didn't know how—

They'd made the massive monuments. The graves.

Something hot flashed through Hoku, vicious and quick. It seized her heart, threatening. It was a dangerous little thing, hard to fully imagine and come to grips with. She had to reason with herself that it didn't mean what she might want it to mean. But the idea—just the idea that someone, anyone, who had to be Pokian through and through from the island born and raised to have known how to make the graves the way they were supposed to be and given all of them a proper funeral—had come

Hope flared through her, catching her breath.

Hoku hugged her arms tight to herself. She bent low at her waist, pressing her head until it hit the soft grass beneath her. Tears rushed down her face, hot and heavy and her shoulders started to shake as she hugged herself tight and—

"Thank you," Hoku sobbed. "Thank you so much."

She didn't know who to thank. Didn't know who needed to hear those words but—

Hoku cried, endless thank yous spilling from her lips.


"Are you sure you will be alright, Hoku-san?"

Hoku nodded.

The sound of water filled the curving, smooth walls all around them. A heavy waterfall poured down the side of the cliff, filling the deep lagoon below. The entire place had always been beautiful—a crescent shaped valley almost curved like a cat. Thick green vines grew along the walls, blueish and white colored moss lining the edges of wet rocks. Beyond the other side of the waterfall was a narrow entryway, hidden from the world unless you knew what to look for and where to place your feet.

"It's a cat's trail," Manu had said, teaching her how to follow the rocks. "They've always said you have to think like a cat to get there. Good thing we're the descendants of one of the cleverest cat goddesses to exist, eh?"

"I just wanted to check out one more thing and we can call it a night," Hoku said softly. Her voice was a little raspy, but Hack didn't say a word. I need to thank you. Her eyes rimmed red and Hoku sniffled. There would be time to mourn more and feel sorry for herself later. Now – right now, there was still too much she had to do. "I'll be right back."

"I will wait for you here," Hack said firmly.

Hoku offered him a small smile and slipped behind the waterfall.

Her bare feet slid along wet rocks. Hoku kept her steps light, only occasionally touching the wall at her side as she counted the steps in her head, leapt onto an alcove that'd always given her smaller body so much trouble so Manu had to lift her up, slid along a thin strip of cave wall and then—

A soft, cold breeze whispered past her ears.

Hoku stared into the mouth of the cave.

She gently pulled back the ripped bamboo curtains and stepped inside.

The entire cave had been ransacked.

Hoku kept her face carefully blank. Or maybe she tried. She couldn't really see the kind of expression she was making right now.

Shards of glass littered the floor from where cases had been erected. Hoku walked deeper into the cave where tables would've been propped up along the deeper walls—illustrators like Manu, like what he'd been training her to be. People of the island tasked specifically with drawing the history of the world...

Books had been ripped from the stone shelves. Hoku tried to remember everything that had been inside the cave. Numerous pieces of art. Tapestries. Beautifully crafted vases, glass works, weapons and the like—

Gone.

"You son of a bitch," Hoku said. Her voice echoed off the walls of the cave, low, angry. She liked to think she spoke for every beautiful, carefully preserved work that had been kept here. "You let them take it all too."

Hoku lifted her eyes to the farthest spot at the back of the cave wall.

A single pedestal still stood intact. Barely. Someone had punched a hole through the lower half of it in a fit of possible anger. Hoku noted the glass smashed on the floor all around it. Natural lighting from outside usually gave that specific spot and almost honorific glow of light—reminding everyone how important it was.

Hoku laughed. It bounced around, ringing, bitter, sad—triumphant.

"But you couldn't get the one thing," Hoku said spitefully. "You wanted the most."


"Forgive me, Hina."

Fire crackled all around them. Loud. So stupidly loud. She loved the sound of fire when it was right where it belonged—in a hearth, pumping energy and licking at her fingers in a forge, risking the tempting whisper of burning her skin as she smoothed metal and metal down to build her swords—but here, here, loud, raging, angry and without any direction—she hated it.

Buildings were collapsing around them. People were shouting. Her people. Their people. They raged and fought and cried out as blood splattered their streets and their walls. Men were shouting. Soldiers rushing to hold back the small force of islanders somehow magically rising to their feet each time they were shot—

Mahina laughed. Blood bubbled up in her throat. Someone's bullet had punctured a lung. Of course it'd be a damn bullet. She'd never let someone else's sword cut her. That pleasure belonged only to the best swords she could ever make. She choked, hacking and shaking as she spat onto the ground.

Manu was pressed up against the wall beside her. Blood smeared his slender and handsome face. She couldn't see the petals that used to curve so prettily around his eye anymore. It was somewhere under all that blood.

His wavy white locks where matted to his face, clinging to his chin and head. Blood stained the ends. Both his eyes were still blazing brightly, but she could see the life in them starting to slip like the blood pooling out between his fingers.

His sketchbook sat in his lap. Stained. Battered. She laughed at that too. Her swords were still in her hands. They were fools of their passions. Of course they wouldn't leave this earth on any life without them.

"For what?" Mahina said. A cannonball screeched through the air and smashed into the clock tower. Oh, fuck you. She'd cut whoever did that.

Manu huffed. She let go of one of her swords and pressed her hand into his stomach, not trying to stop the bleeding because there was no stopping that—she wrapped her fingers around his, holding his hand.

"You had to give up your dream," Manu said, pain laced every inch of his voice as he turned his head to look at her. "For a fool like me—I'm sorry."

Mahina laughed. She choked on a bit of blood and still tried to laugh. "You are a fool—but you're also my best friend."

"That's why you—"

"I," Mahina said. "Never gave up my dream. I just put it on the back burner to help you out... you idiot. I was... gonna pick it up... the moment it felt right..."

Manu laughed this time. His voice was hoarse. "Of course... I'm the dumb one..."

