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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

They left Manila to sail around the islands that made up the Philippines towards the larger islands that made up the collected territories of the Dutch East Indies. They'd dock briefly at one of the eastern ports of Borneo before sailing around the islands and out into the vastness of the Indian Ocean.

So very far from home. Funny how he didn't miss it. What was there to miss, really? Kaoru and Kenji weren't there. Sano wasn't. All the really important things were either ahead of him - - or here - - on this creaking ship - - so what was there to miss?

Kenshin sat on the quarter-deck, with his back to the neatly coiled rope at the base of one of the masts, absorbing the sun and the mild breeze and the sight and sound a no less than two dozen gulls that flapped noisily about the ship. They'd come from the coast of one of the islands, though land itself was out of visual range. The sailors tossed them chunks of bread now and then, saying they were good luck. As if luck could be gotten from a raucous bird. As if a man didn't have to make his own luck.

Sano had a tremendous amount. But it came in unpredictable spurts. He'd had it last night, when they'd just made it to the ship before the gangplanks pulled up and the anchor raised. Saitou hadn't been pleased to see him. Saitou had actually looked surprised, if such a thing were possible, for those first few seconds after Sano had sauntered up the gangplank after Kenshin - - which in and of itself hadn't been a particular problem, save that Sano was feeling full of himself and Sano had opened his mouth and kept it open when a wise man would have shut it and somehow or another, while Kenshin was checking on the status of his sword and the rest of his few belongings left shipboard, Sano and Saitou had gotten into something more than a verbal argument.

Kenshin had come back up on deck to the crew's yelling and men scampering and crying of 'man overboard', and of ropes attached to life preservers thrown over the side and into the dark ocean below. And there had been Saitou standing by the rail casually sucking on a cigarette, as calm as he might be if say, it had been the shimmer of a fish on the waves below instead of a man.

They'd pulled Sano up, dripping and sputtering and furious and it had taken Kenshin and three of the sailors to wrestle him below deck and away from Saitou. Kenshin got a bloody nose for his efforts, along with a few other choice bruises, but at least Sano didn't go overboard again, which was what probably would have happened if he'd actually gotten close enough to Saitou to try and lay a hand.

So Sano had been grumpy all the rest of the night, choosing silence as a salve for his ego. It hadn't stopped Saitou from coming back to the cabin, as if nothing had happened and settling in his bunk, with his cigarette and a book and a complete disregard for the black looks Sano cast his way. A man could truly despise Saitou at times - - and at others respect the absolute cool he exuded. He never flinched, he never gave way - - his facade - - if it was a facade at all - - had always been faultless.

When Sano had left, not so cool and not so detached, in a fit of anger, Kenshin had sat there, back against the wall of his own bunk and said softly.

"What were you trying to do? Drown him?"

"Sagara's a strong swimmer. He probably would have made it back to shore."

Kenshin narrowed his eyes, quite suddenly afflicted by a surge of hot anger, and anger was no way to deal with Saitou. "You play with his life and I won't have it."

Saitou looked up from his book, one narrow brow arching. "He plays with his life. If he acts like a fool, then sooner or later he'll find the end of one."

"He's not a fool. He's brash - - and young and you know this."

"Perhaps. It doesn't mean I suffer him when he gets in my face."

"Learn." Kenshin said softly.

"Is that - - a threat?" Saitou seemed amused. Perhaps he had a right to be, with Kenshin so miserably out of fighting shape. They both knew that Kenshin would never be the swordsman he had in the revolution and that had little enough to do with the injuries that Winter had caused. But perhaps, after fifteen years, neither was Saitou.

"Take it as you will. But keep in mind, Sano's not incompetent - - he has value, whether you'd admit it or not and we're short on allies in this. Foolish to disregard the ones we have."

"I thought the two of you had parted ways." Saitou said, slowly taking a drag from the dregs of his cigarette. "Sagara seemed adamant of it."

