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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 20

 

Ceylon sat at the Western entrance to the Bay of Bengal, separated only by a narrow strait from the mainland of Hindostan. India. It was a large island, as large as Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the four major islands that made up Japan, and according to Saitou, nearly a million and a half souls inhabited it, made up of various tribes of native Cingalese, Malabars, Mahomentans, Coolies and Dutch and English settlers. It had once been a great center of civilization, Saitou said, having done his research quite thoroughly, possessing a great many ruins of ancient cities, canal, bridges and aqueducts within the interior of the island, but those ancient empires had faded and what was left was a subjugated population, passed from the Dutch to the English.

But the port they sailed into held no hint of ancient wonders. It was crowded with boats and ships, small vessels and junks that hardly looked fit to ride the waters of the ocean. Jetsam floated atop the gentle waves of the harbor, probably a combination of bilge from incoming ships and trash from a harbor overflowing with human life. The British flag flew from the highest building and no small number of British ships, both commercial and military sat at anchor. It was clear where the balance of power lay in this port, if not all of Ceylon. The British were not shy about flaunting it. British customs agents boarded their ship upon docking and British soldiers in their crisp uniforms with their ever-present rifles patrolled the dockside.

"The Indian problem," Saitou said, when Kenshin eyed the passage of a troop of armed soldiers warily. "They're having a hard time of it on the mainland. A great deal of disillusionment with their methods of government. I would imagine they don't want the same sentiment to get out of hand here."

"I hate guns," Sano said, watching the same group of Brits with their practiced step and their air of superiority, make their way through the crowd of darker skinned natives crowding the dockside. "It doesn't take much skill to kill a man with a gun."

"The skill is in avoiding it," Saitou said. "The greater part of that, being knowing when to keep your mouth shut and your ears open. Can you do either of those things, Sagara?"

"I can, asshole."

Sano glared. Saitou just had to get in as many nasty shots as he could. It was like the man thrived on pissing Sano off. Maybe Saitou wasn't happy unless he was aggravating somebody and he sure hadn't been concentrating on Kenshin. Of course, Kenshin was preoccupied. Between worrying over his family and worrying over Sano, Kenshin's attention tended to drift. Sano thought it was a much appreciated favor he was doing him, every time he managed to draw him into more physical pursuits, because that was about the only time that Kenshin wasn't worrying.

They had no choice but to follow Saitou's lead. So they gathered all their belongings and marched after his tall, lean figure through docks crowded with cargo coming and going, fishermen bringing in hauls of seafood, and British customs agents running to and fro, damned and determined that no tariff went unpaid. Once off the main portside avenue the traffic became more pedestrian, more shops, more booths selling wares, more smells of cooked food, instead of the briny odors of fresh fish. There were carts and carriages and open top calash's pulled by native bearers. Saitou waved down one of those and the three of them crammed into the narrow seat, piling luggage at their feet and in their laps.

"Japanese embassy," Saitou directed, and Sano felt a twinge of pity as the bearer grunted, straining to get the calash moving under their combined weight, but once the vehicle was rolling, the man seemed well enough able to bear the burden.

Sano shifted the duffle in his lap and stretched out his left arm behind Kenshin's head along the back of the seat. The city was a mixture of the exotic architecture that Sano assumed to be of Indian origin and the more austere buildings of European design that he'd seen the likes of in Japan in the Dutch quarters and the English embassy houses. The natives were dark skinned and round eyed, the women exotically alluring with their graceful movement and their colorful sari's. He turned his head more than once to follow the passage of native lovely.

Kenshin was watching too, but not so much the women as the lay of the streets, the way the crowd moved and the number of British soldiers with their ever-present firearms strolled among unarmed civilians. Kenshin's sword was wrapped in canvas, along with Saitou's, the both of them stuffed inside the largest duffel. Traveling through the streets of this foreign city armed and so traditionally to boot, would have roused suspicion and Saitou was very adamant about avoiding trouble of the public nature. Saitou preferred to precipitate very private trouble in the dead of night.

They were deposited finally at the gates of the Japanese embassy. It was a large stone house that hinted at native design and some age. It had probably been a private house of some well to do merchant or politician back before the city had started changing hands from one foreign ruler to the next. It had tall iron gates connected to a tall iron fence which ran the perimeter of the grounds and a great deal of effort had gone into turning those grounds into something more appealing to the Japanese aesthetic.

