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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Twelve

 

The trip from home to Sendai had seemed to take forever, filled with pain, disappointment, danger and horrible weather. It had drained mind and body and left spirits dull with the frustration of knowing that he was too far behind Winter to ever catch up - - too far to take back what was his - - but he'd hoped. He'd held on to that scrap of optimism that somehow he'd beat the odds and catch up to the Englishman before he had the chance to sweep Kaoru and Kenji out of his reach.

An optimism that was swiftly fading, replaced by a dark tide of disillusionment. Kenshin couldn't help it. It pulled him down, those hours sitting on the train with Sano on his left and Saitou - - Saitou who had blithely inserted himself into their company - - across from him, in the comfortable passenger car that Saitou had arranged for them to travel in. They were away from the bleating of goats, the squawking of chickens, the yammering of too many bodies pressed too close together in too small a space, that they had experienced in the ride from Shirakawa to Sendai. He didn't want Saitou here. He didn't want his innuendo's and his snide remarks and his callous assessment of the situation. He didn't want to know what how many cold-blooded plots Winter had been at the core of in his many years in Japan. He didn't want to know just how deadly the man was that held his wife and son. He didn't want to have to rely on the help of a man who had little reason to hold Kenshin any good will to find them.

Erizawa. He remembered Erizawa, or the heir at any rate. He remembered his shocked face those few precious seconds before the young man had died - - at his blade. With a house full of murdered bodyguards leading the way to him. He'd come in the night and left no witnesses in his wake. The minions of his lord had come after and done the gruesome deed of separating heads from bodies and delivering the ultimatums. He'd had no part in that - - having more than fulfilled his task. They'd never wasted him on such trivial things. He'd never questioned his assignments - - because he'd trusted the men that had given them to him. He'd held allegiance to those lords and it had not been his place to question, only to obey. It was the way of the samurai.

Perhaps that particular bloody task had held merit. The assistance of Erizawa had given the Meiji forces an advantage they hadn't had before. Perhaps those deaths had meant something. He liked to think so. He liked not to think about it at all, truth be told. He liked to immerse himself in the here and now and forget about the past - - but sometimes the past wouldn't stand still and let itself be forgotten.

His right hand ached. It felt hot and it hadn't felt that way for a few days now. Not the fevered sort of hot that came with infection. Sano had bitched and cursed at him for abusing it so - - but he'd had little choice with a man coming at his back with a naked blade. The both of them would have ended up bloodless corpses dumped into the sea if he'd not parried those blows.

Saitou had been correct. There was no way he could have gotten past him, if he'd chosen to press the issue at the Terakado inn. Even with a sword he'd have been sorely disadvantaged. And he had Sano to think about - - he had that warrant that Sano chose to ignore coming back here - - and that he had little doubt that Saitou would use to his advantage if Sano - - or Kenshin - - foiled his carefully planned operation too badly. He didn't doubt that Saitou might have had a thing or two to do with that particular warrant - - issued years ago - - that had chased Sano out of Japan in the first place. Saitou tended to hold grudges and Sano had gotten under his skin. Sano had that particular talent in excess - - the ability to grate on certain nerves.

He'd talk privately to Saitou later, when his ego and spirit were not feeling so bruised and ask if he might surreptitiously have the complaint against Sano swept under the mat. Saitou owed him, after all. Owed him a great deal.

"You okay?" Sano asked him once and he blinked wondering if Sano had been talking to him and for how long he'd been sitting there, engrossed in his own dour musings, oblivious to the world.

"What?" Kenshin blinked owlishly, floundering out of the mire of his own making. Saitou stared at him, flicked ash out the open window, a faint conceited, twitching of his thin lips. It was a look he'd give Sano, more often than not, and Kenshin disliked being on the receiving end of it.

"I asked if you were okay?" Sano jerked his head towards Kenshin's lap, where he was vigorously worrying the bandages of the one hand with the other.

Kenshin stopped the action with an effort, gazing out the window away from both Saitou's contemptuous stare and Sano's concerned one. He did not need either.

"When we do this - -" Sano said - - maybe repeating something he'd said before that Kenshin hadn't caught. " - - you don't have to tell this Erizawa guy who you are. He doesn't have to know."

Saitou snorted softly and the hand with the cigarette gestured towards Kenshin. "Oh, yes, Himura is so nondescript - - a man with an interest would certainly never connect the hair and the scar and the girlish face to the legendary Battousai."

Sano glared. "Well, what do you suggest?"