"You never gave up yours either," Mahina said. "That's why you were so hard on her."

"I don't know what I did," Manu said, leaning his head back against the broken wall. "It was all that was on my mind when she was born and then—and then she was born. Did you see her? Her face? She always had such funny expressions but the moment she picked up a pencil... Goddess, Hina, I started losing it all when she called me Papa—I didn't know what I wanted anymore."

"You wanted her to be happy," Mahina said. "You wanted to be happy. Her being happy was starting to be what made you happy."

Manu turned to her, blood dribbled from the side of his lip. "You think so?"

Mahina squeezed her fingers around his, wet and hot with blood. "You said you'd leave once you gave her the mark. You didn't."

Manu's eyes filled with tears. "She's—"

"Far," Mahina said. "Far away from here."

He reached with his free hand because he knew Mahina would never drop one of her swords to wipe her own damn tears. He rubbed his thumb sloppily across his dearest friend's face, wiping the tears away. "She would've been... your biggest fan once you made that sword."

Mahina grinned, "I always thought I could make a good swordswoman out of her if she didn't love drawing so much."

"She'll take the best... of both of us..." Manu laughed, knocking his head back. "I bet... that partner of yours... would kill me if he could..."

Mahina burst out in laughter despite the blood flooding her lungs. She shook, shaking her head and unable to stop the absolutely mirth touching her lips. "Miha? Hah! He looked ready to kill me when I stepped off that boat—get in line."

"No, that's not true," Manu protested, "for as dark and scary as he was... he would've taken on the World Government if you said it'd be fun and made him a sword good enough. If you just asked... he'd fight."

"Only if it fit his mood," Mahina said. "He's a whimsical man."

They laughed, pressing their heads together.

"I'm going to miss him," Mahina said. "One hell of a partner—I never did get to see the greatest swordsman with the greatest sword."

Manu smiled, "You couldn't have left our daughter with anyone else?"

"She'll be within reasonable hands soon enough. Miha's decent, and besides," Mahina nudged Manu's limp head with her own, resting her head on his shoulder. Something exploded several feet away. "What about all those string of hearts you'll be breaking, leaving behind?"

Manu laughed, heart full and blood slipping through his fingers. "What hearts—they'd all have wives by now or be off doing who the hell knows what."

Mahina clicked her tongue, "But they'll always be haunted by that beautiful, wild young man they could never get to settle down—"

Mahina wheezed. Her voice cut off, grabbing her sword tighter. Manu pressed his cheek harder to the crown of her head, shutting his eyes. He could still smell a bit of flowers and metal in her hair.

Smoke filled their lungs. Someone shouted something in Pokian.

"What pisses me off the most," Manu said roughly, raggedly. "Is that bastard will end up... getting what he wants... piece of shit brother..."

"No," Mahina said. "He won't."

Manu laughed. "I'll see him dead with my own hands—"

"I took the book."

Manu stopped. He opened his eyes, blood dripping profusely down the side of his temple. It stained the top of Mahina's head, but he could see her lips pulled into that breathless, wild smile.

"Broke in," Mahina said. "Cut the glass. Stole the book. He'll never see it to the end of each of his lives."

"Mahina," he said. "Mahina, you brilliant, wonderful woman—"

Mahina's fingers were starting to slip from his own. He grabbed her hand with his, blood rushing through their fingers—slick, hot. He slipped once and grabbed it tighter, holding her hand to him. His heart was growing weaker in his chest. The familiar feeling of death washing over him, the soft pull of life slipping past his fingers.

"When I open my eyes," Manu whispered against her head, "will you still be here?"

Mahina laughed softly, weakly. Her eyes sparkled still. "Can't... say... how many..."

She gripped her sword. "But... I do wanna kill... whoever shot... our tower..."

Manu smiled, eyes falling shut as they pressed tight to each other.

"Then I'll see you in a second," Manu said, fingers barely hooking through hers as his hand slipped.

Mahina shut her eyes. Pressing closer.

"In a second, my friend."

The clock tower collapsed.


Hoku walked past a broken slab of wall, staring at it for a second before she joined Hack by the fire.

"I'm sorry I didn't have as much time, otherwise I'd see if I could get one of the bakery stoves working," Hoku prodded at the fire where several sticks of fish were cooking and a basket of gathered herbs and fruits sat at their feet, "You deserve some amazing food after all that you've done—"

"It isn't a problem—"

"We have a lot of good dishes from here, you know!" Hoku rambled on. "It looks like a lot of the trees and plants have already started growing back. There's this weird breed of white fish that stays in the lagoons and—"

"Are you alright, Hoku-san?"

Hoku stopped. She watched the tip of her stick begin to burn within the flickering embers. Shadows licked at their faces, flickering and shifting as Hack sat across from her, hands on his knees and watching her quietly.

"...forgive me," Hack said quickly. "I... I am overstepping my boundaries. I cannot imagine what you must be feeling—"

"I don't think I am," Hoku said quietly. Hack fell silent. "I am enough, I mean. I'm not... I'm not going to keel over or anything but..."

Hoku stared at the fire, "It hurts, to be honest. A lot. I'm sad. I don't think I have a right to be sad at the same time. I want to break something. I'm mad for feeling so pathetic. I'm relieved. I'm scared. I don't know which I should tackle first. Don't know if I should even tackle any of them."

Hoku held onto what she did know, at least.

"Sorry for yelling at you earlier," Hoku said. "I... I expected to come here alone and... and I can't thank you enough for being here with me, even though we barely know each other—"

"We are comrades," Hack said, as sure as the night and day. Hoku felt something stupidly sharp stab her chest, happiness quick and wild. "We pulled off a snail heist together, did we not?"

"Yeah," Hoku said, leaning back onto the log. "Yeah... thanks, Hack."

"You are lucky though," Hack said. "Within my family, we would challenge each other to fights to settle disputes."