The guard at the gate ushered them in, exchanging courteous nods with Saitou and ignoring Sano and Kenshin altogether as they followed with the bulk of the luggage in Saitou's footsteps.

"Why doesn't he carry his share?" Sano groused, overburdened and glaring at Saitou's back.

"He has to make an impression." Kenshin said quietly, sitting down his own burden at the bottom of the steps when Saitou motioned for them to wait.

"What? That he's got servants to lug around his shit?"

"Shush." Kenshin suggested, eyes gone a little narrow and speculative as he watched Saitou introduce himself at the door. The attendant who answered, after exchanging a few words with Saitou bowed his head respectfully a few times before ushering the man in. Saitou beckoned Kenshin and Sano with a flick of his wrist.

"Leave the luggage there. We'll find lodging elsewhere."

Sano grumbled, wondering why they'd lugged it all the way up the walkway then, but kept his silence, climbing the stone steps after Kenshin and entering the embassy. It was very tastefully done, he supposed. A mix of traditional Japanese, a touch of Ceylonese culture and a smattering of the European craze that was presently going through the higher echelons of Japanese society.

The attendant showed them to a small waiting room, and soon after returned, saying that the ambassador would see Saitou. Kenshin and Sano were not invited to attend that meeting. Kenshin seemed unoffended at the exclusion. Sano sat and stewed, glaring at Saitou's retreating back, figuring the smug bastard would probably be plotting things behind their backs. What things he wasn't entirely sure, but knowing Saitou, there were bound to be conspiracies afoot. The whole thing was fishy to him and confusing, politicians and shoguns and merchants and foreigners colluding for the right to dock ships that pretty much were coming into Japanese harbors regularly already. He didn't quite understand who actually wanted these incursions and who didn't and who thought they'd profit over somebody else. It seemed a big mess and he'd rather not know details that would make his spin and wouldn't matter to an honest man who didn't have his hands in other people's business.

Which was why Saitou was all over it, not being honest by any means and always having his nose inserted directly where it didn't belong.

What Kenshin thought - - well, Kenshin had his bland face on - - so who the hell knew what was going on behind those long lashed, violet eyes of his? Kenshin understood more of intrigue than Sano did, though. Having lived more of it during the war. Kenshin understood motivations that baffled Sano, Sano being straightforward and honest.

After about an hour of waiting - - with not even tea being offered to them while they sat - - Saitou came skulking back out, moving past them with barely a jerk of his head to indicate they follow, like mewling servants, in his footsteps.

Sano growled a little, muttering dark things at the narrow eyed bastard's back, but curbed the desire to complain too loudly when Kenshin dusted a light touch across his arm. Warning him to good behavior. He and Kenshin picked up the luggage as a carriage pulled up outside the gates, this one with a horse attached and a wizened little Japanese driver outfitted in English livery, who bowed his head politely to Saitou and gave Sano and Kenshin the evil eye as they piled luggage onto the rack behind the seats. There wasn't room for three on the one bench behind the driver without a lot of squeezing in, so predictably, Sano had to perch on the back, behind the luggage.

He glared at the back of Saitou's head most of the meandering, bumpy way to the lodging the embassy had arranged for them. Down past the crowded main city streets to a quieter neighborhood where palm trees swayed and there were more thatch-roofed buildings than stone faced structures. There were more natives here, than foreigners, or uniformed British soldiers.

Men that walked bare chested, with short sari's around their hips, women with bared middles and sun darkened skin going about daily errands. Darker skinned than Kenshin or him. Rounder eyed. But over all a pretty people, Sano decided. Their inn was a low, thatch roofed affair shaded by trees. Tall plaster walls separated it from the street. A native boy came running out to meet them when the carriage pulled up outside the front gate. Saitou stepped down, taking in the street while he lit up a cigarette, waiting for the luggage to be off loaded. Sano let the kid struggle to haul it down, finished playing servant to Saitou.

Saitou said something in a language Sano didn't understand. Sinhala, Saitou had said the native language was, on the ship, when he'd been about trying to teach them a spattering of foreign words.

"I'm not sharing another room with you," Sano stated and Saitou barely flicked an eye at him, so Sano felt the need to expand. "Had enough of the stench of your tobacco on the ship. Not to mention your damned sour personality."

"There's room in the stable. You're better suited for a stall," Saitou commented and Sano bristled, before Kenshin stepped between them, calm and cool and slim, in his cotton gi, a few strands of flyaway red hair escaped from the loose tail at his neck. A lot longer, that hair, than it had been when Sano had first stumbled upon him.

