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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn


Chapter Fourteen


Sano started drinking early. Ideally it should have dulled the irritation. All it did was make him moody and more touchy than he'd started out. It was all Kenshin's fault. Damned irritating little snot, trying to leave Sano out of something that Sano had gotten himself firmly planted in the midst of. Going behind his back with Saitou of all people, to accomplish important tasks. Like he didn't trust Sano or - - gods forbid - - he was trying to protect him. Nobody protected Sagara Sanosuke. Nobody needed to. Who was the injured one here, after all?

"Sano? What are you muttering about?" Yahiko was staring at him. Yahiko who was almost grown up, who's face had grown out of its childish roundness, who's hands on his ceramic mug were long fingered and hard. He had the same eyes though. Even as a child, his eyes had been old. Maybe not wise, but street-smart and hard as obsidian.

"Nothing." Sano said and swallowed the rest of his beer. "C'mon." He rose, pushing himself away from the table. "There's nothing going on here this early. I want to stop by the Cross-eyed Lizard."

"That's closed down." Yahiko said and Sano frowned, remembering many a night spent within the Lizard's confines, drinking and gaming. He felt suddenly dislocated, hit with the knowledge that it was gone and he'd missed the passing. He wondered how many other of his haunts had evaporated.

It was afternoon. The sun was on its way towards the far horizon, making the shadows long and the air cool. Yahiko suggested another place and Sano lifted a brow at him.

"What do you know about places like that? They don't let kids in there."

"I'm not a kid." Yahiko ground out. "And that's bullshit anyway. They let anybody in who has money to blow. You think I was raised in a convent, you moron?"

"Moron?" Sano's hand shot out and smacked Yahiko up against the back of the head. The young man hissed and spun and shook a fist under Sano's nose. "I'm gonna kick your ass if you hit me one more time."

"You think you can?" Sano grinned at him. "You don't even have your stick sword. Oh, yeah, Kenshin gave you his ass-backwards blade, didn't he? You don't even have that, shrimp."

"Don't call me shrimp!" Yahiko snapped indignantly. "And you can't just carry swords around nowadays without somebody running to the cops and then you've got all sorts of explaining to do and it's just not worth it unless there's something really important up. And I don't need a sword to kick your lanky ass, Sanosuke."

"Yeah, so go ahead, take a shot."

Yahiko narrowed his eyes, gauging. "What? You gonna just stand there and let me hit you?"

"No sweat. I'll hardly notice, I promise."

"You fuck - -"

Sano grinned. Yahiko glared, wary now. The people passing them on the street cast them suspicious looks and gave wide berth.

"You know," Yahiko took a breath, another and the tension in his fists drained away. "You're probably right. Your head's so hard, that nothing could get through. I'd forgotten."

Sano snorted. "Ha! And look at you - - maybe you are growing up - - having the sense to back down from a no win situation and all."

"Fuck you." Yahiko grumbled.

Sano laughed and ruffled the young man's short, spiky hair, which gained him a glare and a few muttered comments on his ancestry. "So Kenshin says you've been doing a lot of roaming about, lately."

"Not as much as you." Yahiko said sourly, a little bit accusingly. "At least I remembered where home was."

"Yeah, well - - you didn't have the law after you."

"If you'd have bothered to go and try and straighten it out, you might not have. Kenshin would have called in some of the favors they owed him if you'd have let him - - he said as much."

"The hell with that! Like I needed him solving my problems. Like he wasn't - -" part of the problem. With Kaoru clinging like some lovesick leech and Kenshin ready to give up what autonomy he had and fall under the spell of everything she offered. Legitimacy, honor, home, family, responsibility. All the things he'd been lacking those long years as a rurouni. All the things he thought would make him whole. Maybe they had. Sano hadn't seen a problem with the way he'd been. But then, Kenshin always had been more critical of himself than anyone else ever could be.

They bickered back and forth, in what was generally a good-natured fashion all the way to the tavern Yahiko had suggested in the Shiba district, which sat at the very edge of Tokyo Bay. The smell of brine and fish was strong, the whistles and calls of merchants trying to off load the last of the day's catch filled the air. The bars and taverns here, at the busiest dock in Tokyo were always crowded and always filled with opportunity for a man with an eye for it. There were the taverns that catered to visiting seamen and the one's that discouraged foreign clientele, if only because the native patrons were menacing enough to make even the most boisterous foreigner think twice about slinking into to the dark, smoky depths.