Hoku thought about how much force Hack could pack into those karate moves of his and decided she was very lucky after all.

"If you do not mind my asking, Hoku-san," Hack pulled a skewer off the fire and handed it to her. Hoku took it gratefully, stomach rumbling loudly for once in the past several hours. "If it is rude, do not answer. But... why did you wish to return? Was it merely for closure? The graves have been done, what else were you seeking?"

Hoku bit into the fish. She sighed in pleasure, grabbing one of the herbs she'd harvested from the bamboo forest and shoving it into her mouth before taking another bite. She handed Hack the basket to try doing the same.

"I want to fix up the island," Hoku said. "I made a bucket list—lists you make of things you want to do before you die—" she explained at his confused expression, "this was up there. I ran into another Pokian years ago and it made me realize how badly I needed to come back here and fix it up. I had no idea of knowing what state it'd be in so I came with my seeds and my stuff and thought... I'd just start."

"Rebuild the island," Hack said. Hoku nodded. "But will..."

"No fucking clue," Hoku said, sighing heavily as she shoved more herbs into her mouth and chewed. "Don't know how many of us are still left, how many of us would even want to come back—but I just knew I wouldn't be able to kick the bucket until I knew there could at least be a place to come back. I didn't want it to be gone—"

"Not all gone," Hack said. Hoku looked at him. He motioned to the island, to her. "Just scattered. Maybe hiding. But never really gone. Things stay."

Hack smiled, biting into his fish. "It's what we always told each other when things got harder for us fishmen. It'd get us through the nights—Hoku-san! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you—"

"No, no, it's not your fault," Hoku sniffled. She rubbed her eye roughly on her shoulder. "I just... fuck. I didn't know I needed to hear that."

Hack stared at her with something newly found. "Hoku-san, you are unexpectedly honest with your emotions."

"Shut up and try this," Hoku said roughly. She shoved a basket of dried kiionohi his way, shoving a handful into her mouth and chewing around the seeds. "They're the best damn fruits in the entire world."

Hack gingerly took one from the basket, eyeing it curiously. Something flickered across his face as he watched Hoku shovel more into her mouth, chewing rapidly.

"Hoku-san, you joked about it before, but you said you would consider your kind an almost endangered species?"

"Depends what this world qualifies as endangered," Hoku said around a mouthful of kiionohi. "Our island was small. Assholes decided to make it smaller. Could be a hundred of us left. Could be twenty. However many, I'm gonna make sure they all know they can come back here."

Hack fell silent once more, looking contemplative. Hoku chewed, feeling a little better with food in her stomach.

"Will you be the one to repopulate this island then?" Hack questioned.

Hoku spat out a mouthful of seeds onto the ground. She hacked, pounding at her chest. Hoku sucked in a mouthful of air, heaving through her lungs. Hack watched her over the roaring flames and Hoku scuffed mounds of dirt over the seeds. Might as well help this place out.

"I," Hoku stopped. She pressed a hand to her head and then her mouth. "What?"

"Considering the nature of your kind, are you looking to rebuild the island by—"

"No. Just—no. Not what I meant," Hoku said hoarsely. "I—I've always talked about rebuildin' the island by... fixing it. I... kids... No, just... I don't even think I'm going to make it past twenty-three..."

Hack frowned. Hoku waved him aside, "Besides! I've actually got some idiots who promised they'd help fix up this island when they're done with what they've gotta do, so it's in good hands. He's an idiot, but he was always real weird about being the one to help rebuild this place so, at least someone can inherit my will or something."

"You have a tendency to speak as though you expect death to come very soon."

"Ah, it's a habit."


"I've been meaning to ask, Ace," Thatch, designated chef for the entirety that was the White Beard Pirates, said, setting down another massive plate of food along the mess hall's tables. Hands instantly dove forward, plunging into the food and shoveling it into his mouth. "What're the letters for?"

Ink black locks curved, windblown and wavy against his cheeks. His hat hung from the string around his neck, resting comfortably against his back where it leaned against the dark emblem of his crew's insignia proudly etched in. Muscles rippled with the shifting of his arms, a leather elbow brace curving at the corner. His heated skin warmed the area around him as usual, shirtless chest rising and falling peacefully.

"Hah?" Portgas D. Ace said, cheeks stuffed full like a chipmunk.

Thatch motioned to the carefully inked in letters on the side of his arm.

"The artist not know how to spell Ace, yoi?" Marco teased beside them.

Ace made a face. He turned his head, chewing as he stared at his arm.

His head slumped forward, smashing into a plate of potatoes.

"Oh, for the love of hell—" Thatch started, about to smack him sideways for falling asleep into the food.

Ace shot up. He blinked sleepy eyes through clumps of mashed potatoes, sticking his tongue out and licking around his face as he promptly proceeded to start eating again. "Stund fah impwortant shuf."

"What?" Marco said.

"What kind of important stuff," Thatch said, raising a curious brow as he took a seat across from them. "Ex-lovers?"

Ace pointed with a finger to the A. "Me."

Thatch smacked him with a loaf of bread. Ace happily bit into it, chewing. "I'm plenty important."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm sure," Thatch said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Come on, what's next."

Ace jerked a finger to the crossed out S. "My brother."

Ace touched the C. "My crybaby younger brother."

Thatch tipped his head to the side. Marco contemplated the answer before both of them seemed to decide it made sense. They nodded.

Ace touched the E. "My name. Cause that's how you spell it."

Marco shoved Ace sideways. Thatch smoothed his hands over his pompadour, shaking his head. "This one, I swear—"

"So what's that one for then, yoi?"

Ace looked up, lips wrapped around two sticks of meat shoved into his mouth. His eyes dropped back to his tattoo, staring at the inked in, simple star that sat at the end of his name. Marco noted the ink on that one looked a bit different, smoother almost.