A man had to be grateful for the dim light of the single flickering lantern next to Saitou. A man had to lower his head and let loose hair slid forward to hide the stain on his cheeks from all too sharp eyes.

"As I said - - he's brash. Easy to temper and easy to forgive."

"What exactly, did you do to require forgiveness, Kenshin?"

"There was a misunderstanding." He said softly, for not to have answered would have roused more speculation.

"Hummm." Saitou mused, then turned back to his book.

That had been the first night back on shipboard, but Sano was over his sulk the next day, if not his agitation with Saitou. He came around while Kenshin was watching the gulls and stood at the rail, the tail of his coat flapping, revealing the taut line of his lower back. A man ought not his eyes be drawn to that intriguing line of flesh, even if he'd seen more - - not seemly to be caught staring in the light of day, when he was sober and had control of his wits. No matter what he said to Sano - - or insinuated to salve Sano's wounds - - there were other considerations to weigh. There were the shreds of honor to gather - - and loyalty to a woman. And he was damned old enough not to let the whims of his body dictate the path of his actions, even if he couldn't keep his eyes off of Sano. Wasn't he?

Sano turned about, leaning back against the rail, dark, black rimmed eyes fixed on Kenshin, wide mouth twitching with the hint of a smile, as if he knew of the internal struggle and found it amusing.

"You're in a better mood." Kenshin said, because he had to say something to ease the thickness of the air.

Sano cocked his head and shrugged, muscles playing under smooth flesh, sunlight glinting off the shining disarray of windtossed hair. Ah, gods, but Kenshin was lost - - surely, surely lost to be so fascinated by small details. He dropped his head onto his knees and thought horrible things about himself and his will power and his common sense. He'd damn well known what to expect of Sano - - on this ship, in the aftermath of what had happened in Manila - - and had had every intention of holding firm control of the situation - - of steering Sano on a path of his choosing. He'd rationalized all of that before they'd even sat foot back on this ship - - come to the stark realization that he might have to give something to get what he needed - - which was Sano's presence and Sano's trust and Sano's loyalty. A cold, deliberate decision to be sure - - and one to feel regret over making - - but it hadn't swayed him in that room - - not with Kaoru's life in the balance. But now - - at this moment - - this painfully casual moment - - he had the frightening premonition that rationalization and reason were flighty things indeed when it came to Sano and that his ability to steer anything would be tenuous at best. Most especially when there was an ache between his legs and a flutter in his belly just sitting there, caught in a silent exchange.

"You okay? You look pale." Sano finally spoke.

"I'm fine. Where did you sleep last night?"

Sano shrugged. "Played dice with the crew and passed out on the floor in crew's quarters. They were okay with it. Better the floor than that narrow-eyed bastard's company."

"Don't fight with him. He doesn't play fair." And he's better than you, but Kenshin would never say that out loud, unless he wanted contention.

"You taking his side?" Sano's eyes flashed.

"No." Kenshin held up a hand. "I'd just rather you stayed out of the water."

Sano's face tensed up, on the verge of anger, very much embarrassed at that painful memory. "Yeah, well - - he tricked me, the dirty bastard."

"You made the first move." Kenshin said flatly.

"Who told you that? Saitou?" Sano curled his fists indignantly.

"The other passenger who saw." The only other Japanese passenger who had timidly approached Kenshin afterwards and asked if 'the young man' was well after his tumble over the railing.

"Oh." Sano deflated, having no argument there. "Well - - he was asking for it."

That said, Sano ambled over and sat down against the coil of rope with Kenshin. "You gonna sit out here all day?"

"It's a nice day. I thought perhaps I might practice a little on deck."

Sano gave him an odd look. A questioning one. "I don't think I've ever seen you practice before, Kenshin."

Kenshin smiled wryly, holding up a hand and flexing the fingers. His hand was stiff, hard to curl into a fist. It twinged trying it, but he did it anyway. His grip would be tenuous on a hilt, but it would never improve unless he forced it. And he hadn't much time.

