A/N - Artie's rescue, part the second. Sorry it's been so long - hopefully it'll be worth the wait?
Oh, and to any American readers - happy independence day!
Francis had never seen Gil like this, so focussed and sure of himself. Gil had always had the attention span of a drunk gnat, constantly flitting from one idea to the next.
"Take off your coat," Gil ordered. Francis' finger still hovered over the trigger, and slowly Braginski obeyed. Movements clipped and precise, Gil stepped forwards and removed Braginski's weapons from his belt, tossing them behind him to Francis. Then he did the same with his own weapons.
"What are you doing?"
Gil didn't take his eyes off Braginski. "We're both unarmed. We'll fight on equal grounds, an' when I take ya down you'll know that it wasn't 'cause I had the advantage; it's 'cause I'm better than you." He turned to Arthur. "He tortured me, too, Artie. But he can't defeat you unless ya let him - an' I for one am not gonna let him."
Something flickered in Arthur's eyes; Francis barely saw it before it was extinguished. It's my fault, he realised. I should never have let him go. This is all my fault.
Francis glanced up at Gil.
"No matter what, don't ya dare get involved. This is my fight, and I ain't gonna share the victory."
Francis nodded sharply. He knelt and put his arm around Arthur's shoulders, murmuring quiet encouragement. He helped Arthur to his feet and pretended not to notice how frail he felt. Part of him wanted to hold Arthur tight, to shield him from everything; another stronger part was afraid that he'd break Arthur in two.
There was the sharp crack of a punch landing, and Francis' attention snapped back to the fight, guilty that he'd been so distracted as to forget that Gil was in danger. Fortunately, the Prussian seemed to be holding his own pretty well. Braginski was much stronger, powerful muscles visible even through his shirt, but Gil was wiry and fast. Where Braginski's cheek was already blossoming into an ugly bruise, Gil seemed as yet untouched.
He'd spoken too soon. Francis watched as Braginski feinted left and Gil fell for it. He dodged straight into Braginski's low kick, realising his mistake too late.
He was limping visibly now, and Francis knew he couldn't watch Gil get himself killed. His hand went to his belt, ready to intervene, but Gil caught his eye and shook his head almost imperceptibly. No.
Of course, he hadn't fallen for the feint - Gil was faking it, trying to get Braginski overconfident, trying to lead him into a trap. Still limping, Gil backed himself into a corner. Braginski's smile was cold and cruel as he pulled back his fist and…
Bracing himself against the wall, Gil kicked out with both feet and struck Braginski in the stomach. The taller man staggered back, winded, and Gil immediately followed up with a quick volley of punches. Braginski was swaying now, and Francis let himself smile. There was no way Braginski could win now.
And then Braginski reached into his boot and pulled out a Bowie knife.
He laughed. "Did you really think I wouldn't have another knife on me? Really, Beilschmidt. How could you be so naïve?"
Panicking, Francis scrabbled for his pistol; too slow. He watched in horror as Braginski brought down the knife, sharp and fast.
Then there was the rasp of metal on metal as Gil brought out his own knife and blocked Braginski's swing.
It was Gil's turn to laugh. "Did you really think I'd trust you, Braginski?"
Braginski stared at him in shock, and Gil took his chance. He flicked his wrist and the knife spun out of Braginski's grasp; Gil caught it with his other hand and pressed the blade to Braginski's throat.
Arthur hurt all over.
His head was spinning and there were black spots hovering over his vision. But that didn't particularly worry him; what did worry him, however, was the fact that he was having yet another hallucination - one that was much more vivid than he'd ever had before.
Arthur was fantasising that Francis was there, standing by his side and cradling him as gently as if he were porcelain. Gil was here, too, and imaginary Gil was very different from the Gil that Arthur knew - used to know. Imaginary Gil was a lot more focussed and a lot more formidable. Imaginary Gil was not, Arthur noted, an enemy you wanted to have.
"I win," imaginary Gil said.
Imaginary Braginski stood before him, head bowed in defeat. "Are you going to kill me, Beilschmidt?" He asked quietly. It didn't sound as if he particularly cared either way.
Gil grinned savagely. "Oh, no - I'm gonna do much worse."
Braginski's head snapped up and he laughed. "Torture? Oh, how sweet. I taught you everything in that area - did you pay attention well?"
This time it was Gil's turn to laugh. "I ain't gonna torture ya, Braginski." He paused. "Well, I ain't gonna torture ya physically. For one thing, knowin' you, ya wouldn't give a tiny rat's arse. An' anyways, torturin' is transient. Ain't got the time to torture you forever. Eventually you'd just run off an' build up your troops again."
"Then what are you going to do?" Said Francis in surprise, and oh, Arthur wasn't expecting a figment of his imagination to be so painfully accurate. That voice sounded exactly how he remembered, and Arthur was entirely unprepared for the painful twist that drove home the fact that he still loved Francis.
It was just so unfair.
"Then what are you going to do?" Francis asked. Beside him, Arthur flinched, and Francis held on to him slightly more firmly.
"Absolutely nothin'," Gil said proudly.
Oh. Oh. That was actually rather brilliant.
"Thanks," Gil preened, and Francis abruptly realised he must have said that aloud.
If Braginski were tortured or held captive, his men would rally round and he'd be lauded for his villainous heroism. But if Braginski's men saw their captain come out of a fight, unhurt but for a fine scratch at his throat from the press of a knife, they would presume he'd begged for his life like a coward, sold out his acquaintances in exchange for mercy. They'd scatter faster than rats fleeing a sinking ship, and Braginski would be left with nothing.