ASCE. And a black star.

"Careful," Thatch warned. "He's gonna either say something that makes fine sense or something stupid."

"Ish nuh stupad," Ace protested around a mouthful of food. Thatch shoved a mug of grog his way. "Impuhtan!"

"What," Marco said.

"It's not stupid. Important," Thatch translated. "Then go on, what is it? Just completes the look? Your future?"

Ace swallowed, licking his lips.

"That's the girl who's gonna have my kids after I do what I gotta do," Ace said, surprisingly calm and completely straight faced, shoving more food continuously into his mouth. "Iuf shuh dwoeshint mund."

"If she doesn't mind," Thatch translated with a snort.

"Right, yoi," Marco grabbed a skewer of pineapples, reaching for his mug. Thatch rolled his eyes, taking a sip.

The two spat out their drinks in unison.

"Wait, Ace, what the hell—"

"Did you just say—"

"I promised her," Ace said simply. "She said she needed me."


Hack stayed with Hoku for two weeks on Artopoki.

The day after their arrival, Hoku had started to thank him for everything, offering to help stock him with whatever he could possibly need to get back to the revolutionary army—but Hack had held up a single palm and quietly lifted one of the many logs she'd set out for work today.

"If," Hack had said. "You don't mind a monstrous fishman like me."

Hoku had launched herself at him, crying ugly tears and snot and thanking him from the floor because she never made it to Hack and had tripped halfway through.

Together the two of them worked, fixing her island.

They started with the plaza, rebuilding homes with Hoku's devil fruit and Hack's manpower. She drew up several animals to help them in the midst of it all, getting into heated arguments with annoyed raccoons and angry bears that Hack was often left to watch in quiet, incomprehensibility. They fixed forges. Stoves. A lot of stoves.

Hoku showed him as much of her island as he wanted to see. She rushed around areas, showing him the lagoons and lakes and the beaches. Hoku proudly and animatedly explained what each part was, telling him stories that explained the parts of their island. She worked hard to break off slabs of Popo for him—promising he could make that friend of his who was so fond of pipes one hell of a strong one with this ore.

She fed him everything that was still growing on the island as they planted seeds. Happily explained if he ever saw a specific Pokian who looked like the man in her sketchbook, he should shove a handful of make berries into his mouth or just beat the crap out of him.

Hack seemed happy to tell her stories about his days with the revolutionary army—to a safe extent of excluding names and specific locations. He seemed happier when she asked questions about what they did, the kind of missions they'd been on, and together they worked.

It was a difficult two weeks. But it was a recovery, and those were never easy.

Only at the end of the second week did Hack finally tell her he would have to depart or his group would grow worried. Hoku had happily said she didn't feel like having any crazy pipe swinging boys after her head anytime soon either—even though Hack said that wouldn't be the case and she might fancy him with how closely he fit her 'type'—and had helped him built a boat to sail off. Without her powers though, since sea water rendered all of her drawings to nothing.

When the parting came this time—it's sad, Hoku realized. Sad, but alright. She'd be alright. He'd be alright. Hack had done more than enough for her simply out of the kindness of his own heart and she wouldn't ask a single other thing of him except for him to live well and be safe.

It was a little funnier too, to watch someone leave her this time instead of leaving them. Different. It was almost easier than leaving.

"Thanks for all your help," Hoku stuck her hand out. "I know that doesn't sound like much, but I really can't thank you enough, Hack, for everything you've done for me."

"I owed you a great deal," Hack shook his head. "White transponder snails are exceedingly rare, you know. To have three in our possession instead of those who would fight against us—it is a victory."

"Wish I could've done more for you though," Hoku said, glancing to his boat. She'd shoved everything edible from her island onto his boat, along with a bag of the Popo ore and anything else worth something she could find for him. "I'm gonna miss you, buddy."

She would. A lot.

Don't you dare fucking cry, you dumbass.

"Hoku-san," Hack started and stopped. He stared at the boat and then turned back to her, "How much work do you think you have on this island?"

Hoku glanced over her shoulder. "Hard to say. You helped me get more done than I could have ever imagined... It's mostly fine tuning and clean up from here. Maybe I'll see what I can do with that clock tower."

Hack turned his eyes upwards.

"Would you perhaps consider," Hack said slowly, "meeting again once you were done?"

"Of course!" Hoku said quickly. "Well, I can't promise a lot, and it'd depend when, but if we could somehow meet up again in the future—"

"Would you consider joining me," Hack said softly. "As part of the revolutionary army?"

Hoku stopped. She stared at Hack with round eyes.

"I think you have more than enough heart for it," Hack said, motioning to her. "Perhaps a little... reckless. But you have the mindset and... And I truly think you could be a valuable addition to our cause."

Hack shook his head, staring at her earnestly, "I would gladly be honored to go on missions with you, Hoku-san."

A breeze rushed between them, soft. It tugged at Hoku's ponytail, curling her hair over her shoulder.

"Revolutionary, huh," Hoku said, playing with the thought. "That's one way to say fuck you to those assholes."

"Indeed," Hack said, but the calm smile on his face said enough as he took a step back.

"I just think you guys might give me a hard time about certain things," Hoku admitted, a small grin on her lips. "Plus, there's no telling if that pipe-crazy friend of yours would really get along with someone like me. Maybe that nice girl you talked about though."

"I think they would grow very fond of you," Hack said softly. "As I have."

Hoku's lip trembled. She pressed them tight together as Hack offered her a softer smile. "But perhaps we are not quite what you're looking for."

"I'm not sure what that is just yet either," Hoku said. "I know part of it. But not all of it. I'll gladly be in your corner if you ever need anything. You've got my help, no matter what."

Hack nodded. Hoku smiled, reaching her hand out again. Hack clasped it tightly in his own.

