The sea train pulled into the station at St. Poplar on a stormy day. The passengers grumbled as they got out, fumbling to find umbrellas or coats to protect them from the rain. One woman didn’t bother though; she simply limped her way up the street, pausing to notice the houses covered in…were those soap bubbles? Shaking her head, she continued on to the hotel, not wishing to spend more time getting wet than she had to.
When he finally woke up, Rob Lucci was relieved to find himself alive and alone. Hattori fluttered to the window sill of what appeared to be a hospital room and let out a happy series of chirps before flying off again. He closed his eyes again, falling back asleep.
The next time he woke up, the room was filled with the other members of Cipher Pol 9 perched on stools, chairs, the window ledge (next to a returned Hattori) and even crammed into the corner, filling the room. They’d been talking quietly amongst themselves, waiting to see that their leader was truly going to survive after all. The doctor squeezed into the room to give Lucci a quick exam and then left, saying the patient needed to rest in bed for at least another four days and warning the others not to tire him out too much.
Lucci was the first to notice her standing next to the door but one-by-one, the other members eventually realized that a stranger was waiting quietly in the room. Their chatter died away until everyone was staring at her. She leaned against the wall unconcerned as the members of CP9 studied her, trying to determine what kind of threat she presented. At first glance, she was unremarkable – maybe average height with pleasant enough features and dark reddish-brown hair clipped short. She wouldn’t stand out in a crowd normally, except for the cane in her left hand. Finally, Jabra broke the uncomfortable silence.
“Angelina! What are you doing here?”
“Yes, what is the Director’s pet assistant doing here?” Lucci’s voice cut in. His flat stare and hostile tone of voice did nothing to make her slight smile waver.
“I’m looking for some little lost sheep. Rumour has it they’ve been seen around here, so I thought to check things out,” she replied with a faint hint of sarcasm. “After hearing Chief Spandam’s report about what happened at Enies Lobby, I thought the hospital would be a good place to start looking. Especially when these poor sheep didn’t return to Headquarters on any of the Marine ships available.”
“What do you mean, didn’t return?” Jabra burst out. “We were injured and needed doctors. What did you expect us to do?”
“All Marine ships have doctors and medical assistance would have easily been available, so why did you not return on the ship with Chief Spandam?”
“There was a lot of confusion due to the Buster Call and we were concerned with making sure we were all alive,” Blueno said calmly as he took over responding. “We felt it best to seek out medical assistance together, especially for Rob Lucci as he was the most seriously injured. That was highest priority at the time, Angelina. You know we need to take care of our own first”
“Once again though, all Marine ships have medical facilities on board; there is no reason to assume your injuries couldn’t have been treated far more quickly on one of the ships or back at HQ if necessary. Nothing you’ve said so far explains how you ended up here in St. Poplar instead of back at HQ.” Angelina sounded remorseless. Jabra jumped back into the discussion.
“There was no way we could’ve headed back with the convoy. How would it’ve looked if all those Marines had seen an elite CP team beaten up and half-dead? They knew who we were! What kind of damage would it have done to the organization if it were known that we got our asses kicked by some punk pirates? How could we have gotten anything done after this if we’d been ferried back to HQ like defeated brats? We had no choice but to go off on our own to heal up.”
“That does make a certain amount of sense.”
“Of course it does! For all we know, the Vice Admirals had orders to take out everyone on the island, including us. And who knows what Chief Spandam was saying. Which is probably why you’re out looking for us, isn’t it?”
“Ah, I see,” she replied thoughtfully. “Very well, I’ll consider that when making up my report for the Director.” At those words, Lucci moved to get out of the hospital bed, struggling a bit with the sheets wrapped around his legs. Angelina pivoted smoothly on her right foot, switching her cane to her right hand and placing her left on his shoulder, preventing him from getting up. “You have orders from the doctor to remain in bed for several days yet. I’d suggest you follow his advice and recover fully before trying anything.”
“When are you sending your report?” he asked harshly. Angelina smiled before answering.
“When my investigation is complete. I’m sure it will take several days still, considering how much confusion and chaos surrounds what happened. And it makes conducting a search so difficult.” With that vague declaration, she turned back towards the door, leaning heavily on the cane as she started to leave. As she reached for the handle, his voice stopped her.
“Lina, why are you doing this?”
She paused but didn’t turn around. “You really don’t understand, do you, Rob? You never did.” The sound of the door closing seemed to echo in the room. No one said anything for a long moment before Kaku finally broke the silence.
“Well, now what? If she’s sending a report in about finding us, what do we do now? We can’t leave until Lucci’s released from the hospital but that gives the Marines time to get here and take us into custody.”
“We have time,” Blueno said. “She said her investigation would take several days; she’s giving us that time. I’m sure she’ll wait until after Rob’s out of the hospital before doing anything, so we have at least four days to figure out what we want to do.”
“It sounds like you know her pretty well,” Kaku replied.
“We did once,” Lucci said.
