"Hina vexed!" Black Cage Hina, Colonel in the Marines, feared by pirates across all four oceans plus the Grand Line, slapped a pile of reports down on the desk in front of her and glared at Tashigi. (Currently lieutenant in the Marines, and capable of making a few pirates mildly nervous once they'd seen her use a sword. She had a long way to go yet.)

"Ma'am," Tashigi tried wearily, "with all due respect, I've been requesting information on Colonel Smoker's whereabouts from other sources as well. They don't know either. The reason I came to ask you again was . . ." She tried to think of something that sounded more flattering than I know you know where he is and you know I know you know but you aren't going to admit it. "Rumours are starting to go around. I'm not the only person asking. There have been some reports from Roguetown . . ."

"Roguetown!" Hina picked up a pen from her desk, and flung it across the room. It embedded itself neatly in the second wanted poster from the left by the door, and oozed a long thread of black ink across the smirking pirate's face. "If Smoker had done what he was supposed to and stayed in Roguetown in the first place, we wouldn't have had this mess to deal with! Hina extremely vexed!"

Tashigi crossed her fingers behind her back, commended her soul to any gods who might take an interest in protecting Marines, and looked as innocent as she could. "Well, ma'am, given the reports say that Smoker was last seen heading east of Alabasta following a particular log pose into part of the area previously controlled by Crocodile, and that three sailors who were on his ship were brought into your office last night and are currently under medical care and heavy sedation, all sorts of rumours . . ." She gave up on subtlety, and leaned forward to rest her hands on Hina's desk. "Ma'am, you know where Colonel Smoker is! I just want to help! Please assign me there too!"

Hina examined her nails.

"He's my commanding officer!" Tashigi shouted at her. "He went off without me because he was ordered to, and I know he's got into trouble! I can't just sit here and do nothing!"

"How did you find out about the sailors?" Hina asked in tones of mild curiosity.

Tashigi realised that she had been yelling at a superior officer. Who was one foot. Away. From. Her. "Um," she said weakly, and tried to lean backwards again without making it too obvious. "I followed Jango, ma'am."

"And was anyone else following him?"

Tashigi thought back. "No, ma'am. I don't think so."

"Good." Hina stared at her flatly. "Lieutenant Tashigi, your opinions are taken under advisement. Now I have a pile of reports to read through. I am going to want to talk to you again in half an hour exactly. You are going to wait outside. And talk to nobody." She raised one perfectly manicured finger. "Lieutenant, I am thinking about something. While I am thinking about it, you do nothing, you say nothing, and you sit where you are told to sit. Am I understood?"

"Yes, ma'am!" Tashigi exclaimed, snapping a salute.

The door had never seemed so inviting.

Half an hour later, Tashigi knocked nervously on the door.

"Come in!" Hina called.

Tashigi took a careful step through the door and closed it behind her, trying to maintain the maximum distance at all times between herself and her superior's desk. Not that that would save her from thrown missiles, but it would help with the temptation to grab Hina's shoulders and scream at her some more. "Ma'am. Reporting back, as you ordered."

Hina nodded. "Lock the door, lieutenant. We need to speak in private."

Tashigi felt her mouth dropping open in surprise. She closed it with a click, quickly turned around to lock the door, then marched over to the desk and assumed parade rest. This was beginning to look promising. "Ma'am."

Hina looked up at her appraisingly. "To answer your earlier question, lieutenant. In the absence of Crocodile, someone is attempting to build their own little pirate empire. Smoker went to investigate this. Something went wrong. Smoker is missing. This cannot be public news. Do you understand me?"

Tashigi folded her hands together behind her until she could feel the bones in her fingers creak, but kept her face still. Smoker. Colonel Smoker. Missing. "Yes, ma'am," she said, voice steady.

Hina's voice softened. "Good. Now here's the good news, lieutenant. Colonel Smoker went in publicly and obviously, and it looks like they were waiting for him. The next mission is going to go in quietly and incognito. We need someone from the Marines on it, someone who can handle themselves but who isn't a recognised name like Smoker or like me."

Tashigi brightened. The sun rose somewhere. Little birds sang hallelujahs. Elsewhere, Roronoa Zoro grunted in his sleep and kicked Sanji. "Colonel, do you mean --"

"I might do," Hina said gravely. "It depends on one thing. When I say incognito, I mean that the next mission is going to look like the only sort of ship that can travel freely in those waters. That means pirates."

Tashigi considered this sanely and sensibly for an appropriate length of time. The part of her mind attempting to wave white flags and point out that cooperating with pirates was never a good idea, viz. Monkey D. Luffy, etc, got run over by the locomotive trailing steam signals of RESCUE COLONEL SMOKER. "I guess I can play along if it's necessary, ma'am," she said bravely. After all, once she'd rescued Colonel Smoker, there could be happy wholesale arrests all round.

"Lieutenant." Hina took a long breath. "I'm not going to try to mince matters. This is not only a dangerous mission, it is a deniable one. You won't have a squadron of Marines at your back. You won't be able to call for help until things are sorted out. Possibly not even then. You are going to have to work with the person I have in mind -- no, more than that, you are going to have to follow orders. This isn't going to be pretty." Her eyes shadowed. "The only reason that I am sanctioning this is because if what's out there can take down Smoker as easily as it apparently did, then we need to deal with it now. Justice, lieutenant."

Tashigi nodded firmly. Her stomach clenched. Could she actually work with pirates, as one of them? "Colonel -- when you say incognito, you mean that I'd be disguised as a pirate?"

Hina nodded.

"And if they started raiding villages, then I --" She could taste bile now. No. No, she couldn't do that. Not her, not her sword.

"That shouldn't come into it." Hina smiled in what might have been meant to be a reassuring fashion, and tapped the new stack of reports that had grown to cover most of her desk's surface. "This particular area is full of small pirate groups. They spend all their time at odds with each other. Crocodile kept them that way. With him gone, someone else is rising to prominence. We've got rumours. Nothing more. But with Smoker vanished -- well. Hina concerned."

"Yes, ma'am," Tashigi agreed, and breathed a private sigh of relief. Killing other pirates. She could do that.

"So." Hina flattened her hands on the desk and leaned forward. "Lieutenant, if you say yes, then from now on Lieutenant Tashigi has a relapse of her knee injury and stays here on my ship in the infirmary. Someone else leaves. A corporal, perhaps. Corporal . . . Hime. A corporal with a record of bad discipline." She made a gesture with one hand, though Tashigi hadn't tried to interrupt. "Keep listening carefully. Corporal Hime is going to be doing courier duty, and she will be on the packet run to Hawk Island tomorrow morning. At Hawk Island, they've recently captured someone who we think is rather more than they think he is. This person will be receptive, we believe, to an offer of payment and to us permanently misplacing his record. He is a very intelligent man. If anyone can do a recon mission and find out what's going on out there, he can. Do you understand?"

Tashigi's brows drew together as she frowned. "You intend me to present your offer, ma'am, break him out of jail, and then join his crew as a deserting Marine."

"That's right . . ." Hina raised a delicate eyebrow. "Corporal?"

"Corporal, ma'am," Tashigi said firmly, and saluted.