"Be safe," Hoku said. "Say 'hi' to Lil' Buddy for me. Kick some ass. Don't... don't die, okay?"

"I will do each of those things," Hack said. "And promise my best with the last. I would like to see this island again, once you're done with it."

Hoku's heart flooded with warmth. Hack grabbed her hand tighter and roughly yanked her in, wrapping his other arm around her in a tight hug.

Hoku wrapped as much of her arms around his massive size as she could, shutting her eyes tight as she slipped a paper into the folds of his gi.

"Stay wise, Hoku-san," Hack said. "And please, by all means, stay alive."

"I'll try," Hoku said softly. "If you guys ever find yourself on the run, my island is always open."

Their arms slowly slipped from each other. Hack stepped back onto the boat. Hoku bit her lip, watching him as he gathered up his supplies and they faced each other.

"Thank you," Hack said. "Hoku of Artopoki."

"Thank you," Hoku said fiercely, "Hack the fishman."

Hack smiled, pushing off from her shores. Hoku stepped up to the edge of the sand, a safe distance from the water as he took a running start to get the boat over the next cresting wave.

"I will plant the kiionohi tree!" Hack shouted back to her. "I'm sure they will find it delicious!"

"Beat them up if they say otherwise!" Hoku shouted back. She pressed her fingers to her lips and then to her heart, throwing her arms in the air and waving.

"THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING, HACK!"

The fishman cupped his hands over his mouth.

"Till our seas cross again, Hoku-san!"

Hoku watched his ship make it over the next cresting wave. His sails caught wind, taking off and pulling him farther and farther from Artopoki's shores. Hoku watched until she could barely see a single spot of him any longer.

Hoku rubbed at the corner of her eyes. She sighed, reaching around and resting her thumb on Mau's hilt.

"Just you and me, pal," Hoku said quietly.

"We will endure."

Hoku smiled. She turned around, tightening her ponytail and grabbing a shovel and her brush.

Hoku set to work.


 

Somewhere on the Grand Line, Baltigo


"Something bothering you, Hack?"

The fishman sighed, crossing his arms over his chest. The most wanted man alive raised one brow, faintly interested. Koala stopped in the middle of her briefing to the older two, pushing up the top of her cap.

"You've been sighing like that for almost a week now," Koala said, brows creased in worry. "Did something happen?"

"Yeah," a third voice chimed in. Neat, shiny boots hit the floor with an even staccato. Wavy blond hair curled teasing against his chin. A long, wide scar marred his left eye, stopping briefly until more continued along his shoulder, hidden by his neat dress shirt and navy blue vest. He rolled his sleeves up, slinging his pipe behind his back and offering a wide, bright grin. "I hate to see you looking so down."

"It was quite a feat you pulled off," Dragon said calmly. "Three white transponder snails and four black ones. They will be extremely useful in the days to come."

"Not to mention how sweet about their care you were," Koala said. "That one black one even had a name. So cute..."

"What's eatin' at you?" he crossed his arms over his chest, tipping his head to the side with a curious frown.

"Ah," Dragon said. "The girl."

"Yes," Hack said. The fishman shook his head, crossing his arms over his chest as well. "I can't help but think sometimes. I hope safe travels find her and her island. Or if she'd had a transponder snail on her, some way to keep in touch..."

"You should've just brought her along," he said amiably. "Bet we could convince her to join, eh?"

"Don't be so selfish, Sabo!" Koala slapped his arm. "Didn't you hear about what Hack said? She has plenty on her plate already..."

"So do we," Sabo said. "So we should team up and finish it off together. I can even thank her for that new pipe they're making me!"

"Perhaps we missed out on the chance for a good recruit," Hack admitted. "She may come around another time, luck be willing."

"What'd she look like?" Koala asked eagerly. Sabo snorted. "Was she cute?"

"Pokian," Hack said. Dragon made an absent sound of interest. Koala grew quiet, turning her eyes to her fingers and playing with tugging the ends of her gloves. "A true Pokian, through and through from the island."

"I was not aware some escaped," Dragon said, looking over his shoulder.

"Well, that doesn't explain what she looked like," Sabo said finally, leaning back on his heels. He flexed his fingers, watching the familiar, steady black sheen coat his hand. "She must've been something for you to be interested."

"I think you two would've gotten along quite swimmingly," Hack said. "I told her the same."

Sabo tipped his head to the side, humming curiously. He tapped his chin. "Girls with a bit of attitude maybe..."

"You like people you get to take care of," Koala said instantly. "You have a brother complex."

"I don't know what you're talking about—"

"Reckless people. I can't help but think sometimes you grew up with a bunch of animals."

"Now you're just—"

"You're also a bit sneaky."

"Is that anyway to talk to—"

"White hair," Koala said with a small smile. Hack turned to her and she tugged her fluffy cap a little lower over her eyes. "A... a marking somewhere on the face, right? Pokians."

"Yes," Hack said thoughtfully, staring up at the sky. "Whitest hair I'd seen... quite the artist."

"Artist!" Sabo laughed. "I guess we can enlist someone to make our banners. Betty would love her then. What's a revolutionary army without a proper banner to charge behind, huh?"

"She drew me something rather nice," Hack admitted. He shuffled through the inner fold of his robe and pulled out a neatly folded paper. "Creative or not, she would've been quite useful on the field, I promise you. Though, a little... foolhardy perhaps. I suppose we could've straightened that out of her."

"Soldiers willing to live for your cause are better than those willing to die," Dragon said. Wind curled along the ridges of his thick hair, brushing his cheeks while his eyes shone brightly, dangerous and vivid and alive.

"Yes," Hack agreed. "Straighten that out of her and she would've made a fine soldier."

"I bet we could get along," Koala murmured. "She'd help me straighten you out at least."

Sabo laughed boyishly. He patted the dust off his pants and stood up to take a look at Hack's paper. "Come on, I haven't failed you guys yet."

