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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn


Chapter Ten


The weather held all the long walk to Shirakawa. It was a luxury one hesitated to voice thanks for in fear that the fates would notice their laxness and send the dark clouds again and the rain and the cold winds. It might have been a peaceful walk, Sano lost in his own thoughts and broodingly silent because of it, the road well maintained and easy to navigate, the land green and bountiful after so much rain, all of nature getting in one last burst of vitality before winter sucked the color and the life from the world.

They saw the railroad tracks before they saw the town, cutting in from the west. Even with no train in sight, Kenshin could still smell the faint clinging odor of smoke and grease and machine oils. It was painfully apparent that a beast of no natural origin prowled this strip of land.

It didn't bother him so much. He didn't take to the onrush of technology as eagerly as Kaoru, but he realized it was nothing to be feared. He realized with a certain fatalism that the empire had purposefully kept itself separate from the advances of the rest of the world for too many years, and now that the barriers had been breached that there was no stopping the change. A man would be a fool to fight against it. It was inevitable. Like the tides. Like the rains and the change of seasons - - like death.

He frowned, not knowing why he'd thought that last. Why his musings had suddenly turned dark and dismal when he'd been content with the morning before. Perhaps it was the ache in his shoulder, and the constant itch under the bandages around his hands. Or maybe Sano's mood was catching - - and Sano's dark silences and dark sometimes glances in Kenshin's direction. Foolish to ask what was bothering him. Sano was generally quite vocal about his aggravations - - but when he wasn't, when he kept his lips pressed tight and his hands stuffed into his pockets and his eyes on the road - - well the annoyance went deeper. You didn't ask, then. You didn't pry and you didn't try to offer help, because more than likely you'd get your fingers bitten off for the charity.

Maybe - - maybe Sano wasn't so different from himself, in that respect, Kenshin thought. At least that's what he'd been told. It was hard to see yourself during such times, the way others saw you.

When they reached Shirakawa, Sano's mood improved. There was food to be had and people to bicker with. Kenshin went to the railway station to inquire about tickets to Sendai while Sano roamed the bustling market. Kenshin found him shoveling noodles into his mouth at a soupmaker's stall.

"You get the tickets?" Sano sucked a long dangling noodle through his lips.

"Yes. The train gets into Shirakawa in a few hours and leaves an hour after that. We should be in Sendai by tonight."

"Great. We'll have time to look around a while, then."

That was a daunting prospect. Dogging Sano's heels while he roamed a strange town could be exhausting at the best of times. Perhaps, he might bribe Sano into inactivity with the suggestion of finding a restaurant and sitting down to a proper lunch. A very long, drawn out proper lunch, in which he could take the weight off his leg, and sit down and let hot green tea soothe the very slight roughness in the back of his throat.

Sano was convinced. Sano was never one to turn down the prospect of food and they found a nice restaurant and settled down in a walled off booth with a very young, very pretty waitress who made eyes at the both of them and giggled behind her hand when Sano flirted back more vocally. Sano was obviously pleased the meal and the girl, for his mood improved drastically and he slid closer to Kenshin, leaning shoulder to shoulder to remark, once the girl had gone, that she reminded him of a little working girl he'd met in Chungking on the mainland. Went even further, after his fourth or fifth glass of sake, to admit to having left quite a string of adoring females behind in his travels. Funny, Kenshin thought, that the number of them he'd had here before he'd left on his pilgrimage, had been drastically less. As handsome as he was - - and Sano was attractive with his lanky frame and his angular face and his sharp, dark eyes - - he'd tended to irritate women more than attract them in Kenshin's opinion. He fought verbal battles with the bold ones and scared the timid ones with very few exceptions in between. One had to assume that either Sano had changed a great deal in the last four years, or that the women on the mainland were of an entirely different breed than the one's here, or that Sano was making entirely too much use of his imagination.

Kenshin did not remark on his suppositions. He was not stupid and Sano had that vaguely brash look in his eyes that was just waiting for something to light the fuse that would launch him into mayhem. Kenshin was in no mood to get caught up in a brawl, so coddling Sano seemed the best path for safely getting the both of them on the train when it arrived, instead of the alternative of the two of them ending up in a jail cell for destruction of property and person. So one agreed to Sano's outrageous claims and asked for the appropriate details when it was seemly and sounded politely awed when Sano seemed to need recognition of his deeds. It was very much like dealing with Kenji on a particularly sulky day. He doubted Sano would appreciate the comparison, but his lips twitched contemplating the reaction regardless.

