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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Sano didn't even see it coming. One moment Kenshin was verbally dancing with the Sendai Yakuza boss and the next, the swordsman by the door, the guy the Oyabun had called Doi, was springing towards Kenshin's back, his sword out of its sheath so fast Sano missed the draw entirely. It was the sort of speed only the really good swordsmen exhibited. The type Kenshin would use and surprise the hell out of you when you weren't expecting it. Maybe the Oyabun had given a signal - - maybe the guy was just fed up with Kenshin sparring with his master.

Whatever the cause, the stroke was a killing one and if it had come at Sano - - he'd have probably been bleeding his guts out on the floor before he even realized he'd been sliced open.

Kenshin spun and blocked it with the sheathed blade. Shoved backwards hard with both hands when the naked blade lodged in the wood of the sheath and forced the Doi guy back a few steps before the man yanked his sword free of Kenshin's sheath.

Thud, thud - - thump. Three successive swipes - - all blocked and the end of the sheath shattered, leaving the last foot of the blade naked. Kenshin hissed and flung the arm holding the blade out and the sheath went sailing like a missile towards Doi. It was unexpected enough to take the guy by surprise. The sheath hit him in the gut and hard. He gasped, staggering a step - - that cold professionalism on his face replaced by indignant anger. Like he thought tossing the sheath had been a dirty move or something - - like he hadn't come at Kenshin's back first.

Doi swept forward and naked steel met naked steel. Kenshin didn't have much a choice - - all his moral righteousness be damned when a man was trying to slice him up with a good sharp blade. The woman screamed and scrambled backwards, the little secretary did, the both of them huddling behind the Oyabun's desk while the Oyabun himself sat impassive - - waiting for the outcome.

Clang - - clang - - swoosh. Doi's sword met empty air as Kenshin leapt over the swing - - launched himself off the edge of the Oyabun's desk and into the air over Doi's head, coming down with the hilt of his sword against Doi's neck on the way down. The man staggered forward, almost turned in time bring his sword around and make a swipe at Kenshin before Kenshin's foot slammed into the small of his back and smashed him forward into the edge of the desk.

Then Kenshin stood there, with the tip of his blade poised at the back of Doi's neck, the steel just resting lightly upon the flesh, but not quite breaking it. He stared over the man's head and into the Oyabun's eyes.

"Have you given him your protection? Shall I finish this and see how much this protection of yours is truly worth?"

"You - - you do not know who you toy with. The Yakuza has a reach longer than you know."

"I know. I asked a simple favor. You brought this upon yourself."

"Who are you?"

"It makes no difference."

"I know who you are - - I saw you - - in the revolution - -" Doi whispered, leaning against his master's desk. "They said you were dead - - years ago."

Kenshin tightened his lips, not willing to confirm this man's assumptions. But maybe threat of Battousai the manslayer was needed more now than the threat of a simple, unknown swordsman.

"Well, they were wrong." Sano said.

"Tell him." Doi said softly. "Tell him and get him out of here."

The Oyabun frowned, but it did appear he had some regard for his bodyguard.

"I know this Winter. The ship he left on is called the Blue Lady and it left this port two days past. To where I do not know. The Yakuza he came with may or may not still be in Sendai. You might try looking for them at the Terakado inn. If you kill them while they are under my protection or disrupt my business, I will hunt you both down and make you pay. If you linger in this city, I may do so regardless. Do we understand each other?"

Kenshin pulled the blade back and inclined his head. "We understand each other, Oyabun."

He didn't say more. Just spun on his heel and strode past Sano and down the hall past the few insensible bodies that still lay on the floor. Past the conscious ones who glared daggers at their passage and downstairs through the brothel to the fresh air of outside.

A block down the road and he pushed his way through the crowded street to the wall of a building, thrusting the sword he'd held concealed close to his body into Sano's hands, haunching his shoulders and drawing his own hands up close to his chest. The hilt of the sword was wet with blood. The bandages on Kenshin's right hand were soaked through with red. There were pain tears in his eyes that he could hold back no longer.

"Shit." Sano said, dropping the sword and kicking it close to the wall in order to better see Kenshin's hand. "You idiot. Look what you did."

Kenshin was shaking - - the whole of his body was quivering, his knees threatening to spill him down the wall. Sano got an arm around him to shore him up, close against the wall in the shadow of a narrow alley, hoping like hell that the Oyabun hadn't sent men to pursue them.

