A/N:Rah, we never keep our deadlines. Really sorry. My co-author and I have been playing mail-tag for weeks. We never seem to be online at the same time so we can finish going over the chapter details. Well, anyway, here's the next episode! We're really sorry for the inconvenience and I really, really hope you like this chapter. Enjoy!
Disclaimer:We do not own Rurouni Kenshin, because if we did it would be a lot different. It would have featured a talking animal of some kind.
Safer on the Outside
Chapter 6: "Someone Take The Wheel"
In a Hotel in Rome--
Kamatari Seta rested peacefully between the crisp hotel sheets. His fragile body was cushioned on the soft mattress. It had been the first real sleep he'd gotten since they left New York. Of course, he would never have told that to Misao. She worried constantly over him, fretting and nursing and trying to make sure that everything was perfect for him. It was frustrating sometimes, but understandable.
As he rested peacefully, his mind began swimming into a world of dreams, painted colors and subconscious feelings rose in his mind.
He was back in the dance studio. The hard wood floors were waxed to shine and they creaked as he walked across them, like always. The large front windows were filled with the sunlight of a lovely day. He scanned the large room, noticing a lone dancer as she spun gracefully across the floor.
Even after eight years, his breath still caught in his throat at the sight of Misao dancing. It was too beautiful to be spoken in words. It was as if the very essence of the girl herself was somehow glowing in her movements. She moved without thought or worry or fear. When she danced, she was simply Misao Makimachi, and the rest of the world fell away from her. When she danced and when she fought, were the only times she let herself be free.
What puzzled him was that the Misao he was seeing was not present-day Misao, he was looking at Misao from eight years ago. A sixteen-year-old Misao. The age she had been when they had first found her.
Ever so slowly, as she moved through her dance, Kamatari watched her age through the years. It was like time-lapse photography, watching the girl age years in a matter of seconds. When she came to a pirouette in her dance, the aging stopped, and present day Misao stood before him.
That was when the ground opened under her feet and Misao fell from view with a single blood-curdling scream.
Kamatari woke with a jolt. In an instant, he tossed the covers from his body and tossed his feet over the edge of the bed, jamming them into the awaiting slippers. He moved silently and with a purpose, ignoring the fact that his hands were shaking as they tied the sash of his bathrobe and that his body was covered in a cold sweat.
He padded over to the nightstand and grabbed up the cell phone on the tabletop. It was the one that Soujiro had left for him when he and Misao had set out earlier in the evening. Kamatari threw open the top and punched the keys to get Soujiro's number.
Impatiently, the older Seta waited for the younger to answer.
After three rings, he was met with, "I'm busy, call back later!"
"Soujiro Seta," Kamatari barked. "If you hang up this phone I guarantee that I will remove the possibility of you ever having children!"
"Kamatari?" Soujiro sounded startled to say the least, and paused to answer the call. "What are you doing awake in the middle of the night?"
"That's not important," his brother urged, his voice getting higher in pitch with the level of his anxiety. "Misao's in danger!" Kamatari was met with only dead air. "Soujiro?" he whispered. "Soujiro!?!"
"How did you know she was in trouble?" the younger brother asked with a hitch in his voice.
Kamatari felt the bottom fall from his stomach. Misao really was in danger. The dream had been a warning. "Soujiro, tell me what happened," Kamatari ordered. "And don't leave a thing out!"
Somewhere in the catacombs--
Aoshi was unaware of how long he was actually asleep, or if he actually fell asleep at all. He was in that hazy place, between sleeping and consciousness where all things blurred into one another. Sounds, colors, smells all faded into one big lucid dream. When he blinked enough of it away to be consciously aware of his surroundings, the only light in the room was a small red dot about ten feet away.
He could vaguely make out a human shape the same distance away, and in a rush, remembered that Misao was there with him. And she had been hurt after the fall, unconscious when he tried to rest. Aoshi attempted to squint harder into the darkness in the hopes of seeing her in better shape.
That was when he caught the smell. Cigarette smoke. Narrowing his eyes, he noticed that the small red light was actually the burning end of a cigarette. He felt annoyance brimming in him. Here was Misao, who could have cracked her head open on the floor of the catacombs and died, and she was smoking.
"Those things can kill you," he muttered.
"You know, I've heard that." Her voice was equally as dry as his. The light moved from the height he could only assume to be her mouth to rest someplace lower. "You fixed my arm." It wasn't a question. It was met only with silence. "I expect you want a thank you," she continued.
"I doubt I'd know what to do with one," he muttered to himself.
