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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn


Chapter 16


Sano veered towards another tavern and Kenshin groaned, reluctantly dogging his heels, afraid that if he lost track of him in this strange, island port - - so late at night and in such a state - - that he might not be able to find him again come morning. He did not trust Sano to find his own way back to the inn, drunk as he was. He honestly doubted he could navigate the city sober without a great deal of luck.

So into the hazy, lantern lit confines of a sleazy little bar filled with seedy looking natives who gave them wary, suspicious looks when they entered. A local bar and not one that turned friendly eyes towards strangers. Sano didn't seem to notice the instant hostility. Sano paid no heed to the obvious weapons concealed under shirts and tucked into belts. Kenshin was certain he missed a great deal of them himself, well aware of how far gone the rum that he had foolishly consumed, had taken him. He was operating on luck alone at the moment, because grace and dexterity and skill were hazy things hiding behind a false veneer of sobriety. Foolish, foolish, foolish to allow himself to reach such a state when he was in a strange place, among strange people with a mission to perform. He hardly let himself drink when he was safe within the familiar domain of home - - but he'd fallen to Sano's whim. And Sano could persuade him into things that no one else could. No one else could make him abandon common sense so thoroughly and enjoy himself while he was about it.

He cast a glare at Sano's back, casting blame where blame rightfully belonged. Sano didn't see it. Sano probably wouldn't have cared if he had. Sano was in a fine mood and not, Kenshin thought, at all concerned about common sense or safety or the general opinion others held of his person.

Sano shouldered his way to the bar, amidst much grumbling and dark looks and slammed a coin down on the warped wood, demanding a drink. Apparently he'd picked up the words to order alcohol, for the bar tender presently presented him with a dirty glass filled to the brim with amber liquid.

"One for my friend." Sano beckoned Kenshin, apparently willing to forget his recent pique.

"No. I've had enough." Kenshin shook his head and stood his ground.

The bar tender said something which Sano might or might not have understood. Kenshin didn't.

"Don't drink, can't stay. Paying customers only." Sano grinned wolfishly and Kenshin scowled, contemplating just walking out and leaving him on his own. But he saw the glint of a curved blade here, the edge of a fisherman's gutting knife there and too many contemplative scowls from the locals to abandon Sano to their good graces. Not a drunken Sano, at any rate. He slipped up to the bar, sliding between Sano and an overweight native that smelled of rotten fish and beer.

"One drink and we go." He said softly.

Sano threw his beer down and signaled for another.


"You drink yours." Sano snapped, scowling a little.

Kenshin scowled back. "What, do you want the both of us so drunk we can't find our way back to the inn?"

"Fair's fair."

Kenshin rolled his eyes. He snatched the mug and gulped a few mouthfuls of the beer. It was mellow enough to flow smoothly. Surprising, considering the state of the bar. He'd expected something akin to watered down urine. He had a second mug before him without even realizing that he'd finished the first. His fingers and toes were beginning to feel numb. His head very disconnected from the rest of his body. He put the second mug down, only half finished and tugged at Sano's arm with some bit of urgency. He needed fresh air badly. Thought he was in danger of spilling up all the varied foods he'd had tonight if he didn't get it.

Sano followed him out, and stood there while Kenshin stood in the street with his hands on his knees, gasping for air not fouled with the stench of beer and sweat.

"You, okay, Kenshin?"

It took him a moment to formulate an answer. "Uhummm - - I think - - maybe - - maybe I'm not gonna throw up - -" He found that beneficial discovery amusing. He laughed and threw back his hair, brushed at it impatiently with one hand when it still insisted on falling into his eyes, and tried to get a fix on which way it was they'd been heading when Sano had decided to slip into the bar.

"Which way - -?"

"That way." Sano pointed and Kenshin squinted his eyes down the darkened street, not quite sure if taking Sano's advice on direction was a good thing - - but having the sinking suspicion that his own was fast dwindling thanks to that one magical drink too many.