Sano used to frequent such places on a regular basis. He used to be one of those menacing presenses. He thought, with a little more drink, he just might fall into that category again. He begged a little more coin off of Yahiko, and found a raucous game of dice to join in. He won a few rolls and lost a few, managing to keep his investment constant. It wasn't as good a luck as he'd had on the road to Sendai, with Kenshin's ill-fated presence along to tip the scales of luck in his favor - - but it wasn't bad. The drunker he got, the better his rolls. Yahiko played for the first hour, before he lost the last of his money and then sat back to watch Sano milk what he could from what remained to him.

The crowd in the tavern grew thicker, the smoke fouler as more and more bodies finished with the day's work staggered in for drink or drug or game. There were a few women that offered themselves for a price that weeded amongst the men, the smell of their strong perfumes a contrast the to acrid odor of sweat and smoke.

Sano finally lost the last of his borrowed coin and reluctantly retreated from what had been up to the last, a vastly entertaining game. He slung a comraderdly arm across Yahiko's shoulders, ruffling his hair in a fashion that the young man hissed at and tried to shrug off. Yahiko's indignity aside, he was drunk enough from an afternoon in Sano's company not to have quite the grace presently, to escape from Sano's long arm. Which made Sano snicker at the kid's inability to hold his drink - - he was just like Kenshin, who couldn't down more than four or five beers without getting addle-brained. A man had to figure it was the weight, small men not having the tolerance that bigger one's possessed. If he'd had his rathers though, he'd have rather have had a drunk Kenshin at his side that a staggering Yahiko- - Yahiko made a mean, snarly drunk - - while Kenshin - - Kenshin got touchy and warm and tended to lean all over a body in search of support, which had been an alarmingly nice thing from the very first time Sano had managed to get him smashed, oh years and years ago.

"Back to the Dojo?" Yahiko asked, when they hesitated at a cross roads, the blue shadows of evening long and dark along the left hand side of the street. Might as well, Yahiko hadn't a coin left to his name and aside from stirring up trouble in one of the various bars they'd pass on the way out of the Shiba district and back on the path to Kamiya Dojo, there was damn little else left for them to do.

"Yeah, fine." He wondered if Kenshin were back. Wondered sullenly what plans he and that bastard Saitou had made, cloistered together behind the walls of the police station. Pushy, narrow-eyed bastard! Sano would just bet he'd pushed Kenshin to leave him behind.

A group of men walked towards then, down the side of the road where the shadows were weakest. Maybe six of them, a few staggering a little with drink. Easier to shift over to the shadowed side of the road than battle for right of way with a bunch of drunken day workers.

"Hey, boy," A voice slithered out of the alley on the dark side as they started to pass. "Imamura Kazuo sends his regards."

Just that and Yahiko tensed up, shrugged out from under Sano's arm, swinging about towards the alley in somewhat slurred battle readiness, grabbing at his back for a sword handle that wasn't there.

"What the fuck?" Sano said, turning about to see that the six drunken men, were not so drunk after all, and had crossed the street to block them in from the other side. Forms shifted out of the dark shadows of the alley. Another half dozen at least and armed.

"What the fuck do you want?" Sano demanded, shoving his hands in his pockets with careless disdain for the lot of these thugs.

"Imamura Kazuo is the local Yakuza boss." Yahiko supplied, eyes flickering about from man to man, shrewdly assessing who had what weapon. "I sort of roughed him up a little - - when I was looking for Kenshin."

Sano laughed. "Imamura Kazuo? I remember him. He used to be the old bosses' running dog. Little snot-nosed back-stabbing shit. What? He kill the old boss and take his place?"

"You shut up." One of the men snarled and rushed at Sano's back. Sano stepped out of the way, hands still in his pockets and slammed out a foot to smash the man's knee inwards.

"You make me." He grinned. Which pissed them off to no ends. With the silent efficiency of men used to secluded back alley assassinations they rushed. They weren't half bad, doing this for a living and all. Sano had to take both his hands out of his pockets almost from the start. Yahiko swam in and out of his sight, a swordsman without a sword, in the midst of a brawl, who still had a swordsman's speed and a swordsman's agility. Not like Kenshin. Nothing like Kenshin - - but not bad for a kid that had been playing with bamboo sticks the last Sano had seen him. He was probably right good with that sword Kenshin had given him. Probably could have dealt a lot more damage than he was dealing now with just his fists and his feet. He didn't take hits well though. Not from men almost twice his size. He staggered once when somebody got a glancing blow in from the side and Sano bullied his way close enough to cover him while he got his wits back together. Sano blocked a knife thrust and broke the attackers wrist for good measure.

