-Time Skip of Six Years-
"Enter left, Second in command. Powder monkeys, to the ready!" The strong, clear voice rang out in the midmorning sun. It was a beautiful day, the water clean and sparkling, reflecting the giant vessel on its surface, and the sky was open and clear with nary a cloud. On the deck of the ship, the crew members were scattered and were running with a practiced precision. Every command was met with an immediate response by the crew.
Two figures stood at the center of the boat, exuding prominence. One was clad in a sleek, black coat that was bare of all decor except for the silver buttons lining the sleeve and chest. The other bore a white buccaneer's shirt and brown belt, a pair of tan trousers finishing the outfit. Neither outfit was very dazzling, but both men created an atmosphere that inspired respect.
"Ease right, men!" The blonde shouted again. Again, a trained response came from the crew. Green eyes flicked from crewmember to crewmember, analyzing, critiquing. Strong, lean arms crossed over a torso that was no longer the chest of a child, but one of a robust young adult. Arthur Kirkland had grown, no longer a scrawny little thirteen year old but a capable, trained adult. He flicked back his bangs with his hand, then smiled at the crew members, who looked on expectantly.
"Ah, that was a spectacular display, men. Get on with your day; you're done here," he said, dismissing them with one swipe of his hand. The crowd let out a cheer of thanks, then eased back into their daily schedules and away from the canon-firing drill.
"That was very impressive, Arthur-kun." Arthur turned around and smiled at Captain Honda, whose face bore a whisper of a smile. "I am sorry I have not been present to witness your previous exercises. It was a sight to behord."
Arthur calmly scratched the back of his head and laughed.
"Oh, it wasn't anything, Captain. If anything, I owe it to you for teaching me so well." Immediately after those words had left Arthur's lips, Captain Honda's face darkened slightly, and he turned away, hacking and coughing into the crook of his arm. Arthur's green eyes widened with surprise and alarm.
"Captain! A-are you okay?!" He tried to provide a protect arm for the captain, but Honda shied away. He didn't look at the worried blonde.
"... It is... nothing. A mere airment." A rapid succession of coughs followed that statement, doing nothing to ease Arthur's worry. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something fall to the ground. It was blood.
Face pale, he said, "Captain! That's not just a cold! You're bloody bleeding!" The captain still wouldn't meet his eyes. In an instant of stubborn pride, Arthur made a decision.
"We're getting you medicine. I'm utilizing my authority as your apprentice to take control of the ship." Captain Honda said nothing, just closed his emotionless eyes.
"... Hai." The word was nothing less than a whisper, but it was a submission all the same. The Englishman's face immediately turned into an expression of thanks.
"I'll go ready the crew."
It was dark by the time the ship had landed at the nearest dock. The blackened cobblestone streets and the lack of people milling around wrenched from Arthur a painful memory, one from six years ago, of a similar cobblestoned area... The blonde shook his head vigorously and willed the memory to disappear back into the abyss from which it came.
Ludwig hoisted the rope ladder from its nook and threw it over the ship without struggle. The strong German would be accompanying him in search for a doctor; as much as Arthur didn't like to admit it, he wasn't strong enough to fend off a couple of thieves all at the same time. He nodded at the German and climbed down the ladder, expertly hopping off at the bottom and onto the cold wood that constituted the dock. He turned to examine the streets and heard a loud thump from behind him, indicating that Ludwig had followed.
"Assistant Captain," the German said gruffly, but not unkindly, "Most medicine houses are located to the far left of town; if we keep to the alleys we should find one within the half hour." Arthur listened keenly and nodded, grateful for the man's advice.
The journey past the closed mills and shopkeeps was uneventful. The darkness poured out into the street and retreated whenever a lamplight was to be found, creating illusions and tricks of the mind. Arthur maintained an air of calmness throughout the journey; from his years of experience on Captain Honda's ship, he had learned that there was much more to fear than illusory bogeymen hiding behind fruit stalls. The air was cool, but not moist; it depicted the coming winter was to be dry and parched. Along with it a fragile urgency hung in the air, as both Ludwig and Arthur were well aware of Honda's situation.
"I think we have found it," Ludwig said at last, squinting and pointing to a dimly lit, scraggly brick hut that nestled against a wooden barricade. Picking up his pace, Arthur hurried his way to the front door and knocked cautiously. The twiggy wood that composed the door left slight scratches on his knuckles, and the door itself seemed like it was about to wretch and fall out of its sockets. Arthur, followed by Ludwig, was staring at it in an uneasy manner when it cracked open slightly, revealing naught but a glimpse at a hooded figure.
"Hrm?" Came the inquiry. "What is it?" The voice rang a bell in Arthur's mind, but he pushed it aside. There were more pressing matters to attend to. He cleared his throat.
