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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn


Chapter Thirteen


Kenshin couldn't sleep. Not in his and Kaoru's room. Not on the porch outside in the balmy fall air. He'd slept better on the road, unprotected from rain and wind, than he did here. He rose with the sun after a miserable night and padded around to the front of the dojo while Sano still slept. If he was going to be restless and melancholy, he thought, he might as well not disturb other's sleep with it. Besides, Sano got testy if he was woken too early in the morning.

But, seeing the early side of dawn proved useful, for he was the only one up and about when Saitou came knocking at the gate, self-satisfied in his well pressed uniform and his slick smile and slicker black hair.

"What did you find out?" Kenshin demanded flatly, with one hand on the sliding gate panel and the other on the side of the gate, a sleepless night making him just a tad surly and Saitou's ever-smug expression getting under his skin.

"Erizawa has extended an invitation to his for breakfast tea."

Kenshin frowned, wondering why Saitou had bothered to come round and include him in such a summons. He didn't trust Saitou or his motives and Saitou had already said he'd just as well not have Kenshin along for dealings with the former shogunate lord.

"And you decided not to go alone - - why?"

Saitou smiled. A motion utterly devoid of humor or good will, that always had made Kenshin's skin crawl.

"He asked for you."

"Ah - -" Kenshin felt his gut flutter.

"Not specifically by name." Saitou added. "He wished for you to come because you were the one that saw his daughter's body. Or her supposed body, as the message was phrased."

"Oh." Perhaps not so bad as he thought. Or perhaps he was merely reaching for anything to fool himself into optimism. "Do you want to leave now?"

Saitou inclined his head. There was a carriage outside the gates, a uniformed police driver in the coachman's seat. The dojo was peacefully asleep behind him, aside from the ghosts that had kept him awake. Sano was asleep. Just as well, he thought. Sano had never been the best participant of calm, rational debate and anything other than calm, cool heads might offend Erizawa into withholding vital information. Sano would be angry at him for going without him - - but, they'd both get over it.

He took a long breath of cold morning air and stepped outside the gates, sliding them shut behind him. Into the carriage with Saitou then, who didn't disturb the air with banal talk, who sat silently staring either out the window or at Kenshin with speculation in his narrow eyes. Always thinking, Saitou. Always plotting out a situation to his best advantage. Always figuring how to get every last bit of usefulness out of a man before he discarded him.

Kenshin tried to ignore him. Tried to get that same blank expression on his face - - the emotionless one that deprived an enemy of knowing what he was thinking - - and couldn't quite achieve it. Didn't know whether he'd lost the ability somewhere along the way - - after four years of peace and happiness, or if Saitou just wasn't enemy enough anymore to merit it. Or maybe he was just too tired to find the strength - - maybe - -

He pressed a knuckle to his mouth, staring intently out the window, frustrated with the turmoil his thoughts had been dissolving into of late. He'd be good to no one if he couldn't pull himself together and start to focus. But it was considerably easier thought that done.

They reached Erizawa's estate and this time there was a servant waiting at the gate to usher them in. At the house, a woman met them, bid them good morning and led them to a fine, spacious tea room with broad doors open to lord Erizawa's garden. Erizawa himself sat on a cushion before the tea table, his morning kimono of the finest quality, his lined face composed into neutrality. This was a man who would never loose the ability to hide his emotions.

Kenshin bowed his head, little enough respect for a man in who's home they had been invited. Saitou did - - marginally. The woman urged them to settle onto cushions across from Erizawa, while her lord sat there silently, his hands planted on his thighs, his eyes fixed on his guests.

Tea was poured and while they drank it, another servant came in with a simple breakfast of rice and miso soup. It was only good manners to take breakfast in silence without broaching the business they had come for. Kenshin had no appetite. He managed a few mouthfuls of rice, a few swallows of soup and sat there afterwards with the warm cup of green tea in his bandaged hands, waiting while Saitou and Erizawa took their time finishing breakfast.

Finally, when they had finished and the servants came to clear away the remains, Erizawa spoke.

"What interest does the government have in my business beyond these fictional dealings with the Englishman Winter?"

Saitou shrugged. "You are a man of power. Men of power are always of interest to the government. What you chose to do with that power - - that is what may or may not be of interest to those who enforce the law."

"If I had dealt with this man and his backers - - our agreements would surely have been beyond suspect. I am not a Yakuza ruffian."

