Chapter 15: A Cure in Sight
Cipher Pol Arc
Amelia sat in the shade, looking on as their two crews dropped anchors from the pair of warships they had seized. With their original vessel battered and barely remaining afloat, CP9 needed a new ship, while Miss Lina had been very clear about wanting one for herself too. Zelgadis and Luke labored aboard the deck of the one they had claimed, going through the motions of sailing and ship maintenance under the watchful eyes of Kaku and Kalifa.
At Amelia's insistence, the third warship had been allowed to go free, with the crews of the other two evacuated onboard. It wouldn't have been right to punish the sailors, who were only guilty of being roped in by their scheming superiors. Gazing past the mouth of the Sandora River and the cityscape of Nanohana, Amelia could see them sailing off into the east, vanishing over the horizon.
Jabra hopped down onto the shore, joining Amelia and Milina under the tent they had fashioned from some planks and spare sails. Pulling up a chair, he accepted the offer of a washcloth from Milina, which he used to wipe the sweat from his forehead. Amelia cleared her throat.
"Say, Mr. Jabra." She began. "What does CP-0 do, exactly?"
It was a question she'd been meaning to ask ever since their battle concluded. They had killed a man that morning, and while she wasn't exactly having mixed feelings on the matter, there was something within her that wouldn't settle until she knew a little more about their adversary. Even a few facts to remember would be better than an unmarked grave at the bottom of the sea.
Jabra's reaction was a raised eyebrow. "Not having any regrets are you?"
Amelia shook her head. In addition, having had some time to think, she could tell there was more to this than just what was on the surface. This "Pluton" that their opponents were after was said to be a very destructive warship, and villains were always after things like that as part of some nefarious plot to take over the world. Only this time, the villains were part of the world government, and Amelia didn't know what to make of that.
"Well whatever, that's not really my problem." Jabra continued. "Aigis is kind of like us, except they mostly do their work in the New World."
"The 'New World'? I don't think I've ever heard about that." Amelia replied. Milina said nothing, but she nodded, focusing her attention and leaning forward to listen.
"Weren't you all heading for Fishman Island before?" Jabra asked, lounging back into his seat. "Go past that and you enter the second half of the Grand Line, which people call the New World. If you think things are bad around here, well, even the World Government doesn't have control on that side."
"Then again, you can't really say Aigis is totally working for the government either." He added.
"Wait, they're not?" Amelia replied, puzzled. "But didn't Miss Viola say the World Government was behind all this?"
"Look, just listen." Jabra said, tossing his hair over his shoulder. "I'm saying they don't work for the government because their bosses are even higher than that. CP0 works for the World Nobles, the Celestial Dragons, the descendants of the kings who founded the World Government eight hundred years ago. I bet the only reason they even tried this whole farce with the chief was because the government needed to save face. The World Nobles themselves don't answer to justice."
By the time Jabra finished his explanation, Amelia was trembling with rage, while Milina had crossed her arms, furrowing her brows in concentration. Slavery. Murder. Shiki's words, which they had written off as just mockery at the time, now rang true with confirmation from the other side.
As a member of royalty, Amelia found especially appalling the idea that a ruler could set themselves above the law. It wasn't even for the greater good, or anything so noble as that; these 'World Nobles' didn't deserve the title.
"Well, if they've hurt so many people, doesn't anybody fight back?" Amelia asked.
"Yeah, there are revolutionaries, but usually we were called in to handle those situations." Jabra replied, scratching his head sheepishly. Amelia nodded, and decided not to press the issue further.
"Well I won't stand for it." She declared. "I won't stand by and do nothing while people suffer under the rule of tyrants. Maybe not tomorrow or the day after that, but I will see the reign of the World Nobles overthrown, and that justice is dealt."
A small laugh escaped from Jabra's throat when Amelia finished, cutting off abruptly when he realized she hadn't spoken in jest. He looked around awkwardly, glancing at Milina, whose expression betrayed nothing.
"Well, who can say." He conceded. "The world's changing, and a lot of pirates are out there looking to make their marks. I won't say you can't do it, after seeing what you all did with us here."