It took him a handful of blocks to realize he was lost. Dreadfully, embarassingly lost. Sano laughed over it. Oh, Sano was vastly amused. Sano sat in the street and howled and Kenshin stood spray-legged over him and glared, cursing under his breath, thinking that if the sky weren't spinning so horribly he might get a fix from the stars on at least which direction the harbor was.

"Shut up. Shut up! You do better."

Sano kept laughing. He grabbed hold of Kenshin's arm to haul himself up and almost toppled the both of them in the street.

"There. We'll ask there." Sano pointed at the entrance to a tavern. He had an unerring ability to scout them out.

"Nooo." Kenshin moaned. "We can't even speak the tongue - -"

"Sure we can." Sano sauntered through the door, languid and rolling in his drunken state. Predatory, like a big cat on the prowl. Kenshin had to admit to bafflement that Sano wasn't staggering - - but then, Sano had always had a better head for drink than he had. Sano generally didn't get falling down drunk until he was so far gone that unconsciousness was eminent. He turned and cast a sly, white-toothed grin at Kenshin, asking. "What's the name of the place we're staying?"

Kenshin stared at him, mind completely blank of that all important fact, still focused on the lazy grin and the rolling gait.

"I - - I can't remember. It's - - it's Spanish, I think."

"Oh, big help you are." Sano gave him a heavy-lidded, smug look, then went up to the mostly deserted bar and engaged the native behind it in a conversation based mostly on hand gestures and low spoken, earnest words. Kenshin couldn't hear what he said. Kenshin wasn't getting near the bar, just in case a drink might find its way to his hand.

Sano came back, wiping his mouth of the last dregs of the shot of something he'd had at the bar, smiling.


"Just follow me. I know the way."

"You know the way?"

"Trust me."

"You get lost walking from Tokyo to Urawa - -"

"Just that once, you prick. Either follow me or find your own way." Sano was indignant over that sensitive memory. Kenshin usually had better sense and softer manners than to mention such an embarrassment. A man had to assume that it was the drink talking.

There was little choice, really, but to pad along in Sano's wake, very occasionally putting a hand out to catch at Sano's arm as the street tilted under his sandals. He had to watch the road diligently to make sure that it behaved.

And when next he looked up the familiar porch of the inn was before them. And Sano was beaming over his success. Oh, a very self-satisfied Sano who strode up the steps and into the darkened lobby like he'd just won the biggest pot of his life. The staff was long since in bed and it was up to them to navigate the narrow, dark stairway. In the hallway outside their room Sano turned and cackled.

"Think you can remember which room we're in, or should I point that out as well?"

Kenshin sniffed, deciding to accept the insult graciously, and in the humor that it had been directed. He grinned, leaning in to say. "There's a first time for everything, Sano."

His balance deserted him and he kept falling forward, coming up short with Sano's big hands on his shoulders and Sano's smooth chest against his forehead. His own hands found purchase against Sano's ribs, under the loose lapels of his jacket. Hard, lean muscle twitched under his fingers. He could feel the frantic thud of Sano's heart through the veneer of muscle and bone and flesh. Odd feeling that - - of Sano under his hands - - all caged power and flinching sinew. Soft on the outside, but hard as rock underneath. His skin smelled faintly of sweat and rum and the lingering traces of whatever scent he'd had in his bath - - and underneath that - - something that was simply Sano. Familiar and pleasing and comfortable.

He lifted his head, eyes level with Sano's throat, inhaling the scent that lingered at the hollow between his collar bones. Sano swallowed, convulsively and Kenshin lifted his eyes, feeling hazy and indulgent, pleased for some reason at the wide eyed look of alarm in Sano's eyes. His own lips curved up into a half smile and he slid up Sano's body, raised on his toes, to brush his mouth past Sano's chin - - past his lower lip - - almost touching, but not quite. A grazing passage of breath and flesh that made his body tingle and his groin tighten with lazy heat. Sano's hands moved down his shoulders, palm pressed flat to his back, sliding down to the small of his back - - lower. A hesitant touch that made his skin prickle and his head swim more than it already was.

