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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn


Chapter Seventeen


Sano was angry. Furious. Indignant. As pissed off as he could easily remember being.

It was easier to bear than being embarrassed. Most anything was easier to swallow than feeling the fool. So he did what he always had done when his dignity was on the line, he worked himself into a lather of rage and went looking for trouble.

And found it. Oh, there was no problem finding a bit of conflict in this volatile port city, what with the natives uptight over the Spanish government and the Spanish worked up over the American's trying to muscle their way into this lucrative Asian port.

Sano found a barfight the first tavern he stopped in. He kicked a fair amount of ass before high tailing it out of there before the authorities got there to break it up. The second tavern proved less violent and all he got was a few decent drinks and a whore in his lap trying to weasel a little coin from him. If he'd have had enough to appease her, he would have gladly taken her upstairs and spent an hour or two proving what a man he was - - with a woman under him instead of a fucking high-strung, temperamental samurai.

Oh, fuck - - but he'd fouled things up good and proper. Should have known better. Should have figured it would backfire. He was a fool - - there, he'd admitted it - - for letting all those weeks of - - what, lust? Longing? Childish infatuation over Kenshin lead him into something so damned stupid. So damned irrevocable. Just because Kenshin had been forced from necessity to rely on him - - to depend on him instead of the other way around - - it didn't mean he was ready to jump into bed with him. It shouldn't have meant anything more than one friend relying on the other and he - - he had managed to twist it somehow.

Of course, Kenshin had been the one to jump him, not the other way around. Sano remembered that with crystal clarity. He might have been thinking about it for weeks on end - - but damned if Kenshin hadn't been the one to initiate it. Damned annoying little tease to draw a man into a compromising situation - - to engage in it wholeheartedly and then cry bloody murder when it was said and done. Like Sano was responsible for what Kenshin decided to do when he was drunk past all hope of coherency.

To hell with him. Forever. And forever was probably how it was going to be, because a man didn't just shrug something like that off. A man just didn't wake up after fucking another man - - a friend - - and pretend it hadn't happened. They'd never forget it, either one of them and Sano lamented that - - amidst the anger that kept him from tears.

He found a game, but his luck had turned and he lost what little coin he'd had left and more and had to fight his way out of that situation, with a half dozen angry natives wanting to take the money out of his hide. He showed them he was no easy pickings and went on his way, penniless now, and desolate. He had one more night paid up at the inn, before he'd be out on the streets, but he wasn't prepared to go back yet, just in case Kenshin went there to get his stuff before the ship sailed. If Sano didn't find work on a ship, he'd be in deep shit, with no one here to weasel a meal out of, or a place to sleep.

A pack of native bully boys tried to rob him, as he was stalking through a questionable section of town. As if he had anything worth stealing. It was the best luck he'd had all day, and the best chance to truly release frustration. He left them moaning in the alley, and after rifling their pockets found himself a few coin richer.

He went straight to a tavern to spend his newfound wealth on booze and food. He was shoveling down rice and steamed vegetables when Kenshin found him. Just came up on him without a sound and stood there uncertainly until Sano happened to look up and notice him.

Sano's gut clenched, his fists did around the chopsticks. One snapped, the ends falling into his bowl. He hadn't expected to see Kenshin. Really, he hadn't. It was like a physical blow.

"What the hell do you want?"

"Sano - - we need to talk."

"Fuck talk. Don't you have a ship to catch?"

"Not yet. Listen, I just want to - -"

"I don't want to hear it! You said everything that needs saying, so why the hell are you here bothering me now? Go the fuck away. Go find your wife! I've got other plans."

"Sano - - I'm sorry."

"For what?" Sano growled. Oh, he wanted to hit him. Wanted to smash his fist straight into Kenshin's regretful, scarred face. "There's nothing to be sorry for. Nothing happened. Understand? Nothing - - happened."

If he said it enough, maybe it'd turn out to be true. Kenshin's eyes flickered down the bar, to the other patrons, who were casting them wary looks.

"That's not true." Kenshin said softly.

"No?" Sano sneered. The blood was pounding so hard behind his eyes, it made his vision waver.

"Will you talk with me? Somewhere where we won't draw a crowd."

"I don't want to talk to you. And you don't want anything to do with me, remember?"

"Sano - -" Kenshin's hand hovered over his shoulder. Kenshin thought better of touching him. For a number of reasons, all of them valid. "Please, Sano. I need you to talk with me."

"Why?" Suspiciously.