Before Amelia could reply, she was interrupted by the sound of footsteps in the sand, announcing Kaku's arrival from the shore. Ducking under the covering and taking a seat for himself, he gestured toward the ships, where Kalifa was now supervising the two trainees by herself. Amelia giggled at the sight of the female agent responding to nearly every inquiry with an accusation of sexual harassment, leaving Luke and Zelgadis red-faced and flustered.
"Hey Kaku, you still carrying the Pose for Enies Lobby?" Jabra spoke up. "We're never going back there again, so how 'bout we give it to these guys?"
"Look, you want a cure for your friend right?" He added in response to a round of quizzical stares. "The only person in the world I can think of who might be able to pull off something like that, is currently locked up in Impel Down. You just follow the Pose to Enies Lobby, then take the current to the prison."
"Emporio Ivankov? The revolutionary army commander?" Kaku tilted his head to one side. "They do say his ability can change people's bodies, and he really ran the last generation of CP9 ragged trying to keep up with the disguises."
He crossed his arms and tapped his sleeve with a finger. "But don't you think it's a little too dangerous to send them to the Great Underwater Prison? No one has ever escaped Impel Down since Shiki."
Amelia perked up at the mention of Shiki's name.
"We'll take it." She said, smiling brightly, ignoring the puzzled looks given by the CP9 agents.
The setting sun was starting to cast an orange haze over the horizon when Zelgadis spotted Lina's party approaching from the northeast. Amelia came out to greet them, waving as she spotted Lina, Gourry and Vivi riding in on a trio of human-sized ducks, swathed in loose robes to protect against the heat. Lucci kept pace with them from the air, and Xellos drifted beside him, carrying something with his free arm, partially concealed by his mantle. The three riders skidded to a halt in front of the makeshift encampment and Lina removed her hood, revealing a few strands of white scattered among her coppery locks. Vivi bit her lip, and waited for Lina to speak.
"Well, there was nothing on there that we really care about." Lina shrugged, spreading her palms in an empty-handed gesture. Behind her, Vivi let out her breath, a smile of relief spreading across her face. Dismounting, she stroked her bird's neck for a moment, receiving a joyful squawk in return.
Lina sighed and scuffed a patch of sand with her boot, her eyes scanning over the ship they had prepared.
"But at least we got something out of this." She said, strolling into the tent and plopping down on a seat. "So? Where to next? Guess we should get going the way we came, and head back toward Fishman Island right?"
"I have somewhere." Amelia spoke up, producing the hourglass-like Eternal Pose, with the words "Enies Lobby" written on top. She relayed what Jabra had said regarding the possibility of a cure for Zelgadis, though she kept the parts about the World Nobles to herself. Standing off to one side, Zelgadis fidgeted, and a sudden silence fell over the group as Lina digested the information.
"Alright, sounds like the best lead we've got to something useful. And if this works out, it might even make all this trouble worthwhile." Lina said. Zelgadis made a noise of satisfaction, and Amelia smiled in sympathetic contentment.
"Yoyoi, are you absolutely, positively, completely certain?" Kumadori ventured. "In the entire history of Impel Down, only the Golden Lion Shiki has ever, ever, ever managed to escape."
Lina raised an eyebrow, and shot Amelia a glance, and some thought passed wordlessly between them. Standing off to one side, Jabra's face contorted with irritation at being left out of their non-verbal conversation.
"Shiki, huh?" Lina snorted. "That guy doesn't sound that tough. If somebody like that can do it, I think we should have no problem."
Amelia was the first to break out into a fit of giggles, which spread through their group until even Zelgadis was chuckling quietly to himself, while Milina raised a hand to cover her smirk. Only Gourry seemed to be out of the loop, glancing around like a lost puppy. A low growl seeped from Jabra's throat.
"What the hell is so funny?!" He demanded.
"If I may." Xellos cut in, interrupting the bout of laughter. He stepped forward, placing himself at the center of the group, bringing up his hand to reveal the object he had brought. It was a fruit, with leathery skin and a round shape like a large grapefruit, and an orange-ish coloration that seemed to glow dimly in the evening light. Odd spiral patterns and contours covered its surface, and a long curved stem extended up from its apex.
"A Devil Fruit." Jabra spoke in a hushed tone, his eyes wide. Amelia looked around, noticing some slight nods of agreement from the other CP9 agents.
"That seems to be the case." Xellos said. "So everyone, what do you think we should do with it?"