It was the most surreal thing - - the hands, the skin, the lips - - the intensity of feeling that coiled at the bottom of his gut - - dream-like and intriguing until the hard edge of Sano's arousal jutted against his own, when Sano's hands gripped his buttocks tight and lifted him up, almost off the floor.

That brought a rush of reality tinged vertigo. That brought too much sensation for an alcohol dulled mind to tolerate. He twisted and pushed away and Sano let him, back against the wall, breath rasping harshly through his mouth.

"What was that?" Sano demanded as Kenshin veered for the what he thought was the right door. He pulled at the handle - - flustered by the lack of proper sliding tracks. It didn't open. Wasn't there a key?

A key. He had it in his pocket. He got his fingers about it and fit it shakily into the lock. Got inside with Sano on his heels and the sound of the door closing in Sano's wake - - sealing them in.

"What was that?" Sano was insistent. Kenshin didn't know. Kenshin's thoughts were all awash with incoherency. With sound. With smell. With the electric pulse of touch. He didn't feel so much nauseous, as light headed and sensitized.

Sano caught his arm, swinging him around, fingers clenching so hard it hurt. "What - - the - - fuck - - was - - that, Kenshin?"

There was the faintest threat of violence in Sano's desperate need for answers. The scent of adrenaline mixed with sweat and need. It hit him in the gut, like some stone fist that had come upon him unawares, the violence, the sweat, the want - - the sex.

He caught hold of Sano's jacket, jerking him off his balance, lunging up and pressing his mouth across Sano's lips. There was hardly a beat missed in surprise. Hardly a split second passed before Sano had his hands in Kenshin's hair, fingertips pressed into his skull to tilt his head the way he wanted it. Sano was beer and rum and heat, the moist muscle of his tongue stabbing into Kenshin's mouth, dueling with his own, trying to suck him in and devour him.

There was no control, no nicety, no sweet words, no gentleness - - it was raw and primitive and filled with enough sheer lust to hamper vision. Kenshin's knees hit the bed and he went down, spilling mosquito netting as Sano's weight bore him back. Sano's fingers tore at his clothing, scraping skin in the process. Kenshin ground his hips up, rubbing himself against Sano's groin, against the hard, insistent heat there. Sano groaned into his mouth, disengaging only long enough to push his own jacket off, and fumble with the tie of his pants. Kenshin reared up as he was doing it, planting the heel of a hand against Sano's shoulder, toppling him over with his trousers half down his long thighs, the twitching, rigid length of him exposed and pressed against his lower belly. Kenshin put a hand on it, hot, hot flesh, thumping with the beat of Sano's heart under his fingers. Sano cried out. His name maybe - - or something more guttural. Kenshin leaned in to nip the flesh at the edge of Sano's jaw, grazed flesh with sharp teeth and did it again when Sano arched into his hand, and rolled, trapping one of Kenshin's thighs under his hip, pressing one rough palm atop Kenshin's own erection and rubbing up and down the length of it. Hard.

It was as much powerplay as anything - - Sano trying to roll Kenshin back under his weight, Kenshin trying to if not stay on top - - then at least keep equal footing. But Sano had the weight on him, and the strength and the length of arms and legs - - and it was more the battle than the victory which was important - - more the implied violence of the act and the eventual surrender that made him arch up into Sano when the younger man wormed his way between his legs and hooked an arm under his knee, forcing him into that most vulnerable of positions.

"Wait a minute - - wait a minute - -" Sano gasped, poised there, the seeping, burning tip of himself pressed tight against that place behind Kenshin's scrotum.

Wait. Wait. Kenshin couldn't think. He couldn't see. All that was discernible of Sano was an indistinct, shadowy shape looming over him. The room was a swirling miasma of darkness behind him.

"I need - -" Sano shifted and his weight momentarily left Kenshin. There was the sound of shattering glass as Sano swiped the cover from the oil lantern, the clunk of the base turned over, spilling its contents and Sano was back, fingers slick with oil, coating his own length, other greasy hand splayed out across Kenshin's belly - - and then with single minded intensity his fingers found the entrance he wanted and he guided himself in.