Finding out where Angelina was staying wasn’t very difficult at all. St. Poplar really only had one premier hotel (out of approximately five hotels total, if you were being generous) and when she wasn’t registered there, Kalifa and Kaku moved on to the second best hotel. Their simple inquiry resulted in the manager informing them that the lady in question was waiting for her guests on the outside patio, if they cared to join her for breakfast.
“Good morning! I’ve already ordered breakfast so please feel free to help yourselves. It’s occasionally nice to splurge when out on assignment.” Angelina smiled at them both. “I’m sure you have some questions for me.”
“You knew we’d show up here this morning?” Kalifa was put off by the other woman’s attitude, unsure of how to deal with someone who’d clearly anticipated their actions.
“Of course, especially after yesterday’s meeting. I’m guessing you are worried that despite what I said, and what Rob or Blueno confirmed, you think I’m going to immediately send a message to HQ to let them know I’ve found you all here. You don’t want that to happen until you’re ready so you decided to come find me and determine if I’ll do what I said I would. Which would be to give you several days before I send in any reports.” She paused to take a sip of juice before continuing. “So I assume the two of you set out this morning to find me and ended up here. That’s why I left word at the main desk that I was expecting an unknown number of guests for breakfast; I wasn’t sure who would show up.”
Neither Kalifa nor Kaku said anything for a moment, considering the information they’d been given. Each came to the same conclusion, “You’re a Cipher Pol agent, aren’t you?” Kalifa said first.
“I was once but now I’m the Director’s assistant. Usually I don’t need to interact with the various CP groups but the situation at Enies Lobby was unusual enough that the Director felt an independent review was needed. That’s why he’s allowed me to conduct a search when I requested it.”
Kalifa was familiar with being the assistant to a powerful and busy man, and unless this Director was far more organized than most, there was more to this than the other woman was saying. If Angelina’s identity hadn’t already been confirmed by Lucci, Jabra and Blueno, she would have wondered if CP9 was being played for fools. Considering that Lucci and Blueno had just completed five years undercover, that meant she was someone they’d known prior to her joining the group seven years ago.
Kaku could see that Kalifa was thinking about something so he broke the silence. “You requested the assignment? I’m going to assume it’s because you know three of our members already; that’s fairly obvious. And judging by how quickly you found us, along with your actions so far since you’ve gotten here, I’ll also guess you aren’t a personal assistant by choice. Still, anyone with the power to have a personal assistant isn’t likely to just allow them to go off on wild goose chases, so there’s got to be another reason why you were allowed to conduct this search, which leads me back to your connection with three of our team. That still seems like a weak reason to allow a personal assistant to try to find a CP elite group. So what is the real reason?”
Angelina’s smile faded away slowly as Kaku spoke and by the end, she looked thoughtful. Instead of answering him immediately though, she stared off into the distance and tapped her cane against the ground.
“That really is the reason why I’m here.” She raised her hand as he started to protest. “True, there is another reason, but it’s entirely personal and not relevant to this discussion. No, it really isn’t. The truth is I do know Rob and Jabra and Blueno from way back. I was with them when we were kids training to be part of CP9, but when I was nineteen, my path was changed and I eventually became the assistant to the Director. I wasn’t able to continue as an elite assassin, but considering the other teams are information specialists, what I was able to do was help with coordinating the information going in and out of the organization along with working with the undercover propaganda agents. Again, I can’t work effectively undercover because of this cane, but that did nothing to stop my brain from working. And I’ve turned out to be very, very good at information manipulation.”
“Which is why you’re the director’s assistant,” Kalifa said.
“Exactly.” She stood up carefully before continuing, “The next train heading towards HQ leaves here in seven days. I plan to be on it; whether or not the members of CP9 are with me is entirely up to all of you. I don’t plan to watch over you but I would like to speak to each of you to get your account of what happened at Enies Lobby. Right now, all we have is what Chief Spandam has submitted and it’s always best to have the most thorough information possible. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I do have some things to finish this morning. Please feel free to stay as long as you like, it’s on my tab.” With that, she limped back inside the building, leaving the two to their own thoughts.
Four days later, Lucci was released from the hospital; the doctor saying he’d done all he could and Lucci’s own healing powers would have to finish the rest of the work. By then, Angelina had met with the other members to record their accounts of the incident, asking them questions to clarify their descriptions of the fights and the pirates they were up against. That evening, Angelina went to the large room downstairs set aside for their use. The previous evenings, dinner had been served there to give them some privacy to talk and also a place where she could interview the agents; she expected to do the same tonight to get Rob’s account of what had happened.
“What is your problem with giving me an account of the fight? If this crew is strong enough to cause the kind of damage I saw at Enies Lobby, the World Government needs to know everything they can find out. Plus, it will offset Spandam’s account of what happened, which doesn’t show any of you in a good light.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. You’ll just have to use what the others have given to you so far.”
“Look, Rob, it’s obvious from his account that Spandam is a raging idiot; give me something to use here!”