They heard the whistle of the approaching train from the restaurant and Kenshin urged Sano to pay the bill from his dwindling supply of coin so that they could go to the station and meet it.

Sano was agreeable enough, after a large lunch and a good deal of sake. He draped an arm over Kenshin's shoulder when they emerged into sunlight and grinned up in appreciation over the fair weather.

"What a day. Doesn't it just figure, that as soon as we decide not to walk - - the sun comes out and stays?"

"It fits with my luck of late." Kenshin agreed wryly.

They walked to the station, which was bustling with activity now that the train had pulled in to a stop. The great metal beast sat there, huffing in agitation, steam and smoke seeping from the engine, while the creatures that rode within its belly passed to and fro, loading luggage and freight and people. The passenger car was filled to overflowing, with not just human beings, but crates of chickens, a few goats, a handful of pigs on rope leashes and a barking dog or two held in rein by children. Kenshin had bought the cheapest tickets available, which put them in the common car, squeezed in amongst the farmers and their produce; the poor families and their worldly belongings; the workers on their way to or from some other town along the railway. There were close set wooden benches upon which people and animals crowded. Above those were wooden platforms on which children perched among luggage and crates of livestock bound for some northern market.

Sano found a empty niche and claimed it, then bullied his way a few more handspans across the bench, forcing the other occupants to cram up against each other in order to make room for Kenshin by the window. Sano got curses and complaints, which he ignored - - Kenshin got pressed between him and the window, which he supposed, was better than standing, holding on to the rope hand rails hanging from the roof of the box car.

Soon the whistle blew again, and the cars jerked into motion as the engine began clattering down the track. Between crowded humans and animals the smell was overwhelming, even with the windows up. It was a blessing to sit in a window seat where a body could lean his head close to the fresh air. The motion and the heat and the smell made Kenshin wish he'd not partaken of such a large lunch.

He dozed fitfully, but it was an unrestful, queasy sort of sleep. Came to once with a goat's nose in his crotch and glared unappreciatively at Sano for laughing at him. The old man across the aisle, from whom the goat had escaped, ambled over and reclaimed the curious animal.

He looked out the window for a while after that, at the fast passing landscape. At neat fields, lush and green from the rains, at growths of forest and lush patches of bamboo. He drifted off again and this time it was a deeper sleep which the noises in the box car and the constant clatter of the train did not penetrate.

It was only the shrill call of the whistle that made him stir. He'd sagged against Sano, one of Sano's long arms draped over his shoulder, Sano's head dropping to his chest, half resting against the top of Kenshin's. It was dark outside, the afternoon having slipped away while he slept. He leaned across Sano and inquired of the peasant woman sitting next to him what stop they were approaching.

"Sendai." She said and he blinked, amazed that he'd slept through the stops in-between.

He nudged Sano awake and Sano yawned and stretched his long arms out over his head, remarking how empty his stomach was. No great surprise there. Sano's stomach was always empty and it protested most vehemently directly after Sano woke from slumber.

People were up and about even before the train shuddered to a stop, eager to escape the confines of the common car. Sano and Kenshin stepped off the train and into Sendai station amidst the crowd of animals, luggage and people. It was a clear night. The air was cool and smelled faintly of sea air if you could get past the stink of the train. Sano declared an immediate need to empty his bladder and they found a public facility within the railway station to elevate the need.

"So - - can we go find something to eat first?" Sano asked and Kenshin shook his head, refusing to deviate from his goal now that he'd gotten so close. Everything was narrowed down to tracking Winter and finding Kaoru and Kenji. Winter had said he was on his way to meet a ship. To find ships, one had to go to the docks. He'd only been in Sendai once, many years past, but he knew the direction in which the ocean lay.

One had only to walk east.

It wasn't hard to find the shipyards. Once they'd walked a few dozen blocks, the smell led the way. Though Sendai was a thriving trade port, it was also had huge fishing industry and the odor was pungent and strong on the westerly wind.