Koala peered around Hack's elbow and made a little noise of awe. Her eyes fluttered appreciatively at the image, touching the corner of the paper with shining eyes. "Oh, Hack, it's beautiful..."

Sabo tipped the paper down, craning his head to see. Hack lowered it for all of them to gaze at.

"This... I guess this, I'll always love to do."

Something soft, breathtakingly sweet, and a little painful whistled through Sabo's ears and down to his core.

The sketch was beautiful. Even he could see that much. Finely detailed, smudged in just the right places, filled in against the others. It was hard to express without proper color, but someone had gone and done it anyway, sketching the image of an entire world that appeared to be glistening and shining beneath lapping waves. The image was almost as though someone had just brushed aside a clump of seaweed or kelp and peered through the waving grass to see the beautiful world beyond it.

"It's Fishman Island," Koala said in wonder. "Isn't it?"

"She did it justice, little that she drew," Hack drew a fond finger down the side of the paper.

Sabo felt claws pricking the edges of his heart. Felt the pinpricks of nails beginning to dig into the soft flesh. His chest thudded loudly in his ears, pulse racing and something itching at his fingers. To grab. To hold. Armament haki began to creep onto his hands. To grab. To hold. Hold something tight, hold it and don't let—

"Just live the way that thing right there tells you to," a laugh, faraway. "The blood never lies."

"What's that?" Sabo questioned almost breathlessly.

Koala shot him a curious look, eyes furrowed with a bit of worry. Hack made a noise, moving his thumb aside from the edge of the paper so the blonde could see it better.

The only thing painted onto the paper. A little mark, etched in with a brush to look like half a heart with the very end of it smeared downwards as though someone had slipped—

"Said it was her signature," Hack laughed. "It's her mark too," he added to Koala, tapping the corner of his left eye. "Very pretty thing, funny looking that it is—"

"Sabo!" Koala's eyes were wide in surprise and she grabbed her comrade's elbow, "I—Jeez! I know it's beautiful, but I didn't think you of all people would cry over this—"

"Sabo?" Hack inquired, eyes round. "Is something wrong?"

"...No," Sabo said slowly. He blinked, reaching up to touch with gloved fingers and pulling away. Droplets gathered on the tips of his fingers and he stared, rivulets of tears streaking fierce and rapid and unrelenting down his cheeks. Koala and Hack were watching him with eyes blown wide, Dragon turning over his shoulder curiously.

Sabo sniffled. He pressed the heel of his palms to the corners of his eyes and laughed. "Ah—I'm not sure... They just... Just won't stop..."

"Sabo!" Koala quickly ruffled through her bag, whipping out a tissue for him, eyes beginning to water. "Don't cry! You're worrying me, you're gonna make me cry! What happened? What's wrong—"

"If you truly love it you can have it," Hack said kindly, brows creased in worry. "It's a touching drawing so—"

"No, no," Sabo wiped at his eyes, "No, I'm fine—"

Sabo laughed sheepishly. Koala fluttered around him, trying to shove her tissues at his face and Hack was already beginning to fold the paper to hand to him and he couldn't for the life of him figure out why as though it felt—


"You'll grow up to be a pretty good looking guy," she said, squinting at him as she held out her brush to get the right measurement. "Kids like you always do. I'm betting on it."

"Who cares about stuff like that?" Sabo laughed, tugging his hat down a little lower to hide the hot blush coloring his ears. "C'mon, hurry up so we can get going! They're going to beat us at this rate."

"Yeah, yeah," she said, bringing her brush down to her book. She made a face, free hand tapping the edge of her eye where that mark curved around the corners—

"I wonder what you'll like when you're older," she said suddenly.

"I'll be good looking," Sabo said, swinging his rusted pipe. "Since you said so, just wait and see."

She laughed.

"I don't plan on sticking around that long."


—as though someone had gone and ripped out his heart from his chest, beating and alive and wrapped their arms around him, so, so tight.

Sabo's hands reached up desperately, grabbing.

The warmth slipped right through his fingers.


"Well, handsome or not, just live a good life, yeah?"


Cleaning up the island wasn't terribly hard.

As Mahina had always hinted, as Hoku had always been led to believe—the island would always remain.

Even after its people.

It was getting closer to the heart of the island. Walking through a plaza she knew like the back of her hand, through a crowded alley meant to be a bustling bazaar, letting her feet take her past a broken, burnt clock tower. Standing several hours in front of the ruined statue of the popoki goddess and her artist. Finally stopping at the foot of a hill. A hill flowered on either side, slowly leading up in a gentle curve to overlook the other side of the island's shores. Where a beach and pinkish sand and lapping waves could always be seen.

Where a small, island log cabin should've been.

That was when Hoku had to admit, with thin streaks of water down her cheeks and a gentle quiet in her heart, that it got a bit hard.

Mau was silent against her back.

The spot where the cabin would've been was empty. It'd been burnt down years ago. Grass and bamboo sprouts had already started growing in abundance around it. Flowers that usually stayed to the side were starting to creep in as well.

Hoku walked the entire perimeter. She traced every inch of it, walking through and around and imaging the spots where doors would be, bamboo curtains and windows and—

Overlooking the cliff. Surrounded by growing flowers and gently shielded against any sea breezes by a wall of bamboo.

A metal cross forged from carefully sliced and welded swords stood in place. Beautiful, hand done etchings were carved into the blade. A sketchbook was folded over one cross arm, fluttering occasionally. Old wreaths hung from the ends. Hoku couldn't tell how long the old bouquet sitting at the base had been there.

Hoku quietly approached the marker. She stopped just before it, staring in silence.

Wind tugged her hair out around her. Bright, snowy white locks curving against her cheeks and trailing up into the air. She quietly slid Mau out from his sheath and held him in her hands as she settled onto her knees in front of the markers.

