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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn


Chapter Fifteen


Moonlight glinted off of Tokyo Bay. A hundred masts swayed like bamboo in the wind, straight and narrow and interlaced with rigging. A few thicker columns of steam ship smoke stakes broke the delicate tracery of masts. It was no less congested on the docks at night than it was during the heat of day. Ships came and went at all hours. There was always work to be had at the harbor.

Megumi came to see them off. A solitary well wisher that carried the hopes of Yahiko and Tsubame and Tae and the widow and her daughter and anyone else who had a care whether Kaoru and Kenji lived or died. Much less Kenshin and Sano. She yammered at Kenshin to take care for his wounds and pressed a pouch of salves and bandages into his keeping. He had that simple smile on his face during her lecture. The one that hid all the layers of whatever true emotion he was feeling under a veneer of good nature. He had a light sack of belongings and the sword shoved through his belt. Sano had less, having abandoned his worldly belongings years ago and never having stopped long enough since to collect more.

When Saitou strolled up the docks, trailed by two uniformed officers carrying a large trunk, Sano frowned. Megumi did, being a sensible woman. Saitou ignored the both of them, sparing Kenshin a nod, and lifting an eyebrow at the presence of the sakabatou before turning his attention to the Dutch merchanteer that rocked gently in the water next to the dock. He waved a hand at his flunkies and they carted his chest up the lowered gangplank and onto the ship.

Trapped on a ship with Saitou for weeks. Saitou who had gotten damned chummy with Kenshin of a sudden, when he'd never had much care for his company before. The notion made Sano slightly queasy. The touch of Megumi's fingers on his arm distracted him from dour thoughts of Saitou. Her dark eyes were intent. Worried. She urged him aside a little, when Kenshin went to talk to Saitou at the foot of the gang plank.

"I don't trust that man." She whispered.

Sano sniffed, his thoughts on the subject of Saitou well known to all and sundry.

"I don't trust him not to lead you into trouble. He doesn't care about Kaoru or that child. He doesn't care about either of you. Don't let him talk Kenshin into something suicidal."

"If I can help it." He said, staring under the cover of his lashes at Kenshin and Saitou.

"He won't be thinking of himself - -" she said. "- - self-preservation won't be the first thing on his mind when he's focused on that girl. It never has been."

"No." Sano had to agree.

"I want her and the child back - - but I'd prefer if the both of you survived the experience."

He shrugged.

"It wasn't your fault, Sano." She finally said. "About Yahiko. I'm - - sorry I said it was. I was wrong."

He looked at her. Really looked, instead of diverting half his attention to the ship and the cop and the redhead. Apologies from Megumi were few and far between. He'd rated very few of them in the time he'd known her. He didn't quite know how to respond, so he shrugged and gave her a crooked grin.

"S'okay. I've been accused of worse things."

"Yes, but you weren't actually at fault here." She smiled back and he took the insult as it was intended. Light hearted and far from hurtful.

All the cargo was loaded and the mate called down for any stragglers to board and Sano strolled towards the gangplank with Megumi trailing on his heels. Saitou had already boarded and only Kenshin remained to give one last farewell to Megumi and Tokyo and Japan.

Up the plank after that, the ship's crew eager to pull it up behind them. They stood at the rail along with the dozen or so other paying passengers to watch the dark shore drift away. The lights of the harbor grew smaller and smaller, winking fireflies that rolled with the sway of the ship. Saitou stood down the rail from them, a solitary figure casually sucking at his cigarette.

So they were on their way. Departing from the land of his birth yet once again. It wasn't as exciting this time - - his gut wasn't filled with as many churning butterflies. Maybe because this time he wasn't afraid to leave. Oh, he'd been gung ho enough about it the first time - - ready to set out on his grand adventure - - but the thought of leaving everything he knew and loved behind to delve into the mysteries of the great wide world had been sobering and frightening. But anything that raised the hackles on the back of Sano's neck - - was worthy of facing head on. Fear was a thing to be challenged and beaten down into submission.

He wasn't afraid this time. He wasn't sad. He wasn't leaving anything vital behind. He didn't even feel the need to stand and watch the shore recede and might not have, if Kenshin hadn't remained by the rail.

"The first stop's - - what? Manila?" he asked, already jumping weeks ahead. Kenshin nodded, eyes nothing but shadow under the fall of his hair and the night. Kenshin's hands were light, graceful things on the rail, but there was a tenseness about him that belied his casual stance.

