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The Killing Edge

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Three

 

The notion being the use of a pile of old manacles and chains that the smith produced from a box of scrap metal in the back of his wagon. Sano and Kenshin went about snapping rusty manacles around the ankles of the incapacitated bandits and fastening the chains around the thick bole of a tree at the edge of the clearing. The conscious bandits complained vigorously, threatening and begging successively at being abandoned at forest's edge. Even if their fellows returned they'd have no easy time freeing their comrades from their bonds. And if they didn't then two or three days chained to a tree was little enough hardship for what they'd been about, until authorities from Dhannagiri might return to deal with them. At the very least it would keep them off their trail.

They helped the old man hitch the team of mules, who were in no wise happy at being roused and put to work before the break of dawn, and left the group of complaining bandits in their wake. For the first few miles, Sano and Kenshin walked the forest side of the trail, wary for attack from the shelter of trees. But none came, and eventually the old man slowed the wagon and snapped for them to take the perch on the back.

"Might as well ride," he said, grudgingly. "And there's a berth in the back, if one of you wants to take an hour or two's sleep before day breaks."

It was likely as much thanks as they were going to get from the sullen old smith, and Sano shrugged and hopped onto the back ledge of the van, opening the top half of the door and peering in.

"You might as well take him up on it," Sano said. "I've had my few hours sleep. Damned if I could sleep with all that iron jangling above my head anyway."

And there was a suspicious array of metal hanging from hooks in the ceiling of the van. Everything from scythe blades and shovelheads, to wheel hubs and cast iron pans, gears and harness bits, all of it swaying precariously with the motion of the wagon.

There was an unrolled futon in the narrow space between trunks and boxes secured to the sidewalls, with blankets still rumpled from the old man's interrupted sleep. It was as attractive a bed as any he'd slept in recently, despite the dangling bits and pieces of iron, and he'd been awake long enough that his body felt the need for a bit of honest slumber. He shrugged and accepted the offer. Sano fastened the both portions of the back door open against the back of the wagon and sat in the doorway, one foot dangling, the other propped on the hitch that connected wagon to forge.

A good vantage to observe the road behind them, and Kenshin felt secure enough with Sano on watch to fall into the old man's bed and let sleep take him.

 


 

It was early morning when they stopped, and Kenshin figured he'd gotten perhaps three hours sleep. Rocking wagon and swaying odd bits of iron above his head or no, he was good at taking rest when time and circumstance allowed.

The old man, Ayog was his name, had a care for his mules, ancient themselves. So they stopped at the edge of a field of sugar cane not much taller than a man's hip to feed and water the animals. It was doubtful that the particular bandits that plagued this road would try them again, especially with half their numbers chained to a tree. And with the fields on one side and the canal on the other, there was little vantage for ambush regardless.

The old man had offered generously to share breakfast with them, his mood greatly improved having survived last night thanks to them. It was dried fish and rice spiced with curry and flakes of dried vegetables and flat bread cooked over a small fire set up on the canal side of the road, away from the grasses bordering the fields. A grand affair, for road fare, but Kenshin supposed the old man was feeling the need to show gratitude that did not extend to actually speaking the words.

A year and a half in India and Kenshin had become used to food spicier than he would have preferred, but the old smith had a taste for fire in his cooking and every bite of rice needed a chaser of tea and plain bread to dull the heat. Sano loved it, but then Sano had eaten things in the course of their travel that Kenshin's stomach turned a little thinking about.

"So, your names don't sound Chinese," the old man commented when they'd finished up the meal to the last grain of rice, the three of them sitting at the edge of the canal, watching minnows dart in and out of the reeds. "Where are you from?"

"Japan," Sano offered.

"You're a long way from home, then."

"Yes," Kenshin agreed.

"Been as far as Peking myself, but never to Japan. Don't much care for ships."

"No," Kenshin agreed.

"I've been to Peking," Sano said. "I liked Shanghai better. Not nearly as stuffy. Nicer women."

Ayog cackled. "Knew a woman in Shanghai myself in my youth."