"I suggest he go home and stay out of it."

"Not fucking likely." Sano leaned forward, ripe for trouble that didn't need to be contended with confined in the passenger car of a train.

"I'm going." Kenshin stated flatly, still staring out the window at the fast passing landscape. "Its my wife and son that Winter has. It was me who found the body of Erizawa's daughter. It is me who'll find him and make him pay."

"Oh? You'll kill him? Doesn't that go against your silly values?" Saitou inquired. One could very much understand Sano wanting to jump over and strangle Saitou.

"I didn't say that." He said softly, but, oh, he'd wanted to. Very badly wanted to, both at the dojo and later in the mountains. If he'd have had a sword in his hands when Winter had teased him with the prospect of giving Kaoru over to one of his confidants as a mistress - - his vow to never take another life would have ended in failure, then and there.

"Then what a waste of time this is." Saitou flicked his butt out the window.

"If he can't - - I won't have a problem with it." Sano promised, sounding grim and serious. Kenshin cast him a look, disturbed by the vehemence in Sano's tone. Disturbed by the way Sano clenched his fists so hard the joints cracked alarmingly. Sano had never been a killer. He didn't want him to start for his sake - - but telling him that, in Saitou's smug presence was impossible. Later. He'd talk to him later about it.

"At least one of you lives in the real world." Saitou remarked, fishing for another cigarette.

"Nobody asked you." Sano snarled.

Kenshin thought that if they started bickering again, he'd have to get up and flee to the end of the car to outdistance it, but Saitou merely smiled that unwholesome smile of his and turned his head to watch the landscape flash by.


Tokyo. Back again. This time in the midst of sunshine and fair weather. Sano stepped off the train and breathed the air like it had a different flavor from the air in the rest of Japan. Maybe for him it did, having spent most of his life here. To Kenshin it just felt oppressive. Stagnant, even, with the gut deep knowledge that the things that held meaning for him here were gone.

He wasn't sure he wanted to go to the dojo - - to the familiar haunts that held strong reminiscences of Kaoru. Silly. Tremendously silly of him - - and superstitious, he supposed, and here he'd declared himself not superstitious. It wasn't as if she were dead - - - oh, and wasn't that a gut wrenching notion. He tried to banish the whole train of thought. Tried to concentrate on the clean streets of Tokyo and Saitou walking purposefully in front of him, and Sano striding lazily at his side, hands stuffed into pockets and making comments here and there how this had changed since he'd been gone, yet that remained the same.

"It's only been four years. It's not like you've been gone a life time - -"

Sano shrugged, slanting him a look, relaxed for some strange reason now they were off the train and heading towards a daunting destination.

"Sometimes it seemed that way."

Saitou procured a carriage, impatient to be about this business. Walking all the way to the Nikko Kaido road in the far eastern boarder of Tokyo would have taken more time than Saitou apparently wanted to spend. All the wealthiest families had their manors in those manicured suburbs that rested between Tokyo proper and Somei.

The Erizawa manor was an old one, set far off the main road and protected by tall gates and large, ornamental gardens. Saitou had asked in no uncertain terms to let him do the talking.

"Just keep your mouth shut and look subservient and maybe he'll take you for one of my underlings and we can avoid him trying to kill the lot of us."

That had been offensive. Of course Saitou had meant it as such. He took perverse pleasure in offending Kenshin, though he hardly ever showed the satisfaction on his face. All a man could do, caught in the act of glowering unappreciatively up at Saitou at the gates of a former shogun, was lower his head so that hair covered the anger when the servants answered the bell at the gates and asked what their business was.

Saitou was an official in the police department and had information vital to Lord Erizawa. It was critical that he see him post haste. Saitou had the credentials and the demeanor to impress the gate staff and they ushered him and Sano and Kenshin through the ornate gardens and to the manor, where they shed their shoes and waited in a small elegantly appointed room for the appearance of the manor lord.

Erizawa did not appear. A sleight serving man did, declaring that his lord was occupied in the maintenance of his garden and that he would see them there if they wished, and if they did not, an appointment would be arranged. So they redoned their shoes and followed the servant around the manor to the back where the gardens were even more splendid than those fronting the estate. Someone had put decades of love and dedication into the crafting of this garden, for the trees were large and twisted artfully with age and the touch of a patient hand, and the plants rich and thick and still full with bloom even this late into the year.