Slick with oil, it hardly hurt at first - - but the burning grew. All the mindless lust fled on the wings of sudden pain. Sudden, inevitable invasion. It had felt so good before, so urgent to have Sano's body under his hands and his mouth - - but now, all he wanted was to wriggle away from the hurt - - from the ungainly large thing that wanted to impale him.

An image flashed through Kenshin's head. Of rain spattered earth and laughing, gruff faces leering over him - - -

He tried to retreat and Sano leaned down, shoulder forcing Kenshin's knee almost to his chest, hands white knuckled on Kenshin's wrists which he pinned to the bed by his head. Kenshin couldn't see his face. All he could hear was the rasping rhythm of his breath, the small sounds their bodies made as they moved against each other.

His face slammed into dirt smeared stone, his wrists bound so tight that he could only just feel the fiery pain in his hands - - -

Sano had forgotten him in his lust. Had forgotten everything but satisfying his own need. Sano's hair brushing his chin as he bent over, grunting with the force of each thrust. Almost - - it began to warm something in him that had started to shrivel - - if Sano would only let go his hands so he could touch himself, he might get it back.

A foot in his gut when he tried to struggle and an arm under his waist when he'd lost his breath and his ability to fight. An arm that pulled him up against a man's bare groin, bristly hair and thick, prodding phallus - - other men urging him on - - vying for who would be next - -

He screamed and Sano did and he felt the fiery heat of Sano's release and Sano's hands sliding down his body and finding the softening heat between his legs and urging it back to life. Sano's mouth moving over his own, lazier now, sated and too drunk to realize that Kenshin hadn't been.

The rain beat down and he was cold - - so cold - - and they were relentless and brutal and the sound of his own hoarse cries echoed over and over in his ears - -

Sano chased the cold away. Sano curled around him, mouth and tongue and teeth tracing a way down his throat to his chest and lower until the fire came back and his mind blanked again, chasing away the images. But they lingered, at the back of his mind, waiting until sleep came to plague him in real.

Sano felt like he was adrift, lost in an undulating sea that tossed and churned and never let him get his footing on solid ground. It was not an unfamiliar feeling. It was generally accompanied by the impending need to vomit. He rolled, trying to find a position that soothed his rolling equilibrium and came up against warm, smooth skin. He lay there, hand tentatively skimming the curved contour of an arm, thigh brushing the curve of buttocks. The scent in his nostrils was headily familiar.


What in hell had he done last night? What had they done? He had vague, lurid memories of struggling with clothing and heated mouths and - -and plunging into heat and tightness and rutting like a dog in heat.

Shit. Was that what had happened? With Kenshin? With a Kenshin who'd been as staggering drunk as Sano had ever seen him and who - - Sano's memories were uncertain at best - - had come on to him in the damned hallway. He lay there, trying to pull up more detailed memory, and found his mouth twitching up in the beginnings of a self-satisfied smirk. If it hadn't happened, it had been the mother of all wet dreams.

If he opened his eyes and found it wasn't Kenshin - - oh so familiar scent not withstanding - - he was going to be greatly disappointed.

But, it was, lithe white back curved towards him, tussled, red head burrowed in the crock of one arm, the other hand sprawled off the edge of the bed. Caught perhaps in the clutches of some dream for his fingers tightened spasmodically in his hair and intermittent soft murmurs escaped him.

Sano was at a loss. He had no notion of what a body ought to do upon wakening the morning after having fucked one's best friend. He'd never had it happen before. And despite weeks of longing after just this - - he wished it hadn't happened, because wakening simply hungover with Kenshin in his bed would be far easier than the reality of the alternative.

What did a body say? If it had been a woman he'd picked up for a casual lay he'd have no problem whatsoever. Good morning. How do you feel. Care for some breakfast? Can you pay, I'm a little short on funds.

He chewed on the inside of his lip, wondering if he ought to mention it at all. Maybe not say anything regarding it, unless Kenshin brought it up. Kenshin didn't stumble over his tongue half as much as Sano - - and he had started it - - so maybe just let Kenshin broach the subject. Which meant waking Kenshin up, which Sano was loathe to do, lazy and feeling sick as he was. Maybe sleeping the hangover off would be the best for all concerned. Maybe tackling this sticky situation not hungover would be for the best.

