Sequel to Between the Devil and the Deep
A Rurouni Kenshin AU Fic
Rated R: For cursing and other naughty things
Disclaimer: This Rurouni Kenshin franchise is owned and operated by Earl "Nobuhiro" Watsuki,
Tim "Shonen" Jump and "Sony" Jones. There are also a few silent partners I can't recall.
Chapter 14: The end is the beginning is the end.The skies over the tiny island were a leaden gray color, heavy with dark, foreboding clouds. A sharp wind blew in off the sea, rattling windows and absconding with roof tiles. More than one elderly weather forecaster predicted horrible storms in the near future, all of them citing inflamed joints, arthritic knees and other such maladies as proof. And when the storm did finally hit after several days of false alarms, it seemed to all and sundry that they had been right.
However, scarcely a day into its meteorological temper tantrum, the storm that had started out fierce and strong failed to follow up on its initial promise and soon petered out to a weak breath of wind and few drops of rain. The old men who had been forecasting doom and gloom were hardly discouraged by their errors. Instead, they nodded sagely to one another and proclaimed that winter was waning, spring was fast approaching, and they had known it all along.
Kaoru loved the time just after a storm, when everything was washed clean and the world seemed fresh and new. She wandered barefoot on the small beach that fronted her winter cottage, happily squeezing mud between her toes and looking more like a carefree young girl than an infamous pirate captain in her loose fitting linen dress and carelessly braided hair. She hummed some nameless tune under her breath as she wandered aimlessly up and down the beach, her eyes fixed on the distant horizon, her mind counting the days until it was safe to sail again.
"You're practically chomping at the bit, Kaoru." She jumped in surprise when Katsu appeared seemingly from nowhere and draped his arm over her shoulders. "Hell, you're starting to make me antsy."
She made a face at him and pushed his arm off her shoulders. "Don't sneak up on me!" She admonished irritably. "And I'm not chomping at the bit. I'm perfectly calm."
Katsu snorted and cuffed her affectionately on the shoulder. "You're not. But hey, at least you're not mooning around, crying and sighing and otherwise acting like a typical annoying lovesick female."
She smacked him in the arm, grinning when he winced and rubbed the sore spot. "Like you would know what a woman in love looks like. There's no woman alive stupid enough to fall for you."
He shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not, but that's not a concern of mine right now. And stop hitting me, I'm still convalescing."
"Quit acting like a baby. Megumi said your ribs and internal injuries have mostly healed. I personally think you're just acting like a sick man so I'll serve you hand and foot."
He affected a wounded expression. "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm an injured man."
She rolled her eyes and started walking towards her cottage. "Hardly. Look at you, you're getting fat from just sitting around, eating my food and whining."
He made a rude gesture with his hand before following her back to the house. It was lunch time after all. "You are a terrible hostess and ungrateful to boot!"
She whirled around, her hand still on the door latch. "Ungrateful? How exactly am I ungrateful?" Her eyes were narrowed, daring him to say something stupid.
Katsu was oblivious, as usual. "If I hadn't gotten myself kidnapped, you wouldn't have met up with your precious Kenshin. In fact, if I hadn't pissed off the Admiral, you would be sailing the seas forever a tragic spinster."
"If I thank anyone for bringing us together, it is the fates. As for you getting your stupid ass kidnapped, you almost got Chou killed! And Aoshi barely spoke to anyone for months! Misao is still trying to get him to stop brooding!"
"Aoshi always broods." Katsu shot back, although he did feel slightly guilty for Chou's injury.
"He's been brooding more than usual." She clarified with a glare. "He's nearly driven Misao insane, and it's all your fault, you moron!"
Katsu sighed. "All right, all right. I am a stupid, irresponsible lout with no feelings for anyone but myself. Now can I please have some lunch? I'm starving!"
Kaoru let go of the door latch, marched up to him and poked him hard on a still tender rib. He howled in pain and clutched his side like he had just been stabbed.
"All right, let's go inside and get something to eat." She said, suddenly as sweet as honey. He had paid for his stupidity and she was now satisfied. "After lunch we're going to go meet Sano to see about getting the Kami Kaze ready to sail."