Sano's interest perked and he and the old man went on a bit, reminiscing about whores encountered during their various travels. Kenshin sat and listened, half an ear to their boasts, half an ear to the sounds of the crickets and the frogs and the distant chatter of birds. A casual morning of feeding and mating and squabbling with nothing human stalking the shadows to interrupt the litany.

Sano's stories changed with his audience, cruder or tamer depending on who listened to his boasts. The old smith had a taste for the vulgar and Sano's descriptive details reflected just that and the two of them amused themselves greatly trading tales.

Kenshin might have blushed, if he hadn't heard it all before. He got the feeling half Sano's bragging was just that anyway, designed to provoke; Sano glancing at him now and then, with that sly smile on his face only reinforcing the suspicion. Besides, believing most of Sano's fables were just that, stories made up to impress the impressionable, was a more comfortable thing to accept. He might be just a little annoyed, otherwise at Sano's promiscuity.

Certainly Sano had held no great talent wooing women during their years of friendship in Japan. Rather he'd been good at irritating and annoying them. At least the honest, respectable ones. Perhaps that's why all his stories centered around women of ill repute.

There had been a particular geisha in Tokyo, though, that Sano had claimed association with - - Kenshin frowned, tossing a rock into the canal in a sudden spurt of irritation. It hit with a splash that caused Sano and the old man pause. Kenshin smiled the smile he usually used when he needed a façade to cover less pleasant emotions and claimed he'd seen a water snake.

Sano and Ayog peered into the brown water warily and decided thereafter to smother the little fire and return the cookware to the back of the wagon.

He had no notion why the idea of Sano and Sano's visitation of whores rubbed him so raw of a sudden. It was no breaking news, and yet - - ten years he'd wondered Japan, from one end to the other and back again and not once had he felt the need to buy the services of a woman. He had practically lived the life of a monk, his interest in sex confined for the most part to the morning requirements of any healthy young male. Sano had traveled China for a handful of years and he claimed to have visited half the whorehouses from Peking to Shanghai.

"What?" Sano asked in an undertone, while the old man rustled in the back of his wagon, storing his cooking supplies.

Kenshin gave him an oblivious look, pretending at no thoughts deeper than the state of the morning sky. Sano lifted a brow, not believing it. But the old smith had reappeared at the back door of the van and Kenshin was saved from avoiding the explanation of something he had no understanding of anyway.

"With thieves roaming the countryside, a man might feel safer armed," Ayog said, patting the big knife at his belt. "I've a few old blades, if either of you want."

"No," Kenshin said having no desire to have more than the small knife Pakshi had given him, even as Sano leaned forward and asked. "What've you got?"

The old man grinned. "Not offering anything that'll get you in trouble with the British - - grab hold of this chest, boy - -"

Sano wrestled a trunk big enough to fit a body in from the back of the wagon out to the ground. It had an archaic lock, which the old man opened with a key he kept in a jar. Inside was a considerable collection of arms. If it was made of metal and designed to kill or maim a man, Ayog had it in the chest. Blades of all sorts, curved scimitars, heavy, a wide bladed broad sword, ornate garish foils. No few daggers and knives, curved and wicked, thin and devious, one that could only have been used for ornamentation it was so covered in fine etching and metal scrollwork of gold and silver.

"It's a hobby of mine," Ayog said, picking through the assorted jumble of blades and choosing a serviceable dagger to hold out to Sano. "The collection of fine metal work. My grandfather was a weapon's smith, but the British frown on the making of weapons that might be used against them, so my father never practiced the art. Nor taught it to me. I can appreciate the workmanship of others though.

He lifted a big, entirely clumsy seeming broad sword and pulled out a more graceful blade in a weathered, brown sheath. "This one's from your homeland. Older than me, if I'm any judge."

He offered it and Kenshin couldn't stop himself from taking it. From closing his hand around a sheath that was cracked from age, the leather strapping of the hilt close to dry rotted and rough under his palm. But when he unsheathed it, three foot of blade sliding like butter from the aged sheath, the metal gleamed as if it had been newly forged. The most balanced sword he'd ever held, rotting hilt or no. It felt like an extension of his own flesh and bone and he'd forgotten almost what it felt like to hold steel so balanced and so perfectly forged that it felt alive. That it felt like it had been made to fit his hand.