Sano picked up a few smoked fish from a vendor to eat as they walked. Past the neat rows of houses and shops of the inner city, and the structures became more eclectic - - warehouses hastily erected, shops and business fronts that hinted at western influences to cater to the growing western clientele that passed through this city as ships stopped at port. There were a good many foreign faces on the dock streets. A good many sailors from foreign ships that roamed the portside, frequenting taverns that sold western foods and drinks and catered to western tastes.

"So what are we looking for?" Sano asked, tossing away the remains of his impromptu dinner and stuffing one hand in his pocket. Even after dark the docks were bustling. The tides dictated life here at port and ships were coming and going with them both day and night.

Kenshin had been mostly silent on the walk from the train station, his eyes narrowed in concentration, his mouth set in a tight, serious line. With that look on his face - - well, a wise man wouldn't give him any grief.

"Information." Kenshin finally gave him an answer, his eyes flickering down this pier and the next, looking for likely informants.

They stopped a few honest Japanese dock workers and asked about what English ships were been in dock recently - - what one's had been here and gone recently. They got varying answers. Got directed to this dock or that, to this man or another to ask for more details. They spent an hour gathering rumors from their countrymen, before they began venturing onto the piers where foreign ships were moored. Some of the foreign sailors knew Japanese, some not. Most knew very little of any ship but the one they'd sailed in on.

Sano began to get frustrated by the second hour. It was a huge port and the amount of help they were getting was minimal at best. Men were reluctant to talk to strangers approaching them on the dock. The foreigners were either suspicious or insulting. Sano wanted to smash his fist into smart mouthed, foreign faces more than once. Kenshin stopped him with a look, with a slight motion of his hand, with a warning 'Sano', not wanting to antagonize the people who might have a clue regarding the ship they were looking for.

"So what do you need to know about good English ships for?" one burly, aggressive dockhand demanded, when they walked down the cargo laden pier beside a gently rocking English frigate. They were unloading goods, and perhaps a half dozen sweaty, dirty English ship hands worked on the pier. The majority of them paused in their work as Sano and Kenshin poised their question to the one that professed to speak Japanese.

"A man named Quinton Winter left Tokyo with something that wasn't his. He was to meet a ship here. He was English, like you."

"What, you think he was a thief just because he wasn't a dirty Japanese?"

Sano blinked, gaping at the sweaty, dirt smeared sailor that dared to utter those words. The joints of his knuckles cracked he clenched them so hard and Kenshin subtly slid in front of him, putting a shoulder between him and the obnoxious sailor.

"No. I think nothing he did not admit himself." Kenshin said calmly, smoothly. "I would just like to know if you have heard of such a man, - - he claims to have been a merchant for many years - -"

The sailor snorted, glancing back to his cronies. "Even if I had, you think I'd tell you - -?" As if thieving, kidnapping Englishmen had to stick together. Sano ground his teeth together, having taken about as much dismissal, rudeness and disappointment as he could for one night.

"You know something you damn well better tell us!" he stepped around Kenshin, wrapping a fist in the shirt of the offending seaman. "It was a damned simple question."

"You better get your hands off me, monkey-boy." The man growled. He was about a four inches taller than Sano and had a good twenty-five pounds on him. He could have cared less.

"You answer the question, you dirty, round eyed pig."

"Sano! Back off." Kenshin had the sharp tone of command to his voice. His fingers on Sano's arm were surprisingly painful, considering the wound in his hand.

"Yeah," the sailor laughed. "Listen to your girlfriend, slant-eyed puke."

"Why you - -"

Kenshin's fingers on his arm tightened. "No, Sanosuke. That's not what we're here for."

"The hell - -"

"Bosses you about like a little wife would." The sailor laughed and the few of his comrades that understood enough Japanese to catch the gist of the exchange chortled as well. "Bet he goes down on you like a girl would, too, huh?" He said more offensive things. More blatantly insulting things in blatantly crude detail that made Sano see red around the edges of his vision. Kenshin might have removed his fingers - - or not. It hardly mattered anymore whether Kenshin wanted him to behave and take the insult or not. He threw the first punch. There was so much rage behind it that it lacked a great deal in finesse, but nothing in power. The sailor slammed backwards, blood gysering from his nose, crashing into a stack of crates and scattering his fellows. They rushed forward, crying out things in their unintelligible tongue and Sano lunged forward to meet them.