There was an old man in a plain kimono on his knees by a potted bonsai, carefully pruning errant growth. He had a neatly trimmed gray beard and a face rich with lines. His eyes were shrewd when he glanced up and took notice of their approach. There was very little of jovial good cheer about him, very little true peace - - but on his knees in the dirt beside the tree he had no doubt been training for years - - he came as close to it as a man of his past - - a man who dabbled in questionable politics in his present - - might.

"After so long a drought - - the rains have brought the gardens new life." The old lord said, polite enough to greet his visitors with trivial pleasantries. His eyes flickered from Saitou, to Sano, to Kenshin, then back to Saitou, who was unformed and armed and thus demanded more respect - - or at least more direct attention.

Saitou had never been much on pleasantries and had no tolerance for triviality at all. "We've come to inquire about a business partner of yours, lord Erizawa. An Englishman named Winter."

Erizawa never flinched. He was that cool, but then a former shogun would be. There was very little that would phase such a man - - other than the death of a child perhaps.

"An Englishman? I'm afraid you've wasted a trip then. I have no dealings with the English."

"Ah, my sources tell me otherwise - - but, if they are mistaken, how fortunate for you - - for it would mean your daughter was alive and well and not murdered at the hands of this Englishman."

Again, Erizawa didn't flinch, though Kenshin did, appalled at Saitou's utter lack of diplomacy.

"You are mistaken - - detective - -?"

"Captain. Saitou Hijime." Saitou corrected.

"My Daughter is on holiday."

"In the west?" Saitou asked and the old man's eyes narrowed.

"You have proved yourselves unpalatable guests. I tire of this conversation. Goro, show them out!"

One of the servants appeared at the old man's bark.

"She was young and probably beautiful. She had two bodyguards with her that put up a fight to defend her, but he killed the both of them. He stabbed her once up through the ribs and into her heart. She died quickly." Kenshin said softly as Sano was growling at the servant. "He dumped all of their bodies into one of the canals in the city. This was many weeks ago, before the rains came to break the drought. He killed her because she discovered he was dealing with the Yakuza as well as with you."

The old lord stared at him and for the first time there was naked emotion on his face. "You - - lie. This is some trick to - - to - - you will leave this house now!"

"It is not a lie. I can have the police report sent to you, though the bodies are long since disposed of - - unnamed and unclaimed." Saitou said. "I'll also have sent to you a list of the crimes this Englishman has committed against the stability of our nation - - if you doubt his motives or his nature."

"Get out!" the old man said and Saitou shrugged and turned to do just that. "I'll have those reports sent round and I will be in touch."

"We're just leaving?" Sano gaped. Kenshin took his arm and steered him back down the garden path. "He didn't tell us anything."

"Sano. Give it time. He knows she's dead. That was clear in his face. Let him grieve a little and he'll tell us what we want to know."

"My thoughts exactly." Saitou concurred.

"You might have broken it more gently." Kenshin complained and Saitou gave him a disdainful look and sniffed. "Over tea, perhaps? Should I have held his hand? You've turned into a woman."

"Oh - - shut up." Kenshin growled under his breath, finding himself once more in the street outside Erizawa's estate.

Saitou gave him a level stare and a frown. "We're lucky he didn't recognize you. I told you to let me do the talking."

Kenshin chewed the inside of his lip, thinking that Erizawa was not a man to ignore the little details. He might not have put two and two together at the moment of their visit with the news of the possibility of his daughter's murder fresh on his mind - - but that didn't mean he wouldn't after he'd had time to think.

With Tokyo to the west down the Nikko Kaido road there was very little else to do but contemplate a trip home.

Home. The dojo. The place he'd stayed for the most part of almost six years now - - he didn't particularly want to go back now, empty handed as he was. But Sano was yammering about seeing the place and finding out whether the widow and her daughter had made it there all right. And the neighbors would know whether any foul deed had befallen Dr. Genzai and the girls - - and there were other folks who were bound to be wondering what had happened to empty the halls of Kamiya Dojo in the span of a night. And there was the cat. He worried that the cat might have abandoned the dojo without anyone to bribe her with bits of fish.

So Saitou dropped them off at the gates of the Kamiya dojo and took the carriage back to the police station, telling them he'd send someone round if he got word from Erizawa or if he needed something from them. Kenshin asked him out of Sano's hearing, if he wouldn't please ignore any grudges against Sano and forget the matter of the warrant.