Katsu knew better than to say anything else lest she get it in her head to use more than just one finger on his barely healed ribs. She could be quite vicious when provoked. Kaoru had shed her simple linen shift for her usual outfit of black pants, plain shirt, vest and sword, signaling to the world that she was ready to once again take her place as captain of the Kami Kaze. With Katsu trailing at her heels, his attention focused on a political tract in his hand, she made the three-mile journey to the small village that lay closest to her cottage. Many of her crewmembers spent their winters in the village; some even had families and homes there.
Her second in command, Sano, lived in a small room above the village's only tavern, perfectly content with his claustrophobic space even though he could easily afford to live in a larger apartment or even a house. He claimed that it was extremely convenient to live above a bar, all he had to do was roll out of bed and within minutes he had all the gambling, alcohol and women he could ever desire. Whether or not this was true was open to debate. Kaoru thought that he was just cheap.
She found him in the tavern playing dice with Chou and Misao. It was clear from her ecstatic expression and the surly ones that adorned the men that Misao was winning. Despite her genteel upbringing and lady-like manners, Misao was an excellent gambler, most were too smart to go up against her when money was at stake, but Sano and Chou were both too stubborn to admit that they could be beaten by a girl and insisted on playing her every chance they got. She beat them almost every time.
"Kaoru!" Upon seeing her friend, Misao scooped up her winnings, stuffed them into a small drawstring purse that hung off one delicate wrist and jumped up to greet her with an enthusiastic hug. "I haven't seen you in two weeks!" Kaoru returned the hug, grinning over her shoulder at her two stubborn crewmembers, who were commiserating over their losses.
After a few fortifying swigs of beer, Sano and Chou both rose and approached her; Kaoru's sharp eyes noted that Chou still moved slow, his chest bandaged in not so clean linen. "When was the last time you saw Megumi?" she asked him, looking meaningfully at his filthy bandages.
He shifted from foot to foot, his expression guilty. "A couple of weeks, I guess."
Kaoru scowled and pointed to the door. "Go over to Dr. Genzai's clinic, I think she's working there today, and have her take a look at you. I refuse to take a sick man aboard my ship." Chou meekly slipped out the door, leaving Kaoru and the others alone in the mostly empty tavern.
Katsu sidled up to the bar and ordered himself a beer, talking politics with the bartender while Kaoru, Sano and Misao seated themselves around a worn but clean table.
"Spring's almost here, I'd like to start getting supplies ready." Kaoru said, producing several sheets of parchment paper from her vest pocket. "Here's the supply list, with a few changes from the previous year. The last I checked, the shipwright was almost done with repairs, so once we lay in all the necessary supplies, we can set sail."
Sano grinned and took the papers from her hand. "Eager to get going, are you?"
Misao giggled and gave Kaoru a sly smile. "Can you blame her, Sano?"
"Both of you shut up." Kaoru growled, her face growing red.
Sano chuckled as he folded the papers and stuck them into his jacket pocket. "Do you want me to start rounding up the crew?"
"You do that, Sano. Now I'm going to go down to the docks and see how the 'Kaze is fairing." She rose gracefully from her seat and glared down at her two friends, who were grinning at her. "Knock it off, you two." She muttered.
The sound of Misao's giggles and Sano's deeper chuckles followed her out the door, which she slammed as hard as she could.
"Lord, she's fun to tease." Sano drawled, still quite amused.
"Kenshin? Are you listening to me?"
Kenshin blinked and looked down at his ward, realizing with some embarrassment that he had been completely ignoring the boy.
"Yahiko, I'm sorry, I was gathering wool. What did you say?"
Yahiko sighed a martyr's sigh and began again. "I asked you if you would teach me how to fight, with a sword. I mean, I'll need one, right?" The boy rubbed his hands together with glee at the thought.
Kenshin frowned. "I don't think so, Yahiko. If there's any fighting, you'll be down in the galley, with Megumi and Hiko. I don't want you getting hurt."
The young boy scowled. "I won't get hurt if you teach me how to defend myself! I don't want to be the only person on a pirate ship who doesn't know how to use a sword!"