The front of the sketchbook was familiar. Painted with a scattering of petals.

A wooden feather had been carved, hanging around the cross' neck.

Feathers fluttered above her. A weight landed smoothly beside her and Hoku didn't bother to look to know who it was.

"Here to make fun of me?" Hoku said quietly.

He ruffled his feathers, plodding forward. His head bowed and he deposited the heavy bunch of stems he'd been holding between his beaks, setting it down before the grave.

The albatross stretched his wings once and folded them back neatly against his body.

"Not for fool," he said. "Paying respects."

The tears fell hot and fast. They dripped down her chin, sliding down her cheeks and disappearing against the floor and onto her lap. A few landed on Mau's sleek blade. Hoku cried, shoulders shaking as she bowed her head and pressed her forehead to the cross, warmed metal reaching back at her as she reached around and hugged the metal. The blades never cut into her skin.

The albatross stood beside her in silence.

"I'm home. I-I'm sorry it took so long," Hoku said loudly, crying. "Mama, Papa—I'm home."


 

Roughly Half a Year Ago

(Twelve Years after the Fall of Artopoki)


"Captain! What the hell are we doing in this ghost town anyway?"

"Place is giving me the creeps..."

"There's all this blood everywhere too... What happened here, a war?"

"You idiot! Didn't you hear about it years ago? This island was charged for holding onto some kind of treasonous propaganda—they came storming in while people were preparing for war and the marines wiped them out!"

"I heard that treasonous stuff was actually just something to do with the Pirate King himself—"

"Shut up," a youthful voice called back. No real menace, but a lazy order. His men quickly straightened to attention, turning back to their captain standing at the main road of what looked to be the island's central plaza. "None of that crap is true, anyway."

He kicked aside a heavy block of cement. Blood stained the other side, mixed in with ash.

Something dark traveled through him for a second. A furious anger that threatened to be untamed. He thought about her blood and how—

"Bastards," he said lowly, shoving his bright hat harder onto his head.

"What did you want us to do here then?" one of his crewmates questioned. "We looking for something?"

"Is there treasure left here?"

"Don't say that! It's probably cursed or something—"

"Or maybe," one of his men piped up, a little teasing, "you got someone else you need to thank, Cap?"

Several of his crew paled at the thought. "It ain't another—"

"Something like that," he said. "Alright, you lot set to work on clearing all this rubble. When that's done, you start gathering some of those berries I told you about. Crush them up and spread them wherever there's blood, it should start coming off."

A collection of curious murmurs rose up around his crew. They took his word for it, setting to work. He smiled, figuring he'd really have to find something to treat them this time.

His open shirt fluttered around his arms. Something curious seemed to whistle through his ears and he looked up, glancing around. He motioned to one of his crew and set off, following the trail they'd used back to the shore and keeping an eye out for what it ought to look like—ahah!

Exactly the same as the drawings.

He grinned. His boots hit the ground as he slowly trekked up the trail leading up a hill several paces away from the town center. A familiar, salty breeze rushed by his cheeks, tugging at wavy black locks. He held his hat as he maneuvered around patches of flower and sand that gave way to grass and finally stopped at the top of the hillside cliff.

He really could see an entire beach from here. He curiously peered over the cliff side. It would've been fun to go jumping down this. She was probably too chicken to get anywhere near the water.

Scaredy cat. His eyes finally settled on a glint of metal.

An elaborate cross had been set up at the edge of the cliff, overlooking the secluded beach. Flowers grew at its base. A sketchbook hung off the side, fluttering a bit with the wind.

He walked carefully toward it. His eyes took in every piece in silence before he politely took off his bright orange hat and held it to his chest.

"Hello there," he said experimentally, a bit rough, but hopefully as polite as he thought it sounded. He set down the heavy bouquet of flowers he'd been holding onto. "My name is Ace. Portgas D. Ace. I was worried about finding ya' for a bit, but this has got to be it, right? I wanted to pay my respects."

Ace smiled boyishly. Sea breezes tugged at the ends of his hair and he bowed.

"Thank you very much," Ace said, shutting his eyes.

He slowly rose back up. Ace set his hat back on his head and offered them a bright grin instead, canines peeking. "You just rest easy now. I'll take good care of your daughter."

The pages fluttered a little louder and the blade caught off a bit of sun, shining right back onto him.


 

Eight Years Ago

(Four years after the Fall of Artopoki)


Dracule Mihawk stared at the heavy bloodstain in the grass before him.

He'd already searched the rest of the island. His expectations for the heavy handedness of the navy's plundering of the island's weapons and other sources had been met. He could care less however, about the workings of others.

There'd only been one brand of sword he'd been looking for.

The handful of the best were more than likely lost to whatever corner of the seas they were spirited away to. One was within good enough hands for now. The other hung around his neck.

Several spots of blood splattered the remnants of the island. He could make out where the largest battles took place and stands had been made. He'd walked through the graves and monuments set up by someone else who'd visited the island before him. Bold of them, he thought. Considering what happened.

This spot in particular had stood out to him with quiet, quiet ease.

Two broken swords were dug hard into the ground. Broken off at the hilts. She'd probably done it to deter anyone else from thinking it was worth something. Fools never realized she always had an uncanny way of holding swords and not getting cut.

"They won't cut ya if they know what you want. If what you want is what they want, it all works out."

"What did you want?" he almost asked.

Mihawk pulled both broken blades from the ground. He was about to walk away when something a few feet from him fluttered.

He glanced to the open, torn up book.

On a simple whim, he picked it up, holding it in one hand while he held the two swords with the other.

Mihawk went to work.


"I doubt you'll be back out at these seas," Dracule Mihawk said into the transponder snail. "Perhaps motherhood will be becoming of you."