Misao chuckled a little before taking another drag on her cigarette. Her arm was sore from being dislocated after her fall, but it wasn't the first time her shoulder had popped out. She doubted it would be the last. Pain faded, and she could deal with quite a bit of it. What bothered her most was her head. When she had come to and sat up, her body's soreness had taken account only after her vision had stopped swimming and her head had stopped throbbing. Now it was a sort of dull ache.
She made a mental note to have Soujiro check it out whenever she got out of this place.
Aoshi, in the meantime, got to his feet. He cracked his back loudly, spreading circulation through his tired body. "You should let me take a look at your head," he commented.
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Misao scuttled back a few feet—faster than her body would have liked. "No, that's fine." She didn't want to get too comfortable in his company—he was the enemy after all—but more importantly, she just didn't want him to touch her.
Aoshi made a kind of clicking sound with his tongue. Misao guessed that it was out of annoyance. "I'm not going to hurt you," he said tightly. "In case you haven't noticed, we are trapped here together. I might need you in order to get out of here, and I seriously doubt a concussion will help our escape."
"I don't care what your motive are," Misao snapped. "You're not going to touch me, got it?"
"What is your problem?"
"You! No one touches me, got it?" she growled. Then, in a smaller voice she added, "I'm aphephobic."
That was met with a wall of cold silence. "Fear of physical contact," he muttered after a few moments, pacing a little around the hole they were in. Maybe, with a little luck, there would be a secret way out, or a grove in the stone they could climb on to get out. "Not exactly a thief-like trait."
"A thief only touches what they steal," Misao commented, more to herself then to him. "Or when they're fighting someone. Other than that, I can easily avoid it."
"So you can kick someone, but not let them look at a head wound?"
He was mocking her, and that was making her angry. "My business is my own. It has nothing to do with you. Why do you care anyway?"
"I don't," he commented easily. "But just because I don't care doesn't mean I'm not curious."
Misao looked at him with a level expression that he couldn't quite make out in the darkness. "Did you find a way out yet?" Tactfully changing the subject was something she had always been good at.
Still, he noticed her motives. "Actually, I think I have."
In the van--
Soujiro Seta, cigarette between his teeth, headset over his ears, and hands moving from one keyboard to another, had never worked so hard in all of his life. His fingers shook, his brain hurt, and his eyes were tearing from the smoke in the van. Still, he refused to open a window or stop smoking. It calmed his nerves; let him think better.
He had to find Misao.
That was the only thing that mattered to him right now. Not exhaustion, not breaking million-dollar equipment, not even if they got the fucking swords or not. He was going to find his sister and he was going to get her out of there before that freak Aoshi Shinomori did anything to her.
The door to the van slid open behind him, and the clouds of smoke billowed out into the night air. Kamatari coughed roughly after being hit in the face with it. "For the love of God, Soujiro, put that out!" he yelled.
"No time," Soujiro said, eying on the screen that showed a map of the catacombs. "Gotta find her."
"At least let us help you," Sanosuke said with annoyance as he came into view beside Kamatari. Megumi and Kaoru were behind them. It seemed his darling older brother had woken the entire team. Good, Soujiro would put them to work.
"Well, don't all of you just stand there," Soujiro barked. "We've got work to do!"
"What can we do?" Kamatari asked.
Soujiro got to his feet, pulling a flashlight and his sword from the front seat. "Simple," he declared. "I'm going in after my sister."
"Soujiro, you don't know where she is!" Kamatari protested.
"I know she went down here," he snapped, pointing to the point on the map where he had lost contact with Misao. "That's where I'll start." He tossed a headset to Kamatari. "You can guide me through it like I was doing for Misao."
"What about us?" Kaoru asked, looking determined to do something.
"Kaoru, Sanosuke, you can come with me," he said after a moment. "Megumi, stay with Kamatari."
"Right," the doctor nodded, climbing into the van with her charge.
"Soujiro," Kamatari said, a wan smiling pulling on his lips. "You're taking charge."
Soujiro returned his smile with an impish grin. "Don't get any ideas. I'll become a slacker again as soon as we find Misao." His brother nodded and the younger Seta turned toward the others. "Do you have your weapons?" They nodded and he tossed them each a flashlight. "Let's go then."
"Soujiro," Kamatari called. "Find my little bird." There was a pleading tone in his voice, an almost desperate fear outweighed only by the love he had for that girl.
"I will," Soujiro promised. His silver-blue eyes had darkened to brown, a sign of anger and concentration. "If there are any problems, let me know."
There was a curt nod and the two parties departed. Soujiro led the other two into the catacombs, the same way Misao had gone before. Kamatari and Megumi turned on the headset before setting about finding a safe path for their teammates. Each of them prayed that they'd find Misao before anything happened to her.