Saitou had lifted a thin brow and not commented one way or another. He was never a man to give away advantages when he had them - - over his enemies or his allies. So they parted ways with Kenshin uneasy over the prospect of police showing up on his doorstep in search of Sanosuke and Sano apparently not uneasy over the subject at all if one took his ramblings about beefpots and cherished local gaming dens to heart.

The gates to Kamiya dojo were closed, but not locked when they tried them. The front yard was very orderly as they stepped inside, the ground raked clean and no unsightly weeds in evidence. It did not appear like a place that had been abandoned weeks before.

"Well, okay." Sano said, striding forward when Kenshin would have hesitated at the threshold of the gateway. "Isn't this a familiar sight. Hasn't changed much at all since I left. Anybody here?" he bellowed out the last and Kenshin flinched at the reverberating echoes.

If a place could draw breath in shock at such a alarming and loud demand, Kenshin thought the dojo might have. Or maybe that was merely him - - startled out of his hesitation by the sheer strength of Sano's lungs. The neighbors three houses down could have heard that inquiry.

There was movement from around the corner of the main building, from the path leading around back where the garden was and the kitchen. A small, slim figure that poked its head around the corner hesitantly. Big eyes. Skinny. Fearful. Kenshin didn't recognize the child, but Sano apparently did, for he grinned and walked forward.

"Hey, Minako - - see you made it here. Your mom around?"

She nodded, her face relaxing a little, her mouth almost threatening a slight smile.

Kenshin followed slowly, staring at the closed doors of the dojo proper having an unsettling flash of memory of wet floor and intruders lurking in the shadows of his home. Of Winter walking freely about it - - a viper in their midst. He shook his head to chase the disquieting reminiscences away.

The widow Hatayama had set up her loom on the porch overlooking the garden and the well. She had just risen, it seemed at Sano's call, from weeding in the garden. The knees of her peasant trousers were brown with fresh turned dirt, her hands stained with it. She bowed deeply to Sano and to Kenshin who drifted into the yard behind him, hardly raising her eyes to look either of them in the face. Perhaps she thought he'd changed his mind about inviting her here - - that she might be punished for the intrusion. She had probably been punished for lesser things in the mountain village she'd fled.

"You've taken good care for the house." Kenshin said. "You have my gratitude."

Her eyes flickered up briefly to fix on his face - - gauging the validity of his words. He smiled softly and found it took an effort to do it. He did not wish to be here. He truly did not.

"The garden seems to be thriving even this late in the season."

"I've harvested the summer vegetables and put up what I could - - and planted fall crops. I found the seeds in your storage - -" she almost sounded guilty over that bit of common sense.

"Thank you."

"We've eaten very little - -"

"I invited you here - - take what you need - - it will only go to waste otherwise. Have you seen a cat?"

"A cat?" the little girl spoke for the first time. "There's a cat that lives here. She comes for supper."

"Ah - - that sounds like her. She likes fish. Do you know where the river is? There's a fishing pole in the shed."

The child's eyes lit at the prospect.

"Speaking of fish and gardens and things." Sano said. "Is there any food around?"

"Has anyone come round asking for me or - - my wife?" Kenshin ignored Sano's plea for substance.

"Yes," the widow said - -

"Kenshin? - - where have you been? It's about time you came home?" An upset female voice proceeded the tall, willow figure of a narrow eyed female. Miss Megumi stormed around the corner into the backyard, long hair sweeping behind her, mouth open for further complaint - - and just suddenly stopped when she saw Sano and stood there for a uncharacteristically speechless moment before she got her wits back about her.

"Sanosuke? You're back?"

Sano shrugged and grinned, looking a just a little wary as Megumi stormed up to him, looking him up and down critically as if to assure herself that it was indeed the Sagara Sanosuke who'd abandoned Tokyo some four or more years ago.

"Hey, Megumi, long time no see, huh?"

"Where have you been?" She demanded, then glanced to Kenshin and repeated the question in a shriller tone, then adding. "Where are Kaoru and Kenji? You send Dr. Genzai to me in the dark of the night with assassins supposedly on his heels and you don't even tell him everything that's going on? Are you insane? Do you know how worried we've been?"

"I'm sorry - -"

"What kind of trouble did you get into this time? Was it really the Yakuza who sent men after Dr. Genzai and the girls - - because of something you did?"

"No - -"

"And where are Kaoru and Kenji? Are they inside?"

"Miss Megumi - -'

"What happened to your hands? Those bandages are filthy."

"Will you shut up, woman, and let him get a word in edgewise?" Sano snapped, frustrated.