"No. I'm sure you're not." Saitou agreed. "And I'm sure your involvement - - your supposed involvement - - with this Englishman was beyond reproach - - you being the honorable businessman that you are. But, no businessman likes to have his affairs probed - - and I might be able to ensure that any - - suspicion - - of your involvement in this matter be erased, if you were to offer some bit of help in finding this elusive and treacherous Englishman."

"What assurances can you give me of such a thing?" Erizawa leaned forward, down to serious business now and Saitou smiled, having the fish on his hook and skillfully settling down to negotiation.

It went on like that for some while, the two of them discussing business with no mention of a murdered daughter escaping either man. Kenshin almost begin to wonder why he was here, why Erizawa had asked for him. Almost. Such men hid their motives well, he knew. Finally when some sort of satisfaction seemed to be reached on both sides, the old man motioned for fresh tea to be poured and waited while the woman scurried gracefully in to serve them and then retreated before speaking.

"Rumiko was my youngest daughter. She was to be married next year. To a scholar. I allowed this match because she wished it so - - and a father may be generous to a younger child. Because she knew the language of the west, she begged to do me the service of being my voice to the English. Being adventurous, she was eager to leave Japan in order to secure honor for this family. She had my seal and my authority to bargain with these men - - this English shipping conglomerate that backed this English cur. She would not have dishonored me or my name, so I believe you when you say she was murdered when she discovered this man's dealings with the Yakuza. She would have come to me directly with such treachery. She was a good daughter."

"I'm sorry." Kenshin said softly. Saitou said nothing, running his finger idly around the rim of his tea cup, aching no doubt, for a taste of the tobacco that one hardly ever saw him without.

"You found her body?" Erizawa looked at him directly, dark eyes fixed upon him with all the intensity of Cat when she was begging for a scrap of fish.

"I did. In a canal, in Tokyo."

"And you knew it was this man, Winter, that murdered her - - how?"

Kenshin swallowed and said. "Not until later. I had - - met him earlier and invited him into my own home not knowing what he was. He stayed there for weeks before he took my wife - - I believe to pass off as your daughter to his backers. This was weeks ago and if we have any hope of catching up with him - - we need your help, lord Erizawa."

"You invited a murderer into your home?"


"As did I." The old man's eyes bore into him. The voice, which had been calm and neutral until now, dripped with venom.

Kenshin took a breath, not flinching from that gaze or that voice. He'd known that this man was too sharp not to put two and two together.

"Did you think I would not know?" Erizawa spat.


"What audacity, to come into my presence - - assassin."

Kenshin said nothing to that. What could a man say to such truth?

"I could have ten assassins of my own in here in an instant to take my rightful vengeance."

"Really?" Saitou said, giving up his pretense of guestly courtesy and fishing in a pocket for his cigarettes. "That would be a shame. A terrible waste of life."

Erizawa's eyes flickered to him, narrowing slightly as Saitou lit up a smoke. Saitou shrugged. "He doesn't kill anymore. I on the other hand - -"

"You come to me for aide and you bring - - this? Himura the Battousai who everyone has thought dead and gone these past years."

"I'm not." Kenshin said softly. "Not the Battousai anymore. Not for a very long time. Yes. It was my blade that killed your son. I was very young. I had a lord - - not unlike you - - unto whom I answered. I was given an order and I carried it out - - like any honorable samurai would. As you would have expected any of your samurai to do if you had given such an order. I did not enjoy it. I regret it. I am sorry. Deeply sorry."

Erizawa cursed at him.

"You did give orders of a like nature." Saitou said. "I know very well, you did. He's right that you would have expected the same. A samurai that disobeyed such a command would be expected to take his own life in shame - - or have it taken from him, if he balked at the honorable thing to do. Why hold a grudge against the sword when the hand that wielded it is long dead in the revolution? Why not hold your grudge against the man that dishonorably murdered your daughter?"

Erizawa slammed his palms down so hard on the table that the tea cups rattled. He pushed himself up and stalked to the open doors, then turned and stabbed a finger at Kenshin.

"I curse you for taking my heir from me. My first born. The man that ordered it is dead, so I have no one else to turn my anger upon, even though that anger be so many years old. I pray to the gods that you lose what is precious to you, Battousai!" he spat.