He wanted them out of the street and far enough away from the brothel to put them out of easy striking range.

"Do you want to keep the sword?"

It took Kenshin a moment to answer. He shook his head. "No."

"Okay. C'mon, then."

Kenshin clutched at Sano's jacket, pressing his forehead hard against Sano's shoulder. "Two days - - two days - -"

As if they hadn't expected it. As if Kenshin thought this Englishman would hang around waiting for him - - but Kenshin had had hope, even though he'd known better and that was dashed now.

"Come on, now!" Sano got a grip on Kenshin's arm and got him back onto the street, whether he was ready to go or not. Kenshin let himself be bullied into moving. Let Sano haul him along, paying little heed to where Sano was going.

Sano had plans. Definite plans. First off back to the crappy little inn they'd spent the morning in to get his sack and take care of Kenshin's hand. The repeated impact of sword against sword had done a damn good job of breaking open the scabs of a wound that had just begun to heal without the angry red of infection. He was amazed that Kenshin had been able to keep his grip at all. That Doi guy had been no inept swordsman.

Second, scope out this Terakado inn and see if it was some sort of set-up before they blundered in. Sniff around a little bit and test the weather - - Sano didn't trust the Yakuza much at all and impassive faced Yakuza bosses none at all. The Oyabun would have had the both of them murdered on the spot if he'd have been able to get away with it.

"Where are we going?" Kenshin asked finally, pulling his arm out of Sano's grasp.

"Back to the inn."

"No." Kenshin stopped dead in the street. "We don't have time."

"Your hand is bleeding again."

"They'll get word to them and they'll run." Kenshin said.

"What? The Yakuza from Tokyo? If they're where this guy said at all?"

Kenshin ignored him, gaze sweeping the street and fixing on a vendor in his stand along the side. "Do you know the Terakado inn?"

The man gave him a dubious look, as if he thought he were out of his head for asking, but he told him regardless and Sano stood there softly cursing all the while.

"You're disabusing me of the notion that you have any common sense whatsoever!" Sano complained when Kenshin started off again. "I'm supposed to be the hotheaded one!"

Kenshin wasn't paying him any attention. Sano ground his teeth and grabbed his arm again - - hard, jerking him to an abrupt halt. Kenshin came close to striking back - - Sano could see it in his eyes - - could feel the frustration and the panic and the rage in that shriveling plum glare.

"You walked out of that brothel by the grace of luck alone - - understand? You weren't up to that and you did it anyway and if you think you're gonna get lucky enough to do it again - - well, your luck hasn't been running that good and you know it."

"Sano - - don't - -"

"Don't what? Try and talk sense? You put on a good show, but that guy took everything you had - - you're bleeding! They're already two days ahead of us - - a few hours isn't going to make any difference."

"It is! Do you think the Oyabun will just sit there and forget about our visit? Do you think he'll not send word to those men and warn them we're coming?"

"No. I don't think that. But I think they'll be ready and willing to finish what they started back in the mountains and I think the Oyabun probably sent a runner out the moment we stepped out of his office and I think no matter how soon we get there they're gonna be expecting us - - so you damned well better be in better shape than you are now."

"Let go, Sano."

Sano swore and released him, swallowing the urge to smack him up against the side of the head for his stubbornness. "Fine. We'll go then. And if you fuck up and I get killed because of it - - well, you can damn sure expect my ghost to haunt you for the rest of your days."

Kenshin stopped, a half dozen paces ahead of him, shoulders stiff and angry. His expression must have been abysmal, for people in the street took one look and veered wide around him. Maybe that last had gotten through to him. Kenshin had always had the tendency to hold firm to guilt's and responsibilities, misplaced or not. He took very serious issue of protecting the people around him whether they needed protecting or not. Whether he was capable of it or not.

Or maybe it wasn't that at all. Maybe those last few steps had driven home how much that little skirmish in the Oyabun's office had cost him. Maybe he was feeling the blood running down his fingers or the tearing of no where near healed bullet wounds. Maybe the hurt was getting though for a change - - maybe that and the devastation of actually knowing - - knowing for a fact that Kaoru had slipped beyond his present grasp - - had driven the stubborn refusal to acknowledge his own mortality out of him.

It didn't really matter. Sano got capitulation. He got a reluctant nod and very soft. "All right. We'll go and get your pack, first."