Megumi pressed her lips tight and took a breath. She was not usually a woman who babbled, or who spoke rashly without thought. But Kenshin supposed she'd had enough reason to worry and unrelieved worry could make even a reasonable person brash.

"Are Dr. Genzai and the girls all right?" he asked, to avoid the subject of Kaoru and Kenji and his failure there.

"They're fine. They're still at my house because you told them not to come back to the city until you said it was safe. Is it safe?"

He opened his mouth. Shut it. He had no idea. Less now than when he'd left. He hadn't offended a Yakuza boss then, only ruffed up a few Yakuza thugs. "I don't know. I'll talk to Saitou - -"

"Saitou? Saitou Hajime? Oh, he'll be of great help." Megumi sniffed, her opinion of Saitou only slightly higher than Sano's. "Where are Kaoru and Kenji?"

"Listen, can we talk about this over a beefpot?" Sano interceded himself between Kenshin and Megumi's demanding eyes. He made a very good shield. It would have been nice to melt away while Sano covered his retreat, but Megumi needed to be told or she'd hound him to death and he supposed going to the Akabeko and sating Sano's need for a decent beefpot was as good a place as any. There were people there that would want to know what had happened to Kaoru and Kenji and well. He didn't think he had it in him to tell the tale more than once, so best to get it out of the way in the presence of as many interested parties as possible.


Sano ended up telling a great deal of it. Kenshin obviously was reluctant to talk about it. Kenshin kept getting this far away, distressed look in his eyes that made Sano want to shoo Megumi and the girls away from him so that it would go away. Tae and Tsubame weren't nearly so bad as Megumi, who always had been pushy, in Sano's opinion - - but they were hovering at the edge of the booth, staring wide eyed as Kenshin tried to get the story out. The widow and her daughter, sat very quietly, almost frightened looking on the opposite side of the short table. Megumi was fussing with the bandages of one of Kenshin's hands, aghast at the wounds they hid. She got pissed off then, and the story got off track while she ranted a little and blamed Sano for not taking better care for the bandages and Kenshin for being a fool and not looking out for himself and cursed the mountain bandits that had done it to him in the first place. She was all ready to whisk him back to the dojo to take a proper look at the wounds, but the beefpot had just recently appeared at the table and Sano declared that Kenshin had gone this long without her poking and prodding him, and that she could wait until the beefpot was properly finished before she started.

The story eventually was told and Tsubame - - who'd grown up considerably since the last time Sano had seen her - - She'd been a pip-squeak kid working at the Akabeko when he'd left - - was openly crying and wringing her hands.

"Oh, poor Kaoru. Poor Kenji." She was crying and Kenshin was getting a bleaker and bleaker look on his face because of it.

"Say, Tsubame, could you go get me some sake?" Sano asked, just to give her something to do other than make Kenshin miserable and she scuttled of, wiping her face. Tae lingered a little bit, somber and uncertain.

"So where's Yahiko?" Sano asked between mouthfuls.

"Looking for him." Megumi said, indicating Kenshin with a jut of her jaw. "When Dr. Genzai told me what had happened - - or what little he knew of what had happened - -well, I came right to Tokyo and found the Kamiya Dojo deserted. I didn't know what to do, really. I went to the police, but they were of absolutely no help. Two days later, when I was about at the end of my wits - - Yahiko showed up. He'd been in Nagoya I think - - don't ask me why - - and he'd just gotten back and knew even less than I did. He started hunting down Yakuza trying to find out what was going on - - but didn't get anywhere."

"He didn't." Kenshin said, aghast.

"He did." Megumi said dryly. "You'd think he'd have outgrown that impetuous, foolish behavior - - but apparently males never do." She gave both Sano and Kenshin pointedly accusing looks. "And then Hatayama Chiyo and her daughter showed up at the dojo saying that you'd sent them there down from the mountains - - that you'd been hurt and that you were with him - -" she gave Sano a dubious look. "- - no great comfort that, let me tell you."

"What do you mean by that?" Sano demanded, waving food laden chopsticks. "If it wasn't for me, he'd be dead. Tell her, Kenshin!"

"Very likely, miss Megumi." Kenshin sighed, pushing food around his dish listlessly. "Did Yahiko follow me north?"

"Yes, after Chiyo told us what she knew of what had happened. The two of you are not very informative, I'll have you know. You make the poor woman abandon her home and don't even tell her a scrap of what's going on." Megumi cast the widow a sympathetic look.