They were most down, their Yakuza attackers when the remaining ones decided that Sano and Yahiko were a bit more than they could handle. The last three backed away, leaving the moaning bodies of their comrades scattered about the mouth of the alley.

"Not finished." One of them promised.

"Yeah, you just bring it on." Yahiko growled back taking a step forward, over a prone body.

"You tell Kazuo I'm back in town. Sagara Sanosuke. He'll know who I am. You tell him we've got some old business to finish and some new." Sano said waving a hand at the sprawled bodies, moving past Yahiko who was swaying a little, adrenaline mixing with alcohol, mixing with adrenaline.

"Yeah - - I'll tell him." And the man grinned of a sudden, eyes lighting just behind Yahiko. Sano swore and spun, but it was only in time to see the young man stagger, eyes wide. The man he'd stepped over had pushed himself to his knees. There was a dagger in his hand smeared with fresh blood. Yahiko hissed and slammed a fist, backhanded into the kneeling man's temple. The blade clattered to the ground. The others were running by the time Sano flashed a look back to see if they were going to continue the attack.

Yahiko had one arm wrapped about his waist, fingers pressed against his side. "This is why I don't drink." He complained. "I didn't even hear him get up."

"He get you bad?" Sano moved up, kicking the unconscious offender in the head for good measure.

"No - - just a scratch."

Which was a damned lie, as much blood was leaking out between Yahiko's fingers.

"C'mon." He steered the young man past the alley, away from the bodies, away from the curious who were just beginning to gather the courage to slink out and see what had happened. Yahiko staggered a block down the road and Sano swore, putting a hand to his back and feeling material soaked with blood. Fuck. He didn't need to deal with shit like this again. He really, really hated it when his friends bled all over him.

"You musta really pissed them off, for them to go to that much trouble." He said, just to evict a response. Yahiko was pale and breathing hard, a thin sheen of sweat on his skin.

"Yeah - - I was - - sorta - - in a bad mood." His left leg crumbled. Sano caught him, shoved an arm under his knees and scooped him up. Damned if the kid wasn't a few pounds heavier than Kenshin, height be damned. A little bulkier in the muscle department, a little thicker around the shoulders.

"Damnit - - Sano - - put me down! You'll - - drop me."

"No I won't. Listen, Megumi will fix this right up. It'll be fine."

"Tell - - him - - I'm sorry. I 'm sorry. I - - fucked up."

"You tell him, moron!" Sano snapped, but Yahiko's head had lolled, his eyes rolling back in their sockets, lashes half fluttering as he wavered on the very verge of fainting.

Megumi was not gentle in her accusations. She was blunt and angry and damned deadly with her verbal incrimination. And all that in the span of time it took for Sano to get Yahiko into the dojo and for her to very quickly assess the damage through the blood before she chased Sano away.

How could you let this happen? You had to take him to those seedy places you frequent - - you had to get him drunk - - and yourself so drunk that you couldn't even fend off a few simple thugs? Your fault. This is your fault, Sagara Sanosuke! There'd been more, before her attention was fully focused on removing the blood soaked clothes from the wound - - she'd demanded he take himself from her presence - - in that bone-chilling voice that she used when she was truly pissed off.

He didn't think telling her it had been more than a few simple thugs - - and that neither of them had been that drunk - - would be a good notion at the moment. At least he didn't think he'd been that drunk. He wasn't so sure, now that he was stone sober. She was right though, he should have taken better care - - He should have been watching the kid's back.

Is he gonna be okay? He'd asked, as the widow shooed him from the room, and Megumi hadn't answered, bent over Yahiko, immersed in her work.

So he padded outside to worry alone. And paced. And wished he had a drink now, when he truly needed one. And watched the sun disappear from the sky entirely and plunge the evening into moon drenched darkness.

Megumi didn't come out, though she sent the widow or the girl frequently enough for fresh water or clean cloth or more candles. Sano was afraid to stick his head back in and demand to know what progress had been made. Ha, he was afraid. He hadn't been afraid of those Yakuza thugs. There was damned little he was afraid of, save for ghosts and supernatural stirrings and - - and well, losing those few things that mattered in his life.