"These hands need work."

"Okay." Sano said. "A little work out sounds good. I'll help."

Kenshin lifted a brow. "That's a very kind offer, but - -"

"I know, I know." Sano lifted a hand. "Everybody knows the swords not my thing, but we're working on your grip here. That I can help with."


Like he'd said to Kenshin, Sano wasn't a swordsman, or anything close to it, but he'd been around enough of them - - the really good ones - - to know when a man's center was off. And Kenshin was off his. It had been hard to tell, back in Sendai when Kenshin had taken down the Yakuza boss's bodyguard, but standing on the deck of the ship, with no distractions save for the swell of waves and the creak of the ship - - it was easier to see just how badly Kenshin was off his game. Whether it was the recent injuries or years of playing house-husband in Tokyo, Sano didn't know. But he wanted to help, so he played whacking board for Kenshin, himself gripping a makeshift sword fashioned out of a thick bit of board. It wasn't a sparring match by any means. It was simply Kenshin seeing how much punishment he could withstand by the constant jarring of bone and muscle and flesh that came with every impact against Sano's wooden weapon. He was sweating after a half hour, and pale as snow, but his eyes were narrowed with determination and Sano's wooden sword dented and chipped along the length from the impact with the dull side of the Sakabatou. After an hour, Sano noticed a stain of blood on the wrappings of his right hand.

Now, Sano was a big believer in the 'no pain, no gain' philosophy, after all, everything of worth he'd ever learned in his life, had come with a great deal of effort and agony - - but this had gone far enough for one day. Megumi had told him, before they'd left, not to let Kenshin overdue it. She'd entrusted him with responsibility to keep Kenshin from harming himself, Megumi knowing Kenshin well enough to guess that he'd push himself past the point of good sense in his endeavor to save Kaoru and Kenji. The fact that she'd had this serious conversation with Sano, on the walk from the dojo to the docks, had been, in and of itself, a flattering thing. Megumi had never made bones over the fact that she thought Sano irresponsible and irascible and Sano had never gone to the trouble to prove her wrong.

Well, it was very likely that he might actually be one of those two things - - but a man never much liked a woman to point it out - - and a man had to admit to trying diligently to live up to her requests when she flew in the face of her convictions and placed responsibility at his feet. Not that he wouldn't have looked after Kenshin on his own - - it was just that she'd given him more specific things to attend to. Things that Kenshin hadn't been in much of a state of mind to stand still and listen to, as aflutter as he'd been over the prospect of boarding that ship and taking sail after wife and child. Things like how to properly clean the wounds and make sure infection didn't start under the scabs and keeping the bandages clean and watching for bleeding and so on. She'd given him a pot of herbal salve and a box of clean bandages and for the most part he'd kept a close enough eye on Kenshin.

"That's enough." Sano said, sitting the end of his stick on the deck.

"No." Kenshin said, with that narrow eyed look on his face that said that his concentration was focused and unwavering.

"Your hand's bleeding." Sano pointed out. "Bet it hurts like hell."

"Go find dinner." Kenshin suggested, a parchment thin attempt to rid himself of Sano's presence.

"Nope." Sano stepped up close. Closer than a man ought to another man with a naked blade in his hand and that look in his eye. He put his hand over Kenshin's wrist and the other over the hilt of the sword between Kenshin's fingers and the guard. Kenshin blinked up at him in surprise, a little shocked at the indignity of Sano daring to touch his sword when he was in the midst of trying to use it.

"You've got blood on the hilt." Sano said, prying Kenshin's fingers off. Kenshin relented, drawing in a soft, little hiss of breath as he tried to straighten his fingers. "Miss Megumi said not to overdue it."

Kenshin opened his mouth - - shut it - - not happy with the blood or the warning.

Sano grinned down at him, sword still in hand. "Hey, I'm not being all girlish about it, or anything - - it's just that hands take a while to heal - - believe me, I know, and if you push it - - you know, mess things up in the process - - it takes twice as long. So use some of that patience you always used to tell me to practice and let it rest for today."