It felt good, breaking the skin of his knuckles against their faces. They were big, but lumbering and graceless, relying more on brute strength than finesse - - very much like he'd used to be - - like he still might have been if circumstance and ego hadn't urged him to better himself. It wasn't hard to avoid their attacks, and the ones that were unavoidable, he had learned ways to block that didn't involve cracked ribs, bloody noses or loosened teeth.

He didn't know what Kenshin was doing, hadn't the time or wherewithal to pay him much heed, honestly, but certainly he wasn't engaging in this melee. A body could hope he wasn't, at least, considering his too recent wounds, but a body had to make assumptions when the boat hook flashing at his head and the meaty arm swinging it suddenly went down for no apparent reason - - at least not one Sano noted upon his brief glance that way. A body had to pay more heed to the business at hand.

The big one he'd first knocked down came back at him, bloody mouthed and with a wicked, fish-gutting knife in hand - - breathing hard and promising a nasty death with his beady, round-eyes.

He swung the blade and Sano jumped back, almost getting a slice across the arm. The man swung again and wildly and Sano rushed in, catching the man's elbow, forcing it up and driving a hard punch into the man's ribs with his other hand. The breath left his opponent in a heady rush and he caught the wrist with the knife, bending the hand backwards, twisting the thumb so hard that the man cried out, loosing his grip on the hilt of the knife. He sank to his knees, having little choice in the matter, with the angle Sano had his hand turned - - his curses were imaginative and foul. Sano's grin was humorless and wide as he glared down.

There was a thump from behind him and he glanced over his shoulder, to see the last of them falling on his face, a narrow box blade clattering from limp fingers. Kenshin stood behind him, scowling - - and the glare was all for Sano - - pissed then and not fairly, considering who had started this. It wasn't Sano who'd begun flinging insults and innuendo - - it wasn't Sano who'd born the brunt of those innuendoes. Kenshin ought to be damned pleased that Sano had bloodied the bastard's nasty mouth.

"What?" Sano snapped, offended, increasing pressure on the sailor's hand in irritation. The man yelped, wrist bones threatening to give. There was the sound of commotion from the ship. Faces gathering at the railing to see what mayhem was going on below.

"He asked you a question," Sano growled at the sailor. "Answer it."

"I don't fucking know - -" the man gasped. "Give me the name of a ship - - maybe I could tell you something - -"

"We don't know the name of the ship. That's what we want to find out, idiot?"

"Whad'ya want me to say, then? I don't know any Englishman named Winter."

Sano snarled and gave the man's wrist a final wrench before releasing him and stepping quickly back. There were seamen coming down the gangplank to the aid of their fellows.

"We need to go." Kenshin said.

No argument there.

They melted into the night dark docks, amidst flickering lantern light and shuffling late shift workers. There was the distant whistle of police whistles and one could only assume they'd been summoned by the brawl. Sano had no wish to spend time in a Sendai jail cell and he had the notion that the more foreign sailors they harassed, there was more likely hood of that condition happening. But he was game if Kenshin was. Despite the blood trickling down his knuckles and the ache in his hip where he'd staggered back into the sharp edge of a crate - - he was hyped and ready for more. Kenshin wasn't talking though. Kenshin was padding down the docks, simmering and narrow eyed and it pissed Sano off to no ends thinking it was directed at him.

"It wasn't my fault." He snapped, catching Kenshin's arm.

"I didn't say it was."

"Yeah - - well, what're you so pissed off about, then?"

Kenshin extracted his arm from Sano's grip and stood there in the middle of a worn, pitted street, with a raucous tavern on one side of them and the stench of a moored fishing vessel on the other.

"He didn't come here blaring his arrival for all to see and hear. He came here silently and no matter how much we ask - - we won't hear rumor of him from the people on these docks."

Sano took a breath, staring over Kenshin's head at the bristly silhouettes of a dozen tall ships, all spindly masts and spider-web rigging and furled sails against the night sky. "So what do you want to do, then?"

"He came in the company of yakuza. He came in partnership with them. They'll know the things I need to know."

"Sooooo - - you want to hunt down the yakuza in Sendai?"