Maybe she was right. Maybe he was to blame, for not watching the kid's back. Maybe it was his fault for dragging Yahiko out and getting the both of them drunk and all because he was trying to prove some elusive point to Kenshin.

And where the hell was he, so late in the evening? Not still in Saitou's company. Certainly no sane person would put themselves through the deliberate hell of putting up with that bastard all the day long and well into the night. Unless Saitou had double-crossed him. Sano wracked his brain trying to figure out how or even why such a double-cross might be initiated. After all it hadn't been particularly Kenshin's presence that Saitou had been bitching about - - it had been Sano's. Which began the niggling little fear that they'd gone off without him. That Kenshin had bent to Saitou's pressure - - or his own misplaced notions that he needed to protect Sano - - idiot idiot idiot!! - - and gone and left him behind.

There would be hell to pay if that was the case. Once he tracked them down. Once he was sure Yahiko was okay - - -

Kenshin was tired. His head hurt. His shoulder did. His right hand itched under its bandages with contumacious intensity. It had been a long, frustrating, mind-numbing day. But he knew more than he had going into it. He knew the place they were going - - he knew how far it was and how long it would take to get there. He knew about the local culture and the local support that could be expected or not expected when they got there. He knew how strong a presence the English were on that island and how unlikely English forces were to help in the apprehension of one of their own blooded lords. Saitou had worked out a plan. Saitou always had plans - - always had back up strategies just in case - - always went into things with motives both clear and hidden. Kenshin didn't particularly care what the hidden ones where, though he knew - he absolutely knew that Saitou had other things on his agenda besides Kenshin's small family and extracting vengeance on Winter - - all he cared about was finding Kaoru and Kenji. First and foremost that, though the vengeance thing was a close second on his list of priorities.

He'd opted to walk home from the new police headquarters in the Kodenmacho district where most of the government offices were clustered. He'd needed the time to clear his head. Needed the time to get rid of the cobwebs that had been clinging for weeks now. He'd had a focus, but it had been tempered by weakness and injury. It was time to get it back. It was time, for at least a while, to push the those few idyllic years of peace and sedentary life away and reclaim what he had been. He was rusty and out of practice, he was realist enough to know that as truth, but the body never truly forgot.

It was dark when his sandals stirred the dust on the road leading home. The lanterns were lit outside the gates. He almost missed Sano, sitting there, outside the half open gates, he was so still in the shadow. Sano was never so still. Nor did he frequently loiter outside the dojo walls when there was more chance of supper inside. Kenshin stalled, frowning, noting Sano's dark eyes quietly fixed on his approach. Noting the dour curve of Sano's broad mouth and the way his big hands clenched and unclenched across his knees.

Oh, there was wrong here. Terrible, terrible wrong that made his heart hammer in his chest and his breath hitch in his throat.

"Sano - - what?"

Sano's eyes flinched away from him. Hurt. A moment and he looked back, gesturing with a short motion of his head towards the dojo and all that it contained. "Kid's hurt. M'sorry."

Kenshin blinked, wondering for a moment which kid. There were a number that frequented this place. But then, Sano generally only referred to the one as 'the kid', and Sano hadn't promised to take any other young person on his rounds with him that afternoon.

Kenshin stood there, blinking at the look of utter misery ghosting the shadows of Sano's face, then he swore softly and dashed past the gates. Into the yard and past the dojo proper towards the back where the private rooms were, where a wounded body might be tended.

He smelled the blood before he saw it. Oh, he hadn't been prepared for this. Not here and now when the enemy was long gone from this place. He stood in the doorway, staring with wide, horrified eyes at Megumi, sitting blood stained and weary next to Yahiko, who was pale as snow and still as death. The widow sat on the young man's other side, stained hands in her lap, dark, sorrowful eyes fatalistic. Dying and death were no strangers to such a woman. A woman that had lived through a husband's death and fought off her own daily for years on end against the mountain and the beasts that inhabited it.

"Megumi - - ?" he couldn't bring himself to ask. The ache in shoulder and head and hand intensified, thrumming to the point where he had to put a hand on the doorframe to keep from swaying.

She looked up at him, bitter eyed. "Alive. Barely. He's lost a great deal of blood. It was not an opportune place to be stabbed."

"Stabbed?" Kenshin narrowed his eyes, confused - - needing an explanation for all this - - blood.

"Its Sanosuke's fault." Megumi spat, clenching her small fists. Wetness made her lashes clump. "Everything was peaceful and he comes back and all hell breaks loose."

Kenshin blinked, not understanding. "How?"