"Knowledge is not always a healthy thing." Kenshin said and Megumi sniffed, disbelieving that bit of wisdom.

Eventually, when the last bit of food had been consumed, Megumi bullied Kenshin back to the dojo to see the state of his wounds for herself. The widow Hatayama and her daughter went with them. Sano declined, not willing to listen to Megumi's cutting complaints when there was a city to reacquaint himself with. So he abandoned Kenshin and got a look for it from under the fall of Kenshin's hair that suspiciously looked liked a man betrayed. But, as intimidating as Megumi could be when she put her mind to it, he managed to walk away without a shred of guilt.

He returned to the dojo much later, a little drunk, without a coin to his name and happy nonetheless. He'd found a few old friends, discovered a few more moved on to other places - - made a few new ones in the span of an afternoon walking about the city - - stopping in this tavern or that, playing a hand of dice here a game of chance there - - only barely avoiding a fight and then only because the other party had backed down. It had been a good afternoon. He hadn't realized until he was back in her arms, how much he missed Tokyo. It felt good walking down streets as familiar as the back of his hand - - familiar smells, familiar faces, familiar places. Distant lands and exotic places were all fine and good, but a man needed an anchor. A man needed something familiar to keep him from drifting. A man needed home once and a while.

It was dark when he slipped past the dojo's gates. Someone had lit a few paper lanterns which cast the front yard in a dim light. There were more around back. The back was where they had always gathered. By the kitchen and the well, and the small garden with its goldfish pond. It was a very poor garden indeed compared to old man Erizawa's.

He wondered if Erizawa had had a change of heart yet. Wondered if Saitou, sneaky bastard that he was, would even let them know if the old man did contact him. Kenshin would loose his mind if he didn't. He'd been damned disappointed after that interview and trying not to let it show. Sano figured he was wondering if this trip back to Tokyo had been wasted time. Maybe it had. Who the hell knew.

Around to the back and he was greeted by the rhythmic sound of the loom, the soft chirp of crickets the occasional plop of a fish hitting the surface of the water, after some unlucky bug that had landed on the surface of the pool.

Megumi was sitting on the porch, carefully grinding dried herbs in a ceramic bowl and portioning them out in small packets. Her bulky medicine box sat open beside her. The little girl was sitting quietly on the grass next to the porch, playing some pretend game with the doll Sano had given her in the mountains, while her mother patiently worked the loom.

"Where's Kenshin?"

Megumi shrugged. "About somewhere. He's restless." She almost smiled at him. The corner of her mouth twitched a little, but she forced it down. "He ought to be resting. He's still weak from those wounds. It takes time to heal that sort of thing and inactivity. He's not allowing for either one, which doesn't surprise me, mind you."

"Yeah, well - - you can't tell him anything when he's got his mind set."

"You didn't do a half bad job taking care for him, considering." She said.

"Yeah - - considering what?" He asked warily.

"Considering that you have less sense than he does when it comes to self preservation."

She did sort of smile then, which diffused his initial instinct to take offense. So he shrugged and ambled over to sprawl on the porch, staring into the shadows of the yard. Nice to do this to. To laze away the evening here until Kaoru chased him away so she could lock up the dojo for the night or until he fell asleep on the porch and slept the night away under her roof, only to be woken in the morning at an unhealthy hour by her or Yahiko stirring. Kenshin was an early riser, but generally not that early unless he had an agenda to attend to.

Reminiscing made him think about Yahiko and wonder how much a twelve year old had changed in years that he'd been gone. Mature enough for Kenshin to consider giving him the reverse blade. He tried to imagine a mostly grown Yahiko and couldn't get past the scrawny kid he'd known when he'd left.

"So what were you doing, all this time?" Megumi broke the silence softly and Sano blinked, almost surprised to have her ask it. He lay back, hands behind his head and told her a few of his milder adventures. He told her things he thought she might find interest in and avoided the things that would earn him censure. Gods knew there were enough of those things.

"And you?" he asked finally when he'd run out of steam and the silence had taken over again. "You a famous doctor now?"

". . . . just a doctor."

"You're not married again by now. Not somebody's wife?"

Her brows drew down and she frowned. "Not that its any of your concern, but I don't need a man to support and protect me. I can take care for myself."

"I didn't say that you couldn't - -"

"- - But, there is a man I've met in my home village - - he doesn't mind so much - - about my past - - or that I'm a woman doctor - - who knows what might happen."