Kenshin, he very much wanted to share a room with. A room preferably with some sort of door with a lock, where Kenshin wouldn't be afraid of unwanted persons walking in at delicate moments. Where Sano might steal a few more fleeting moments of something that he might not see again once Kenshin found Kaoru. He held no illusions. Between the two of them he knew very well who Kenshin would choose. Almost a man might wish the girl never found and his own fortunes improved- - except - - except that sat wrong with him. And there was a kid involved - - and damn, but he didn't want to think about it. About what would happen once they'd found Kaoru. Easier not to. Easier to live in the here and now and take what he could when he could.

"Saitou," Kenshin said softly, looking up under his lashes at a man considerably taller. "If there are plans, I'd very much like to know them."

Saitou took a long drag off his tobacco stick, then shrugged, tossed it onto the dirt road, and strode into the yard behind the gates. They followed, having little enough choice but to trail him like dogs on the heels of their master. There was a long teak desk with a steward behind it, alerted of their arrival by the boy maybe. A room to the left that might have been a tea room, there were mats and low tables, suggesting very much that this was an establishment that catered to visitors more eastern than western. It made his stomach rumble, and his thoughts drift to the notion of sampling native dishes. He was ever open to the possibility of discovering savory new foods.

Saitou conferred with the steward and shortly thereafter the boy appeared again to help lug the bags and Saitou's trunk to rooms which lay in out buildings across a well manicured yard. They had one of their own, small and plain, but clean. The sort of room servant's might get while their master lounged in more luxurious environs.

Sano couldn't complain much. They'd stayed in worse by far these last weeks. It was a mish mash of cultures, a hard backed English chair and stilt legged table with an oil lamp. A basin with water, and a paper screen for privacy. There were low futons with thick mattresses and soft western pillows, instead of Japanese headrests, which honestly, Sano rather appreciated. He'd enjoyed that bed with its soft mattress and its plush pillows in the inn in Manila. He'd enjoyed more what they'd done in it.


Saitou was avoiding the whole of the truth, of that Kenshin was sure. It was no surprise, Saitou being Saitou, and Saitou's goals broader and probably considerably more intricate than Kenshin's own. Kenshin had not gone into this, in Saitou's company, expecting anything else. But he was as willing to use Saitou and Saitou's resources as much as Saitou was willing to use him and his. Which made, at the very least, an uneasy alliance. It always had.

Still, he'd like to know what Saitou had learned, after an hour in the company of the ambassador. There were things a man with limited resources might never learn if not for connections in high places. So cultivating Saitou, being reasonable with Saitou and courteous to Saitou was no great sacrifice, despite Sano's thoughts on the subject.

He knocked on Saitou's door, in the larger bungalow across from the one he and Sano had been shown. Saitou opened the door, glanced over his shoulder at Sano's sulking figure before ushering them in.

"The ambassador is putting out feelers," Saitou informed him before he could ask. "One has to be circumspect when inquiring too boldly into the activities of the English here."

"Winter? Does he know of him?"

"He does not, but the man is a merchant and not nobility, so that means nothing. There are no doubt many merchants that escape the attention of our esteemed ambassador."

"The ship? Is it in harbor? I assume you acquired that information before we left the dock."

Saitou's mouth twitched, nothing so mundane as a smile. "No. Not under the name that it left Japan under, at any rate. But this man we are after is a very clever man."

Kenshin clenched his fists, a sudden surge of frustration welling. What if it weren't here? What if they had followed the wrong trail?

Saitou took a drag of his cigarette, at ease when Kenshin felt the inescapable need to move. To do something. Anything.

"Patience, Himura. When I know, you'll know."

Kenshin inclined his head, forcing that smile he used as a mask for darker things.

"Of course." He half bowed, and Sano muttered angrily behind him, something of not trusting politicians in general and Saitou in particular. Saitou ignored him.

His sword was in the bag with Saitou's and he retrieved it, slipping past Saitou as he did, retrieving another something from Saitou's person as he did. He might have felt guilt over it, never even in less than fortunate times enjoying the mantle of thief, even if he'd worn the one of assassin, but he trusted Saitou to let him know the things he needed not at all. To discover for himself he'd need proper funds and Sano had eaten or drank or gambled away what they'd had between Tokyo and here.

Back to their own room, and Sano expelled a breath and a curse with Saitou's name attached. "I don't trust that narrow eyed bastard to tell us anything."