In the catacombs--
"This is your brilliant plan?" Misao questioned after she had wrenched herself to her feet and stumbled over to where Aoshi was indicating. There was a small opening in the jagged rock of the wall, just big enough for a person to squeeze though. "We have no idea where this goes!"
"Would you prefer to stay in this hole then?" he asked calmly.
"At least in this hole someone could find us off of the main path!" she argued. "If we go through here, God only knows where we'll end up or how we'll get out."
"The way I see it," Aoshi said calmly. "You can take your chances in this hole or you can come with me through the opening. It's your choice, Misao, but I'm going."
"Have fun," she snapped. "I am not going in there."
"Oh well," he said without any remorse. Then he disappeared through the opening.
For a few minutes, Misao was dumbstruck. He actually left her behind, in the pit, alone and injured. That bastard! How dare he? That was when she decided to follow, just to give him a piece of her mind, not because she was afraid or anything ridiculous like that.
Hobbling back over to the center of the pit, Misao groped around in the pitch dark until she found her bag, then she tossed it over her good shoulder before following Aoshi through the opening. "Stupid shadows… goddamned sword… I hate my job…"
"All your complaining could wake the dead," Aoshi muttered from his position of waiting for her through the opening. Misao, not expecting him to be there, shrieked and fell backwards.
"Holy fuck!" she screeched. "Don't you ever fucking do that to me again! I could have died!"
He only chuckled lightly at her expense. "Come on, we should keep moving if we want out of here."
Misao glared at his back as she followed him down the dark, winding path, hugging her bag to her chest. She didn't trust this thief in the least, but she knew it was safer to be with someone who could fight, than to be alone and injured in a pit. That was just asking for death. He made no further attempts to touch her, or frighten her, or threaten her, but she was still threatened and jumpy. Every time he slowed, she'd skitter back a step or two.
He didn't comment, though it annoyed him a great deal. He didn't trust this little rogue, for all her weakened state of innocence. She could just as easily jump him from behind—though he doubted she'd be that impulsively stupid. Aoshi was sure that she had a great deal of self-preservation skills.
"How much farther do you think this path will go?" she whispered in the darkness after they had been walking for at least an hour.
"No idea," he responded. "But the air is getting fresher, so I'd say we're getting closer to an opening."
"That's something at least," she muttered aloud. "God, I hope Soujiro finds me…"
"You're hoping for rescue?" he asked with a little amusement. "Here I thought the Phantom Rogue worked alone."
"Hardly," Misao scoffed. "I do the easy part."
"The actual stealing," he voiced in understanding. "You've got a technical team then."
"You met one of them," she said with a rueful smile. "The one who helped me in the warehouse."
"Boyfriend?" he asked, not really sure why. The word had just come to his mind, and then to his lips, since he was too busy concentrating on walking and not enough on the conversation.
"Brother," Misao said with a laugh. "Aphephobic, remember?"
"Ah, yes," he responded.
That was when the winding path finally came to a halt, and the two lost thieves found themselves in a kind of crypt-like antechamber. The walls were lined with large slabs in which bodies were meant to rest. But instead, the black stone was empty of corpses. The chamber seemed empty of everything, just an impressive circular alcove full of stale air and dim light.
"Where is that light coming from?" Misao asked, spotting a stray beam that fell across one of the empty tombs.
Aoshi followed it with is eyes to a hole in the ceiling. "Up there," he commented, pointing to a crumbling section of masonry ceiling. "There must be some kind of light in the upper chamber."
"Then we have to get up there!" Misao announced.
"How do you propose we do that?" he asked, turning to her.
"Hold my bag," Misao said with a click of her tongue, tossing the black bag into his reflexive arms. "I'll take a closer look."
Head still throbbing, shoulder still aching, Misao pulled herself up into one of the empty tombs, then to the one above that, and the other above that. She climbed slowly, but carefully and purposefully, until she reached the top tomb and the section of crumbling stone.
"Careful," Aoshi called from the ground. "It might collapse if you prod it too much."
"I'm not an idiot," she responded in a sing-song voice as her fingers probed the stone easily. Some of it crumbled away under her light touch, but most of it groaned when she added slight pressure. "Better move," she advised. "I wouldn't want you to get hit on your pretty little head."
That said, she pressed upwards on the stone with all the strength in her wiry limbs. She heard the groan and the cracking, just what she had been hoping for. Then, she quickly pulled herself back, out of range of the falling stone. And fall it did, a four-foot opening gaped above her into a well-lit chamber.
"And God said, let there be light," she grinned.
A/N: Okay, the end of the chapter! I swear to get the next one out sooner, and I will. I've got a nice idea ready and set for the final Roman installment—then we'll be heading to another exotic location. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this chapter, please remember to review!