“No, now go away.”
“Or is it because you can’t stand to talk to me? I mean, heavens forbid that you have to deal to someone who is so weak according to your standards.”
“That’s not relevant here.”
“And yet, you didn’t deny it, did you?” She stood up abruptly, clutching her cane to maintain balance. “Fine. If you change your mind, here’s the recorder. I’ll pick it up from the main desk later.” No one said a word as she left the room. After a few moments, Lucci stood with a muffled curse, grabbed the recorder off the table and left the room as well.
“Dammit. Why do those two always have to piss each other off?” Jabra asked drunkenly.
“They’re used to it. It was no different when we were younger,” Blueno said.
“So she really did train to be part of CP9 as a child?” Kaku asked? “I mean, she said that when Kalifa and I went to talk to her but she doesn’t really seem the type.”
“Oh, she was the type. Probably still is,” Jabra said. “She was fast too, until that last fight with Lucci.”
“They were sparring, “ Blueno explained when it became apparent that Jabra wasn’t going to continue. “And it got out of hand. Rob had recently eaten his fruit and during the fight, he changed. She wasn’t expecting it since the fight was just supposed to be hand-to-hand combat and before anyone knew what was happening, he did a lot of damage to her leg, mostly to her knee. It took her several weeks to recover and when she did, she withdrew from the team because of it. About three years after that, we started the assignment in Water 7.” When Blueno finished speaking, Jabra growled and stood up, stalking to the door.
“Jabra, leave her alone. She won’t appreciate it.”
“How do you know? I at least saw her around sometimes when she had to come to the Halls of Justice. You guys were off on assignment and haven’t seen her for over five years. You weren’t here when her sister suddenly retired and then went missing. Here she is trying to help us out and now this crap between them again?” He slammed the door behind him.
Blueno sighed and looked at the other agents. “Jabra was always closer to Angel than Rob or I was. Mostly because of her older sister Alura; those two treated him like a brother. That was part of the reason for Angel and Lucci fighting all the time. He thought her sister had infected her with a sense of moral justice instead and he didn’t like that, or her sister for that matter. So it’s nothing new that they’re still fighting, really.”
The next two days passed slowly. Angelina didn’t return to the meeting room again nor did she try to speak to any of the agents other than Jabra, who’d showed up even more drunk at her door later that evening. All he’d say was they’d spoken for a while before she made him leave for his own room.
The morning of the seventh day, Angelina headed downstairs to check out and head down to the train station. The members of CP9 were all waiting for her and after a quiet breakfast, they escorted her to the station. Outside the entrance, she stopped off to the side and turned to the others.
“It’s such a shame that the rumours I’d heard weren’t true, but with everything going on, I’m not too surprised I couldn’t find the people I was looking for. I’ll be sure to put that in my report when I get back to HQ.”
“You’re not going to tell them you found us?” Kaku said.
“You’ve given me your reports, I will take them and decide what to do from there, but no, at this time I will not say that I found any of you here.”
“You know the director ain’t gonna believe you didn’t find us, Angel,’ Jabra said. “What’re you going to tell him when you asks you about it?”
“I’ll speak to the Director if that becomes necessary. In the meantime, he’ll have to be satisfied with what I intend to report. I should be back at HQ in three days using this route, so that gives me some leeway for now.” With a smile to the others, she turned to give Blueno a hug good-bye. “Be careful, will you?”
Jabra grabbed her into a more vigorous hug, bending down to whisper in her ear “We’ll take care of him for you, Angel. You be careful as well.” Angelina grinned and gave him a kiss on the cheek, saying “Thank you.”
She reached out to take her bag from Blueno, but Lucci took it from him first, turning away without a word to head into the station. Shaking her head, Angelina gave a final wave and followed after him. They quickly arrived at the conductor’s podium and she handed over her tickets and showed her government identification. The conductor snapped to attention and led her over to the doors of the train car himself, giving the trainman her ticket and making sure he knew which car she was going to use. Lucci let the conductor take her bag and hand it up to be loaded.
“Thank you,” she said, already starting to turn away to board.
“You know, you are the only person to ever call me that. The only one I’d allow.” He was holding out her recorder when she turned back around.
“I recorded my report for you, for whatever good it will do.”
“Thank you again. I’ll try to make sure it does some good, if only to ensure Spandam is never assigned another team again.” She took the recorder but he didn’t let go immediately.
“You know, you were wrong the day you arrived. I do understand why you’re doing this. I always did. So…thank you.”
“Be well, Rob.” She put the recorder in her pocket and boarded the train. He watched through the windows as she took a seat, leaned her arm on the window ledge and covered her eyes. He told himself that he hadn’t seen tears on her cheek just now. And he refused to admit that he’d made her cry, once again.
As the train whistle sounded and the cars began to move, she didn’t look back. He waited until her car had pulled away before returning to where the others were waiting for him, talking about going out that afternoon to do something fun.