Sano tried not to revel in the small victory. Tried not to say any inflammatory thing such as 'now you're showing good sense.' Or ' It's about time you started listening to me.' Though he thought them with fierce intensity. It was enough that Kenshin had agreed.

It was enough that he sat still long enough to Sano to unwind the blood soaked bandages around his right hand and rewrap it. Sano had become rather adept at bandaging in the last few weeks. Kenshin had split the scab that had formed over the wound in his palm and the blood staining the new bandages was a bright red.

"It hurt?" Sano asked, tying off the cloth. Kenshin gave him a narrow eyed look, not in the mood for trivial talk.

"I just ask," Sano said irritably. "Because your hand is shaking so bad. See?"

He released the hand in question and without his own big fingers to anchor it, there was a visible trembling. Kenshin's gaze grew darker and he curled his fingers, pulling the member close to his body.

"It's time to go now."

Sano sighed, figuring he'd gotten all the repose out of Kenshin that he was likely to. He got up, slinging the pack over his shoulder and waited for Kenshin to follow suit, figuring that once Kenshin was down, it wouldn't be so easy to get back up. But Kenshin surprised him, rising gracefully to his feet with hardly a grimace.

They followed the directions the vendor had given Kenshin in brooding silence. The part of town this inn was supposedly located in was not a nicer part of Sendai. They were as likely, Sano thought grimly, to be attacked by the restless, predatory youth lingering in groups at this alleyway or the doorway of that dilapidated structure as they were by Yakuza.

The brothels here made the one the Oyabun held his offices over seem like the most esteemed geisha house. There were women on the streets outside the houses beckoning men towards their dens. There were groups of men gambling on the sides of the street, or the sound of men cheering on fighting cocks within the depths of an alley. A woman screamed from somewhere down one of those dark alleys and both he and Kenshin tensed, but her shrill laughter followed and one could only assume it was a whore entertaining her patron. There were no westerners here, as had been evident in other parts of the city. They'd probably not last a handful of minutes before they had their throats slit by the angry denizens of the Sendai slums.

The Terakado inn apparently doubled as a gambling den as well as a brothel. It was a seedy, ill-repaired building with a peeling, hand painted sign next to its main entrance. The sound of raucous laughter could be heard from within and a great many bodies traversed in and out of its doors. A popular place then. A dangerous one. Sano had seen its like. Had frequented its like, but only when he'd been in the mood for a bit of risk. He'd have been damned watchful of his back if he'd have walked into such a place without the possibility of an ambush - - as it was - - well, he wished Kenshin had kept the sword. The threat of the Battousai - - whether he was presently declawed or not - - might have been a good thing to have on their side.

"Oh, this is just great." Sano complained as they lingered across the street from the inn. "Looks like half the thugs in Sendai make this place their hangout."

Kenshin stood in the shadow of a drooping overhang, frowning. "It does seem a popular place."

Sano snorted. "So you want me to maybe go in and take a look around. I don't stand out as much as you."

"No. I think maybe we'll watch from here for a while. See who comes and goes."

Ah, sanity. Sano planted his back against the wall, wishing he'd picked up something to eat on the way, not trusting the digestibility of the food prepared on this particular street.

The shadows lengthened. A few women of ill-repute wondered by with interesting propositions. A man slithered up inquiring in they wanted herbal entertainment. Kenshin's black glare chased him away. Out of all the comings and goings to and from that inn, Sano wondered if Kenshin recognized a face. Whether he'd gotten a good enough look at any of those Yakuza that he'd chased from Tokyo to recall features. Whether any of them had participated in what the bandits had done to him - - or whether they'd left before it had come down to rape. If they had, then Kenshin wouldn't have to worry about his precious vow not to kill - - because Sano would take care of it.

It was almost dusk before Kenshin decided to move. Sano had wondered down the street and back in that time, all within eyeshot of the inn. Conversed with the women on the street and a few of the loitering youth who took him for nothing more than a slightly older version of themselves. He knew very well how to exude the aura of the ruffian when it suited him.

Then back to Kenshin and his silent, patient surveillance of the inn. When Kenshin did see a face that struck a chord, he never tensed. Didn't say a word to acknowledge it until the man was safely inside the inn and Sano's attention had wondered. Then it was merely a quiet. It's time to go now, Sano. And he pushed himself off the wall and walked down the street past the inn and towards the alley that flanked it.

"What, we going in the back way?" Sano wanted to know.