Lina blinked. So that was what he'd been hiding from her, brushing off her curiosity whenever she'd tried to sneak a look. She glanced around, noting that no one else seemed to want to make the first move, so she motioned for Xellos to pass the fruit to her. He obliged, watching as she rolled it between her hands and tapped it with a knuckle.
"Well, I can feel some sort of weird energy around it." She said as she handed it back. "Any idea what it does?"
"You can determine a Devil Fruit's power from its appearance, and use that to establish its name." Blueno said, stepping closer to Xellos to have a look. "However, I cannot recall seeing this particular fruit in any of the encyclopedias."
The other CP9 agents nodded in agreement.
"Well just keep that thing away from me when you start eating." Jabra said. He'd been inching back steadily until he was the one standing furthest away. "I don't want any juice or anything like that getting near my mouth. Anybody that eats two fruits is dead."
"What happens if several people share it?" Lina asked, poking the fruit with a finger. "Do they all get the ability?"
"Only the first to swallow a piece will receive an ability, which will remain with them until death." Blueno replied.
Lina made a noise in the back of her throat. Uneaten, the Devil Fruit seemed to be relatively inert, and while she had some experience creating talismans and the like, magical item engineering wasn't really her specialty. It would be nigh-on impossible to find a starting point for her investigations if she couldn't see the effects of an activation.
On the other hand, the prospect of using it wasn't one that appealed to her either.
"I'm not eating it." Lina pulled a face, shuddering slightly at the image of herself transforming into some hideous were-beast. Unknown powers? Irreversible? No thank you.
"I'll pass as well." Zelgadis spoke, having arrived at a similar conclusion.
"I kinda like being able to swim." Gourry said.
"No thanks." Amelia shook her head.
Milina conveyed her sentiments by looking away while Xellos glanced at the fruit, his expression deflating slightly.
"Unfortunately, I don't think it works on me." He said. He scanned over the group again looking for any takers, only to be interrupted as Luke leapt to his feet, thumping his chest with a fist.
"It's times like this when you have to leave it to a real man!" He cried, snatching the fruit from Xellos' hands. He sat down, fumbling around until he produced a pocket knife, and immediately began to peel.
"You heard what they said about the drawbacks, so make sure you don't have any regrets." Milina said. She tilted her head, fixing Luke with an admonishing look but making no move to stop him.
"Nope, none whatsoever!" Luke exclaimed. "A man's word is his honor, and that's how I've always lived."
"I doubt that." Milina said, a small smile appearing on her face. "But I can't say I dislike that side of you."
"Can't say… you dislike it?" Luke gazed up at his partner, his eyes shining. "Does this mean my love will finally be returned?"
"This isn't the time to joke around." Milina's expression turned cold once more, utterly ignoring the heartbroken sniffles coming from Luke's direction. "Does anyone have any objections to this?"
None were raised by the time Luke finished peeling the fruit, and with a final glance at Milina for approval, he pulled out the first slice and stuffed it into his mouth. The two crews crowded in to watch as Luke bit down and immediately doubled over, covering his mouth with both hands, his face paling.
"Hey! What's going on here! Talk to us! You feel anything yet?" Lina demanded, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking. She considered casting a Dicleary, but that spell didn't always work on some of the stronger types of poison.
With a torturous groan, Luke swallowed his mouthful, falling onto onto his elbows and breathing hard. A trickle of saliva flowed from the corner of his mouth, and… was he crying?
"Tastes… so bad..."
There was a moment of silence between them, and then Lina started to chuckle.
"C'mon Luke, hurry up with it." She said, crossing her arms over her chest and tapping her toes impatiently. "A real man's gotta live up to his word, or Milina here won't even give you the time of day."
Painfully, reluctantly, Luke took another bite, now looking a little green. Lina opened her mouth to rib him again when Lucci spoke up, breaking his silence.
"We should be leaving. We left a very obvious trail on our way here, and the Marines will be arriving soon." He turned toward his ship, walking past Lina as Luke finished the last of his fruit. The other CP9 members seemed torn at this, wanting to follow their leader but also wanting to keep watching as Luke collapsed onto the sand, gagging and shivering from sheer disgust.