A nod. A damned serious, dangerous nod. Like Kenshin was up to tackling the no doubt thriving, no doubt wide-spread Sendai crime syndicate. Finding a few Tokyo yakuza in the midst of the Sendai bunch wouldn't be easy. Unless, the Sendai yakuza heads were in on it too. Unless the yakuza from Tokyo had done the proper thing and checked in with their Sendai brethren when they'd come - - just to avoid offense.

"Well - - if we're gonna do this - - start looking for yakuza hangouts - - and yakuza bosses - - then we need to do a little gambling."

"Sano - - we don't have time - -" Exasperation won out over the anger. That and a weary, shuddering sigh, and a half trembling hand that Kenshin ran through his hair.

"Wait wait wait. Don't even give me that look - - you think the yakuza doesn't have its hands elbow deep in the gambling houses? You think there's a better place to scout out information than a room full of drunken, hard-core gamblers? You gonna just walk around asking where to find the local bad asses?"

Kenshin thought about that, chewed his lip solemnly while he mulled over the limited range of his possibilities. He might have been a damned efficient hitokiri, but he'd never used the underworld to go about it. Never played with the criminal elements. Hadn't had to, when his masters were the high born lords who were backing the revolution. Sano had lived on the other side of that gulf. Sano had trafficked with the dark side.

"Trust me, Kenshin. We'll find the guys we're looking for this way."

"Okay." A short inclination of Kenshin's head. A capitulation that Sano grinned at and clamped a hand on Kenshin's shoulder for in good cheer. He had enough money left in his purse to buy into a few games. As long as his luck held, it might be able to last the night - - and well into the morning. The places he planned to go never closed - - and were always ready and willing to separate a man from his money.

It was well into dawn when they finished their last hand of dice, drank their last watered down beer and staggered out of the last den of chance in a series of such places that rumor and suggestion had taken them to throughout the course of the night and early morning.

Well, Sano staggered. Kenshin, who'd nursed only a handful of beers throughout the evening and then only not to seem out of place, had to get a shoulder under one of Sano's arms to keep him from weaving about the street like - - well, like very much what he was - - the worst sort of drunkard. The deluded sort, who hadn't a clue he was as far gone as he was, and was perfectly willing to go back for yet one more round. Of dice and drinks.

Kenshin had had enough. They had money left, thanks to him emptying half Sano's purse mid-way through the night when the drink had started to tell and Sano had begun to lose what little sense of self-preservation he'd had to begin with. The luck had been fickle. A few good rolls and then a few disastrous ones. Kenshin thought they'd left with a little less than what they'd come with.

Money-wise. Information-wise - - they'd come out considerably better off than what they'd started. They knew the location of several yakuza run operations. They knew that the yakuza in Sendai were very big into black market imports and exports. They knew the names of a few men rumored to head the Sendai syndicate and hints of where those men reined their underworld empire. He doubted Sano would remember much of it in the morning, but he had to admit, Sano did have a way - - a way that got mysteriously better the drunker he got - - of mixing socially with miscreants. He'd gotten men to talk and Kenshin had been there, quietly unobtrusive in the background to pick up every word.

Tomorrow he'd visit some of those rumored locations, but tonight - - tonight? - - today he'd had all he could take. Sano's weight on his good shoulder was almost enough to pull him down. He was close - - so close to finding out vital information - - and on the one hand, stopping for even a brief bit of rest would put him further behind Winter - - and on the other, better a few hours sleep than a few days if he plummeted back into relapse.

With the rising sun, came a misting rain. The dry spell was ended and he and Sano were half soaked by the time he found a dirt cheap inn with space to spare. Not much space. But what could be expected for the meager price they charged? A cube not much larger than the hole he'd woken up in in the widow Hatayama's cottage. A warped shelf on the wall for belongings and a tattered, thin futon rolled up against the wall. Sano sat slumped against the sliding door outside while Kenshin unrolled the mat. Kenshin had to shake him awake to get him out of the hall and into the sleeping space.

"Where are we?" Sano wanted to know, a little wild eyed at the rude awakening.

"We're at an inn, Sano." Kenshin patiently urged him to crawl inside and slid the door shut after him. There was a lantern down the hall that cast strange shadows through the paper panes in the door.

"At an inn - -? Where?"

"In Sendai."

". . . . . . . oh. Oh, yeah. I was right, wasn't I?"