"Yes." Kenshin said, stepping over a passed out drunk in the shadows. Kenshin's gaze went up to the row of windows lining the second floor and Sano figured he was contemplating an even less obvious entry than the back door. There wasn't much in the way of handhold to get up there and Sano wasn't sure if he could make that dubious climb. Which meant if Kenshin went up, he might have no choice but to go in through the door. There were a lot of crates out here, containers of trash and rotted food. The urine and vomit smell overpowered even that.

"I don't know if I can make it up that way." Sano hissed and Kenshin frowned. "Let's just go through the damned kitchen."

As he said it the door opened and someone staggered out, drunk and oblivious, and weaving his way down to the end of the alley to purge his stomach. Sano made a face and gestured at the door. "It doesn't look like they particularly care who comes and goes this way. If its a set-up, then we're gonna walk into it one way or another anyway."

It irked Kenshin, who still had the instincts of a hitokiri if not the values - - to just waltz in the public way when there were so many other unpublic one's available. Sano, who'd never had the impulses to skulk about like a thief in the night, didn't give him the chance to argue the point, striding for the door and entering the horribly unappetizing kitchen. There were a few men and women working inside, who only barely paused in their work to take note of Sano's appearance and Kenshin's more circumspect one behind him. The smell of seafood gone bad killed even Sano's appetite. There was a door at the end of the cluttered kitchen area which undoubtedly lead to the main room, where a great clamor of noise issued. He turned to see how Kenshin wanted to play this game - - when out of the shadows of the box and crates on the inside of the kitchen door a fist shot out and slammed unerringly into the side of his head. He staggered into the embrace of a large form that stepped out of the darkness from the other side of the door, vision spinning and only half aware of the sudden startlement of the kitchen workers. Only half aware as his senses cleared and anger set it, that the blow that had sent him staggering into the kitchen had merely been to get him out of the way so that his attacker could get his hands on Kenshin. Not an easy task at the worst of times, Kenshin being slippery and tricky even when he was impaired and especially when he was on a mission. But as Sano got his wits about him and grappled with the big man that was trying to haul him backwards towards the door to the alley, he saw that Kenshin's attacker had an arm around his neck and one about his waist and had hauled him off his feet and was half way through the door with him and out into the shadows of dusk. Sano stopped playing nice then. He changed the force of his struggles quite suddenly, wanting out that door to where Kenshin had been taken and wanting it quick. The big man, who'd been trying to get him that direction anyway was suddenly taken off his balance, and Sano pushed him headlong through the door and sent the both of them crashing into the trash outside it.

Sano ended up on top, with a knee in his attacker's groin and a fist raised to smash into his broad, flat face.

"Sano - - wait." A hiss from Kenshin and he jerked his head up to search him out. There in the shadows, pressed against the wall with a tall, narrow figure in common workman's clothing, blocking him in.

"What the fuck - -?" Sano demanded and the man blocking Kenshin in shifted to look over his shoulder at Sano, dark narrow eyes cold and business like and just damned deadly.

"Don't make more of a scene that you already have, Sagara."

"What? What!!??" Sano cried, squinting his eyes to peer through the shadows, the darkness hiding a great deal of the features but nothing of the hatefully smug, unfortunately familiar voice. He knew this man. It was not a man whom he'd particularly wanted to encounter again.

"Saitou - -" he hissed, scrambling off the man he'd knocked through the door, rightfully thinking Saitou Hajime the more dangerous opponent. "What the fuck do you want?"

"I'm afraid I can't allow the two of you to go inside."

"What!? Why the hell not?"

"What business is it of yours?" Kenshin asked, softer, calmer, though his eyes were narrowed to almond shaped slits.

"It would disturb a delicate balance and you two have already stirred the waters in Sendai with your presence enough already. There is nothing in this inn that you need."

"Where do you get off telling us what to do?"

"Sano - -" Kenshin gave Sano a warning look and slid under Saitou's arm and out from against the wall where the taller man had pushed him. "Why?"

the last question had been directed at Saitou and the man whom the Meiji police force utilized as one of their top undercover agents - - the man who had once been a leader of the Shinsengumi - the man who still held the ghostly acronym ' the wolf of Miburo' cast his smile that was never truly a real smile at Kenshin, and inquired dryly.

"Doesn't Sagara have a price on his head? I think that warrant still stands - -"

Sano went a little pale. He clenched his fists having the very strong urge to break and run. Well, maybe take a swipe or two at Saitou before fleeing the long arm of the law.