He let out a breath, hardly aware that he'd been holding it, and shivered with a sudden, overwhelming want of this blade. The overwhelming need to have that familiar, comfortable weight in his belt again. A dangerous need, because this was no reverse blade, but a sword with a killing edge. A sword that would draw blood when wielded and he'd already broken the vow he'd made so long ago. Already killed again. And it hadn't plagued him, the taking of Winter's life. The man had been remorseless. A killer, who manipulated and inflicted pain for his own gain and his own twisted pleasures and Kenshin had given him the justice he deserved. And the sakabatou, even with its killing edge on the wrong side, had slid into his flesh as easily as any normal blade. And if Kenshin had felt anything - -it hadn't been remorse.

He shut his eyes and slid it back into its sheath blind.

Another breath and he presented it back to the smith, his hands shaking ever so slightly.

"A very fine blade. An old one."

The smith took it back, eyeing Kenshin speculatively. "I won it from a trader - - oh, thirty years ago - - and he likely stole it himself. Claimed it was the blade of some shogun, but he was a liar and a cheat, so his word meant nothing."

"Thirty years ago there were a lot of shogun," Sano remarked.

Kenshin said nothing, flexing his hand.

"You're a swordsman."

It wasn't a question. Kenshin inclined his head slightly. "I was."

The old man stared at him a moment longer, then nodded and laid the katana atop the rest in the trunk.


 

Sano kept the knife. It wasn't like he needed it for any advantage in a fight, his hands being all the weapon he needed, but a knife had other uses. And it was a decent knife that might in a pinch bring a few coins if he needed it badly enough, and Sano was never one to turn down offers of free things. Unlike Kenshin, who was going out of his way not to look back into that trunk full of sharp pointy things at the old katana. The look on his face when he'd held that naked blade had been as akin to arousal as Sano had seen in - - well, in a damned long time. But then swordsmen were a funny lot when it came to their blades, and Kenshin had been no exception, back when he'd been carrying the sakabatou regularly, treating the thing like it was a revered member of his family.

When the old man closed the chest and relocked it, Kenshin sighed softly, as if in some relief and walked to stare at the canal as Sano wrestled the thing back into the wagon. It was back on the road after that, them taking turns riding up front with the old man while the other walked the road, wary of human predators stalking the way.

By nightfall the shoulder the old man had thrown out in the attack had gone stiff and sore, and he cursed with fluent creativeness the bastard boy who'd thrown him to the ground and done it. Sano and Kenshin unhitched the mules when they stopped for the night. Dhannagiri was only a few more hours down the road, Ayog claimed, but the beasts had had a long haul, with their rest the night before interrupted, and he was loath to risk them by pushing on needlessly.

The road had meandered away from the canal, and they used water from jugs hanging off the side of the wagon for supper. Plain fare again, of rice and fried bread left over from earlier, but it was better than roots and the old man seemed happy to share considering their help.

Afterwards, they sat around the crackling fire. Sano and Ayog carried the conversation, while Kenshin quietly listened, oft times staring past them into the fire or the darkness of the woods, thinking gods knew what, but not Sano thought, paying great heed to what they said.

Sano spoke of his training with the little Chinese on the mainland, the months of building up stamina he hadn't realized he'd been lacking, longer than he'd ever spent learning the basics of a skill before mastering it. Ayog laughed, claiming that no skill learned in a few months was a skill worthy of having. He himself had apprenticed four years to his father, before he'd ever been allowed to strike a hammer to metal. And then he'd apprenticed another five before he'd been allowed to mold anything more complex than a horseshoe. It had taken that long to gain the strength needed to work the forge.

"You look to have a strength about you boy," the old man scoffed. "But it takes years to build the strength it takes to work hammer and forge day in and day out."

"How much strength does it take to beat a piece of iron?" Sano scoffed right back, holding up a fist criss crossed with pale white scars. "And its not just strength, it's channeling of power, focusing everything into a blow that can shatter rock if I want."

Ayog held up his good hand, clenching a big fist with its own faded scarring. "You think you can take me in a match of strength, boy?"

Sano laughed. "Old man, I'd wipe the floor with you."