Maybe, if he rolled just a little bit over, he could mold himself up against Kenshin's smooth back, and slip his arm across Kenshin's ribs and curl it against his chest. Oh, that felt nice, what with his morning sensitive cock pressed to the cleft in Kenshin's ass. Nice enough that it twitched and roused and Sano had to forcibly start thinking about unsavory things to keep the half rigid thing from jumping to full life. Sano didn't think that prodding Kenshin awake with that against his rear would be a good way to start an uncomfortable morning.

But maybe Kenshin had felt it regardless, for his murmuring grew louder and his body tensed, the outflung hand curling into a claw. Most definitely in the throes of some nightmare.

"Kenshin?" Sano whispered. "Wake up - -"

And rather abruptly, Kenshin did, with a cry on his lips and a twisting lurch that ended with his elbow in Sano's face and Sano tasting blood from the impact.

"Goddamnit!" Sano howled, hand to his bleeding mouth, scrambling backwards to distance himself from a wild eyed, pale faced Kenshin who sprawled backwards off the edge of the bed, and fell with a thump and the sound of crunching glass.

The globe of the lantern that Sano had knocked over in his desperate efforts for lubrication. Kenshin cried out and lurched to his feet, blood seeping from a cut in the palm of his hand under the edge of the bandages. More from his hip.

"You son of a bitch . . ." he hissed, eyes narrow and deadly, hair in turmoil about his face and his shoulders.

"What?" Sano gawked.

"You bastard!" Kenshin growled. "What did you do?"

"What did I - - ? Wait just a fucking minute - - I didn't do anything that you - -"

"Get out!" Kenshin hissed. "Get out before I kill you."

Sano stared, feeling the nausea rise into his throat, seeing nothing but absolute earnestness in Kenshin's eyes. The type of deadly earnestness that the Battousai wore and the sort that a body who had any sense of self-preservation didn't trifle with.

"Fuck." Sano said, angry and wary and goddamned hurt. "Fuck you, Kenshin."

He snatched his trousers, pulling them on in a hurry, as eager to be out of there as Kenshin was to have him gone. He grabbed his jacket and his shoes and stomped for the door, flinging it open with a vengeance and slamming it with equal force behind him.

Damned if he understood what was going on. Damned if Kenshin had ever - - even when they were at odds - - looked at him with murderous intent before.

The wall's rattled with Sano's leaving. Kenshin stood there, braced against the wall, vision tinged with red, red trailing down his fingers and down his leg, warm and wet and sickly. It took him a second to focus on the glass scattered around his feet. A second more to put two and two together and come to the realization that he needed to distance himself from it. Keeping his back to the wall, he moved away, to the corner by the window, where the drapery gently rippled in the warm breeze. His legs gave way and he slid downwards, catching himself with the hand not leaking blood and easing the way to the floor. There was glass embedded in the fleshy part of his palm, and a sliver in his hip. He picked them out dully, shivering.

Flashes of imagery stuck, memory long since buried. His head slammed back against the wall, eyes squeezed shut, hand clutching at the hair around his face. He didn't want to know. Didn't want the reality those nightmarish flashes of memory brought with them. Could not at the moment, sick and precarious with the aftereffects of too much drink - - with the all too recent memory of Sano - - and what Sano had done - - and what he had done - - deal with the conception of his own monumental weakness.

Oh - - how could he have forgotten? How could he have been so blinded as to pretend it hadn't happened? How did a man forget such a thing? He'd let it happen and he'd never in all his life - - not since the moment that he'd escaped the dubious mercy of the bandits who'd butchered the slave train he'd been a part of as a child - - let himself be taken so advantage of. Never let himself be touched when he did not wish it. Never let himself be used - - at least not against his will - - in all that time. He'd made a vow not - - and perhaps he'd chosen to forget because it was easier than admitting that he'd grown sloppy enough and careless enough to let a rangy lot of mountain bandits and a foreigner overcome him and rob him of his dignity.