"I'm beginning to think that I should leave you with Mrs. Sekihara." Kenshin replied thoughtfully. "A pirate ship really is no place for a boy..."
"You're going to leave me?"
Kenshin's eyebrows shot up at the almost indiscernible thread of vulnerability that wove through the boy's words. Yahiko had already lost his parents...could he really abandon him with Mrs. Sekihara?
With a sigh and a slight shake of his head, Kenshin pulled Yahiko into his arms and gave him a brief, suffocating hug. "No, I don't suppose I will leave you behind, Yahiko. But perhaps Kaoru would be a better teacher than I in regards to swordsmanship, especially the kind of swordsmanship you'll need aboard a pirate ship."
"But...but, she's a girl!" Yahiko pulled away from his adopted father and scowled again. "I mean, I know she's tough, but still..."
"I hardly think that particular handicap will slow her down. She's trained the men aboard the Kami Kaze since her father's death, she can teach you better than I could."
"We'll see." Yahiko said, clearly skeptical. That battle won, he moved on to a different topic. "D'you think she'll accept the Admiral's offer?"
"I don't see why not. It's very generous with its terms, I made sure of that." Kenshin sat down at his large oak desk and stared at the rolled and sealed piece of parchment that held the Admiral's offer to Kaoru. He toyed with it for a moment, a small smile on his face. "I imagine she'll be very surprised, but I think it's an appropriate wedding gift, don't you?"
"I thought girls liked flowers and jewelry and stuff. That's what Mrs. Sekihara said, anyway." Yahiko looked rather dubious.
"Not this girl, Yahiko. She's different." Kenshin's smile grew. "I think she'll like it just fine."
Kaoru hadn't slept well in months, due almost exclusively to the fact that she had been on dry land. She just couldn't sleep on land. There was just something so soothing about being on a ship, letting the sea rock her to sleep each night. She smiled as she stretched out on her bed, listening to the sounds of the ocean slapping against the hull of her ship, the murmur of her crewmembers as they went about their work. Her first good night of sleep since winter began. It didn't hurt that she had been dreaming of Kenshin. Feeling well-rested and generally amiable, she rose and began her morning ritual of washing and dressing. When she was done, she decided to skip breakfast and go up top to see what kind of day she would be having.
"Captain, I was just coming to get you, there's a ship off the starboard bow, coming fast." Soujiro met her at the top of the stairs, a worried frown on his face.
"What kind?" She was still calm. It could be a lot of things: whalers, a merchant ship.
"Imperial Man-of-War." Soujiro replied quietly.
She cursed. Evidently, she would be having a bad day. She grabbed the telescope from his hand and went to the starboard bow to see for herself. The ship was still a smudge on the horizon, but it was gaining fast, and with her telescope, she could clearly see that it was indeed an Imperial Man-of-War, fully rigged out.
"Do you want me to sound an alarm, Captain?" Soujiro hovered nervously at her elbow, ready to jump into action at her command.
She frowned and glared at the oncoming ship. Its cannon doors were closed and there were only a handful of sailors visible on its deck; with the exception of its speed, it didn't appear to be a threat. "Tell the men below to be ready at the cannons, but not to open the doors, we don't want to appear hostile."
Soujiro nodded and disappeared below decks. A few moments after his departure, Sano, looking like he had put away half the ship's rum the night before, appeared at Kaoru's elbow, waiting for her command, his eyes blood-shot and a scowl etched on his haggard face.
She glanced over at him and smirked. Despite the potential severity of their situation, she couldn't help teasing him a little. "Good morning!" She said loudly, her smirk turning to a full-fledged grin as he flinched from the sound.
"You are evil, Kaoru. Evil." Sano muttered, massaging his temples with a martyred expression on his face.
"I know. Did Soujiro fill you in?"
Sano nodded and squinted in the direction of the oncoming ship. "Maybe it's Kenshin?"
"I don't think so, he resigned, remember?" She gnawed thoughtfully on her lower lip. "Besides, even if he begged a favor from a friend, they wouldn't send out an Imperial Man-of-War, it's too expensive for an errand. No, there must be another reason."