"You were right."

Sano sighed and flopped down. "Told you. You never believe me. You think I'm this idiot, I know."

"I don't!" Kenshin insisted, aghast that Sano would think such a thing. He leaned over, staring down at the shadows where Sano's eyes ought to be, very much wanting to dispel that notion. "I never did."

Sano's hand shot up, surprisingly fast considering his state, and caught at a loose lock of Kenshin's hair that had escaped the band at his nape.

"You cut your hair. Why'd you cut your hair? It was so - - nice. Let it grow back, okay?"

A man had to blink at that. At Sano's fingers sliding behind his ear, through his hair and touching his scalp. He really had no more notion of how to deal with that than he might oxen flying out of the sky at him.

"S-Sano - -" Nothing came to mind to say.

"C'mere." Sano pulled him down, fingers caught in the hair where it was gathered above the band. "Is it raining again? Its cold and you're wet."

"Ummm - - yes. Yes, it's raining." He whispered it, lying very still on his back next to Sano.

Sano sighed, content with the both of them reclined on the mat. More content when he rolled to his side and pressed his chin against Kenshin's shoulder and his arm around his waist. His breathing turned soft and even then, the whisper of his breath warm against Kenshin's neck. He smelled of beer and smoke and some other, more unique scent that was solely Sanosuke.

The smell of it was - - pleasing. And it occurred to him that the fact that it was - - the fact that he noticed it at all - - made this uncomfortable little niche, all the more disquieting. Worse still, he hadn't even the room to distance himself. To move out from under Sano's long arm, and Sano's warm breath. It made no sense that after days and day and days of close sleeping quarters, he'd find issue with it now. Other than the fact that he could still feel the imprint of Sano's fingers on his skull and still feel the ghost of the chill bumps that had risen on his skin as a result.

It was silly. It was Sano after all and no threat to him.

A silly thing, born of exhaustion and discouragement and he didn't need the distraction. Most certainly he did not. What he needed was sleep, so that he could focus a few hours from now when he'd need his wits about him.

It became second nature to force sleep when the dangers of the road dictated that only a few precious hours of it might be granted at a time and then long stretches without. He shut his eyes, imagining calm and peace and still; slowing his breathing, decreasing his racing heart, relaxing against the warmth next to him, instead of tensing from irrational alarm.

It was just Sano after all. Sano didn't mean anything - -

The Oyabun's weekday 'office', so to speak, if the rumors they had heard were to be believed, occupied the floor above a brothel three streets inland from the ocean. The Sendai Oyabun, the father of the Sendai Yakuza was reportedly the son and heir of the very old, very respected, very feared former Oyabun. There were no rumors where his home where, which one expected, was how the Oyabun preferred it. Kenshin favored visiting him at the office, never having had a taste for invading a man's home with unpleasant business.

Sano, once the bulk of the hangover had seeped away, after what sounded like a painful emptying of his stomach into the ally behind the inn and two cups of herbal tea that an old vendor promised would relieve the most horrendous 'morning after head', had all sorts of crafty notions of how to go about infiltrating the headquarters of the Sendai Yakuza. One felt bad vocalizing to Sano, who was trying very hard, that stealth had never been his strong suit. If stealth had been what Kenshin was after, he'd have extracted himself from Sano's dead to the world embrace and gone alone.

As it was he listened to Sano's advice all the walk to the Oyabun's business office and then simply stopped on the street outside it and announced that 'no, the front door seemed the best way in.'

Sano gaped, all his notions of craftily passing the Oyabun's no doubt numerous guardians disassembled.

"Hello." Kenshin smiled without particular good nature at the painted face of the woman who greeted them at the door. It was not the most elite of brothels. The smell of opium drifted from the back rooms. The hostess was pretty enough but old before her time. "We're looking for the Oyabun. Mazawa Sozui, I believe."

The hostess blinked at him, not comprehending or shocked into speechlessness at the bluntness of his request.

"I can't believe you just asked it like that." Sano muttered behind him.

"There is no Mazawa Sozui here." The woman finally got her voice back, peering around the both of them to see if anyone else were lingering outside the door.

"Ah - - strange, considering we heard from several sources that his offices were on the top floor of this very building.

"You want a girl?" she asked. "We have girls who'll do whatever you want."