"He dragged him out and got him drunk and gods know what else and can't even take care for him when those thugs attacked."

"Who? Who attacked?"

"I don't know. Yakuza, he said. If that's even true. If it wasn't just some bar brawl that he started and pulled Yahiko into with him."

Yakuza? He remembered that look of Sano's at the gates. Of misery and guilt. Of Sano taking blame for this - - and if it were Yakuza retaliating for Yahiko rattling their hierarchy searching for information about his whereabouts - -?

"Megumi - - Yahiko doesn't need a guardian. He's not a child anymore."

He said it softly, and Megumi hissed and stabbed a finger at him.

"He's not you! Understand? You giving him that damned sword doesn't make him you!"

"I know - -"

"You don't know anything. You defend Sanosuke's bumbling - -"

"Its not Sano's fault." He moved forward, went down to his knees next to her and put a hand on her trembling shoulder. She was tired and snappish because of it. "Sano doesn't lie. If he said it was Yakuza, then it was Yakuza. Yahiko went after them looking for me, so if there's blame to fall, it should be on me."

"You would say that." She said, softer.

"Will - - he be okay?" He asked. He should have asked sooner, but he'd been too busy trying to piece together what had happened - - trying to defend Sano against the accusations that Megumi had already no doubt tossed in his face.

"If I have a say." She said stubbornly.

"Then he will be okay." He said, trusting her abilities.

She gave him a look and called him a fool under her breath, but there was the hint of a smile lurking in her eyes, which reassured him.

She shooed him out, saying his presence was tiring. And he went gladly enough, never much good in sick rooms. He went back to find Sano, still outside the gates, haunched over his knees, staring at the star speckled sky.

"Why are you sitting out by the road?" Kenshin asked.

Sano shrugged.

"She say's he'll be okay. She says it was Yakuza who attacked you?"

Another shrug.

"Are you waiting for them to come here to finish it?"

"I wish they'd try."

Kenshin stood silently, waiting for something more and when he didn't get it, sighed and held out a hand. "Sano, please come inside. The neighbors will talk."

"Like I give a fuck." Sano canted a look up at Kenshin, at his proffered hand. "I should have watched his back."

"It wasn't your fault."

"I got him drunk. Was so damned happy to be prowling around my old haunts - - I let my guard down."

"You always let your guard down. It was bad luck. It isn't your fault."

"Megumi says it was."

Kenshin frowned, a little annoyed at the woman for throwing accusations about like so much festival confetti. Annoyed at Sano for this sulk when there were more vital things afoot. Annoyed - - just a little - - at Yahiko for getting hurt when Kenshin wanted badly to leave in pursuit of Kaoru.

"Then stay out here, if you believe that." He snapped. "My head hurts and my shoulder does and I'm not in the mood to deal with that - -" he waved a hand towards the dojo. "- - and your tantrums."

Sano's eyes got wide. Sano's mouth opened, offended. Kenshin had meant it to be offensive. Kenshin took a step back towards the dojo as Sano rose, thinking that if Sano hit him - - he was in too miserable a mood not to retaliate, and a fight inside the yard was far preferable to one in the street.

But, Sano didn't attack him, in any sense of the word. Just sniffed and shoved his hands in his pockets and padded past, leaving Kenshin to slide the gates shut and follow on his heels.

He sat down next to Sano on the porch by the kitchen, staring at darkness and listening to the fish hit the surface of the pond as they hunted mosquitoes. After a while, Sano queried.

"You with Saitou all day?"

"unn." Kenshin nodded, distracted by the widow sliding open the door to the room Yahiko was in and quietly slipping out. Sano watched too, frowning. Afraid, Kenshin thought.

"She said he'd be okay." He said that for Sano's benefit, as much as for himself.

"If she says - -" Sano said, then after a while. "What'd you do - - all day with that narrow-eyed bastard?"

"Made arrangements. Gathered information - - you missed very little."

"I didn't say I was jealous or anything." Offended again.

"Of Saitou? Over me?" Kenshin said it in kidding. To lighten Sano's dark mood, but Sano's eyes widened and a heat rose on Sano's cheeks and he grumbled something incoherent and looked away. Which left Kenshin blinking and vaguely uncomfortable and recalling with embarrassing clarity the sensation of Sano's fingers through his hair and on the skin of his neck, of lying next to Sano with Sano's long arm firm around him and the pleasing smell of Sano's scent in his nostrils.