Kenshin just stared, hair falling into his eyes, mouth set in a worried frown. He took a step away, then another, turning finally and walking out. Sano sat there and swore. He should just let Kenshin wait - - he wouldn't stay for long and endanger his chances of catching that ship. He'd take off and leave Sano in peace and that would be that. But, even when he hated him, Kenshin had a draw on him that was irrefutable.

Sano threw back the last of his drink and rose, scowling at the looks that followed him. Out into the afternoon, looking one way, then the other to catch sight of Kenshin. There he was, standing at the edge of the tavern, at the mouth of the narrow alley between buildings. Sano shoved his hands into his pockets and shuffled over.

"All right. What do you want? I don't have all day to fool around, you know?"

"Saitou said you were going to find passage on another ship?"

"Yeah, so?"

"Because of - - last night - - this morning? Of what I - - said - - did?" A faint blush stained Kenshin's pale cheeks, a line marred the space between his brows.

Sano shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe I'm just tired of this trip."

"I don't remember everything I said, Sano. Obviously, you do. I was upset - - startled. I didn't expect to - -" He couldn't finish it. Just couldn't get the words past the embarrassed lump in his throat.

"You said you were going to kill me if I didn't get out. You acted like it was my fault. Obviously, you don't remember shit."

Kenshin blinked. "I wouldn't! You know I wouldn't. I didn't mean it, Sano."

"You did at the time. If you'd have had a sword, I bet money I wouldn't be standing here talking to you now."

"Then you don't know me at all, if you believe that. I was just - - upset."

"Yeah, from waking up and finding out you'd just fucked me." There, he said it, plain as day and just as bold. Maybe he expected to floor Kenshin with the bald truth. Maybe he was just looking for a little honest emotion to cross Kenshin's face. Something he could latch onto and vindicate his own indignation. He wanted a little disgust. A little hatred of Kenshin's own.

He got anger. He got a finger stabbed in his chest and Kenshin up in his face, pissed off of a sudden.

"No, from waking up and remembering that those bastards up in the mountains had fucked me, you ass!"

Sano stared, off balance. He didn't honestly think he'd ever heard Kenshin use that particular term before. And there is was, even more blatant truth from Kenshin. Blatant and painful and stark and Sano would just as well have erased it from memory. But Kenshin wasn't about to let it go. It was new to him and it was as terrible and bloody a memory, no doubt, as any atrocity he'd witnessed during the revolution.

"And you never told me! You knew - - you had to know and you kept it from me. Why?" Kenshin hissed at him.

It knocked the anger out of him. It made him take a step backwards, trying to gather the wits to answer.

"I took care of them. The one's that did it." He muttered.

Kenshin opened his mouth. Shut it. Turned his head and took several breaths. "That's not what I asked. I asked why you never told me."

"Because - - because you had enough problems - - because I thought maybe if you didn't remember - - that maybe that was for the best."

"And you think you know what's best for me." That came out low and laced with sarcasm.

"Maybe. Maybe at the time - - yeah." Sano had to defend his silence. Had to save face and pride when all he really wanted to do was crawl away from this subject and this confrontation. What a coward he was.

"Well, you don't know as much as you think, Sanosuke."

How the hell had Kenshin managed to turn the tables on him. Managed to suck the righteous anger out of Sano and take it for himself. "Fine." Sano said, done with it. "I don't know shit. Sorry. You don't have to worry about me making assumptions any more."

Sano started walking, shoving his hands in his pockets, staring blindly at the faces he passed. Devoid of destination. He didn't hear Kenshin attempt to follow. All of that said and they hadn't managed to address the real source of embarrassment. Not really. Kenshin had skimmed right over it, going for the old wounds instead of the new. If Kenshin wanted to pretend it hadn't happened - - then fine.

"Sano - -"

Kenshin had slipped up on him, all silent and unobtrusive in his slim black clothing. Sano flinched, swearing under his breath. "Make some goddamned noise when you walk."

"This conversation wasn't supposed to go like this - - it wasn't." Kenshin ignored the complaint. "I'm sorry."

"Fuck you."

"Sano - -"

"Go catch your damned ship."

"I need you."

Oh, that made Sano's heart skip a beat. Made the blood pound a little harder in his head. He managed not to waver in his pace or his foreword glare. "You don't need me."

"I do. I can't do this without you." Kenshin held up a bandaged hand. Not thick bandages anymore, for the wounds were fully scabbed over and the scars beginning to get shiny with new skin, just enough clean cloth to keep dirt and grime from impeding the healing process. But his fingers were still stiff and his grip still weak.