The mere mention of departure sent a wave of hunger and fatigue crashing over Lina, and it was only with an heroic effort that she managed to keep her knees from buckling visibly. All the excitement had managed to keep it off her mind, but the fact remained that she hadn't eaten anything since the day before, and they'd been planning late into the night before waking up bright and early. Plus, casting the Ragna Blade had been a huge drain on her strength.
"You guys do what you want, but I think we'll be better off leaving tomorrow morning." Lina said.
"But hey." She stuck out a hand in Lucci's direction. "Think we'll see each other again on the ocean?"
"Perhaps." Lucci took the offered hand and shook, the corners of his mouth curling up into the slightest hint of a smirk. "It's been an interesting experience."
The CP9 members boarded their ship and hauled up the anchor, unfurling their sails and setting a southward course. They shrank into the distance, vanishing into the night.
"Figured out what your ability is yet?" Lina asked when she noticed Luke punching and kicking the air, hoping for some effect to manifest itself.
"Hey, don't rush me." He replied. "Because when it finally happens, it's going to blow you away."
Lina snorted and left him to his experimentation, her eyes drifting instead to the seaside city before them. The enticing scent of food wafting from its streets could be resisted no longer.
"Hey Vivi!" Lina called, causing the other girl to jump. "I still have some of this money left from before, so how 'bout we all go out for a night on the town?"
The evening market of Nanohana was, if anything, even more lively than the capital's. The daytime heat gave way to a clammy, ocean chill, and the streets were flooded with patrons, eager to spend some of the day's wages on the many delights being offered.
"Mmmm!" Lina exclaimed as she bit into a piece of skewered meat, feeling the juices flowing over her tongue, mixing with the spices and causing her mouth to tingle.
"I'll take twenty more please!"
As they worked their way through the marketplace, Lina made a point of haggling with the vendors, getting a feel for the value of this strange paper money. Vivi hid her amusement behind her hand when Lina started testing the waters with borderline insulting sums, eventually making off with large volumes of food for less than three-quarters the offered price.
"Oh, it's nothing." Vivi replied when inquired on why she found it so funny. "Just reminding me of someone I once traveled with."
Despite her attempts to hide her identity, Vivi was recognized, and soon dense crowds gathered to see the beloved princess, and praise her for saving the kingdom. Lina bit back her irritation at first, only for a smirk to form on her face when vendors began offering their goods to the princess for free, insisting despite her denials that they simply must repay her efforts.
"Well, I'll be glad to take this off your hands for her." Lina said as she collected the offerings, while her companions walked behind, laughing and shaking their heads at her shameless embezzling.
The crowds gradually dispersed as the night wore on, while the temperature dipped until breaths were coming out as puffs of white moisture. Lina patted her stomach, giving a sigh of contentment, then motioned for the group to return to the ship. With their destination in mind, they'd best push off early in the morning; there would be time to nap once the ship had gotten moving.
"You guys, I'll be returning to the palace now." Vivi spoke up once the ship was in sight, the three spot-billed ducks trotting alongside her.
"But before we part… When we met at the hot springs, we were strangers, and I must admit I acted a bit rashly. But you came all this way, and took it upon yourselves to drive out the men who wanted to exploit my country. So, as the princess of this land, I just wanted to say..."
"Thank you so much for everything." She said, bowing deeply.
To Vivi's surprise, Lina walked over, placing a hand on her shoulder and nudging her back up.
"Hey now, there's no need for that kind of stuff. And a princess shouldn't have to bow her head." Lina said. "You did what you thought was best at the time, and that's all anyone can ever ask for."
Smiling, Vivi straightened up and nodded.
"Good luck on your journey."
"Get home safe, okay?"
The party was up the next morning when the first streaks of orange were starting to peek over the horizon, though not without some arduous work getting Gourry out of bed. The bumbling incompetence from before was replaced with well-honed skill as they checked supplies and prepared the ship for departure. Zelgadis had taken well to the role of the navigator, and he certainly looked the part, with a Log Pose they'd picked up in town attached to his left hand, and the Eternal Pose given to them by CP9 held in his right. They'd been warned to never let their eyes drift from the needles for long, lest they be pulled off course by the Grand Line's unpredictable currents, said to loop around the world like the coils of some colossal dragon.