Kenshin did glance at him then, with what Sano suspected was a roll of his eyes under the shadow of his hair, but Sano ignored him.

"I wouldn't feel right, pushing an injured old man beyond his limits," Sano said magnanimously.

"If it were my injured arm that I was pushing, I'd have a worry. Fetch a crate from the wagon, boy, instead of wagging your tongue."

Sano laughed, and hauled a crate from the back of the wagon, placing it between them in the little camp. Ayog flexed his good right arm, which was, Sano had to admit, a good deal thicker than his. But big didn't necessarily guarantee superior strength. He'd taken down men twice his size before. He planted his elbow on the crate top and presented his hand. The old smith grinned and did the same.

An easy match, he wasn't anticipating, but he hadn't expected not to make a dent against the old man's strength at the get go. The old man's arm was solid as rock, and his strength just as imperturbable. Sano bared his teeth in a grin and leaned forward just a little to readjust leverage. The old man tested him and he held firm, their fists firmly at center crate.

"Sixty years working the forge," Ayog grunted. "Builds strength that no green behind the ears braggart who's spent a few years breaking boards can match."

"Ha!" Sano ground his teeth and managed to move the old man's hand a fraction of an inch. "Add ten years to that and it makes you an old geezer way past his prime. Maybe thirty years ago you could have taken me."

Ayog narrowed his eyes, veins cording in his neck. Sano sincerely hoped the old man didn't have a heart attack.

A drop of rain hit their joined fists. Then another, as the dark sky leisurely began to weep.

"Ready to give?" Ayog grunted. "Before your hair gets wet?"

"No. You? Wouldn't want you to catch a chill, old man."

He was half aware, past his focus on keeping the old man from pinning his hand, of Kenshin making a disgusted sound and rising, softly saying that he was going to sit in the back of the wagon out of the rain. Sano was almost certain he heard him add a very soft 'fools', as he was retreating and he cast half an indignant glare at his back.

The old man almost took him with the distraction, gaining back that inch and gaining one himself. The rain made for slick skin and treacherous grips. Even if it was in good humor, with no lives on the line, it was a contest and Sano took his contests seriously. If he lost to a seventy year old man, even one with arms like tree boles, his conscience would never let him forget it.

He'd been taught by a disgraced monk the art of channeling all the strength of his body, all the focus of his power into the single point of a blow. Come to find out, powerful as the art was, it was still a pretty unrefined one. He'd learned better things since, that didn't put all his eggs in the basket of one powerful punch that was as likely to cripple him, as it was to shatter whatever it was he was trying to take out.

Still, the technique of gathering that strength, of focusing it, of building up to one powerful lunge - - not to shatter, but simply to overcome - - seemed apropos.

He drew in a breath, let it out in a long whistle, channeled his focus and with a powerful jerk, slammed the old man's wrist to the crate. Ayog cursed, shaking out his hand, even as Sano did, his arm feeling trembling and weak now that the stress was gone.

"Son of a bitch," he flexed his hand, rubbing his shoulder with the other one. "You're one tough old bastard."

The old man gave him a narrow, rain drenched look, before his mouth split in a crooked grin. "You're the first man to beat me since I was nineteen and too full of myself to know a loosing proposition when it sat down in front of me."

Contest over, the rain demanded they take notice. Kenshin moved back from the open back door of the wagon van, making room for Sano and the old man to settle under the shelter of the roof.

"Proud of yourself, are you, by a victory over a venerable elder?" Kenshin asked, when Sano gave him a grin, still flushed from his victory.

"It was hard won," Sano defended himself. "You wanna try me?"

"He's mannerly, this one." The old man remarked, jerking his chin at Kenshin.

Kenshin shook his head, the ghost of a smile on his mouth, before he leaned back against a chest, eyes shut.

"It's been close to a year since I've been this way. Come tomorrow, when we reach Dhannagiri," the old man said. "There will be a fair amount of work and me with a lame arm. If you're looking to make a coin or two, I could use an extra set of hands to help work the forge for a day or two."

Sano lifted a brow. "What sort of coin? From what I hear, smithing is hard work."

Ayog laughed. "A quarter of what I take in, in coin and trade. Dhannagiri is close to 600 people and they pay well."