Francis shifted slightly to better support Arthur. "Let's go. Can you walk, Arthur?"
There was no reply.
"Come on, mon cher, what happened to that fighting spirit? The Arthur I know would never give up. Stand up, and let's get you out of here."
"Ya know Artie, he'll have to carry ya like a girl if ya don't get goin'," Gil supplied helpfully.
For a moment Arthur's usual glare returned, with less force than usual but still unmistakably there, and then he started walking stiffly, leaning heavily on Francis.
Gil grinned and prodded Braginski in the back with his knife. "Get goin', Braginski."
It took some time for them to make their way back to the deck, because Braginski was of course stubbornly uncooperative, refusing to lead them out of the underbelly of the ship. Francis didn't care, because Arthur was warm and light at his side. His thoughts kept returning to the image of Arthur scowling at him and Gil, and wasn't it stupid that Francis was giddy with happiness from a glare?
Once they arrived on deck, Antonio rushed up to meet them, grin wider than the crescent moon. "Hola, amigos! Arthur, it's so good to see you again! I hope you're feeling okay? We've subdued Braginski's thugs, so you're safe now," he chattered.
Francis had barely opened his mouth to respond when suddenly there was a sickening crack from behind them. He whirled around, automatically reaching for his gun, and blinked in confusion.
Standing on the stairs silhouetted against the sky was a girl, with a black bow in her mousy blond hair and a thick metal pipe grasped in a white-knuckle hold. Judging from her stance she'd just struck with it, and from her expression of fury it was clear that she'd missed her target.
In front of her was a sandy haired boy with his back to Francis, standing between the girl and Arthur.
Antonio recovered first - Francis had barely grasped that the two of them were there before when the Spaniard levelled his pistol and shot the iron pipe close to the girl's hand, wrenching it out of her grasp. It clattered to the deck and then three things happened in swift succession.
The girl let out an enraged yell and lunged towards them, shoving the sandy haired boy out of the way and causing him to stagger into Gil. In trying to catch the boy Gil let go of the knife he'd been holding against Braginski's back. Whirling around, Braginski grabbed the knife and slid it carefully up under his own ribs.
He fell noiselessly to the deck, dead.
Arthur's mind couldn't seem to comprehend what was happening. His thoughts were just circling tentatively about the possibility that it was over, that maybe things were looking up.
Because that was Al, wasn't it? Arthur had only seen the briefest flash of his face, but he would know his brother anywhere. Couldn't forget the way Al stood, confident but somehow slightly uncertain, or the way his blond hair stuck out in unruly tufts at the back - he was constantly tugging at it, trying to get it to lie flat but only succeeding in making it worse.
Al stumbled into Gil, and it was like Arthur was watching actors playing out a scene before his eyes as Braginski fell to the deck.
Al looked up at Arthur. His face was wan, and the bruising around his eye was stark against the paleness of his skin. He was cradling his arm to his chest, and Arthur suddenly realised that the crack he'd heard must have been the sound of the girl breaking Al's arm with Braginski's pipe.
"Hey, Artie," Al said, grinning suddenly. It was the same expression as he remembered from when Al was younger, Arthur noted; at least there was one thing about his brother that hadn't changed.
Arthur swallowed, mouth dry. "Al?"
"The one and only," Al said proudly, and if that grin got any wider it'd split his face in two.
"You're Arthur's brother?" Francis asked. "What happened? How did you survive?"
"He told you what happened?" Al said. "Well, after Braginski shot me -" Arthur flinched at this point - "I was pretty surprised to be alive, really. Still have a wicked scar right here," he said proudly, tapping his breastbone. "I was just lucky. The bullet hit my sternum, fucked it up pretty bad, but Braginski knows some talented healers. You have to, in his business. It was pretty touch and go for a while, but I pulled through in the end. Don't worry, Artie, you can't get rid of me that easy!"
"I remember you!" Gil said abruptly. "You were there at the same time as me. Braginski was obsessed with ya, man."
Al shivered. "You get used to it. And I wasn't alone by the end - there's this guy Kiku, he's the one who saved my life after the, um, bullet thing. Have you guys seen him? He's about yea high, dark hair and eyes, very quiet."
"I'll go find him," Antonio offered.
"Thanks." Al turned back to Arthur. "What I said before… You know I didn't mean it, right?" He said gingerly.
Arthur winced, shoving back the memory of what Al had said.
Al barrelled on obliviously. "Braginski's the master of torture. If he knew I still loved you, he would've destroyed you utterly. What I said before, I mean, you know, when I said that you hadn't been my brother since you left me to die - I didn't mean it, you know?"
The image of Al's cold stare flashed up in Arthur's mind. The way he'd looked at Arthur had been awful.
Arthur glanced down at Braginski's body, sightless eyes staring at the sky and mouth still twisted in that familiar smirk. He looked around at Al, at Francis, at the whole crew of the Achéron that had gathered to see what had happened, and then back to Braginski.
This was all too good to be true.
A/N - I actually enjoyed writing the fight scene waaaay too much; beating up Braginski was very satisfying. Other than that, the chapter pretty much wrote itself - I did NOT mean for Braginski to end up with a knife between his rib I'm really gonna miss him as a character! (To ThexDarkenedXLight - hope that clears things up apropos of Al?)
Anyway, I won't bang on about it. Now I shall repeat the usual spiel about wanting reviews; and remember, folks - for every review you write, a puppy is born :D
Thanks for reading! Hope it was better than the last chapter.