"I - - didn't mean - - that." That didn't come out right either, stammered and anxious. There were too many things of late that had him off his balance. Sano looked at him, eyes shadowed and tired, mouth twitching in anger or nerves. Kenshin ducked his head then, letting the hair slid over his face, taking escape behind that shield and silence.

The little girl surprised them both, padding up so quietly that Sano cursed and Kenshin flinched, fingers automatically reaching for a hilt that wasn't present at his belt. He was that jumpy, that a little girl could startle him.

She bowed her head and shuffled her feet, sensing the animosity in the air. Kenshin attempted a smile for her, to let her know it was not directed her way.

"Minako?" he asked.

"Miss Megumi says you should both go and find supper elsewhere. That she and mother don't have time to fix it. That you should go and eat and then come back and sleep because she doesn't need the two of you exhausted and irritable when she's exhausted and irritable."

Kenshin blinked at her no doubt word for word recital of Megumi's message. Sano did. Sano recovered quicker.

"I don't have any money to eat out. Do you?"

Kenshin shook his head mutely.

The little girl held out her small hand. There were enough coins there for a miserly supper.

"Miss Megumi said neither of you would have money and to give you this."

"She did, did she?" Sano said wryly and reached across to take the coin before Kenshin could.

"We probably shouldn't - -" Kenshin said. " - - just in case she needs us."

"She doesn't need us. She wouldn't have sent the little girl to chase us out otherwise." Sano was more than willing to flee. Sano grasped him under the arm and pulled him up, not willing to argue the point, but considerate enough not to pull on the aching shoulder.

They went to the Akabeko, with the twin objective of a decent meal and letting Tsubame and Tae know about Yahiko. Tsubame would be distraught, being very much affected where Yahiko was concerned. Kenshin told her gently that the young man had been injured and Tae sent the girl off to the dojo post haste, wisely seeing that she'd be no good at the restaurant until she saw that Yahiko wasn't on the verge of death. Kenshin hoped that he wasn't. He had to trust Megumi.

Sano weaseled a better meal out of Tae than the money they had would have normally bought. He sat there savoring it with an almost libidinous expression on his face, and finally after the serious task of eating had been conquered, he sighed and said.

"That'll be the last one of those for a while, huh, Kenshin."

"Why do you say?"

Sano snorted. "Don't even. When's the ship leave? Tomorrow? You had that look on your face coming down the street of a man about to say good-bye to home. Weren't planning of skipping out on me, were you?"

Kenshin sighed, pushing the last dregs of food about on his plate with a single, forlorn chopstick. "No. I told you I wouldn't."

"So when?"

"Saitou arranged passage on a Dutch trader. It leaves at high tide tomorrow night."

"Ha. Told you. Try and hide things from me, will you?"

"I wasn't hiding things."

"You didn't mention it. Just forgot to spill an important fact like that, did you?"

"There were obvious distractions, Sano." Kenshin said dryly.

"Humph." Sano reached over and snagged a leftover chunk of beef from Kenshin's plate, a furrow between his brows that had nothing to do with the eminent completion of their late supper. Still very much worried over Yahiko. Still holding onto the guilt that Megumi had planted. Or perhaps it had been there before the woman had voiced it. Telling him again it was not his fault, would be a waste of breath. Sano would believe what Sano wanted to, regardless of what Kenshin tried to impress upon him.

They went back home. The night had brought rain with it. There had been a few days there, Kenshin thought wryly, where they had been dry. But a storm was brewing now and it brought with it strong wind and cold rain. He hoped, if it were a persistent one, that it did not interfere with the departure of the ship tomorrow.

Sano had wanted to pay a visit to the Tokyo Yakuza. Had been very adamant about it, spouting names of men that needed to be taught a lesson in who to mess with and who not to mess with, that Kenshin had never heard. Sano always had skimmed the borders of the underworld. Sano knew people and things that truly honest men were ignorant of.

"No." Kenshin had said. "If we leave tomorrow and we've started a war with the Yakuza - - who will protect our friends when retaliation comes? I'll speak to Saitou. I'll see that they're protected."

"You trust him?"

"I trust him enough. He won't let me down if I ask that of him."

Sano had been dubious. But Sano had conceded.

At the dojo, they found Megumi asleep with the widow and her daughter, while Tsubame sat watch over Yahiko. With Yahiko in Kenji's room, which had once been his - - and the girls in the spare room, there was only Kenshin and Kaoru's room available. And again, Kenshin found that space uncomfortable. But there was little help for it now, with the wind blowing rain onto the porch and rattling the panels of the doors.