The sails were hoisted and the ship began to slide toward the ocean, carried by the river's current. Luke took the time to experiment some more, thrusting out his palms, jumping up and down, even spinning around in circles trying to figure out what ability he had acquired.
"Still nothing?" Lina leaned over him after he had spun himself into a daze.
The roar of distant cannon-fire jolted her from her fun, the blast spawning a vast column of water that drenched a nearby beach. Lina immediately fell into a ready position, and her eyes fell upon a squadron of warships approaching from the east. Each was a four-masted behemoth, several times larger than her own vessel by Lina's estimation, with triple-barreled cannons attached to swiveling turrets on their bows.
Things were just never that easy.
Kuzan stood at the bow of the front-most ship and called for another warning shot to be fired. The cannon boomed, landing a shot on an empty shore, producing a fiery explosion that he hoped would deter the interlopers. The commotion had already attracted a lot of attention, and he didn't want to put any citizens in danger if he could help it.
Kuzan gestured and a subordinate arrived, passing a pair of binoculars to his waiting hands. He scanned the stolen ship, noting the presence of a red-haired young woman who was yelling orders to a half-dozen or so crewmates. It didn't look like she intended to surrender.
"My oh my, amazing how some things intertwine." He murmured to himself.
Just a few hours ago, he had received a report from one of the ships stationed at Alabasta, requisitioned by the World Government for one of their black projects. They had described being defeated by a combined force of rogue CP9 agents and several others, losing two ships in the process but being permitted to escape on the third, at the insistence of one of the unidentified pirates.
Also described were some of the odd abilities that the unknown assailants possessed; multiple elements, beyond the scope of any known Devil Fruit. And now there was this young woman before him who matched the description of the Golden Lion Pirates' mysterious new recruit.
Kuzan signaled for the ships to stop and vaulted over the railing, forming a film of ice to stand on as his feet touched water. At the very least, he would take this group in for questioning. And if they could confirm some of his suspicions, particularly regarding the Golden Lions, he might not even mind repaying a favor with a favor.
Kuzan bent down, dipping his fingertips into the water.
With a sound like cracking glass, the sea before him froze, cresting waves solidifying in mid-motion to form a field of icy ridges. In an instant, the cold reached its target, sending veins of ice spider-webbing across the hull of the stolen warship. Kuzan waved to his subordinates, who deployed ladders from the sides of their ships, preparing to cross the frozen sea and board the enemy vessel.
Kuzan's eyes were drawn to a light flickering from the stolen vessel's bow, growing steadily brighter until its radiance rivaled that of the rising sun. It flared outward, condensing into thousands upon thousands of incandescent points. At some unseen signal they flew out, striking the sea surface and exploding into fiery conflagrations that swept away the ice, spawning a wall of impenetrable fog that rolled over the fleet.
The fog lifted after a few minutes, whereupon Kuzan noted that the stolen warship was now just a dark speck on the horizon, having traveled further than was probably possible even with very favorable winds. Peering through his binoculars, he noticed an artificial blast of air hitting the vessel's sails, sending it practically flying across the water like a skipping stone.
"Your orders, Admiral!" One of the ship captains called down.
"Set a course for Headquarters." Kuzan pronounced. At the captain's questioning look, he added, "This isn't a good time for the Marines to be taking on such risky engagements."
Marshall D. Teach took a bite out of his pie as he listened to Sengoku blathering on from across the table, listing out all the duties and responsibilities of the Seven Warlords. Raising his mug to his lips, he drained the container dry to wash down his meal.
"What's a guy gotta do to get something to drink around here?!" He demanded, slamming the empty mug against the table for emphasis and glaring at the Marines standing behind him. He grinned when one of the men quickly departed, returning with a pitcher to refill his cup.
"Teach! Are you even listening?!" Sengoku roared.
"Yeah, yeah, I heard it." Teach waved off the Fleet Admiral's protestations. He smiled inwardly.
His plan was going better than he'd ever imagined. With the capture of Portgas D. Ace, war with Whitebeard was imminent, and so he too needed to make his move soon. The position of Warlord was just a footstool, another step on the way to capturing the New Age.
And for that, he would need to go to Impel Down.
Author's Notes: And that's the end of the Cipher Pol Arc, Impel Down begins next chapter. Thanks to everyone who read or reviewed.