"What, you need somebody to carry your stuff? Get Saitou."

"No. You know - - - no, Sano. I don't trust Saitou. I trust you."

Sano stopped, grinding his teeth. Well and truly fed up with the banter and the evasion. He'd never skirted saying anything that needed saying in the past, why was he keeping it bottled up now?

"Damnit, Kenshin, you want to just pretend it never happened? You want to just go on with things like they were before. There's no getting around what you and I did last night. Its not going to go away. I'm not going to forget it as much as I'd like to and you sure as hell aren't no matter what you pretend."

"Sano - - " oh, he was distraught now, round eyed and pale and wanting - - very badly wanting, Sano thought, Sano to shut his mouth and put on a facade. Sano wasn't going to do it. Sano refused to do it. Absolutely refused to make things neat and clean and pat for him.

"I don't want to hear it, Kenshin. We fucked. You and me. It might have been a mistake, but it happened. Shit, you might have been drunk enough that you actually thought I was Kaoru - - I don't know - - but I imagine you figured it out by the end." He had to add a wicked grin to that last, even though humor was the last emotion he felt.

"I knew." Kenshin said softly, and the eyes flickered down, off to the side - - Kenshin being a coward when he hardly ever backed down from anything - - whether he was afraid of it or not.

It caught Sano off guard, that admission. He hadn't expected it. He'd given Kenshin an out and he hadn't taken it.


"You're taller."

Sano chewed his lip, trying to decide whether that had been said in humor or not. It was hard to tell with Kenshin.

"Yeah, well - - it was a mistake, all the same."

"A terrible mistake." Kenshin agreed.

"Okay. Okay - - then just let me walk away from it."

"I can't. I need you."

"Too fucking bad."

"Sano - - I don't hate you. I don't think less of you - - I don't blame you."

"Look me in the eye and say that."

Kenshin's patience was usually boundless. He hissed in frustration now.

"Yeah, I get it." Sano said and he thought he did finally, and it hurt. "You have a use for me. I serve a purpose, so you'll overlook the - - indiscretion. Hell, maybe you even fucked me because you figured it was a good way to keep me dogging your heels. You didn't really have to."

"No . . ."

"No? No? Then you were so damned drunk that it didn't matter what you got into bed with, is that it? Doesn't matter either way. I'm finished. Give me a little credit for a some pride, if you don't mind."

"Sano - -"

Sano lifted a hand and Kenshin shut up. Just clamped his teeth tight and kept his silence. Sano didn't know if he got satisfaction out of that or not. Didn't know much of anything save that he had to turn his back on Kenshin and walk away other wise he'd do something entirely too embarrassing and at the moment, his bruised and battered ego wasn't up to enduring embarrassment along with all the other pain that made his gut churn and his heart ache.

Better just to walk away.

Yes, Kenshin had been drunk last night. Farther gone that he could recall being in a very, very long time. He'd never had a head for it, so he'd never indulged much, survival being more important for the most part, than the oblivion brought on by sake or wine or beer or whatever spirit his circumstance allowed him to partake of. He had been too drunk last night by far - - but not that drunk. Even at his lowest, Kenshin was never that far gone. He'd known who he was with and what he was about. Oh, surely he'd known that - - he just hadn't cared.

Looking back, with all the other emotional shrapnel out of the way, the drink hadn't fogged his mind as much as made certain things imminently clear. He'd wanted Sano and wanted him badly. And he'd gotten him.

Loyalty and embarrassment and obligation aside, the drink had simply freed up his inhibitions enough to act on an impulse that had been dogging him for - - how long, now? He wasn't quite sure. Dwelling on it now, trying to hash it out and understand it, wasn't going to help him stop Sano from leaving. That would take something else.

Sano's long stride was taking him out of view, swallowed by the crowd and the bend in the avenue. Kenshin hurried to catch up and found himself dogging Sano's trail back towards the hotel. He slowed a bit, gauging that Sano would be more likely retreat into the privacy the room offered if he didn't think Kenshin was on his heels. Sano wouldn't want to be cornered. Sano was skittish enough at the moment to prefer the safety of crowds and strangers to four blind walls. So he let him go in one his own, and gave him enough time to climb the narrow stair and get into that room that smelled of oil and sex and sweat.

Then he followed, silent as a wraith upon the stairs and the creaky hall and tried the door which Sano hadn't bothered to lock.

"God!!" Sano swore, exasperated and distraught around the eyes until he got his emotions under control and managed to bring back the anger. "Will you leave me the fuck alone, Kenshin."