Sano shrugged, hiding the elation of such a lucrative offer behind a casual inclination of his head. "Mind you, I'm not looking for a career, but I've nothing better to do."

"Ha," the old man snorted. "You haven't got the stamina or the patience to be a smith. But you'll do for the grunt work."

 


Dhannagiri, when they reached it early the next day, was a sprawling village of stone and thatch houses three times the size of the last village they had stopped. There was a temple at town's center with a fine spire topped with painted ceramic tiles and a broad main street where women sat on shaded walks, looms between their knees, spinning thread and cloth.

Children ran to greet the blacksmith's wagon, trailed by a few elders, curious to see what was rolling into their village. Ayog's name was called by a few that recognized him, and the cry went up, more people coming out to the streets to greet him.

An occasion then, as he was welcomed, trading handshakes with old men, and ruffling the hair of curious children.

He parked his wagon and forge at the edge of town, and directed Sano and Kenshin to set up an awning against the side of the wagon, and then to place stone blocks and lug the solid lump of metal that was his anvil out from where he stored it in the cold forge, and sit it upon the blocks. Already villagers had begun to pester Ayog with requests. Housewives for the repair of broken kitchen utensils, for new iron griddles and pans, for the gears that worked the looms that so many of the women in this village used. Men brought broken shovels and hoes, plow heads and farm tools to be mended.

It promised to be a busy day. Some things he sold from his stock, axe heads and springs, and various cookware already forged. Other's needed the mending of heat and iron. They fired the forge early on, first with wood, then with coal the old man carried with him. And Sano found himself put to work, gripping ironwork with a pair of tongs and positioning it to the old man's liking as he pounded it upon the anvil. It was hot work and hard work and he developed a new appreciation of the old man's occupation.

Kenshin was spared the rigors of it for the most part, too many bodies around the anvil and the forge making the old man short of temper. So he was left to his own devices, which mostly entailed speaking to the villagers that came by, and promising their wants would be seen to in due order, or wondering the village.

He came back once, after finding the merchant who doubled for the town's constable and said that he'd reported the bandits chained back on the road. The constable, Kenshin said, had been preparing to gather a few impromptu deputies and head back to see if they were still there.

There was more trading for work than actual coin, and people came with bags of rice or meal, dried vegetables and spices, with trinkets or embroidery to offer for smith work.

Sano got a fine vest, high collared and sleeveless with colorful embroidery around the edges, and a handful of trinkets that Ayog had no interest in. A necklace of polished black beads, with a dangling tiger claw as a pendant. Along with a portion of the food, that Ayog promised, even with only a few measly coins, Sano felt that it was a day well spent.

He was hot and filthy from ash by the time Ayog declared the day done. An acquaintance of Ayog's had invited the old smith, and his 'apprentices' for dinner and Sano hadn't bothered to contest the claim in the face of a free meal. There was a stream not far beyond the town that the villagers used for washing and cooking, and Ayog led them to it to rinse away the day's grime. Kenshin and Sano moved down the bank from where the old man squatted, splashing water on hands and arms.

Sano had gone shirtless during the day, and he pulled his relatively clean shirt from his pack and used it to wash the grime from his skin. Kenshin sat on a rock near him, having, from the look of him having already made use of this stream earlier in the day when he'd had time to waste while the old man had been working Sano like a slave.

"Not a bad day," Sano said.

Kenshin made an agreeable sound, watching the glint of early moonlight off the gentle water of the stream while he idly twisted the tail of hair draped across his shoulder into a rope.

"It should take men not traveling at the pace of a pair of mules less than a day to reach the place we left the bandits," he remarked.

"Unless they hacked off their hands at the wrist, they'll still be there."

Kenshin gave him a look, brows drawn. "Desperate men might."

"Can't say I'd ever be that desperate. Can't say I care one way or another about those bastards. They'll get what they deserve one way or another."

He stuffed his old shirt into his pack, wet from the stream and donned his new vest and his necklace, then held out his arms and grinned at Kenshin.

"What do you think?"

Kenshin canted his head, gaze taking in his new attire. Silent a handful of breaths before he lifted his eyes to meet Sano's and said softly. "You look - - very nice. It is a fine vest."