Kenshin did flinch then, shivering despite himself. Angry of a sudden, despite himself. His fingers bit so deeply into his thighs that the flesh went numb. The man could wish him all the ills in the world - - but to wish them upon Kaoru and Kenji - - Almost he rose to do - - what, he had no clear notion, but Saitou's hand on his shoulder stayed him. Saitou's fingers hurt, pressing into bone and muscle and exerting surprising strength, considering Saitou was sitting as he was. Saitou didn't look at him, just put the cigarette out in a tea cup and smiled at Erizawa.

"Curse him all you want, but give me a location and names so that I can find this Englishman Winter and put a stop to his machinations."

"Where in hell is Colombo?" Kenshin was not in the best of moods. He very much felt the need to bash in a few of Saitou's teeth. He had marks on his shoulder, he was sure, from Saitou's fingers biting into his flesh. Probably ones on his arm as well, from Saitou's hand on it the entire way out of Erizawa's presence. Like Saitou couldn't trust him to walk out of a room without causing trouble. Like Saitou expected him to flat out attack the old man for wishing his family ill.

He was angry, yes, but he hadn't lost complete control of his wits. So he simmered and slammed a fist into the door of the coach hard enough to make the wood crack a little and great, blinding streaks of pain to run up his arm from his hand and center in a spot just behind his eyes.

Saitou gave him a look and blew out a cloud of smoke that made Kenshin's eyes sting. "A British colony, I believe. Or a protectorate. In India or perhaps off its coast. Ceylon, maybe. I'll find out the details when I get back to police headquarters."

Kenshin took a breath, collecting himself. "Don't lay hands on me again, Saitou."

Saitou smiled and tilted his head. "Don't act like a fool, then. You've obviously been picking up bad traits from Sagara."

Responding to that in the way in which he wanted, would have propagated the claim that he was acting the brash fool. So he pressed his lips tight and stared out the window. "How soon can you arrange a ship?"

"What? Do you think you're going?"

Kenshin slanted him a murderous look.

"It is official government business." Saitou took a drag of his smoke.

"Then pretend I'm going at your behest instead of the other way around. I don't frankly care one way or another. I'll find passage on my own, if I have to and you and whatever schemes you've got going, can rot in hell."

"Kenshin, Kenshin - - you have no patience anymore."

"In this? No."

"I'll arrange passage, no fear." Saitou sighed. "I don't suppose you'll be able to leave that idiot Sagara behind."

Kenshin shrugged, looking back out the window. "If he wants to come - - he's welcome." Not to mention, that he didn't quite trust Saitou at his back. Sano, he trusted there. Sano - - he very likely needed there - - at least for the time being while he was less than whole.

Of course Sano was pissed. Sano being anything else would have come as a great shock. But Kenshin hadn't quite expected the open hand against the side of his head when he stepped back inside the relative security of the dojo. He'd been concentrating too much on what Erizawa had said - - about the prospect of Kaoru and Kenji being dragged to far off lands - - to pay much heed to who was coming out as he was coming in.

It wasn't near to noon yet, so Sano couldn't have been up for long, but long enough, apparently to achieve a degree of irritation that prompted him to violence at the sight of Kenshin.

"Where the hell have you been?" Sano bellowed as Kenshin hit the gate jamb and leaned there, with a hand against the side of his head over the throbbing hurt of impact. "You went to see that old shogun, didn't you? Without me!! You dumbass, what were you thinking? I've been sitting here worrying my ass off over what trouble you'd gotten yourself into and did you give a shit? No. Couldn't care less about what Sano thinks, could you. I bet Saitou was there. He was, wasn't he? Saitou rates higher than I do, doesn't he?"

Kenshin held up a hand - - and thought for a moment he was seeing double, but then the double in question was about a head or more shorter than Sano, though the hair was just as dark and almost as long and spiky and the face every bit as agitated with the situation at hand.

"Yahiko. You're back." He stated the obvious, but then, his head was pounding a little and a man ought to be granted a little leeway to such mundane observations after having his brains rattled.

Yahiko, whom he'd last seen about three months past on his way out of Tokyo to expand his horizons, frowned, apparently agreeing with Sano's denunciations. Kenshin felt a great relief seeing him safe and sound, considering that he'd gone looking for Kenshin and considering what dangerous people that trail might lead him into the midst of. Yahiko was a master of the Kamiya Kasshin style of swordsmanship, he was wily and he was intelligent, but he was still a boy - - all of sixteen or not. And he still had a hot headed streak that had only dwindled slightly in the past four years.