Sano shook himself like a dog, spraying water on the floor in a wider arc than that which simply dripped from him. Kenshin opened his mouth to reprimand him, then shut it, thinking it hardly mattered. Kaoru wasn't here to complain about a little water. It was hardly worse than when Kenji would rise early at the sound of rain and run into their room to pounce upon them while they still slept, a wet and laughing interruption of dreams.

"Do you want a dry robe?" he asked, hands shaking of a sudden, nerves shattered by the sudden attack of fond memory.

"Sure." Sano had shed his jacket and his dripping headband, tossing the both in the corner by the doors.

Kenshin gave him a dry cloth to dry himself and one of his own plain houserobes. It would be too small, but it would do until Sano's clothes were dry enough to put back on.

"Don't just leave them in a pile there." Kenshin murmured. "They'll never dry." He caught a glimpse of Sano shedding his trousers, of Sano bending to wipe the moisture from his body before slipping the robe on. Ignore it and take care of his own wet self. Loosen his belt and step out of the soaking hakima. Shed the only marginally less wet kimono and hastily run a cloth over his body before donning the dry robe. He leaned over and twisted his hair to wring out excess water. It was past his shoulders now, a handful of weeks having seen respectable growth. He'd have to cut it in the front a bit, otherwise it would blind him when he could little afford to be blinded.

Sano was staring at him. Sitting against the wall by the door, shadowed eyes fixed upon him.

"Sano?" he asked, because there was something about the intensity of the stare that made him - - nervous.

Sano flinched and looked away, folding his hands together between his knees. He shook his head, shuffling aside the query.

"There's - - a bed roll." Kenshin offered, hesitantly.

"Nah." Sano said. "I don't know if I'm much up for sleeping. I'll sleep on the ship."

"Oh." Kenshin felt the same. Felt a distinct abhorrence for lying down and shutting his eyes when there were so many things to inspire nightmare. But he was tired. He felt it in his bones. Felt it in the tremor of his muscles. Megumi said he was nowhere near to being healed. That he needed weeks of rest to begin full healing. He supposed he'd get it on shipboard. Weeks and weeks until they would reach their destination. Too long to go without sleep. Too long to go without nightmares. And not all of them about Kaoru and Kenji.

Might as well shut his eyes now and let them come. There was no stopping them anyway. He wouldn't recall the majority come morning. He never did. Just the shadowed remnants and the unease they left behind.


He glanced to Sano. "Humm?"


Not back to that again. He was too tired to chase away Sano's guilt. "It's not your fault, Sano." He breathed, weary and soft.

"Not that." Sano's mouth twitched in annoyance. "About - - you know - - not trusting that you wouldn't run off without me. I was pretty pissed off - - and well - - well, it was stupid, because I know you wouldn't, since you promised and all."

"Oh." Kenshin almost smiled. He padded over to the wall and slid down next to Sano. "I don't suppose you have a lot of reason to trust me there. I've done it before, no?"

Sano shrugged. "Yeah and maybe you might have had some justification. Back then I was a lot more talk than I am now."

"Of course."

Sano's eyes narrowed a little. "You don't have to agree so quickly. I wasn't that much talk. I could back it up - - I can just do it better now."

"I know. You've improved a great deal. Its more than merely physical."

"Yeah? You can tell that? How? I mean - -" Sano paused considering. "Are you saying that I acted like a fool back then? Is that what you're saying?" Sano leaned towards him, emitting just a touch of offended threat.

"Sano - - calm. Please. No, you act very much the fool now - - and jump to just as many false conclusions - - its just that you can tell when a man - - has gained something. Some insights, perhaps that help to make him more than he was when he was a boy."

"You never knew me when I was a boy." Sano growled, obviously still undecided on whether to take this conversation as a serious affront or not. Kenshin refrained from mentioning that Sano had been eighteen when they'd first met and all appearances aside, he'd been a great many years older than that.

"Of course." He tried to look innocent of insult.

"Hummph." Sano canted him a sideways look. "The only reason I'm not gonna kick your ass for all of those non-slurs is because it would wake up the house and they probably need the sleep more than we do. But I owe you one."

"Ah, I'll keep that in mind."

"You should." Sano leaned his head back against the wall, a grin pulling at his lips.