Sano knew the route. First stop at the Philippines then around the Dutch East Indies making a stop or two on the way before they hit the open waters of the Indian Ocean and headed up towards the southern tip of India off which the island of Ceylon sat. A long sail. A long time to be cooped up on a boat with Saitou. Maybe Kenshin could keep blood from being shed between the two of them.

"What's the furthest you've been from home?" Sano asked.

"Not as far as you." Kenshin admitted. "Outside of Japan? I went to the coast of Sakhalin once from Hokkaido during the revolution on an - - errand - - for the man who was my lord at the time."

"An errand?" Sano lifted a brow.

"Don't ask."

Sano didn't. Kenshin didn't like talking about those days and the sorts of errands he'd been asked to complete.

"You know - - for someone who was a rurouni for ten years - - you kept yourself on a short leash."

"I never had the desire to leave Japan. I suppose that even though I fought for the revolution - - in my heart I always held with the old order's isolationist views. I don't like all the things the foreigners have brought with them. I don't like the changes I see in the port cities. I suppose I don't like a great many things - - which means absolutely nothing, because no one can stop change."

Sano supposed not, but the way Kenshin said it, it sounded like he was foretelling doom and destruction - - he was distraught and not bothering to hide it from Sano as he had from Megumi. Sano didn't ask why, because Kenshin would only deny it and a body had to feel a little honored that Kenshin trusted him enough to show something other than his gaming face.

When the shore was nothing but blackness and the ocean a dark vastness that a body could sense but not see, the ship was truly on its way out into the waters of the Pacific, heading out into the currents that would take it south towards the multitude of islands that sat off the coast of the mainland. The ship rode low in the water, heavy with tea and rice and other exports that it would trade along the way.

Japan faded away in the distance, and the world beckoned from the darkness ahead.

Kenshin did not experience sea sickness. He most certainly did not. The queasiness in his gut was in no wise from the constant pitch of the sea and the deck under his sandals. If anything it was from the questionable ship's fare and a worry he couldn't stop from gnawing at his insides. There was little enough to do to relieve it. He was on his way on the trail of the man who'd taken his family and yet the optimism refused to come. It hadn't come since he'd set foot back in Tokyo. He'd been so fueled with determination before that he'd hardly had the time to fall prey to doubt.

Perhaps it was the inaction. Perhaps with nothing to do but wait, helpless at the whim of the ocean and the winds - - all the dark thoughts gleefully took advantage of the lack of momentum and crowded their way in. Regardless, he sank deeper into a queasy sulk, spending a great deal of the time in the small cabin he shared with Sano and Saitou.

Two sets of stacked bunks with a narrow aisle between them. Two sea lockers at either side of the door. One small port that barely let in the gray light of day. It was a dismal room, with the ceiling so close to his face when he slept - - having been relegated the top bunk by reason of his smaller statue - - that he began to feel pangs of claustrophobia.

Sano tried to draw him out into what activity he had found. Gaming with the crew, fishing off the rail with a few of the other passengers. Not much to do on a merchanteer vessel, save do the exercises Megumi had advised to loosen the stiffness in his hands. Repeatedly. She'd said in moderation, not to tear healing flesh. He couldn't stand moderation when his fingers were clumsy and his hands had little strength.

Saitou read. And smoked. The cabin was more often than not filled with the foul stench of tobacco. Upon complaint Saitou would lift a brow, take a long drag off his cigarette, contemplate the issue for a moment, then blow a lungful of smoke into the room before turning back to his journal. It drove Sano to distraction. Sano bitched day and night about Saitou, wanting very much to steal the man's store of cigarettes and toss them into the ocean. Kenshin cautioned against it, not particularly wanting a fight within the crowded confines of the cabin. Or anywhere else on the ship for that matter.

Days turned into a week and there was nothing but water and gray sky surrounding them. Nothing to alter the environment. Not even a stray bird to break up the monotony of the sky. He wondered how Kenji had taken to such a long trip, the child never having experienced more than a few boat rides down the canals outside Tokyo. Had he been frightened? Or had he shown the bold, fearless face he usually did? Kaoru would have encouraged the latter. Kaoru would have held her head high and faced the adversity of the Englishman's captivity with courage and pride. But - -

- - But, so much vast ocean with no landmarks to mar it - - it was disheartening.

"There's a game in crew's quarters." Sano padded up to him at the rail, a tall shadow on the deck in the moonless night. Sano did not speak the language of the crew, but he'd managed to work his way into their good graces nonetheless. The rules of dice were the same everywhere for the most part. They gambled for pittances, partaking of the game more to relieve the boredom than for any gain. Kenshin had sat in on a few, listening to the unintelligible banter of the crew - - picking up Dutch words here and there - - mostly keeping Sano's company.