"Sano's right, Kenshin, you shouldn't have left without telling someone - - what with everything that's going on." The young man said, sounding by far more rational than Sano and managing to make Kenshin regret slipping out of the dojo without a word. Well, not a tremendous regret, but a little.

"Sorry." He apologized and slipped warily past Sano, who was still glowering, and moved to clasp Yahiko's arm. Yahiko reached for him, then hesitated, eyes going wide at the sight of the bandages.

"Oh, Kenshin - -what happened?"

Kenshin glanced back at Sano. "Sano didn't tell you?"

"I only got back a little while ago and Sano's been bitching the whole time about you taking off without him."

"I don't bitch." Sano exclaimed. "And you're still too damned short to mouth off to me, so watch it, shrimp."

Yahiko's eyes narrowed with all the indignity of a sixteen year old going on seventeen accused of being anything but a man.

"I am not. I'm almost as tall as him." He jerked his chin at Kenshin and Sano burst out laughing.

"And this is something you're bragging over? Gods, I know girls taller than him."

"Shut up, Sano." Yahiko cried and Kenshin, after a glare at Sano for what he was most certain was a grave insult, decided that Sano and Yahiko had taken up their relationship exactly from the point that it had been broken off. He walked past them and they followed, still bickering in what one had to hope was a good natured way.

Yahiko really had matured a great deal in the last four years from the hotheaded youngster he had been. Kenshin never would have given him the sword if he hadn't. Never would have considered it, if he hadn't trusted the young man to keep a sane head and use it wisely. And all it took was half a morning in Sano's presence to make him revert. But it wasn't entirely a bad thing. Sano and Yahiko might fight and bicker and cross over the border of violent retaliation for each other's infractions, but it was all prompted by a genuine affection.

Yahiko had missed Sano a great deal. He'd moped about it more openly than any of the rest of them for the longest time after Sano had left. Kenshin had empathized silently, but he'd had other distractions to keep his mind from it - - namely Kaoru and the dojo and the rather immense and frightening step of matrimony.

And the world had gone on, as ever it did, with each of them following their own paths - - until fate decided differently and brought them back together here.

Yahiko had been in Nagoya these last few weeks and had come back when the rains had started, tired of the road and wanting a solid roof over his head for a while. He had the sakabatou with him, though he did not carry it outright for the most part, the police much stricter now a days about such obvious infractions of the law. The Meiji government was damned and determined that this era be a peaceful one and was ruthless in seeing that peace enforced. Yahiko was not a fool. He was not out to blatantly arouse unwanted interest. He did not go out of his way to find trouble - - though he was not adverse to it when it found him. He had a little more of the brawler in him than Kenshin ever had - - but then, Sano had been a big influence in Yahiko during those years when he was most easily influenced.

Kenshin didn't ask to see the sword - - though he wanted to. He wanted his fingers around that worn and familiar grip so badly he could taste it. It was only a blade and a backwards one at that - - but it was a weapon he could use without hesitation and without the guilt of breaking the vows he had made to himself so many years ago. That weapon might keep him from killing men - - he could make no such promises with any other. Instead he asked what sort of trouble Yahiko had been stirring up, in search of him and his family, being honestly worried about the answer and needing it to take his mind off the elusive sword.

"He's been pissing off Yakuza. Big deal. So have we." Sano interrupted before Yahiko had the chance to speak, the three of them half way around the yard towards the back. "What the hell did the old man have to say to you? And don't give me any bullshit answer, Kenshin."

Not only was Sano tending towards physical violence this morning, he was bossier and more imprudent than usual and Kenshin was most assuredly not in the mood to be bullied. He'd had enough of that from Saitou during the last leg of their visit with Erizawa.

He narrowed his eyes, concentrating on blocking out Sano's impertinent demands. Yahiko saw the look right off and backed down a little from his own eagerness to hear what Kenshin had to say. But then again Yahiko always had been a bit wiser in some things than Sanosuke.

"Don't give me that look, Kenshin." Sano plowed ahead, oblivious or perhaps very much aware and merely choosing to ignore Kenshin's obvious dark mood. Aside from perpetrating a little violence of his own, there was not a lot he could do to curb Sano's pestering. He contemplated that when Sano caught his arm, hauling him to a stop.

"What the hell happened?" Sano demanded.