And Sano had known. Sano had known. All this time and Sano never said a word.

Betrayal. Embarrassment. Shame.

Sano had known and kept the secret. Sano had pressed him into the very bed he sat within the shadow of, and done the same to him. That's all he could recall of the event. That single moment of clarity when physical act and memory collided and he'd panicked and tried to stop it and been too drunk or Sano too determined for it to work.

Kenshin pressed his forehead against his knees, trembling, trying very hard to separate past from present. There had been more than that. He knew there had been more than that moment of panic. He was reasonable enough, even in his frenzy, to realize that Sano was no rapist. He was reasonable enough to fathom that even drunk, he was no easy target. Which meant - - which meant that he'd had a hand in it. Which meant - - oh, gods - - that he'd betrayed more than one vow and this one willingly.

"Kao - -" His lips froze on her name. He couldn't even utter it, so bitterly had he shamed himself and her. He hadn't meant to. Oh, he truly hadn't meant to. Had no notion of how he'd been drawn so far afield. Other than - - than the fact that it was Sano - - and Sano had always made him do and think things that ran contrary to what seemed proper. Even before he'd looked on her as anything other than a young woman who needed protection - - Sano had gotten under his skin with his attitude and his humor, his youth and his utter fearlessness and his lack of abashedness of putting hands on a body, or flinging a long arm around shoulders and hauling a man close enough to feel the heat of his body. And when Sano had gone - - he had taken a great chunk of the light with him and great chunk of the joy and the heat and perhaps that had been a good thing, because an honest man raising a family didn't need the distraction or the temptation. In whatever forms they offered themselves.

Oh, what had he done? Nausea rose with alarming suddenness and he lurched to his feet and towards the chamber pot and emptied the contents of his stomach there. Wove his way unsteadily back to the bed after that, miserable and still sick, the room swimming with vicious tenacity. He flopped down and lay there, atop the sheets, the room humid and warm and spinning around him. One of the large, soft, goose feather stuffed pillows offered some comfort, though it smelled faintly of Sano.

What was the worse crime on Sano's part, keeping the fact of what the bandits had done a secret when a man had a right to know such a thing - - or laying him himself when he was so drunk he hadn't the wit to realize the implications. Strangely enough, the act in and of itself bothered him not half so much as the sense of betrayal it brought with it.

Kaoru and Kenji trust in him betrayed without a second thought. Had he thought of them at all? Of her? He was quite certain he hadn't, or he'd not have allowed the situation to progress.

Kenshin phased out soon after and came back to himself, hot and sweaty, the noonday sun slanting in from the window with not a bit of breeze to cool it. He was marginally more clear headed with a few hours hangover induced sleep behind him. Marginally more capable of remembering bits and pieces of what had transpired last night. He blushed pink and sat there, forehead pressed to knees, groaning in acute embarrassment at the singular memory of himself very adamantly trying to rip Sano's clothes from his body.

At the time, it had seemed the thing to do. At the time, getting to Sano's skin - - all of Sano's skin - - had been his adamant, single-minded goal. One had to admit - - reluctantly and through a red haze of embarrassment - - that the memories of it, easing their way back now that his head was not pounding quite so alarmingly, were tinged with a great sense of arousal. Even now and things stirred rebelliously when he recalled the moment when Sano's mouth had drifted down and found his - - no, no, no!

He had to forcefully steer thought away from that avenue. Had to recall discipline and will power and simple common sense. Taking pleasure from the memory was not the way to redemption. He didn't know if there was a method for that. It was done and there was no denying it. He'd been foolish enough and weak enough to let himself slip and now had to deal with it.

It occurred to him that she didn't have to know. It would be so much easier to just forget it and pretend it hadn't happened - - but there was the insurmountable problem of Sano. And Sano couldn't just be forgotten and Kenshin knew, all simple solutions aside, that he was not that good a liar and that the secret would eat him up inside until he was rotten and sick.