"No. Not tonight." He preferred the darkness and solitude.

"And not last night and not the night before. You're becoming as unsociable as Saitou, Kenshin." Sano complained.

He didn't answer that. Not having a reply that would have satisfied Sano. He shut his eyes against the constant flutter of wind and hair and salt spray and waited for Sano to go away.

Sano didn't go away. Sano slid up to the rail next to him, and stared out into the pitch. Silent for a long while, just a sturdy, solid presence at his shoulder.

"Will you stand here all night?" Sano finally wanted to know.

Kenshin had stood here, at the aft rail a good many nights, while Sano found other entertainment. It was better than spending time in Saitou's company or trying to read one of Saitou's dry journals or - - gods forbid, engaging the other Japanese passengers in conversation, when he hardly wanted to speak to the people he did know.

"Its not a bad place to be. The wind is cool."

"Fritz says there's a storm brewing." Sano said. Fritz being one of the few crewmen who spoke a spattering of Japanese. Kenshin beetled his brows, not liking the sound of that.

"He says maybe it'll hit by dawn or thereabouts. We'll be at the port in Manila in less than a week. Only a day's layover, I hear. Fritz says there are games in that port that you wouldn't believe. They bet on anything."

"Ah - - your notion of heaven. To bad you have no money."

Sano snorted softly. "I have a little. I'd like to get that narrow eyed bastard into a game or two and win some of the stash he has."

Kenshin canted a dubious look Sano's way. "With his poker face? You'd come away with nothing but a scowl, Sano."

"Ha, you think he could out play me? Just because a man's quick with his hands doesn't mean luck runs his way. Just look at your gaming luck!"

No good would come of replying honestly to that. Engaging Saitou in any sort of game of chance would be a dangerous and risky venture and one best avoided.

"Come play a few rounds of cards with us. There's a new game I've learned, I'll teach you."

"Why bother, with my luck?"

He could see the ghost of Sano's grin in the darkness. "Ah, but as bad as you play, it means more luck will gather at my feet. Come help me win, Kenshin."

An arm went around his shoulders, urging him away from the rail. He let go his purchase, relenting. Sano took a step sideways to keep his footing when the ship dipped precariously into a deep swell. Oh, a storm was most definitely coming, if the mood of the ocean was any indication.

"It may hit sooner, the storm." Kenshin said, his shoulder to the wall of the deckhouse where they'd both caught their balance, Sano's arm having slid down his back in a pointless attempt to steady him. Kenshin's sea legs had developed within minutes of stepping onto the ship. It was only his stomach that refused to always adjust to the undulating environment.

"Sano?" a question, warily asked, since Sano neglected to disengage the arm, since Sano's body was a warm, hard presense against his own. Too close for propriety. Too close for comfort, if the racing of his heart and the goosepimples all along his skin were any indication.

"I've never rode a storm out at sea." Sano admitted. "It was always smooth sailing before. Cramped and miserable - - but smooth."

"San - -" Another pitch of the deck and Sano splayed his legs, pressing Kenshin's back to the deckhouse wall, the one arm still wrapped about his back, the other flat against the wall.

"You okay," Sano whispered, his breath a warm touch against Kenshin's pallid temple. "You're trembling . . ."

He wasn't. He did not broadcast his failings so blatantly. He had more control of his body than that. But he couldn't gather his thoughts. They scattered like foam on the waves and all he could focus on was Sano's hand pressed against the small of his back and Sano's lean body weighing against his own with as much intimacy as a man might press against a woman. But it was Sano - - and Sano probably didn't mean anything by it - - it was the pitch of the ship and the threat of going over the rail at the increasing roll of the deck that had Sano foolishly believing that Kenshin needed his hands on him to help with balance, when Kenshin could have walked that rail, pitch or no pitch and kept his footing.

"Sano - - I'm fine." He twisted a little and slipped out from under Sano's arm. Got himself a step or two away - - far enough to breath and to collect his wits - - it was Sano. Sano. Sano. And no reason to find offense or upset in what was offered in all good faith as friendly support. "We'll go and play your game - - if they still are with a storm coming in."

Sano shrugged, face a neutral mask in the shadows. "They're sailors. The storm is no big deal to them - - not until it hits at any rate."

The storm spilled over them a few hours before dawn. A squall of great magnitude that had the decks awash with churning sea and the hatches battered down tight as drums.

One of the lesser masts cracked from the force of it. They heard it all the way belowdecks, braced in their small cabin and a man couldn't help but wonder if the ship had split asunder and would drag them down with it to a dark and watery grave. But it hadn't and come morning the storm subsided and the sailors swarmed the deck to take account of the damage.