"Don't you dare right me off yet, Miha," the snail's lips pulled into a feral grin, eyes excited as the small hands touched the snail's belly. "Just you wait! No one ever said a pregnant woman couldn't make a sword—hah! Imagine the history of the greatest sword being made by a pregnant woman—"

"It sounds," Mihawk said. "As though you are asking for a curse."

"Or maybe one hell of a blessing," Mahina said cheekily. "Hey, you know, this kid might just end up taking more after me than Manu. Well, it might be a problem if that happens, but I sure as hell wouldn't complain."

Mihawk shut his eyes, reclining back against his throne. He imagined it on a whim.

"Your child, barely able to walk, holding a sword."

"Makes one hell of a picture!" Mahina laughed and the snail narrows its eyes, grinning at him. "So don't you dare go getting rusty now, you hear? The greatest sword is going to the greatest swordsman!"

"We shall see," Mihawk said simply.

Silence befell the both of them. Comfortable. The snail looked off the side, mimicking the other's expression before a small smile touched its lips instead. One hand reached and touched its belly and she said, soft and loud all at once.

"Come meet her when all's said and done," the snail shut its eyes. Smiling.

"You know the gender?"

"I'm betting on it. The women of our island have always been heartier than the men, you know. Something to do with that popoki goddess of ours."

Mihawk simply hummed, a low sound.

The snail peered at him curiously before patting her stomach, content.

"I lied. Even if you weren't the greatest swordsman anymore, I'd still give you the best sword, partner."


A single grave marker had been erected in one night. Beautiful, carefully done with the upmost care. A single name along with an epithet had been carved in with the blade of a small knife sitting inside a cross.

A heavy bouquet of flowers sat at its base. He stabbed an old, old wooden sword into the dirt behind it.

He'd left the sketchbook on the arm of the cross. A whim.


 

Twelve Years Ago

(Four Weeks after the Fall of Artopoki)


 

A single man arrived onto the shores of Artopoki.

He stood along the beach for what had perhaps felt like an eternity. He could hear it, the soft, quiet whispers of the island teeming back to him. The grains of sand were hot and soft at his feet. He could sense bits of glass deeper up the trail from all the carnage.

He bent down, giving the sand a soft stroke. He felt each grain between his fingers. Rolled them along his palms and let it drop back.

The island seemed to sigh.

He navigated his way carefully throughout the island. He walked every inch and foot of it. Quietly stood along familiar hilltops, came to stop over every spot where the sea would meet the island. He carefully retraced old steps from years and years before, familiarizing himself with it all.

He felt along the ruined wreckage of an old cave. Felt what was missing. Listened to what had happened. He carefully stepped over heavy spots of blood. Walked around ruined buildings and piles of ash.

He stared for a bit, at the desecrated monument of their island's origin. His fingers felt carefully along the broken slabs of marble where the artist had been ripped away from his lover. He touched the fangs of the popoki goddess, felt her rage and sorrow and despair and vengeance.

When he was satisfied, the strange man finally made his way to the base of a cliff. He waded deep into the waters and set to work.

One by one, the strange man hauled each dripping body onto the shore. He laid them all along the beach, making sure their eyes were shut and pressing his fingers to his lips and his heart and then to theirs. He repeated this for a great deal of time until all was done.

He went to the east side of the island. Burnt crosses still hung in place. He carefully picked large leaves and gathered up what was left, broke off pieces of the wood left behind in replace of what could not be found again.

He gathered up a special berry native to their island. He crushed it up, grounding massive mounds together and working tirelessly through the nights. In the meantime, he felt along a heavy slab of marble that had fallen, listening to how it spoke and deciding this one would do.

He gathered all the bodies together. He decorated their graves, scattered the berries and leaves and then set it all ablaze.

When all was done, he carefully took the ashes. He picked the meadow. He worked, burying the ashes and scattering the remains and finally he carved out thin sticks of marble slabs for each of them.

At times he sang. Birds would come, landing along the trees. A few animals who hadn't been lost to the island would peek through throngs of bamboo. The herd of white, cremello horses still beat hooves in the distance. He worked. And worked. And worked.

When all was finally, finally done—when the new statue had been carved in a way that he deemed suitable enough—when the graves had been erected and the meadows shifted and the island released one long, aching sigh of relief as though a long day's worker could finally sink into bed—

The man settled onto his knees. He pressed his forehead to the cool ground. He kissed his fingers, pressing them tightly to his heart and then to the ground.

"Forgive me."

A single voice greeted him back. He kept his eyes shut, listening to it. Tears rolled down the sides of his cheeks and he lifted his head, feeling the breeze.

"Welcome home."


With dried tear trails staining her cheeks and puffy eyes, Hoku set to work.

She dug the drawn up shovel deep into the dirt at the top of her hill. The albatross watched her work in silence, breezes tugging at his feathers and on her hair. She repeated the digging over and over again, going deeper and deeper until she could almost see the roots of the bamboo and trees growing at the heart of the hill.

Hoku got onto her knees. She pulled her backpack over, rifling around until she pulled free a slender metal box. Hoku pressed a quick kiss to the top and gingerly set the box in as deep as the hole went, almost falling in herself.

"No one knew who had you when it all went to flames," Hoku said. "They'll never know you were returned right where you belong."

"Let these weary bindings rest."

Hoku smiled. She gently began to pile dirt back over the legendary book. "Just hold out until I can pass the word on to someone who could do some real good with you."

Hoku heard a low chuckle loud in her ears. The albatross watched, eyes flickering with amusement as she carefully smoothed the dirt back over the hole and scattered the seeds she'd been gathering over it. Flowers would sprout within the next month.

No one would ever know.

It's the safest option. Hoku stood. If some people got their hands on you, who knows what kind of shit this world would see. They'll have a hard time finding this island and they'll never find you.

Hoku turned to the albatross. It blinked back at her.

"This," Hoku said, a bit seriously, "is between you