"Saitou, don't change the subject." Kenshin warned. "There's a man or two in there that I need information from."

"That may be. But you're still not going in there."

"Why do you care?"

"Because if you do you'll be interfering with an operation that the police have been working at for months - - I would prefer if all that hard work not be scattered to the four winds just because you and this idiot want to bust a few heads."

"Idiot!?"

"Shut up, Sano." Kenshin snapped. Oh, Kenshin was not happy. Kenshin had come very close to something vitally important to him and Saitou appearing out of nowhere telling him he couldn't have it was not being taken well.

"You tell me why or I go in there anyway, whether you want it or not."

"Will you? Are you sure you're up to going through me, Himura?"

Kenshin's lip curled in a snarl. He glanced at Saitou's big lackey, at the open kitchen door - - at Sano, who nodded, affirming that he was up for anything Kenshin wished to try.

"Not here." Saitou said, abruptly digging in his pocket and coming out with a cigarette between his long fingers. "Come with me."

He struck a match against the wall and held the flickering flame to the end of the cigarette, then shook out the stick and tossed it into the alley along with the rest of the debris.

Kenshin looked back at the doors, reluctantly.

"Don't be a fool. You're not going in there and you're in no shape to press the issue with me." When he shifted, Sano could see the dark silhouette of a sword at his hip, under the loose workman's jacket he wore. He was right. The condition Kenshin was in and swordless to boot - - Saitou would pound him into the ground.

If he could get past Sano to do it. Sano stepped forward, close up to Kenshin's side and glared defiantly into Saitou's eyes. They were almost of a height. Saitou had a few inches on him if you discounted Sano's unruly hair.

"I still have a score to settle with you."

Saitou lifted a brow, not impressed. Infuriating man. Sano ground his teeth, thinking about how hard he'd trained during those years on the mainland and how much of it was due to proving something to this smug bastard here.

Saitou turned his back on them and started walking up the alley towards the street, leaving his hulking lackey to stand between them and the back door. Kenshin stood there, shoulders haunched a little, head down, fingers curled into fists, even though it had to hurt.

"To hell with him - -" Sano hissed softly, mostly for Kenshin's ears - - but not particularly caring if Saitou heard.

"No - -" Kenshin said. "I can't fight him and them . . . . . . we'll hear what he has to say, Sano."

Sano cast a black look back at Saitou's man, then stuffed his hands in his pockets and shuffled after Kenshin.


It was just them and Saitou in a very secluded booth in an almost empty teahouse a good dozen blocks from the slums where the Terakado inn had been. Saitou waved the hostess away after ordering a simple round of tea and Sano called her back, wanting food to fill his empty stomach. Saitou gave him a look like he was the biggest lout in the world for thinking of food when more serious things were afoot. Kenshin didn't look at him at all, his solemn, unnervingly serious gaze never leaving Saitou.

"What do you know about why I'm here?" Kenshin asked softly. Killing soft. Like if Saitou gave the wrong answer there was going to be blood shed between them. Kenshin was damned scary when he got that look - - when everything soft and familiar about him just evaporated and what was left was a stone cold killer. Only Kenshin wasn't that. Even when he was pressed hard with his back to the wall - - he wasn't that - - so a body had to get past that dangerous look and all the things known about Kenshin's dubious past and break into the silence that Saitou let stretch out.

Saitou. Kenshin might not be a cold killer - - but Saitou was. Had been in the revolution and still was. He had a certain brand of honor though, a body had to admit that, even though a body might hate him with a passion. He didn't kill the innocent. If you were on the other side of that line though - - beware.

"Don't just sit there smoking, you asshole. Answer him!"

Saitou's lips twitched a little, and he inclined his head graciously as the waitress brought back the tea and made to poor for them. He let the two of them stew while she filled their cups, then waited until she had padded off before taking a sip of his.

"What do you know about an English merchant named Winter?" Saitou countered.

"You know him?" Sano asked.

Saitou cast him a look, then turned his gaze back to Kenshin. "Do you let him do your talking for you now?"

"Oh shut the fuck up - -" Sano snapped. "You're the one that asked us here."

"I asked him." Saitou clarified.

"Yeah - - well - -"

"Would you two please stop." Kenshin said softly. "I know Winter and you know I do, if you stopped me from going into that inn and questioning those Yakuza. The question I have is why and how?"