"Yeah," Sano agreed. He dug in his pack and came out with the other trinket he'd gotten as part of his payment. A simple leather thong with little dangling pendant, that looked so aged that the metal was green and pitted from the ravages of time. The work was intricate though and Ayog after taking a brief look had said that it was likely very old and that someone had probably found it in some ruins or another. Sano liked the idea of it being an antiquity. Kenshin was sort of that, in the ideas that he held and the arts that he practiced - - or had used to practice.

"Here. I got this for you."

Kenshin reached out and took it, holding it by the thong almost reverently. He looked up past it to meet Sano's eyes. "What is it?"

"I dunno. A charm, the lady who traded it said. Old as the hills. The charm, not the lady." Sano grinned.

Kenshin closed his hand around the pendant, that look in his eye that hinted maybe he was taking it more seriously than Sano had meant it. But then sometimes Kenshin got superstitious about odd things. He'd ignore the notion of ghosts or various supernatural things, but be very, very careful around shrines and holy places, doing his best to keep them both from not offending whatever deities or spirits might be lurking around.

"Thank you, Sano." Kenshin slipped it over his head and it hung just visible in the V of his shirt.

Sano nodded, pleased. "So let's go catch up with the old man and see about dinner."

 


Kenshin had said what Sano looked was nice, but really a more appropriate word would have been decadent.

Sano had caught him off guard, which Sano quite often did, with the flash of a broad white grin, with the flex of tanned skin against the bleached white of native homespun linen. The open edges of the vest framing the hard planes of his chest and stomach, the fine embroidery at the sleeveless arms emphasizing the broadness of his shoulders. The necklace just made it more apparent, drawing the eye inexplicably down to taut belly and almost indecently low slung, loose trousers. It was no wonder the daughters of Ayog's friend giggled and laughed behind their hands, casting sloe eyed looks their way as they politely stood at the old man's shoulder while he exchanged greetings with his friend.

The village baker, a man of some repute in his small town, welcomed them vigorously, inviting Ayog and the two off them into his home among his family. Four daughters, two sons, a wife and a mother and a mother-in-law made for a bustling home. But his business was good and his sons were bakers in their own right now and his eldest daughter had married a farmer with a large holding. He and Ayog had been friends since Ayog had traveled with his father, an apprentice himself.

There was tea, that the daughters served around a long wooden table with fine individually carved chairs, very few of them matching. There was a daughter between himself and Sano, and Sano was flirting, one arm resting across the back of his chair, the edge of the vest revealing the hard line of his chest and the slice of one brown nipple. It was no great thing here, the people being far less modest than the people of Japan, and Sano had gone the day with no scrap of cloth above his waist, but still, it irked somewhat - - the daughter, the very pretty daughter - - leaning forward and laughing with false modesty at some remark of Sano's. And Sano grinning back. And it shouldn't have, the flirting being simply Sano letting off steam, and Kenshin knowing very well that nothing would come of it. Still - -

Kenshin took a gulp of tea, barely tasting it, the notion occurring to him of a sudden that it was jealousy he was feeling. Pure and simple and he had no right to it. He had betrayed his marriage vows, and the gods or karma or fate had taken full payment for it. Kaoru dead. Kenji dead. Taken by the sea. Payment for his sins. His failures.

His weakness. Which he still suffered. A strong man would have walked this path alone, but when Sano offered his company, he'd relented, Sano being the one thing left in the world that he loved more than life. But it had been selfishness. Because the things Sano still wanted of him he couldn't allow himself the luxury of giving. His punishment, self-inflicted and he made Sano suffer it with him.

But it had been easier that first year, when the grief still ate at him until he was hollow most days, barely aware of the road they walked. He still grieved for them, but lately, it was distant, sometimes not in the forefront of his thoughts at all. Lately, these last few months, he even found the occasion to laugh at something Sano said, or enjoy the taste of food again. Or found himself appreciating the way the muscles in Sano's back flexed when he went about some task.

Close to two years ago, he'd asked if Sano wouldn't be happier finding himself a woman and a home, and Sano had refused it. Now, the idea of Sano visiting whores and Sano flirting shamelessly with a daughter while her father and brothers were in attendance made the scars on his palms itch.