A pause, then a slight inclination of Kenshin's head. He held out his hand for the sword and Sano gave it to him. Kenshin frowned at the blood on the hilt, then slid it home into the scabbard.

"C'mon." Sano tugged at Kenshin's sleeve. "Let's go rebandage that, then we can both get dinner."

The fates were smiling on him. Saitou wasn't in the cabin, nor had been for a while, if the relative freshness of the air were any indication. Oh, the cabin smelled well enough of stale smoke, but no faint cloud of it hung at the ceiling indicating recent exhalation.

Sano knelt on the floor between Kenshin's knees and unwrapped the old bandages. The scab on his palm had cracked and was seeping blood. Little wonder with all the jarring impacts. Sano washed it and dabbed salve on, then rewrapped the hand with clean white bandages. The other hand was coming along better, but then, it was Kenshin's right hand that bore the brunt of the impact in swordplay.

"Here, let me see again." Sano opened up his palm, waiting, and after a beat, Kenshin laid his right hand there. Sano straightened the fingers, bending them back just a little, stretching tendons that had healed too tight. He used his thumb to massage the fleshy part of Kenshin's palm, avoiding the tender center and Kenshin winced and endured it until the stiffness and the pain must have eased and what Sano was about began to relax the cramps in his hand. He dropped his head and the hair not caught up in the tail at his neck slid forward, covering eyes and cheeks, leaving just a sliver of his pale face visible.

Sano retrieved the other hand and repeated the exercise. He should have been doing this for a while, working with Kenshin's hands in a way that Kenshin couldn't, before they healed the wrong way - - but it wasn't the sort of thing a man was comfortable with, taking another man's hands between his, gentle and intimate - - not without feeling awkward. It didn't feel so awkward now - - after he'd been in closer contact than palm against palm, fingertip against fingertip. He liked the feel of Kenshin's fingers, long and slender against his thicker digits. Even wounded, Kenshin's hands were graceful, the motions he made, the economy of movement.

He lifted the hand trapped in his up to his face, brushing the back of Kenshin's fingers along his jaw.

"Are you going to grow a beard?" Kenshin asked softly, head still lowered, eyes shadowed and hard to see from under the hair.

Sano grinned. His ability to grow facial hair was sporadic at best, but was getting better. Damned better than it was when he was 18, at least.

"Haven't shaved in the last few days. Been distracted. You think I'd look good with one?"

"Hnh." Kenshin pulled his hand gently from Sano's loose grasp. "I think - - and please don't take offense - - you'd look like a ruffian."

"I thought I was a ruffian?" Hard to take offense when he was between Kenshin's legs. He put a hand on Kenshin's thigh, between knee and hip and used to lever himself up off his heels and forward onto his knees. It put him at eye level and pressed close enough to Kenshin to feel the heat of his body.

Kenshin looked up, plum colored eyes wary through the concealing veil of bangs. He didn't quite edge away, but his body tensed, just a little. It made Sano wonder if he was having second thoughts. If those conciliatory things he'd spouted in the room back in Manila had been just that - - conciliatory and empty. He hadn't actually said he'd wanted Sano's hands on him again - - just that other - - those bone jarring, heart-wrenching, breath-taking words that Kenshin had refused to utter a second time. The first time had been enough.

"You okay?" Sano hadn't the grace to begin to know how to ask if Kenshin had meant those words. At the time he hadn't doubted. A man didn't utter such things unless he meant them - - did he? Especially an honest man. Kenshin wasn't a liar. He wasn't deceitful.

"I'm okay, Sano." Somberly said.