"Why? Because the man has been a thorn in Japan's side for the last decade or more. He's a blackmarketeer, a gunrunner, a murderer, a conspirator with at least a half dozen corrupt government officials and at the moment he's in cohorts with the Yakuza in efforts to corner the trade coming into at least four major ports, Tokyo bay being the most notable. We've had a very great interest in this westerner for some time now. As to how - - well, let's just say I've a fly on the wall and I don't need you going in and swatting him."

Kenshin sat there a moment in silence, one knuckle pressed lightly against his bottom lip - -

"What do you mean - - fly on the wall?" Sano demanded when Kenshin didn't.

Saitou gave him another of those looks.

"He means," Kenshin said. "That he's got a man inside the Yakuza. All the way from Tokyo?" He asked quietly and Saitou shrugged.

"It takes a great deal of effort to infiltrate such a close knit organization. I don't want my man compromised."

"Wait a minute." Sano held up a finger, a sudden angry thought hammering to get out of his head. "Just wait a damn minute. You're saying one of your men came from Tokyo with this damned English bastard and he stood there and watched while they did this to Kenshin." He made a swipe at Kenshin's hand, catching his wrist and holding the bandaged member up for Saitou to get a good look at.

"Sano - -" Kenshin tugged for him to release him.

"Your cop just stood there while they crucified him? While they - - while - - he almost died!"

"Sano - - let go." Kenshin repeated and Sano realized he had hauled him half way across the short table in efforts to get the bandaged hand close to Saitou. He let go and Kenshin pushed himself back, righting a tea cup that had spilled its contents across the table as he did.

"When a man is this deep undercover - - and when the mission is so important - - certain sacrifices must be made. He got word to me that there were rumors that the Battousai might have been involved. If that were the case - - well, one would trust Himura to be capable of extracting himself from such a situation."

"Well, he didn't." Sano snapped, wondering if Saitou's man had been there while they were raping Kenshin - - wondering if he'd passed that bit of information along to his smug superior. He looked to Kenshin, but he wasn't showing anything, his face impassive, not letting a scrap of emotion escape.

"I don't really care what he did - - or is doing - - or is conspiring to do - -" Kenshin finally said. "All that matters to me is that he took my wife and my son and that he's had two - - three days now - - headstart on me and if your man knows where he's going then you find out for me, or I find out for myself, cover or no cover."

Saitou steepled his fingers, staring speculatively at Kenshin. "Why did he do it? Why take them?"

"Because he needed a replacement for a girl he killed. I don't know why? That wasn't one of the things he told me."

"What other things did he tell you, Kenshin?" Saitou leaned forward like a snake about to strike. Sano almost wanted to put an arm between them in case Saitou spewed out some sort of venom.

"He helped fund Shishio."

"Humm. Yes. We'd suspected Shishio had western backers and later after the threat was eliminated, Winter's name came up."

Kenshin took a breath, opened his mouth and shut it as the waitress came back with Sano's food. Sometime in the interim, Sano had surprisingly enough lost his appitite. Maybe it was the nauseating knowledge that a man that was supposed to be one of the good guys hadn't lifted a finger to stop Kaoru's kidnapping and Kenshin's torture.

"What the hell does any of that matter. All we need to know is where he's taken Kaoru." Sano slammed a fist down on the tabletop so hard the cups jumped, spilling more yet more tea.

"I don't know where he was going." Saitou stubbed out the remnants of his cigarette and fished in his pocket for another one.

"You don't know." Kenshin repeated slowly. "Or you won't tell?"

"Yeah, you seem to know everything else." Sano complained.

Saitou drew in a long drag of smoke, his eyes dark, narrow slits in the dim light of the restaurant. "This man did not confide the whole of his schemes to even the Yakuza he is aligned with. He already has them in a partnership. We feel he has been looking for more legitimate backing - - perhaps because his own backers in the west need the confidence that they are dealing with men of honor as opposed to a syndicate of organized criminals."

Saitou tapped ash into an empty tea cup, mouth twitching thoughtfully as he turned information over in his head. "What did he say about this woman? The one you say he killed?"

"Very little - -" Kenshin said. "That she knew a bit of English - - that he had a use for her - - but that she turned against him - - perhaps - - I was distracted at the time. She had bodyguards that he murdered as well - - so she must have been a woman of some consequence."

"The daughter of a man of consequence." Saitou surmised and Kenshin lifted a brow in question.