Kenshin twisted his arm out of Sano's grasp, stepped around the taller man and kept walking to the back. He heard Yahiko caution Sano to let it be and heard Sano's answering curse before the sound of their footfalls following him resumed. He just needed a little while - - a little time to recover from Saitou's company on the ride back - - and the sure knowledge that his family was well and truly distant from him.

Colombo. Saitou thought that it was a port in Ceylon. Kenshin only vaguely knew where Ceylon was. Far enough away from Japan that they might as well be on the other side of the world. He'd never been outside of japan. Never even to the mainland in all his years of wondering. It had never occurred to him to leave the land of his birth. He had never wondered for the sake of adventure, like Sano - - he'd done it out of repentance.

The woman - - the widow Hatayama was hanging fresh washed laundry in the yard when he reached the back, her daughter weeding the ornamental garden along the fence. He'd forgotten about them, when he'd come back here - - to the place that had always been the most informal, the most comfortable of all the dojo. They both paused when they saw him, and he hesitated a moment in his step, before nodding and continuing on to the room he had not been able to sleep in last night. He went now, because he had a purpose. He'd need things for a voyage. How long of a voyage he didn't know. He'd ask Sano when he was of a mood to talk again. Sano might know, having sailed to the mainland and back.

He looked about the room, melancholy at the sight of Kaoru's dress kimono and her teaching gi and hakama. At her extra sandals and her neatly folded scarves and ribbons and sashes.

He would find her. He would - - he tried to hold on to that conviction, but in the back of his mind, a timid little voice hinted at the possibility that he might not be able to. Or that he might be too late when he did. If he couldn't - - he'd never return here - - never set foot in this place again, without her here to fill it with life. He sank down, next to the low table where she kept her cosmetics and her ribbons and her mirror and combs. There was a dried arrangement in a vase, the flowers long withered and the leaves gone to brown. He stared at it, unfocused until a soft head pushed urgently against his arm and Cat demanded she be acknowledged.

He scratched under her chin, then down her back to the spot she liked best at the end of her spine. She purred and stepped daintily up onto his thigh to put her cold, damp nose against his jaw. Her whiskers were a feathery tickle against his skin. He shut his eyes and breathed, fingers immersed in cat fur. And for a few brief moments, it was enough.

And then he sighed and returned to the solid reality of here and now, and shooed Cat off his lap and did what needed doing, gathered what needed gathering and went back outside to face the world.

Or at least to face Sano's scowling countenance and Yahiko's patently worried one. They had settled on the porch a ways down, near the well and the goldfish pond.

"He's taken them to a place called Colombo." Kenshin said quietly, now that he could voice it out loud without his hands trembling or his voice breaking in frustration. Saitou is arranging passage - - as soon as he does, I'm leaving to go after them."

"We're leaving." Sano corrected, sullen and determined all in one.

"And me. You're not going without me." Yahiko announced. Kenshin's eyes flickered away, and he wondered how many people he could drag into this - - how many people he could endanger in this desperate quest for his family.

"I am." Yahiko insisted, voice breaking a little as it vibrated between the tones of man and youth.

"I need to go and see Saitou." Kenshin said, avoiding the issue. "I need to find out about this place and his plans to get there."

"Okay." Sano prepared to rise, spitting out the stem of grass he'd been chewing on and dusting off his hands on the legs of his pants. "Then let's go and see the bastard."

"He's at the police headquarters, Sano." Kenshin pointed out and waited until the ramifications of that to sink in.

"So the fuck what? - - - - oh. Oh, okay, I get it. You trying to get rid of me?"

"No, Sano." Sano could be trying. He could be exhausting when his feelings got bruised. "I'm trying to keep you out of jail. I'm not going anywhere without you."

"What, like this morning?"

Kenshin cut him an irritated look, tired of tip-toeing around him. "Drop it, Sano. It's over. It's done. I don't need a guardian or a baby-sitter."

That was angrily said. Sano blinked and blinked again, then his lips turned up in an almost lazy grin and he shrugged rangy shoulders. "Well, all you had to do was say." He accused, as if it were that easy. As if Sano ever backed off from anything because a body simply asked him to. Sano never took no that easily and Kenshin nodded and warily walked past, expecting anything up to and including violence against his person. But Sano just shrugged and turned his attention to Yahiko, suggesting that the two of them go and investigate a few of the places that Yahiko hadn't been old enough to venture into the last time Sano had been in Tokyo. Did Yahiko have money for a game of dice? One shuddered to think what sort of trouble Sano could get Yahiko into in the mood he was in.



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