"Well, we haven't broken any laws...yet, so I guess we shouldn't worry. Too much, anyway." Sano replied slowly.
Kaoru nodded. "We'll just have to wait it out. We'll keep our guns stowed so we don't provoke them. I'm going to go below to talk to Aoshi. Keep an eye on that ship." She handed Sano the telescope and disappeared below decks.
An hour later, the Imperial Man-of-War was floating placidly next to the Kami Kaze and Kaoru was trying to keep calm. Had they come to arrest her? To bring her a message? To blow the Kami Kaze out of the water?
With the exception of the men who were below decks at the cannons, most of her crew was assembled on deck, armed and very wary. Sano, Soujiro, Chou, Katsu and Aoshi hovered at her elbow, as tense as she was.
"We have a message for Captain Kamiya. Permission to come aboard?" One of the sailors from the Navy ship yelled across to the Kami Kaze.
"What the hell?" Kaoru muttered under her breath. She straightened a bit, arranging her expression into one of arrogance and annoyance. "Sano, grant them permission." She said, but held up a hand to stop him for a moment.
She turned and looked over her jittery men, eyeing each of them in turn, "No one moves unless I give the order." She said severely, waiting until they all nodded their understanding before allowing Sano to call out to the other ship.
"Soujiro, lower the ladder." She murmured a moment later.
There was a splash as the other ship lowered one of its longboats into the water and soon she could hear the sound of oars hitting the water, and the commands of one of the officers.
Soujiro, with the help of one of the men, lowered the rope ladder over the side so the Navy men could board. All they had left to do was wait. Kaoru hated waiting.
The first man that came up was clearly just a sailor, as was the next. Kaoru nearly swallowed her tongue when Saitou leapt agilely over the railing, followed by his lieutenant, Okita. The two men immediately made a bee-line for Kaoru and she had to fight the instinct that told her to draw her sword.
"Captain Saitou, I must admit to being quite surprised to see you here. To what do I owe the honor?" She kept her voice low, neutral and bowed courteously.
Saitou raised an eyebrow at her. "Can't you guess?" He drawled, sounding slightly amused.
Before she could reply, she saw a flash of red in her peripheral vision. She turned and gaped at Kenshin as he came over the railing, dressed in full uniform. He nodded briefly to some of the men he knew and strode confidently over to Kaoru and her small group.
She closed her mouth and studied him, suddenly feeling quite ill. He had re-joined the Navy? Had he decided not to be with her? That had to be it. She wanted to cry, but kept her expression cool. "Back to being a Captain then, Himura?"
He smiled at her and she frowned. "No, not captain. Commodore, actually."
"Ah." Was all she could say. So he had been enticed back with a promotion. At least he had come to say goodbye, she thought bitterly.
He studied her expression and seemed to realize something. "Perhaps an explanation is in order, Captain Kamiya," he said, reaching into his coat to produce a rolled piece of parchment. "I have here a proposal of sorts, from Admiral Hijikata." He handed her the scroll, his smile returning.
Her curiosity piqued, she took it, broke the seal and began to read. Her eyes widened as she began to understand just what the strangely formal and archaic language was saying. She looked up at Kenshin and he winked, which almost made her giggle.
"What does it say, Captain?" Sano tried to read over her shoulder, but she waved him away.
"We have been authorized by the emperor and Admiral Hijikata to take any ship believed to be an enemy of the empire, by force if necessary." She replied, her eyes on Kenshin.
"What the hell does that mean?" Sano asked, puzzled.
"It means that, according to this document, we are no longer pirates, but privateers, free to take enemy ships with no repercussions from the government." Kaoru said evenly.
"Huh? We work for the government now?" Sano frowned. He didn't like the sound of that.
"Not really. They're just saying that it's okay for us to do what we've always done. We get to keep most of the plunder, too." Kaoru replied, her eyes dropping back to the document in her hands. "And we've all been cleared of any outstanding warrants."
"It sounds too good to be true. What's the catch?" Katsu asked suspiciously.
"We must have a naval representative on board at all times to monitor our activity and ensure that we take no liberties with our new power." Kaoru sounded almost like she wanted to laugh.