"Ha. Good for you." Sano grinned at her. She half smiled back.

The widow stopped her work and quietly ushered Minako off to bed. Megumi began to put her own supplies away and prepare for the same herself. "The widow and Minako are staying in the extra room. I'm sleeping in Kenji's room, though I can sleep with them, if you want - -" she offered.

"No. Its a pretty warm night, I'll stay on the porch. Its not like I haven't slept out here before - -"

"All right." She got up, hefting the weight of her medicine box. "Go find Kenshin and make him go to sleep. He ought to get as much rest as he can - - before the lot of you set out to do whatever it is that needs doing to find Kaoru and the child."

Good enough. He got up, stretched and padded down the porch and around the yard without the benefit of a lantern. If Kenshin wasn't already in his room, then he figured he'd find him in the main Dojo. The very faint flickering light of a low candle flame proved him right. You couldn't see it at all through the closed door panels at the front of the building, but when he quietly slid one of the doors open, the weak light seeped out.

Kenshin was up at the front of the big room, sitting very still and very quiet before the little shrine where Kaoru's father's swords were. He had one of those swords across his knees, sheathed, his cleanly bandaged hands resting lightly on hilt and sheath.

Sano walked slowly across the floor, trying to recall if he'd ever seen Kenshin touch Kaoru's father's sword before.

"Is it foolish, Sano - -" Kenshin asked softly, without turning. "Not to take up a sword to defend my family?"

"No." Sano said and he believed it. "You defend them however you can. That's just what you do for the people you love. Doesn't mean you have to turn your back on all your ideals."

Kenshin lifted the sword, thumbing the sword from the sheath so that a mere inch of gleaming metal showed. "Ideals? I was ready to kill Winter - - twice. Without a second thought - - without hesitation - - without remorse - - the only reason I didn't was because he threatened me with Kaoru and Kenji. If I kill for them - - will they hate me for it, do you think?"

"Will you hate yourself?" Sano sank down cross-legged on the floor next to Kenshin. "That's really more important, don't you think?"

Kenshin flashed him a look. "I'm no stranger to that. It doesn't matter. Kaoru matters. Kenji does.'

Sano sniffed, disgusted. "If you killed somebody protecting her and she held it against you - - then she either gets over it - - or - - or the hell with her! That's what I think. I'd damn well kill a man that was threatening somebody I loved if that's what it took."

"Did you?"

"What?" Sano blinked, off guard.

"The widow - - while Megumi was looking at me - - she said bandits would have killed her and Minako out of revenge mostly because the bandit chieftain had been killed. That you had done that when you found me. Did you?"

Sano swallowed, remembering that black, mindless rage that had come over him. And the grief. He hated the memory of the utter, soul-eating grief more than the violence and the rage.

"Yeah. I did. I thought you were dead - -" Dead and raped and tortured. "I'd never - - used the futae no kiwami to kill anybody before - - not flat out like that. I wasn't much thinking at the moment. He caught me off guard - - came up on me when I'd just found you - - " Lifeless, cold and bloody. "He - - he said some stuff and I just lost it. I don't regret it. He was a murdering, raping bastard and he deserved to die."

Kenshin frowned and Sano regretted spitting out that last. Regretted bringing up something that Kenshin had either blocked out or didn't remember at all. Or maybe Kenshin was just frowning at his cold-blooded admittance of murder.

"There are a lot of men that do - - deserve death." Kenshin said softly. "But, I don't ever want to play the part of executioner again. It eats too much of the soul, Sano. It takes things you can never get back away from you."

"It didn't take anything away from me. And no matter what you think - - everything you've done - - you came away from it a better man."

"So philosophical." Kenshin slid the sword back tight into the sheath and rested it on his knees again. "You surprise me."

Which was Kenshin's way of wanting out of this particular subject. Sano had disturbed him and he was fleeing the discomfort.

"So, should I take up the sword again to find them - - it hardly matters, since I've already taken it up - - how many times since this started? I forget."

Kenshin hadn't forgotten and Sano knew it. "Three times, but you didn't kill anybody, remember?"

"It would be apropos to take her father's blade, don't you think?"

Sano opened his mouth. Shut it. Then opened it again. "Put it back and sleep on it, Kenshin. Megumi says you need your sleep."

Kenshin didn't move to follow that advice. So Sano reached across him and wrapped his big fingers around the lacquered, ornamental sheath, lifting the blade off Kenshin's lap and placing back in its proper place on the rack.