Sano didn't have much tact in him, or gentle manners when it came to certain things. He snaked a hand out and tangled in the hair caught up at the nape of Kenshin's neck, and swooped in to kiss him. Sober this time and lucid and needing desperately to see if it was the same. Kenshin didn't lift his hands, didn't open his mouth - - just sat there, placidly and let Sano's mouth work at discovering the shape and the texture of his lips - - like it was a chore that needed doing, that he didn't particularly like, but submitted to anyways. Sano would have believed that and taken it to heart like a blade through flesh, if he hadn't felt the growing stiffness between Kenshin's legs, trapped between their bellies, hot and insistent and utterly candid. That inspired him, that encouraged him to wrap an arm around Kenshin's waist and pull him forward to the very edge of the bunk, molding him firmly to Sano's body and Sano's eager erection. Kenshin made a sound then, an involuntary little moan and his lips parted giving Sano a way in, and tongues met and retreated and rushed in again to clash. Warm and moist and sweet. More so when Kenshin wound his arms round Sano's neck, fingers weeding across his shoulders and through his hair.

Oh, and wasn't that the nicest thing, right out in the light of day, and sober enough to appreciate it for what it was. Sano swelled even more with the acceptance, if that were possible. He lost his hold on patience and surged up, toppling the body against his backwards and trapping it between wall and bunk and his own weight. He thrust a hand between them, worming his fingers between the openings of Kenshin's clothing, trying to reach warm flesh. Found the soft, smooth skin of Kenshin's belly and worked his hand lower. Kenshin groaned and arched, wantonly spreading his thighs wider in a reflexive urge to give Sano better access and yet, a moment later, his hands began to push insistently against Sano's shoulders.

"Wait - - Sano - - wait." A breathless gasp, a moan as Sano squeezed him hard.

"For what?" Focus on anything but the body under his did not come easy. He had Kenshin's erection in his hand and that was not a thing that a man undertook with divided attention. He wanted badly to get the clothes off Kenshin or at least the pertinent ones.

"Sano, get off!" Kenshin pushed harder, twisting his hips to shift both their body weights. Sano lost balance and withdrew his hand hastily to try and save himself a fall. He wasn't quite fast enough, tangled as he was with Kenshin legs and Kenshin's clothing. He hit with a thump and sat there, glaring, an embarrassed flush heating his face.

"What the fuck did you do that for? You said it was okay." That was almost an accusation. Kenshin had, hadn't he? Sano knew he hadn't misunderstood that badly.

"Its the middle of the day, Sano," Kenshin said reasonably, a little flushed himself, his eyes more than a little dilated, his lips dark from Sano's kisses.

"So?"

"In a cabin we share with Saitou."

Saitou. That most hated name. Sano scowled, muttering obscenities to himself. Leave it to Kenshin to use common sense when the body dictated otherwise. If that was all it was.

"You sure, that's it?" A man had to ask.

Kenshin took a breath and the smile came back, pleasant and somewhat wry. "I have to admit, Sano, that I almost wish that it wasn't, really I do, but it is and I truly don't wish to have to explain things to Saitou."

As if things could be explained away. As if Sano could survive the utter humiliating indignity of that narrow-eyed bastard's smug look. The stiffness between his legs went abruptly limp at the very notion. Even nailing Kenshin good and proper - - on Saitou's bunk of all places - - wouldn't quite be worth what he'd have to endure if Saitou himself happened to walk in on the process. If only the damned door had a lock. Maybe something could be arranged. A chair against the knob - - trick wires in the hall outside - - perhaps even more accurately, charms against demons.


The days passed in relative boredom. Kenshin worked at the flexibility of his injured hands, sometimes with Sano's help, sometimes not. He disliked, Sano thought, practicing before witnesses. His disliked displays of skill or technique and more often than not, during the following days, went out in the dead of night, under the moon or the stars to practice on deck when there were fewer eyes open and wakeful enough to spy on him. It was one of those things that he wouldn't speak of, he'd just get that look he sometimes did, wry patience mixed with vague nuances of melancholy, and would either let his silence speak for him, or deftly change the subject. And Sano more often than not, was easily distracted. He had no desire, irritating as Kenshin's evasiveness could sometimes be, to pry into the things Kenshin wished to keep close to himself. Well, not all of the things, at any rate.