He took a breath and touched the little charm Sano had given him. Old. Sano was right there. And the old things held the most power. He knew Sano enough to know that it had been a passing thought on Sano's part, the gift, but Sano had put in honest work for it and Sano had kept it all the day, waiting to give it to him and it mattered.

He took another more measured breath, not quite understanding why, these last days, he'd been so hyperaware of things taken for granted on the trail for months before. Perhaps it had been the beating Sano had taken. Neither of them had taken great injury before this since they'd reached these shores. A long stretch of relative peace had been shattered and it had set him on edge was all. Triggered protective instincts that had been dormant for no small time, which triggered other things.

The baker's wife and two of her daughters came bearing the first course of dinner and everyone's attention became focused on that. Bowls of shukto, a dish made from diced white radish, potatoes, beans, vegetables and bitter melon. After that they brought out plain boiled white rice and dal made from red lentils. And finally, this being a meal of some import since they had guests to impress, fried fish with a thin yogurt sauce. It was the grandest meal Sano or he had partaken of in months and the simple enjoyment of food distracted Kenshin from his uneasy thoughts.

After the meal though, when all but the youngest children retreated to the low walled garden to enjoy what was left of the night in good company, Kenshin begged his leave, politely thanking the baker and his wife for their hospitality, but feeling distinctly out of place amongst the happy familial crowd. So he left Sano and Ayog accepting small tumblers of what the baker claimed proudly to be imported brandy, preferring the solitude of the night darkened village streets.

He went to the village stream, crouching to wash hands and forearms, and splash a little cool water on his face. Stayed that way for a while, listening to the croaking of frogs upstream, where the forest had encroached a little on the opposite side of the stream. Something larger rustled in the wood and he thought of bandits and jungle predators. Old reflex made his hand go for the hilt of a sword that was no longer there, and he took a breath, closing his fist over nothing. Crouched there silently until a large, rodent like creature waddled out from the woods and plunged its snout into the water.

He blew out his breath and rose, and it froze, black eyes fixed on him in fright. He inclined his head at it, moving away and allowing it the stream. Back to Ayog's wagon at the edge of town, where bedrolls could be made under the awning. The hairs on the back of his arms prickled before he reached the shadows under the tarp, and he hesitated, but it was only Sano leaning against the wagon's side, half swallowed by darkness.

"You didn't stay," Kenshin stated the obvious.

Sano shrugged. "And listen to two old men bullshit all night? There was only the one round of booze, so I figured - -" he shrugged again, staring at Kenshin, but it was hard to see his eyes in the shadow. The pale shape of the tiger claw stood in relief against the darker hues of his skin. Kenshin looked away, moving past him towards the back of the wagon where their packs were stored.

And stopped when Sano put out an arm, blocking his path.

"Something bothering you?"

"No." Quiet denial.

"Really? Cause I'm getting the feeling otherwise."

Kenshin shrugged, not willing to dispute Sano's observation. They were both entitled their moods. He didn't complain of Sano's sulks or bad tempers, when they came upon him.

Sano made a sound, a sort of frustrated half laugh, and shifted, crowding Kenshin between himself and the side of the wagon, both palms on the wood to either side of Kenshin's shoulders. Breath stalled. The skin that almost touched Sano pimpled, hair tingling. He could not make himself meet Sano's eyes, afraid of what he'd see there.

"You think I'm so stupid I can't read you by now? You're pissed at something, I'm just not sure what."

"Sano - - I'm not. Just - -" To force an escape, he'd have to brush against Sano, and he wasn't sure he ought to do that now. He just needed a night to get his emotions under control. To remind himself of all the things he had promised himself he'd no longer indulge.

There was no safe place to stare with Sano crowded in so close, so he shut his eyes and stood there, trying to calm his breathing, very much afraid the tempo of his breath might give him away.

"Sano, let me pass."

He said it blindly, and Sano made a sound, and pressed forward, full against him in the shadow of the awning. He made a sound of his own, an exhalation of surprised breath at the shock of Sano's solid weight against him. The unmistakable feel of Sano's half hard erection against his stomach. His own stirring one. He bared his teeth, no control at all over it, or the fluttering shiver of sensation in his gut.