"That split mast will keep us in port a few days longer than planned." Saitou had come from talking with the first mate. Saitou spoke Dutch almost flawlessly. He spoke English passingly well and a spattering of French.

"Well, that's not a bad thing." Sano was thinking of the gambling and the rumors of a reckless and wild port town.

"Its not a good thing." Kenshin thought of what might happen to innocent lives with two more days between him and them.

"Idiot." Saitou commented before lighting up, and one wondered who the comment was directed at. Sano took immediate offense, glaring, so Kenshin decided to let the insult lay at his feet.

"What, just because I want to see a bit of the world? When's the last time you got out of the same old pasture, you narrow-eyed fuck?"

Saitou took a drag of smoke and commented to Kenshin. "If you don't feel it absolutely necessary, keep the sword here. I've heard tell that the Spanish authorities are a bit touchy about such things. Even more so with the Americans sniffing around, trying to get their hooks into the islands."

"I asked you a question." Sano was not to be ignored. Saitou gave him a look , eyes conveying just how little concern he had for questions posed to him by Sano.

"It would be a waste of breath for me to name all the places I've been that you haven't, stupid boy."

"I am not a boy - - and you have no idea how many places I've been."

"Nor do I care." Saitou flicked ash over the rail and proceeded to walk away.

"Sano - - let it be. Please." Kenshin put a hand to his chest when he would have pursued the bickering.

It was not so startling a thing, fingertips and palm on the smooth skin of Sano's chest, here in the gray light of day, as it had been covered in solitary darkness. He hardly flinched at all, at the touch. Sano didn't, distracted by his ire. Kenshin pulled his hand back when Sano stopped pushing against it, and let it fall to his side, wiping his palm on the side of his hakama to chase away the tingling.

"That bastard - -" Sano muttered, casting dark looks down the debris littered deck in Saitou's wake. "He's always such an ass."

"It's his nature."

"What? To be an ass. Is that like an inborn trait - - or is it learned?"

"Learned, I think." Kenshin almost smiled, the first one since he'd boarded this ship. "But, I've never met his parents - - so I could not say for sure."

"You mean he wasn't spawned by demons? Oh, that's news."

He did smile then and Sano did, drawn out of his irritation.

It was a gray morning when the ship sailed into the port of Manila. Mist and low lying clouds made a milky soup of the harbor. Only the indistinct forms of ships and jutting masts could be discerned through the fog. Clothes became damp and heavy from the moisture in the air. Closer to dock, and hundreds of small, canvas covered houseboats could be seen, crowded together around wooden pylons, about the edges of the dock where there was no room for bigger vessels. Perhaps it was the fog, with soaked into every surface, bringing out the worst of ingrained odors, but the harbor smelled of rotting wood and machine oils, fish and human refuse. It made a body used to clean sea air, curl his lip in distaste. Sano made a few vocal complaints with which Kenshin silently concurred.

The city was under Spanish control, though it was a tentative one, what with American interest in the islands. The Spanish port authority took stock of the ship when she pulled into dock, assessing the cargo and what taxes to levy on it. The captain contracted for repairs on the mast and chased the paying passengers off board for the duration.

So they were confined to the dubious pleasures of the city for the estimated two days it would take for the mast to be replaced and cargo to be offloaded and sold and new cargo bought to fill the ship's empty belly. Saitou stepped off the gangplank dressed very much like a moderately well to do businessman, in a western cut suit and jacket with a stiff white shirt collar and a narrow, loosened tie about his neck. He looked the part. Of a corporate shark out to maneuver some tedious business arrangement. He had a small satchel in hand, but like he'd advised Kenshin, he was apparently unarmed. Or as unarmed as Hajime Saitou ever was - - weapons not withstanding.

"I'm told," he said to Kenshin. "That there are adequate inns a few streets in from the docks that don't smell so completely of the harbor."

"Oh, please don't tell me I have to share another room with you." Sano complained. "I've got more smoke in my clothes than you have in your lungs."

Saitou lifted a narrow brow, hand hesitating just a touch in lighting a cigarette. He finished the action and the thready hint of a smile almost touched his lips. "I'd rather you sleep in an alley, quite honestly, than put up with another night of your snoring, Sagara. I leave it up to you to find your own lodging. Just remember that the ship leaves in two days. If you're not on it - - I'll hold no regrets."

Sano bristled, glowering. Kenshin gave him a warning look and said.

"We'll be on it."