"I can't.' Kenshin shut the door and stood with his back against it, hands pressed flat against the wood, fingers stretched out so that taught tendons and muscles sent shivers of pain up his arms. Sometimes a body needed a little pain to clear the head. He took a breath - - another - - and whispered.

"You're my friend - - no matter what - - you're my friend - - my truest friend - - and I don't know what happened between us - - or how - - but I don't regret it - - and I don't hold it against you - - and I won't lose you over it."

"Like you have the only say?" Sano sneered, fists clenched, standing there spay legged in the center of the room defensively, as if he expected attack.

"I love you." There. He'd said it. It was as true a statement as any he'd made. As true as when he said it to Kaoru; as true as any vow he'd ever made to himself.

Sano stood there, wide eyed, flabbergasted - - as if Kenshin had hit him hard enough in the gut to knock the wind from him.

"What?" it was weakly asked, a strangled, shocked question.

Having said it once, Kenshin wasn't sure he could get it out again. "You heard me, Sano," He stared at the floor between his feet and Sano's, at the tiny slivers of broken glass that glinted on the floor. He felt lightheaded of a sudden and lost - - for somewhere along the way he'd come to the conclusion - - maybe between the street and this room, or the doorway and Sano's shocked face - - that there was no price he would be unwilling to pay to keep Sano's company.

"I don't think anybody's ever - - actually said that to me before." Sano said very softly - - Kenshin could hardly hear him. He looked up and Sano's face was drained of blood, as white as Kenshin's own.

"No?" It wasn't hard to believe. It had been a hard world Sano had grown up in. That they both had - - strewn with strife and revolution and violence - - "I'm sorry - -" I've loved you for years. But that didn't sound right, did it? A man just didn't say that to another man. Confusion and desperation were making his heart race and his hands shake. He wanted Sano's face to melt into that lazy, sly expression he wore so often - - He wanted Sano to nod and accept it and to come over and clap him on the shoulder and say that he understood and that things were okay between them - - even if they weren't, really.

He wanted he fantasy, because he'd found, the last few years that living the fantasy was so much more pleasant and so much easier than stark reality. Living the fantasy and ignoring the rest had been what had gotten him into this situation to begin with.

Sano did come over, careful and slow and stood with his toes almost touching Kenshin's, his shadow blocking out the light from the curtained window.

"You mean it?"

Sigh. Oh, he was certain by the roiling nausea in his gut that he did. He couldn't voice it again - - not yet. So he nodded, swallowing back the bile.

"It's fucked up, isn't it?" Sano lifted a hand, callused fingertips tracing the path of the pale scar on Kenshin's cheek.

"Yes. I'm sorry."

"S'not your fault." Sano said, suddenly generous ,and slid closer, until his sandals were touching Kenshin's. He pulled Kenshin against him and rested his chin on the top of Kenshin's head. And there was the sound of his heart again and the smell of his skin and Kenshin squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his forehead against Sano's shoulder to block it out.

If this was what Sano needed to forgive - - to regain his sense of dignity - - to shake off the embarrassment - - then it was a fair price. Tentatively he slid his hands around Sano's waist, up a lean back to rangy, broad shoulders. He pressed his lips to the hollow of Sano's neck.

"You'll come with me?"

Sano nodded, breathless, voiceless, easy to forgive at the right urging - - at least his body at any rate.

"This - - this isn't - - just so I'll help with - - them? Not that I don't want to - - and all - - " he finally found the words - - and he couldn't utter Kaoru's name any easier than Kenshin could.

"No." Kenshin murmured. And it might have been true. Or it might not have. He didn't know. "Sano - - we can't miss the ship."

"Ship? Oh - - right. Ship."

"So, you're coming?" He had to clarify, since Sano was still standing there, warm and solid against him, body quite adamantly decisive and face absolutely devoid of direction. Kenshin backed up the half a step it took to get his back to the door, so he could get a better look at Sano's face - - so he could nudge forward progress, which wasn't going to happen if he didn't get Sano's hands off his body and his own mind off the way Sano smelled.

"Yeah. I'm coming." Sano shook his head, and stepped back of a sudden, one big step that put all the distance in the world between them. He rubbed nervously at the back of his neck, half a tentative grin on his lips.

"Good." Kenshin said, rearranging his thoughts with a little twinge of effort, back into a coherent whole. "I can't wait to tell Saitou the good news. He'll be so pleased."

Sano smirked, back in good humor - - or faking it admirably, and said. "Oh, please let me be the one to tell him. I haven't had a good laugh yet, today."



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