"Fuck that. Say no, Kaoru!" Sano hissed.
Katsu elbowed him hard in the stomach. "Don't you get it, idiot?"
"Get what? That they want to control us?" Sano replied angrily, rubbing his stomach.
Katsu just rolled his eyes, so Aoshi decided to explain things. "Who do you think that representative will be, Sano?" He sounded like he was talking to a small, very slow child.
"Umm..." Sano frowned, thinking hard.
"Kenshin, you moron." Katsu growled.
"Oh...OH! I get it!" Sano slammed his fist into his open palm and grinned.
Kaoru rolled her eyes.
Kenshin bit back a laugh. Clearing his throat, he got Kaoru's attention. "Admiral Hijikata asked me to reconsider my resignation. When I hesitated, he offered me a promotion and this particular assignment. I decided that it was an excellent offer."
"Indeed." Kaoru replied, not hiding her smile.
"So, do you agree to the terms?" Saitou cut in, clearly eager to be away. "If you do, then sign the top parchment. I'll deliver it to the Admiral. There's an extra copy there for you, so you can prove your status if you are challenged."
"I do agree. Let us adjourn to my quarters so I can sign this." Kaoru led Saitou, Kenshin, Sano, Katsu and Aoshi below decks to her quarters, immensely pleased that she had remembered to pick up her undergarments and make her bed.
Throwing the parchment onto her desk, Kaoru grabbed her pen, dipped it in the nearest open inkwell and signed the top parchment with a flourish. "All right, Captain Saitou, here's the agreement. Now you can leave."
Saitou rolled the paper and stuck it into his coat. "Fine. I'll send Commodore Himura's things and Yahiko aboard." He marched out, Okita on his heels. Sano looked as though he wanted to stay and say something but Katsu dragged him out, slamming the door hard behind them.
"You are a very clever..." Kaoru began to say, but she wasn't able to finish because Kenshin was on her the moment the door shut. He kissed her breathless, holding her to him with one strong arm wrapped around her waist while his other hand was busy in her hair.
When they finally broke apart, she couldn't stop the silly grin that bloomed on her face. "I missed you, too." She managed, running her hands over any part of him that she could reach. "For a minute there, when I first saw you in your uniform, I thought that you had come to say goodbye."
"No, never. I told you that I would find you Kaoru." He kissed her again, gently this time.
"Was all of this your idea?" She asked, pushing him away so she could get a good look at him.
He grinned. "Most of it. I take it you approve?"
She grinned back. "Oh, most definitely, Commodore."
He suddenly got the most wicked look on his face and walked quickly to her door, which he locked. "I like hearing you call me that, Kaoru. But what I'd really like is to hear you shout it."
She quirked an eyebrow. "And just what are you suggesting, Commodore?" She asked, attempting to look scandalized, but failing.
He pulled her into his arms and whispered exactly what he had in mind into her ear. She blushed bright red and laughed.
"Well, I'm not sure that first one is even possible, but I'm not adverse to a little experimenting." She said, grabbing his hand and leading him towards her bed.
He stopped her before she could pull them both into the soft mattress. "I love you, Kaoru." He murmured, squeezing her hand.
She smiled and pulled her hand away so she was free to throw her arms around his neck. "I love you too, Kenshin. Now, let's see just how loud you can make me shout."
A/N: Well, that's it. That be all I wrote. sigh Thanks so much for all your support. You guys have been absolutely wonderful and supportive for both fics. For example, 'Between the Devil and the Deep' was nominated for a Rurouni Kenshin Reader's Choice Award in two different categories: Action/Adventure and Alternate Universe.
shameless plug I still need a second for Alternate Universe, if you're so inclined. /shameless plug You should check out the RKRC Awards anyway because there is a plethora of excellent fics to read. I spent hours devouring all the great stuff there, myself. I put a link to it on my author profile page.
Thanks again for being such patient and enthusiastic readers. And thanks to my buddies at the RKDreams Forum who offered opinions and help when I needed it. You guys rock!
P.S. The title for this chapter? Smashing Pumpkins song.