Saitou left them without a backwards look, weeding his way into the crowded docks and disappearing like so much smoke in the fog. Sano muttered a few disparaging remarks at his back, but was soon distracted by the clamor of the harbor.

It made sense to find lodging first and foremost, but Sano was not much for sense when there were taverns at hand and the pull of a new city. They had to stop at a loud and blustery bar one street in from the harbor - - Sano having - - just having to wet his thirst with the local brew. Kenshin dragged him away after the mug was drained and Sano's eyes began to drift towards the back where a great many men gathered cheering on some sort of animal fight. Whether it was cocks or dogs, was uncertain through the bulk of the crowd and the loudness of the human onlookers.

"We'll go back.' Sano said, following Kenshin reluctantly.

"You can if you want, once we both know where we're staying."

"You won't?"

Kenshin shrugged. "I don't like betting on blood, be it animal or human. I'd rather not."

"Prude." Sano snorted and Kenshin slanted him a sharp look from under his hair.

"I'm not."

Sano's lips curved up in a grin. "Oh, I imagine you are. In so many things."

Demanding what Sano meant by that, would open up avenues of conversation Kenshin was not comfortable walking down. So he snapped his mouth shut and stared studiously at the street to cover the very slight blush burning his cheeks. Which left Sano very happy with himself, striding down the street with his hands stuffed in his pockets.

They found an inn that seemed suitable. The Philippino desk clerk was more fluent in Spanish than Japanese, which he spoke only a spattering of, and understood even less. They managed to contract a room for two nights. It was an inn apparently that catered a great deal to the island's Spanish populace, more so than the native one. The room was small and stifling, until Sano threw open the slatted shutters and let in some small portion of fresh air and breeze. Patched, faded curtains ruffled slightly, as did the mosquito netting on the European style bed. The room seemed only minimally infested with bugs. It was not so clean as a good old fashioned Japanese inn. Nor so accommodating. There were no baths available, though Kenshin, after a grueling attempt at conversation with the clerk, did learn of a bathhouse a few streets up that might suit his needs. He very much wanted a bath in something other than seawater. He very much wanted to launder his clothes and - - gods, gods, gods, find something lighter and airier to wear than kimono and hakama, in the insufferable humidity and heat. It was never so bad at home, even during the worst stretch of summer months.

"So you're not going with me?" Sano surmised.

"Bath and laundry." Kenshin said. "Perhaps not in that order. I'm not sure. If you loose all your money, that's it, Sano. What I have is to buy lodging and food and I'd prefer not to have to beg coin from Saitou. I'd very much prefer not. So unless you wish to grovel for him, use common sense."

"When do I not?" Sano's brows beetled. Sano's memory very honestly relapsed on very frequent occasions. Kenshin sighed and waved a hand at him to let the issue drop.

"Supper, perhaps? We could meet back here at dusk and go and sample some local cuisine?"

"We could do that." Sano relented, shaking off the offense.

"It wouldn't hurt if you found the baths, smelling of Saitou's smoke and all." Kenshin suggested tentatively. One had to be careful of Sano's sensibilities if one didn't want a brawl.

"Are you saying I stink?"

"I would never say such a thing." Kenshin effected his most innocent expression and Sano's lips twitched, not buying it, but amused by it regardless.

So they went their separate ways. The bathhouse consisted of several private rooms with large wooden tubs, filled with warm water by a gaggle of scrawny native boys. It was not as comfortable, nor as cleanly as a Japanese bathhouse, but it was better than seawater drawn up by a pail. He washed his hair, scrubbed his skin and soaked until the water became tepid. He dressed in the very light trousers and tunic that a man might use to work in the garden or about the house and rolled his travel worn hakama and gi into a bundle to take to the laundry. There was a laundry run by the little Chinese woman and her daughters that sat next to the bathhouse and they took his clothing graciously, promising to have it cleaned and ready for him in a few hours time. Which left nothing for him to do, but go back to the inn and wait, or wonder about the city and absorb what he could of the foreign port in a few hours time.

Restless and agitated by the heat, he chose the later.