Kenshin didn't protest it. He pressed his lips tight and clenched his fingers, staring straight ahead. Sightless. Distraught or pissed off. Sano wasn't exactly certain which.

"Kenshin - -" he didn't know what to say of a sudden, leaning so close that his chest touched Kenshin's rigid shoulder. He'd had a mouthful of things to say before and now it just dried up. He wanted to help - - he wanted to alleviate this pain, but Kenshin's struggle was as much internal as external and there was damned little a man could do to chase another man's demons away. He dropped his forehead to Kenshin's shoulder for a second, sighing, tired himself and struggling no little bit with his own demons and most of those dancing around the aching desire for Kenshin that he couldn't drive away, no matter how hard he tried.

"Just go to bed, okay. If we have to deal with Saitou tomorrow and the old man - - you'll need your wits about you."

"Okay." Kenshin said softly, not shifting until Sano lifted his head and scooted back. Not getting up until Sano did and padding silently across the floor, slipping his feet into his sandals outside then shuffling down the path towards the back.

Sano lagged behind, not particularly eager to sleep anywhere near Kenshin. Not here. Not with the notions he'd had in his head of late. It was damned unsettling to begin with, but here - -with the ghost of Kaoru and a kid Sano had never met hovering about the place - - it was downright sacrilegious. Better to hang back and let the cool night air kill any amorous thoughts his body might insist on entertaining come morning. A smart man, a truly smart man wouldn't have followed Kenshin to the doors of his chamber. A smart man would have taken himself far enough away to be safe - - far enough away where the spirits that looked after this place couldn't sense what was going on inside his head. What his intentions were.

Kenshin got to the door of the chamber he'd shared with Kaoru for the last four years and froze. His hand hovered near the door panel and his fingers shook.

"What's wrong?" Sano asked, edging forward despite his better judgment. Close enough in the darkness to hear the ragged intake of Kenshin's breath.

"I - - can't."

"Can't?"

Kenshin backed up a step and into Sano, who damned well should have moved to give him space instead of standing there like a pervert desperate to cop a feel. Of course Kenshin should have stepped away, too, but Kenshin's common sense was debatable these days and Kenshin was distraught and desperate and gods knew what else other than trusting an obviously untrustworthy friend.

"Its not right. I don't know why - -but it doesn't feel right. Sleeping in there when she's - -" he trailed off and Sano figured out the rest. When she was kidnapped and maybe dead. When Kenshin had been gullible enough to let it happen. When Kenshin had been inept enough to let himself get fucked up so he couldn't follow and nip the trouble in the bud. Oh, so many reasons that guilt wouldn't let him comfortably go into that room and unroll their sleeping mat and lay down where they had lain together and not come out of that room tomorrow hollow eyed and exhausted from the nightmares that would haunt him. If he slept at all.

Sano could understand. Sano could for the moment, say to hell with what whatever guardian spirits looked over this place thought, and slide his hands onto Kenshin's shoulders in a comraderdly motion of comfort. If there had been a modicum of space between them, it would have been a decent, honest gesture. I didn't feel honest. It felt like he was taking advantage. It felt like he was a lecher of the worst sort, standing there with his skin tingling over the warmth of Kenshin's back and Kenshin's buttocks up against his body. He forced himself away then, blushing and grateful for the night to cover it. He rubbed vigorously at the back of his neck, a nervous gesture, and indicated the covered porch.

"I'm sleeping on the porch. A couple of blankets and it'll be better than most places we've slept for a while, huh?"

Kenshin looked at him, at the porch, then let his eyes drift back to the closed door. "I'm being stupid." He finally said, a soft, wry admittance.

"Maybe, maybe not." Sano said. "I'm not one to judge. I've been waking up most every night since that damned Bhuddist temple, thinking ghosts are hovering over me."

Kenshin's mouth twitched a little. "Is that why?"

Sano ran a hand through his hair, feeling silly admitting such a thing even though it was plain truth. "Yeah. Nightmares, I guess. I always believed in ghosts and spirits and whatnot - - but never that I'd actually run into one. Now I'm seeing them behind rocks and in shadows and - - and don't fucking laugh at me or I'll knock you on your ass."

Kenshin killed the smile with an effort, his eyes all large and solemn in the darkness. He put out a hand and the distance Sano had put between them melted with just the touch of Kenshin's fingers on his arm.

"Thank you, Sano. It is a nice night, I think. The porch will make a fine place to sleep."

 

 

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