If Saitou happened by, Kenshin would stop altogether, and Saitou would smile that humorless smile of his and ask if he might lend a hand or two. He'd be happy to offer Kenshin a real workout, as opposed to what little inept assistance Sano could offer.

No, thank you very much, but I'll do fine on my own.

Narrow-eyed bastard. Inept, my ass.

You're weak on the right. Your stance is off. A toddler could get past your guard. Were Saitou's parting comments.

Kenshin scowled. Sano did, but not, one suspected, for the same reasons.

More days passed. Kenshin's grip grew stronger, though the scabs on his hand bled each night after his prolonged sessions. Though the bleeding grew marginally less.

Sano pursued his own interests in the cabin, directly after Saitou had left to go on deck and take his morning stroll. Amazing how a body had gone years without constantly craving the touch of another - - well, at least not so that it was the foremost focus of one's thoughts - - and now he couldn't get his mind off the idea of finding a bit of privacy with Kenshin so that he could assuage the cravings. Sex had always been fine and good. A need, just like food and warm clothing - - to be taken care of either by himself, which unfortunately was the case more often than not, or by the occasional woman made willing either by coin or charming banter.

He caught Kenshin as he was dressing, pressing him back against the cabin door - - a adequate enough barrier against casual interruption. Mouth over mouth, hands skimming down the lean body he crushed against the wood.

"Sano - - -" Kenshin gasped, when Sano broke from breath. "We've talked about this - - -"

"What? He's gone to do whatever it is he does every morning - - and he won't be back for an hour or so - - so no reason - - not - - to take advantage - -" He worked his way down Kenshin's jaw, to his neck, kissing, biting, licking. God, but he tasted good - - or maybe it was Sano's raging libido that made him seem so sweet.

"That's not the - - point - - I don't think." Kenshin gasped and shuddered when Sano pushed the lapel of his gi off his shoulder and nipped the indention between shoulder and collar bone.

"What is? Do you not want to?" Sano was a quarter focused on the question and three quarters focused on rubbing the growing itch in his pants against Kenshin's hip. Hard.

"Ummmm - - Its not that - - unhh!!" Kenshin's forehead dropped to Sano's shoulder with a solid thump as Sano's mouth found and fastened onto one small, taut nipple. His fingers dug at Sano's shoulders.

The noises he made as Sano dropped to his knees, working his way down Kenshin's lean, supple tummy were not quite coherent.

But he regained composure when Sano started fumbling with the cloth at his waist and planted his hands firmly on Sano's shoulders, pushing him back so that there was a space separating their bodies. Sano looked up, hands on the wall on either side of Kenshin's hips. Kenshin's eyes were very serious. Very intent.

"Sano - - this is not the place."

The flesh between Sano's legs twitched in disappointment. He experienced a distinct lurch in his gut. A little anger, a little resentment - - maybe a touch of fear.

"Is there ever going to be a place?"

Kenshin didn't answer. Just gave Sano a placating look, a gentle pat on the shoulder, that mutated into a little more as his fingers lingered on the skin at Sano's neck

"I think I'll go outside and sit in the sun. My hands are stiff from yesterday, so I thought I'd work with the ben wa balls for a while."

"Sure. Whatever." Sano sat back on his heels, giving Kenshin room to maneuver around him. Had he misunderstood? Had he so miserably misinterpreted what Kenshin had been trying to get across in the midst of that apology. Perhaps he had, in the midst of the emotional turbulence. Or maybe he hadn't - - and it was just Kenshin having second thoughts. Kenshin thinking about wives and honor and responsibility - - all those things that Sano snubbed his nose without hesitation when the situation called. Well, at least wives - - he liked to think he had a healthy grasp of honor. Maybe not the same sense of it that Kenshin had, but he practiced his own version, and his wasn't pricked at all by the notion of tumbling a married Kenshin and he didn't particularly care what Kaoru might think of it, if she ever got wind. Impressing Kaoru had never been high on his list of priorities. But a man had to admit that it was high on Kenshin's - - which meant that Sano had to be a little circumspect, even if it went against his nature - - and that Sano had to be patient and wily if he wanted to maneuver Kenshin into the position he wanted before they found wife and child - - because he didn't hold illusions that whatever it was they'd been playing at would last long after that. He honestly didn't think even his conscious would allow it, no matter how much Kaoru annoyed him.