"I have come to ask about getting some medicine for my friend. He has been suffering from a nasty cough and he seems quite ill." There was a pause. Arthur stared expectantly at what parts of the figure he could see.
The door opened a bit more.
"... Ar... thur? Mein gott, you're alive!" The figure pushed against the doorway and flung it open. A very startled and befuddled Arthur gazed on as the cloaked figure flipped off his hood, revealing a blonde cropped haircut and sharp green eyes. Arthur inhaled quickly.
"Bloody hell, Vash!" The Swiss blonde smiled in a regretful manner.
"Ja, it's me. Two ghosts meeting in the dead of night... Frankly, I'm surprised that either of us are alive." Vash ran a hand down his faced and laughed, but his laughter was more of a how-the-hell-are-we-even-alive rather than one of mirth.
"Anyway... Come in. I know this hovel isn't suited for our reunion, but, eh, it'll have to do." Vash beckoned with a flick of his hand and turned, retreating back into his house. Arthur quickly slid into the open doorway, leaving enough room for burly Ludwig to pass through after him. The twiggy door shut with a cascade of rattles, and Arthur wondered for the umpteenth time why Dr. Zwingli was in a run-down wreck such as this. However, despite how much this thought made him feel like a terrible person, he couldn't keep a glimmer of excitement out of his mind. Maybe... maybe he knew about the little one... Maybe the doctor could tell him what time could not.
The inside of the house was slightly more kept than the outside, but not by much. A wooden, circular table the size of a boat's steering wheel rested in the center of the room, and four chairs of varying sizes occupied corners. It was slightly dusty on the floor, as if it hadn't been cleaned in a few months. Vash picked up a chair from the corner and indicated for Ludwig and Arthur to do the same. Arthur bent over to pick up a chair, and as he rested it in the space next to Vash he realized the Ludwig hadn't budged. He gave the German a questioning look, and Ludwig replied to it with a stare that spoke of wariness. Fine, Arthur thought. Suit yourself.
Vash leaned forward in his chair and massaged his head.
"Gott... Where should I start? It's almost like my reality ended the day that we were attacked, Arthur." Arthur nodded sympathetically. He didn't speak, but he knew what the doctor was talking about.
"I doubt you know this, Arthur, but I- we all were taken captive on that ship. Leon, Yong Soo, Francis, Katyusha. Elizaveta, Yao. That god-awful ship, Arthur. You wouldn't believe... The crew is like a horde of demons. They're all bloodthirsty." Arthur listened in grim silence. Vash only had confirmed what the Englishman had suspected.
"..." Vash was silent. Arthur looked up, questioning. Vash flicked his glance toward him, and Arthur caught a whirlwind of emotions, like regret, sorrow, and pain.
"They..." He swallowed, closed his eyes. "They killed. I'm so sorry, Arthur... There was nothing I could do." Arthur froze, shocked, then looked away. So... they did...
"Katyusha. Then Leon and Im Yong, when they tried to save her. And then your adopted child. Alfred." Arthur choked. His heart caught in his throat, and before he could do anything, tears welled up in his eyes. Alfred... Alfred! His heart thumped painfully, reminiscent of a dying bird's death throes. He's gone... The pain Arthur had felt on that day so many years ago was now fresh in his heart, ripping and tearing. He felt bile rise up in his throat, and he fought it down.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see Vash staring at him empathetically. Yes, the doctor knew what he was going through. He was there to see it.
Arthur brusquely wiped away the treacherous tears at his eyes. He felt hollow beyond belief, but now was not the time for tears.
"...I see," he said finally. Vash nodded, then got up. Only a few steps brought the doctor to his numerous drawers, whereupon the Swiss man began shuffling through them expertly. Arthur watched him, but he felt too numb to be truly grateful.
"It was a bloody cough, ja? Tch..." More shuffling. A couple of slams as Vash went through the drawers a little too quickly. Then silence as quiet footsteps came back to Arthur.
Suddenly two packets, one big and one small, entered Arthur's vision. He twitched, but didn't otherwise react.
"For you. Give them both to the sick one immediately." The Swiss man's transaction was greeted with gratitude, for however sickly Arthur felt at this new development, he was doubly grateful to have medicine for Captain Honda. He looked at Vash with thanks in his eyes.
"I'm sorry I must leave so abruptly, but... he is in terrible condition. Thank you, again, so much... You have no idea how important this is to me."
A/N: Whoot! Back, yay~! Althoughmuch, much later than I'd hoped... sorry about that. I also believe I scared some of you with a false upload whilst I was fixing some of my mistakes in earlier chapters... doubly sorry about that. But I hope this new chapter makes up for it! And I'll get to cranking out another one, as well. As always, many thanks for reading! :D