"We don't want girls." Sano snapped. "We want to talk with the Oyabun, Damnit!"

Sano was loud. The woman winced and stepped back a little. Sano moved around Kenshin, filling the room with his presence. "We'll look for ourselves."

"No." The woman put her hands out, not quite touching. "We don't want your business. Leave now!"

"You heard her." A man stepped out from behind a sliding door. A very large man, with a pock marked face and arms bigger around than Kenshin's thighs.

Sano grinned, finding something he could sink his teeth into. He stepped right up to a man that probably outweighed him half again and repeated Kenshin's demand.

"We came to see the Oyabun. We're not going away until we do."

The big man had a knife under his shirt and very likely another one strapped to his leg, from the way he carried himself. Sano could deal with a few simple knives. The ones behind the partially opened sliding door were another matter. There were two or three of them waiting there, and the smell of sake and smoke drifted out to mix with the heavy perfume of the hostess and the scent of opium smoke coming from the back of the brothel.

He slid around the center of conflict that had become Sano and the big man. Saw where the stairs led up at the end of a shadowed, door lined hall. The woman saw him and started, not having noted him moving at all, but she kept her silence, willing to let the Oyabun's guards deal with them.

Of course with Sano, it had to come to violence. The big man shoved first and Sano staggered back a step, then let loose with one of his own no-nonsense punches. He was quicker by far than he'd used to be and the blow landed solidly making the big man reel.

There was a rustling of movement from the room behind the sliding door. The faint smell of gunpowder, which meant one or more of the hidden one's had a gun. Kenshin disliked guns intensely. A man sidled through the crack in the door, a pistol in his hand. Kenshin shoved the sliding door panel closed with enough force to shatter the wood. The man and his gun went sprawling, the latter clattering to the floor boards, the former squawking and holding both hands to a broken nose and split lips.

The others cried out in anger and clamored over the broken door, spying Sano right away and mistakenly assuming him the only threat. The first one went down, tripping over Kenshin's foot, the second one to an elbow in the throat. The one he'd tripped, got a well placed kick to the side of the head which ended his threat. Sano finished his in short order and stood there looking for more, somewhat surprised at the collection of Kenshin's conquests.

"I thought you were supposed to be wounded?"

"I think the stairs are this way." Kenshin inclined his head to the hostess and padded down the hallway, past occupied rooms, some of which the sounds of grunts and moans issued forth from, some which the occupants had half opened the doors to, curious at the ruckus outside.

There were more bodies upstairs. He could hear them moving, More dangerous bodies than the ones in those rooms partaking of women and drugs. If they had too much time to prepare, they would be trouble. If they had more guns - - this would be messy and he truly hadn't wanted messy. He truly did not want Sano in the line of gunfire. Sano was quick, but he wasn't that quick. Ha - - he hardly knew if he was that quick anymore. Between four years of a generally sedentary life and the wounds he'd taken when that life had been interrupted - - he was most disastrously off his game.

It wasn't a man with a gun at the top of the stairs, but a pair of men with swords. They had the higher ground certainly, but they were in the dark as to what sort of threat they faced. Kenshin's foot touched the first step and he launched himself up, before they could fully realize what he was doing or just how quick he was doing it. Two bounds and he was just below their line of vision. He felt the strain of it in his leg. Felt it quite adamantly in his hand and he slammed his palm up under the closest one's guard and into his chin. Teeth clamped shut quite abruptly and blood spattered as the tongue was caught in the crushing impact. Kenshin caught his arm, even as the man started howling, and slammed the hilt of his sword into the other man's Adam's apple. He bashed the first one's head against the wall to quiet his noise and caught the sword as limp fingers dropped it. He didn't want it, this killing blade. It was too much of a risk to wield it and not take a life, accidentally or not. But the howls of the man who'd bitten through his tongue had roused others and Sano was pounding up the stairs in his wake and the Oyabun was sure to have the best of his guard on the upper level with him.

He made the choice, and snatched the sheath out of the unconscious man's belt, sliding the blade home within it. A sheathed sword could be a dangerous weapon in its own right, even if his grip was weak and it hurt to clench his fingers too tightly about the hilt.

"If they have guns - - stay down." He hissed at Sano.