Sano had a pocket full of native coins. A few Spanish ones littered the mix. It was in no wise a great haul. The games in which he'd participated had not been for high stakes, but it was enough to encourage him and put him in a good mood. Enough to buy him all the beer and food and imported Spanish wines. Oh, he liked those. They were mellow and sweet and had a kick that took a body all unaware. If he hadn't eaten such a satisfying lunch, he might have found himself passed out on the floor of some bar or another. But he'd always had a head for drink and a zeal for trying new forms of it. He spent a fine day prowling the local haunts, and dusk came about far too quickly for his tastes. He had a list of places to go, given to him by a little Japanese whore who'd come to the islands years ago. He'd talked to her about home and she'd told him about the islands and what elicit pleasures were to be had here. She'd wanted more than talk and he'd persuaded her to be satisfied with drinks, having the suspicion that a man might take more away from an encounter with her than fond memories. She went to the bathhouse with him though, and scrubbed his back and spilled some of her cheap perfume in the water with him, which ended in a splashing match filled with much laughter and almost - - almost more - - but he had other considerations on his mind, despite the longing between his legs - - that made him deny her. He had a focus that was no in wise presently shakable, that had nothing to do with feminine curves and demure facade. In the back of his mind all day was the thought of that broad, mosquito net draped bed and himself alone in it with Kenshin, with no bandits or weather or ghost-riddled monastery or dojo or slant-eyed policeman to intrude upon them. A far-fetched notion at best. A wild fantasy that had crept up on him numerous times during his day, causing a slight stiffness between his legs and a pounding behind his eyes - - but not one he'd dispelled too forcefully. He enjoyed the contemplation, whereas a month ago, he'd have cursed his backwards thoughts and stridently sought to banish them.

He gave the girl some of his not-so-hard won coin and left her to stroll back towards the inn. He was late, dusk having fallen almost an hour past, but Kenshin was ever patient and sat on the covered porch in the company of a pair of little Philippino girls who were babbling incoherently and quite happily at him. It hardly mattered the language, Kenshin attracted children. He smiled when he saw Sano and stood up and Sano had to blink twice at the look of him, as slender as a boy in simple peasant's trousers and tunic that hung loose about his hips. The folds of the hakama and the gi gave him so much more bulk, lent him so much more command in his appearance that a body might not even recognize him at first glance without, save for the shining beacon of his hair. Without the trappings of a samurai, of a man of some status - - he was nothing but a slip of a thing.

"Did the heat make you shrink? "He couldn't think of anything wittier to say.

Kenshin lifted a brow, raised one fine-boned hand and waved absently towards the inn. "My hakama is still damp. It takes longer to dry in this humidity. This is cooler."

"Humm. I'd guess." Sano kept staring. Blatantly, until Kenshin snapped two fingers under his nose and remarked with a hint of annoyance.

"You're late. Its long past dusk."

"Huh? Oh. Yeah, well, I had to take my bath."

Kenshin tilted his head, brows drawn in question. He leaned just a little closer and sniffed. "Sano - - is that - - lavender? - - I smell? And something else - - something fruity? Where did you take your bath? A geisha house?"

"Oh, just shut the fuck up." Sano blushed, silently cursing the little whore for her sport during his bath. "Do you want to go and get something to eat, or what?"

They had fresh seafood for dinner and an abundance of island fruit. Shrimp stewed in coconut milk and steamed lapu-lapu and a sweat dish called ginataang mial which consisted of sweet corn and rice covered in a sweetened coconut milk. They drank sweet basi - - a sugarcane wine that was as smooth as anything Sano had ever consumed and left full and content.

With supper behind them, the night life of Manila beckoned. Sano was eager to answer the call and dragged Kenshin in his wake. There was a festival of some sort on the beach outside the city and past the stench of the harbor. Sano had heard rumor of it during the day and was reminded by a laughing group of native girls who were toting armfuls of flower garlands towards the lantern lit stretch of clean beach.

It was apparently some sort of local celebration, though it was open to one and all for Spanish merchants and their ladies mixed with the natives, as well as lighter skinned foreign traders and seamen who had been lured by the commotion.

Sano was in heaven. The women were friendly, the wine was free and the sounds of local music rhythmic and exotic. He lost track of Kenshin. Lost track of quite a lot, after glass after glass of basi and locally brewed rum and Spanish wine. Found him again, sitting on a little bluff over looking the beach, at the outskirts of the festivities, silent and slim and unobtrusive.

"Why are you sitting here all by yourself? Come and play." Sano grinned lazily, flopping down next to Kenshin, putting the fresh mug of rum he'd acquired into Kenshin's hand. "These women - - oh, they're nothing like quiet, demure little Japanese girls. Look how they dance."

"Not all Japanese girls are quiet and demure." Kenshin offered and Sano's grin widened.

"Well, not the one you married - - but comparatively. Are you sitting here feeling sorry for yourself again?'

"No. Perhaps. It feels - - wrong - - to enjoy myself while they're in peril."

"So you should mope and be miserable, until we find them?"

Kenshin shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know. If only there were something to do - - other than wait."