So he'd talk to her, when they were back home and rely on her capacity for forgiveness, for assuredly, it was greater than his own.

Sano was a bigger problem and the one presently closest at hand, Sano being Sano and not level headed and not prone to reason and not likely to forget things like sleights and nights of drink induced passion. What had he said to him when he'd first woken, disoriented and filled with the imagery of the nightmare that had driven him from sleep? Most certainly nothing gentle - - if Sano's hasty departure was any indication. Kenshin couldn't recall the exchange. He recalled the pain of glass piercing his flesh and the panic and very little else.

Kenshin sat there, chewing his lip, focusing very hard on remembering what he'd said to chase Sano out that morning - - but all that really came to mind were remembrances of the nightmare that was based very solidly in reality and he shied away from that with a passion, not ready to deal with that particular newly awakened information just yet.

The sun was far past the noonday position, indicating he'd slept the morning away, immersed in the throes of hangover. Present troubles aside, there were other things to be checked on. The ship for one and how far along the repairs were coming. If they were ahead of schedule, he'd hate to be left in the dark and miss the ride and doubted very much Saitou would make much of an effort to track him down to relay the information.

His hakama and gi were cleaned and pressed, but the sweltering humidity made him think twice about donning them. What he'd worn yesterday had been by far cooler and the pieces of it were handily strewn within hands reach on the end of the bed and upon the floor next to it. He blushed and took a moment to compose himself, before scooping up the loose trousers and pulling them on.

He ate a very simple breakfast of ripe fruit bought from a vendor on the way to the docks and found the ship easily from the workmen swarming the deck, fastening the new mast in place. It seemed far along to being finished, from his estimation, but he readily admitted to no expertise in the area and went to seek out one of the mates to discover the new time of departure. He found Saitou instead, lounging on the dock, smoking, conversing with an islander in the uniform of either the local militia or the police. Saitou saw Kenshin and said a low word to his companion and the man nodded, walking off into the lightly populated dockside.

"Making friends already?" Kenshin asked without smiling, not trusting Saitou or Saitou's motives in the least.

Saitou lifted a brow at him, dark eyes sweeping up and down his body.

"You look like a teenaged girl on the way to work the fields, in that."

Kenshin returned the flat stare with an emotionless one of his own. "When is the ship leaving?"

Saitou shrugged. "Tonight. If all goes well."

"Ahead of schedule. Were you planning on telling me?"

Saitou flicked ash between their feet and smiled that humorless smile of his. "I trusted you'd find out. And if you didn't --... " Saitou waved the hand with the cigarette. "-... oh, well."

Kenshin nodded, irritated and trying to keep it off his face. All he needed was Saitou getting the better of him to make this day perfect. "I'll remember that, next time you need something from me."

"And that would be ... when exactly?"

"What time tonight?"

"An hour after dusk, when the tides go out."

"Fine." Kenshin turned to leave, mentally calculating how much time he had until the ship sailed. Saitou's voice stopped him in his tracks.

"So you and Sagara had a little spat." It wasn't a question.

Kenshin blinked, and turned, staring suspiciously at the taller man.

"How do ... why do you say?"

"He was by earlier. Got the remainder of his possessions from the cabin. Said something along the lines of finding other passage ... with better company. I assume the two of you had some sort of disagreement."

"Where ... did he say he was going?" Kenshin ground out, fighting the rising nausea.

"He didn't."

"And you didn't ask?"

Saitou smiled and inclined his head. "When good fortune smiles . . ."

Kenshin swore under his breath, spinning and stalking away. A few hours to find Sano and try to deal with this problem they'd gotten themselves into. Oh, he most sorely did not wish to loose Sano to this. Most certainly did not want to track down and face the Englishman and whatever forces he had at his beck and call with only Saitou to rely on. He needed Sano in this. He needed Sano to protect his back and his interests should something happen to him. He trusted Sano with everything that was precious to him - - with getting Kaoru and Kenji back if he couldn't.

He needed for Sano not to hate him for something he couldn't quite recall saying. He needed a few precious moments to think and he didn't think he would get them.



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