"Me? What about you?" Sano complained, but Kenshin didn't answer, he swept down the narrow hall, cutting a swath through the men that came from the various rooms along the side. He used speed to take them down before they had the chance to rally - - before he had to exert physical energy and prowess that he was sorely lacking in at the moment. He left the dregs of them for Sano to clean up behind him, working his way towards the big room at the end of the hall. The door slid open before he reached it and slim, dark man stood there, a sheathed sword at his side, face expressionless. Not a hired thug. Not even a trained yakuza assassin. Better than that. A man who knew how to hold that sword and had quite likely used it professionally years past when the carrying of such a weapon was not frowned upon. Kenshin knew a swordsman when he saw one - - and this was most certainly a man that knew the art.

Not a good man to encounter when his own hands were screaming bloody murder at him and wetness was trickling down his wrist from the bandage of his right one, making the hilt of the sword slick under his fingers. He transferred the sword to his left hand, holding it lightly by the sheath. Held out his right hand to stop Sano from charging right past him and inclined his head respectfully at the swordsman at the door.

"We've come to speak to the Oyabun, if you please."

"Do you have an appointment?" the man asked, deadpan.

"An appointment?!!" Sano cried and Kenshin wondered how much face he'd lose by turning around and kicking him to get him to shut up.

"No. It was an impromptu visit. I would like to see him all the same."

The swordsman looked beyond them, at the wreckage of the hall, at strewn bodies and shattered doors.

"Assassin's generally come through the back door."

"We're not assassins."

"Doi, let them pass." A voice from within instructed.

The swordsman, Doi frowned, but stepped aside regardless, gesturing for them to approach. The office, compared to the rest of the building was very tastefully decorated. A large room with a western style desk and a western style couch along one wall. The rest was traditional, from the fine tapestries on the wall, to the lovely geisha kneeling on a mat beside the desk, a tea service at her side. There were two men in the room besides the swordsman, Doi. One looked to be a secretary, who had a small desk of his own, and the other was a middle aged man in deceptively simple, silk clothing. He had a pair of western spectacles perched on his nose.

"Is there a reason you invade my office?" He asked smoothly.

"I find it more honorable than invading a man's home." Kenshin answered, just as smoothly. "And it was only an invasion because your men forced it to be so. We asked nicely."

"Ah. Your politeness is steeped in disregard."

Kenshin shrugged, silently willing Sano to have the sense to keep his mouth shut and let Kenshin deal with this. Sano seemed content with that course for the moment, standing just behind him to the left, his eyes on the swordsman still at the door.

"The Yakuza have given me little reason for regard. But, I've not dealt with an Oyabun, so perhaps I've gotten the wrong impression."

"Perhaps. Perhaps you confuse the Yakuza with the yakuza - - the organization with the outcast strays of society. We are businessmen. We are not thugs and common criminals."

"Common criminals - - no."

The Oyabun stared at him, at his bandaged hands and the sheathed sword they held. "What do you want?"


"Information? You come here and destroy my property and kill my men and you want a favor."

"No man of yours is dead."

A brow arched, speculatively. This was not a generous man, Kenshin thought. Not a merciful one. This was a man who would crush weakness the moment it reared its head. Better not to show it.

"Killing your men would prove no point. Not when I wish a favor."

"What information?"

"An Englishman named Winter came to Sendai from Tokyo in the company of Yakuza, on business in which Yakuza had a hand. He was to meet a ship here. I need to know what ship and if it has already left port and if so - - its destination. I would speak with these - - Yakuza, from Tokyo if you do not know - - for I'm sure they will."

"And what makes you think that I would give up those given my protection? The protection of the Oyabun is no small thing."

"No." Kenshin agreed. "I have no grudge against the Yakuza - - only the Englishman."

"And if this Englishman - - whoever he is - - is in alliance with the Yakuza?"

Kenshin lowered his lashes, hiding the glint of anger, hiding the flash of memory of Winter's face just before he'd pulled the trigger and put a bullet through Kenshin's shoulder, of those sibilant, hateful words half recalled through a haze of pain and desperation. Of Kaoru and Kenji in this man's grasp. He had no time for this. He had no patience. He looked up and let the cold, controlled force of his anger take life in his gaze.

"Then the Yakuza and I would be at odds, Oyabun."



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