"There is. Drink." Sano put a hand under the mug and urged it up to Kenshin's lips. Kenshin took an obligatory sip and made a face.

"It's strong."

"It burns on the way down." Sano agreed. "But it warms the belly afterwards."

"It's warm enough without." Kenshin complained, but took another tentative sip. And another. And Sano lay there, with his elbows propped in the sand, content enough to keep Kenshin company and watch the happy undulations of the people on the beach. Kenshin finished the rum and Sano dragged him up and down onto the beach thereafter. He had an easier time of it, the rum having made Kenshin considerably less morose and considerably more open to suggestion.

One of the Phillippino girls slipped a garland over his head and a kiss on the side of his lips, which he smiled at, giving Sano a baffled, amused look afterwards. Sano acquired more rum, since Kenshin seemed to have developed a like for it, and made a nuisance of himself at the food laden buffet.

He glanced down at the brush of heavy skirts against his leg. A lovely, dark eyed Spanish lady smiled up at him, red lips curved and moist from the rum spiked fruit drink she was sipping. Sano leered back - - wondering if it were merely all the drink he'd had tonight - - or if she truly did ooze sex. She spoke to him in a lilting indiscernible language. He shrugged and kept staring at the riveting amount of cleavage her gown revealed. One did not ignore such bounty. He discovered, of a sudden, a great like for European style gowns.

She tried again, this time in a poor attempt at the Phillippino tongue, which Sano only vaguely understood himself.

"Sorry. I'm Japanese. Don't speak the language."

She sighed and leaned against his arm as she bent to retrieve a chunk of fruit. She was very drunk, he decided, and very much interested in initiating some sort of dialogue with him, which he didn't so much mind, intrigued by her exotic features and impressive cleavage.

"I think - -" Kenshin said at his shoulder, a somewhat offended, somewhat wary sounding Kenshin. " - - that your hands on this woman are going to cause trouble."

Sano glanced down. The woman, who was pressed against him did, lifting one black brow in question at Kenshin.

"What? Why? She likes me."

"I don't believe her husband does." Kenshin inclined his head towards a Spaniard in military uniform, shouldering his way through the crowd of revelers, his eyes locked upon Sano and the woman.

"Yeah - - Yeah, well just let him start something - - I didn't know. She came on to me."

Sano got his balance, untangling himself from the woman, glaring defiantly at the oncoming officer. The man had one gloved hand on the hilt of what looked to be a rapier, hanging at his hip.

"No. Absolutely not!" Kenshin's fingers dug into his arm, dragging him backwards. He was too inebriated not to stumble in Kenshin's wake. "I will not have a brawl that lands us in jail when that ship leaves. I will thrash you myself, before I let that happen.'

"You wish!" Sano exclaimed, struggling to free himself from Kenshin's death grip. He did and staggered, one knee going to the sand. An angry foreign voice barked at them from behind. Sano managed to flip himself over in time to see the Spanish officer lunging at him with the thin, straight rapier. He blinked, not equating the action with the no doubt mortal effects it would have. Blinked again and the hand was standing there, empty handed, staring upwards along with at least a half dozen sets of other eyes as the rapier sailed skyward. It came back down in a lazy spin and Kenshin caught it by its ridiculously ornate hilt.

"Sano. Please get up and walk away from here." Kenshin said pleasantly. His face was a mask of neutrality.

"Are you serious?"

"You do not want to know how serious I am, Sanosuke. Go." The good nature drained momentarily from his voice. Sano scowled and rose, brushing sand off his trousers.

"I am very sorry." Kenshin said and whether the man understood or not was anyone's guess. "But we wish no trouble." He flipped the rapier and extended it back towards the man, hilt first. The Spaniard hesitated, then took it, undecided whether to pursue the issue. The woman eased herself against the side of her husband, purring something in his ear that made him flush, but took his attention from Sano and Kenshin.

Sano didn't wait to see. He turned his back and stalked up the path from the beach towards the dirt road leading back to the city. Kenshin caught up with him in short order, angry and silent for the duration of the walk up the tree lined road to the outskirts of town. Finally, he could hold his tongue no longer.

"You have no sense! None at all. Though she acted it, she was obviously no whore and these European's are protective to the point of idiocy over their women."

"I knew she wasn't. It was just fun."

"Fun? It was shameful, her with her hands all over you - - perhaps she thought you were the one for hire."

"Fuck you." Sano snarled, lashing out, one hard palm catching Kenshin square in the chest and shoving him backwards.