Sano made the uneasiness go away. Sitting there, shoulder to shoulder, Kenshin didn't feel the depression as acutely as he had. The wind and the rain buffeted the world outside. A little water still pooled at the door, but not much. The candle flickered and he shut his eyes, lulled by Sano's steady breath and the constant patter of the storm.

He came awake of a sudden, hardly aware that he'd fallen asleep, his cheek warm where it had been pressed against Sano's shoulder, Sano's arm a heavy weight over his own. He shook that off, startled to his knees and looking for a weapon that he didn't have as someone rattled the doors and slid them open on the tracks.

It wasn't attacking Yakuza or murdering Englishmen or mountain bandits - - it was a heavily listing young man, skin pallid and sweat sheened.

"Yahiko?" He cried, scrambling to his feet, to take hold of the boy's arm. Yahiko was trembling slightly, clammy to the touch, eyes a little glazed but determined for all that. "You shouldn't be up. Where's Tsubame?"

"Asleep. She fell asleep. I didn't know how long I'd been - - I was afraid you'd left."

"What the fuck are you doing up?" Sano was slower to wake than Kenshin. He sat there, with his long legs sprawled out under the too short folds of Kenshin's robe and glowered up at the both of them.

"Sano - - I messed up, huh?"

"You should not be here." Kenshin said firmly. He felt the bandages under the thin material of Yahiko's robe. The morning outside was gray and moist. The storm had passed with the night. "Let's get you back. Miss Megumi will be furious."

"I'm sorry. I wanted to help - -'

"Yahiko - -" Kenshin said warningly, as the young man shifted, trying to disentangle himself from Kenshin's grasp.

"Kenshin - - I want you to take this back - -" He brought his hand around from behind the door frame, fingers clutched around the painstakingly polished, dark wood of a sheath. Kenshin's eyes fixed on the familiar grip of a well-worn hilt. He tore his gaze away, wrapping an arm about Yahiko's waist and forcibly turning him on the path back to Kenji's room. The door down the way slid open before he could safely get Yahiko that short way down the porch, and Miss Megumi stuck her head out. Her eyes narrowed and her lips pursed in annoyance.

"And just what, do you think you're doing?" She demanded.

Kenshin blanched, feeling that threatening question aimed at him.

"And what are you doing with that, Yahiko?" She flung a second question.

"Oh, quiet woman, he was giving it to Kenshin." Sano strode out onto the porch, looking ridiculous in Kenshin's robe, arms and legs protruding from the edges.

"Don't tell me to be quiet." She snapped, marching up to Kenshin and Yahiko and snatching the sword out of the later's hand to toss it without care at Sano. "Neither one of them is fit to use it."

The noise woke Tsubame, who was devastated at falling asleep when she should have been watching Yahiko. She wrung her small hands and apologized profusely to Megumi, scolding Yahiko softly in-between. Yahiko was plainly distraught over her upset, but his eyes kept drifting to Kenshin, worriedly.

"I gave it to you." Kenshin said softly.

"You need it. You need to get them back."

He couldn't argue that. He'd spent a good deal of the past weeks wishing it was back in his hands. He might have saved himself a great deal of pain and effort if he'd had it. But he'd given it to the young man in good faith - -

"He's an idiot, kiddo. He'll take it and thank you for it when his brain starts functioning again." Sano shoved the sakabatou at Kenshin's chest and bullied his way between him and Yahiko, dropping to his knees next to the boy's pallet. "Listen, I'm sorry I didn't watch your back as good as I should have. Damned Yakuza are slippery as snakes and - - well the one just got past my notice. Don't you be going after them again without some damned heavy backup, got it? Which means not until the two of us get back, okay? Let it ride and until then, Kenshin's promised to get Saitou to have some of his police buddies keep them off you. If I come back and find you've done something stupid, there's gonna be hell to pay."

The young man blinked, a little dazed from fever or blood loss. Kenshin could sympathize, having only recently been there himself.

"Yahiko - - thank you. I'll bring them back." Kenshin knelt next to Sano, the sword clutched in both hands. The young man smiled and held up a hand. Kenshin grasped it, squeezing gently. Sano's bigger hand covered the both of theirs and pressure was stronger, but it was good pressure. It transferred Sano's boundless energy through him when he needed it. When Yahiko's injury made him sick and the prospect of a long sea journey had his stomach pitching and him not even on the deck of the boat yet.

Yahiko grinned through the pallor, a hint of that indomitable sparkle in his dark eyes.

"I know. I'll expect you back in no time."


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