Sano caught his wrists before he could lift them to shove him away, and leaned there, very much in a position of leverage, mouth against Kenshin's cheek. "Does it bother you, when I talk with the pretty girls?"

"Let go, Sano," he jerked against Sano's hold and Sano pressed harder. He could bring a knee up and move him that way, but he wasn't at that desperate point yet, to half cripple Sano in his efforts to flee him.

"You wanna wrestle? I'm game. I'm thinking something a little more full contact than just pinning an arm, huh?"

Sano pressed a thigh between his legs, rubbing hard against his genitalia and it betrayed him. Absolutely and fully roused to the contact and no way to deny it. For a handful of heartbeats he couldn't think, he couldn't get past the sensation, the utter pain pleasure of the body's need too long denied. Then the guilt flooded back, shuffling itself between what his body wanted and all the reasons in his head he had to deny it. He slammed his skull back against the rough wood of the wagon hard enough to see stars, needing that pain to draw focus from the other. Again and the pain blossomed bright and red.

"Idiot," Sano snarled at him, breath hot in his ear. "You gonna punish us both forever?

Then he pushed away. And there was no answer to that. No standing there with embarrassing bulges straining at both their pants, so he silently stalked away, fleeing Sano and the pressures Sano brought to bear.

Sano didn't pursue him, or even call after him. No small relief, since Kenshin's head was throbbing as much from guilty turmoil as his self-inflicted knock. Back to the stream and across it, using a few smooth rocks to make his way. He walked the forested bank, concentrating on nothing more complex than the path under his sandals. The stream wound its way into the forest beyond the borders of the town and he followed it, finally feeling the tension bleed away as the village itself did. Just trees then and nighttime sounds and he stopped, leaning a shoulder against the bole of a smooth barked tree. The pressure in his pants had gone away, but his head still throbbed. He lifted a hand and gingerly touched the small knot at the back of his skull.

He was an idiot. He felt one now, too many confusing emotions churning about. Guilt foremost among them. A fleeting image of her face crossed his mind. Almost he looked for her in the darkness, a quiet slim shape in the shadows. He'd seen glimpses of her often in those first months after her death. Glimpses though a crowd, or in the shadows of a trail. It was his own brand of insanity, he knew. Though he did not disbelieve in ghosts and spirits of the dead, he did not believe in hers. His own insurmountable guilt at the best; worst case, broken sanity.

He'd been content enough with the notion of his own private haunting. But it had been a while since he'd seen them. He'd had fleeting thoughts at best of them these last weeks, thoughts distracted by other things. Perhaps that's why Sano had been so prominent in his mind. Sano, who he ought to be angry at, but admitted to himself that holding that grudge would be unfair. Sano had been practicing restraint for a long while. Sano had been patient and patience went against Sano's nature. What made it worse was that Sano was right.

The forest was full of dark shadows now, of twisted roots and undergrowth and unknown things living within it. Foolish to wonder so far because he'd been too cowardly to stay and face Sano on the hind end of what he hesitated to call an argument. There had been very little of argument about it. He picked his way back to the stream and took his time heading back to towards the village. Sano was gone from the black smith's wagon when he found his way back and that was just as well. There would be an argument tonight otherwise, with Sano in a temper and Kenshin feeling prickly and in the wrong on so many accounts.

Kenshin folded his blanket and sat against the wagon wheel, not comfortable enough even in this seemingly peaceful place, to sleep outright. Half his life he'd taken his rests this way, half dozing, always aware of the sounds around him, even in the clutch of light sleep. As much call for it now as during the uneasy years alone on the road after the Meiji restoration, since Sano slept like the dead. Nights like those, he missed the sword.

Sano had likely returned to the baker's house, for some while later, both he and Ayog returned, neither one of them particularly quiet in the darkness. Kenshin didn't raise his head, simply slouched there, listening to them fumble in the shadows, the old man climbing to the back of his wagon and his berth there, and Sano flinging out his bedroll and falling into it, back turned strategically towards Kenshin.

Holding a grudge then, for something he'd started. That was fine, too.

 

 

 

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