"Sano, are you upset?" Kenshin asked, the little carved wooden box that held the two ben wa balls in his hand.

"No. Are you?" Sano hadn't meant that to sound sullen. It had.

Kenshin cocked his head and smiled. Not his blatantly superficial cheerful one, but the softer, more serious one that Sano thought might just not be fake.

"I'm not upset."

Which was how the subject was left, with Kenshin not upset and Sano disgruntled and disquieted. Days passed, as well as endless ocean. The gulls began appearing again, in ones and twos at first, then in greater numbers as the ship rounded the Dutch East Indies. Sano got a chunk of stale bread and stood at the rail, tossing pieces into the air, watching the gulls swoop down and capture it mid-air amongst the raucous complaints of their fellows. He didn't know where Kenshin was at the moment, maybe back in the cabin by this time, or in a quiet nook somewhere working at the flexibility of his hands. Regardless, Kenshin was wonderfully good at acting like nothing had happened. Ever. He didn't treat Sano any different that he'd ever treated him. Sano couldn't decide if that were a good thing or not.

The taint of smoke in the air eventually alerted him that he wasn't alone at the rail. He glanced to the side and started just a little at the appearance of Saitou, a dozen feet down the rail, when Saitou hadn't been there before. The man was quieter than Kenshin and by far more venomous. Not the sort of man a body liked sneaking up on him. Saitou was casually staring in Sano's direction, elbows on the rail, cigarette between two long fingers.

"What are you looking at?" Sano flung another piece of bread into the air. It gained quite a height before a bird snatched it up.

Saitou took a long drag before answering. "You. Sulking. If I didn't know better, I'd say it was over Himura."

Sano blinked, shocked over that blatantly rude - - but one had to admit correct - - assumption. "Who the fuck asked - - You have no idea what you're talking about."

A man had to deny it. A man had to swell up a little in indignation and defend his - - well, his manliness. The remainder of the bread crumbled in his fist and he shook it out over the water, turning to face Saitou head on.

"You're so transparent, Sagara." Saitou didn't bother to shift. "You followed him around like a dog at its master's heels then, and you're doing the same now. Always trying to impress him, to prove something."

"Are you looking for a fight?"

"What? Need to prove something to me, as well, boy?"

"Don't call me 'boy', you bastard. And you can goddamned well keep your opinions to yourself."

Saitou shrugged and said something in a language that Sano didn't comprehend.

"Was that an insult?" Sano demanded, taking an angry step towards Saitou.

"No."

"Well - - well what was it? What did you call me?"

"I didn't call you anything. Just practicing my English. I said, as you wish."

"Oh. Well, okay."

Saitou shook his head, something akin to amusement twitching on his lips. It made Sano nervous when Saitou smiled.

"It wouldn't hurt you and Himura to learn a few simple phrases in the language, since we'll be dealing with the British when we reach Ceylon."

"Maybe. Ask Kenshin." Sano watched the gulls hitting the water, cleaning up the last of the crumbs.

"I'd think you'd be proficient at picking up languages - - being the world traveler that you are."

Sano narrowed his eyes. "Where'd you hear that? Kenshin tell you?"

Saitou took a drag and refrained from answering. Bastard.

"All right." He said belligerently, because to back down from that challenge would prove his ignorance, or worse still, his cowardice, and he wasn't willing to succumb to either in front of Saitou.

 

 

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