Kenshin staggered, at a loss for balance, and sprawled against a wall, a testament to just how drunk he was. Just how much grace the liquor had stolen from him. He'd hidden it quite well when adrenaline and need had asserted themselves. Now it crept back up, making him have to try twice to push himself back up. His eyes were narrow and glittering. Angry.

"Don't - -"

"Don't you!!" Sano cut him off. "You're not my fucking conscience and you're not my set of morals no matter how hard you try to be. You think you know so much? You think you're so much fucking better than me because you've got all these fucking high standards? Well, fuck you, Kenshin."

Sano lifted his fist, wanting to hit something again. Kenshin just stared at him, eyes gone large and surprised, the anger shaken out of him. Sano snarled and curbed the urge, stalking away instead.

He slowed eventually, himself in a maze of streets that held no familiarity - - wondering where the hell he was going and how he was supposed to get there, in the dark and drunk.

"You're going the wrong way." Kenshin murmured, a quiet presence a dozen strides behind him. Sano glared over his shoulder. Kenshin had stopped at an intersection, hesitating at the right path. "This is the way."

"You think I'm lost"

Kenshin shrugged. "Its been - - known to happen - - on occasion."

Sano's scowl deepened. It took a great deal of will to turn on his heel and march back the way Kenshin indicated.

"You're afraid I'm such an idiot I'll make you miss the damned ship? Then why bring me along at all?" He finally asked, still angry.

A long pause, while Kenshin padded along just in his wake, shorter legs covering less ground. Or perhaps it was the care in which he placed his feet, eyes very carefully on the ground, as if in his vision it swayed unpredictably under him. It might have. Kenshin never had been able to hold his liquor.

"Did I have a choice? Would you have stayed if I'd asked?"

"Fuck no!"

Silence then. And finally. "Yes. I was afraid you'd get us thrown in jail. You're not always - - reliable - - when it comes to matters of pride."

"You don't trust me?"

"I do." Immediate response to that. Offended one.

"Then act like it!" He was hurt. It was damned - - painful - - to know he was so little appreciated, so little trusted, no matter what words spilled out of Kenshin's mouth. He saw it clearer when his head was buzzing on rum and wine than he did when he was stone sober. He imagined Saitou and Kenshin laughed about him and his incompetence behind his back - - imagined a great many things - - - and those thoughts burned - - irate and blaring and insidious.

"Do you talk about me," he spun, shoving Kenshin again, hard up against the wall of a building. "You and Saitou?"

"Wha - -?" Kenshin blinked owlishly up at him, baffled. Or pretending it. Kenshin could hide so many things behind that innocent look. A body forgot what he was sometimes. A body forgot what he was capable of.

"You heard me. You and that narrow-eyed bastard - - when the two of you would rather sit in the cabin all day, than move about like normal folk."

"Of course we don't talk about you. We hardly talk at all - - you think I enjoy his company?"

"I don't know. How should I know? You always shut up when I come back."

"I don't - - there was never talk to begin with - - nothing to shut up from - - gods, you make my head hurt, Sano." Kenshin pressed his palm against his forehead, digging his fingers into his hair, tugging at it in frustration.

"Good." Sano said, leaning close. Close enough to make threat out of it - - trying to make Kenshin flinch away - - trying to prove something. To himself. To Kenshin. He didn't know. All he knew was that it irked him always playing second best. It irked that Kenshin was sharper and faster and better - - and probably always would be no matter how hard Sano tried.

Close enough that he scented the rum on Kenshin's breath and felt that same warm breath on his face - - shallow, rapid breaths - - but not retreating.

Not doing anything but leaning there, with his fingers pressed against the wall, not quite looking at Sano - - not quite not looking, from behind the half lowered fringe of his lashes.

It crept up on him, the tightening between his legs - - the heat that spread through his lower belly, more potent than rum. He had to physically control the urge to lower a hand to assuage the aching need that grown in his pants. To do so would have drawn attention down and damned if he wanted Kenshin to actually see what the loose material of his trousers no doubt only marginally concealed.

Sano spun of a sudden, thankful of the dark that covered any number of embarrassments. The blush on his face for instance. He started walking, thinking of anything to take his mind away from the need between his legs. But it was damned hard, when all the blood was pooling down there and draining away from his head. Damned hard not to think about how bad - - how devastatingly bad - - he'd wanted to slam Kenshin into that wall and - - and - -

- - oh, fuck, fuck, fuck.

And didn't that just say it eloquently enough.

He needed another drink. Absolutely needed to get more smashed than he already was if he was going to survive what was left of the night - - or the morning - - in that room, in that bed, with Kenshin presence to torment him.

Maybe if he passed out - - -



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