Saitou's lips turned up in a thin smile, genuinely pleased. "The Yakuza don't know where he was going - - only that it was to cement an alliance with an English shipping conglomerate. A legitimate alliance with a man who controls a good deal of the import/export trade in Tokyo bay. A former Shogunate who - - made out rather better than a good many of his peers after the revolution."

"This man - - he sent his daughter - - to do what? Negotiate a contract? Sign a treaty? Because he wouldn't travel out of Japan himself?" Kenshin asked.

"Most likely. Such a man might not accept the onslaught of the west well - - but he'll accept the wealth and the power relations with them might bring."

"If he sent his daughter he would know where and who she was meeting with." Kenshin's eyes got a little wider, a little more emotion showing through with the sudden burst of hope.

"Probably." Saitou blew a smoke ring lazily over the table.

"If you were so hot to get to Winter, why not have this guy under surveillance?" Sano demanded. "Why not question him?"

"Because - - this guy - - as you so simply put it - - has very high contacts in the Meiji Government. He has a great deal of legitimate political power and taking him into police custody to question like any common thug would have repercussions I'd rather not have to deal with."

"Okay, so we go and ask him, then. I mean, if Winter killed his daughter then he's not gonna be that loyal to the bastard, is he?"

"Very likely not. How amazingly astute of you, Sagara." As if Saitou thought it was the first bright idea that Sano had ever had.

Sano scowled, on the verge of snapping back when Kenshin spoke up.

"The Shogunate were stripped of land and power. Why does this man still hold his?"

"Ah - - did I forget to mention his alliance with the Meiji forces during the last years of the revolution? He betrayed the Towkogawa and the Meiji Government rewarded him for it by leaving him his wealth and his lands if not all of his honor."

"A traitor!" Sano spat. "It figures a traitor would be in cahoots with this English bastard."

"Don't be so harsh, Sagara - - a man will do a great many things to protect his children. The Meiji were desperate for the strategic lands and information he held so they sent a very clear message. They had his son and heir assassinated in his own home and sent his head and the heads of his personal guard to his father. Quite a few heads if I recall. How many were there, Himura? Seven - - Ten?"

Kenshin's fists knotted, his eyes barely visible slits under the fall of his hair. "Nine. There were nine."

"You - -?" Sano blinked.

Kenshin flashed him a look and not a happy one. There was desperation and guilt and a plea for understanding all in that one split second when their eyes met, then it was gone, replaced by hard chips of amethyst and tight line of mouth.

"When his second son was threatened," Saitou said. "The old man chose to preserve his family line - - I'm sure if Himura showed up on his doorstep asking for assistance, he'd be less than willing to grant it - - murdered daughter or no."

"Okay. Okay, So Kenshin doesn't have to be there. But I'll damn well ask."

"Yeessss. Of the pair of you, you are the diplomatic one." Saitou drawled.

Sano growled at the dripping sarcasm. He half rose, lifting a threatening fist that Saitou ignored with a completeness that was infuriating.

Kenshin's light fingers on his arm kept him from lunging across the table.

"Erizawa - - that was his name wasn't it? The old Shogunate? Where does he live, Saitou?" Kenshin asked.

"You're a fool." Saitou remarked.

"Very often of late. Where does he live?"

"Outside of Tokyo." Saitou shrugged. "Will you send this buffoon in to tell him of his daughter's murder and expect Erizawa to spill all he knows?"

"Buffoon?"

"No. I'll go myself."

"Fool."

Kenshin rose. Sano stared. They'd just traveled over half the distance from Tokyo to get here. Now Kenshin wanted to trudge back down the same damned wet, miserable, ghost ridden, bandit-infested path.

"Where's that damned silly sword of yours, Himura?"

Kenshin gave Saitou a dark look, very much, a body assumed, not wishing to admit certain weaknesses before him.

"He gave it away." Sano answered, just disgusted enough with the stupidity of the act to blurt it out.

Saitou made a face. "You're hopeless, Himura. Its a wonder you made it this far. Why don't you go home and tend your garden and your dojo and wait for me to do my own job."

"Rot in hell, Saitou." Kenshin hissed and Saitou's mouth quirked up in a half smile.

"If you were doing your job this wouldn't have happened and we wouldn't have to be trying to do it for you." Sano accused.

"Oh, shut up, Sagara. Tokyo is little more than a day's travel by rail. If you're set on going - - then there are trains leaving this very night."

 

 

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