"No," Kenshin agreed, skimming a hand along the hilt of the sakabatou before leaning it in a corner.

Sano paced a few spaces, throwing out long arms in frustration. "So - -? What do you want to do?"

Kenshin turned a somewhat less blatantly false smile to him. "Lunch would be nice."

Sano blinked, not expecting that of him.

"Really?" There was an endearing note of hopefulness in his voice. Sano was so very much more honest than he ever had been in the things that motivated him. Straight forward and loyal, despite all his bluster and bluff. And young. Still very young.

Kenshin stared at him a moment, snared by a sudden wash of grief. He'd backed himself into a box these last weeks. A box with no easy way out, with Kaoru on the one side and Sano on the other. When he found her, and he would, he wouldn't lie to her. He couldn't. He'd tell her what he'd done. He'd endure her wrath, her hurt, whatever she wished to throw at him. If she wanted him gone, he'd go. If not - - then there would be Sano to deal with. Sano who he wasn't sure if he could let simply disappear again into the unknown.

There was no way out. No solution he could see that didn't involve pain and suffering, hurt and betrayal. His own fault. His own weakness. If he could have taken it all upon himself and spared the two of them, he would have. He doubted it would be that simple.

All he knew how to do was move forward, to find the man who'd taken her and Kenji, to get them back and to make him pay. And somewhere along the way, somewhere between that rainy night in Tokyo when they'd first been taken and here - - that vow he'd made so long ago not to shed mortal blood had fractured. Whether it broke entirely - - well, that depended entirely on Winter and what harm he'd done to Kaoru and Kenji. She might just hate him for that failing as well as the other.

"So I saw a place on the way here," Sano was saying, drawing him out of dour musings. "That smelled like it might be worth visiting."

"Hn. I was thinking, maybe, a tavern." Kenshin walked out of the room before Sano could gape at him in surprise.

"You're kidding me?" Sano trailed him out. Kenshin was not generally the one out of the two of them that suggested visiting taverns.

Kenshin waited until they were out on the street, amidst the traffic of mid-day, pedestrians and mule carts, vendors hauling along their wares, the occasional pair of uniformed English guardsmen, before he said. "We need sources of our own, Sano."

Sano stuffed hands into his pockets, thinking that over. "Yeah. Okay. Who?"

"Someone who speaks the language here as well as our own. Someone familiar with the underbelly of this city."

"Ah," Sano's eyes sparked, finally getting it. "The sort of someone you might find loitering in a tavern."

Well Sano might know, having spent no small bit of his own youth doing just that, mingling with miscreants and layabouts that always seemed to know things honest, hard working folk had no notion of.

"We'll need money," Sano said. "Doubt information's any freer here than at home."

Kenshin jingled the little leather purse he'd liberated from Saitou and Sano's eyes widened.

"Where'd you - -? Shit - - you lifted that from Saitou? And got away with it?"

"I had a need."

Sano laughed, greatly amused at any misfortune suffered by Saitou.

There were no shortages of taverns, and Ceylon was sprawling and myriad in its gathering spots. The ones that catered to the English and the merchant classes they avoided, touring the lower rent establishments, where Ceylonese and Indian, Chinese and Japanese patrons frequented.

Sano mingled well, whether he spoke the language or not, as at home here as he was at any place that served liquor. Kenshin quietly observed, as easy in the shadows as Sano was carousing at the bar. So, so easy when he had a goal, to blend with the darkness and seek prey. No, not prey, simply a suitable source of information that might lead him to what he sought.

He flexed his hand, feeling the lingering stiffness, but the pain was tolerable. Easily ignored. The scar was flesh colored now, a little shiny. Tight, but he was working that out. Sano had proved a good nurse, following Miss Megumi's orders to a T. Weeks shipboard had gone no small way to healing his wounds. He'd have a few more scars, but he could hold a sword. Another few months and he might not notice the wounds had ever been there.

Third tavern, and no few drinks and two suppers on Sano's part, and they found a boy. A young half Ceylonese, half Japanese street kid that couldn't have been much older than twelve. Sly eyed and quick fingered, with that belief that the young tended towards, of invincibility. He tried to pickpocket Kenshin's pickpocketed purse. Kenshin caught his bony wrist, twisted it with a patient smile of reprimand, while the kid cursed at him with words he was very well familiar with.

"So, looks like you found a translator, huh?" Sano sauntered up and the kid cursed twice as loud, drawing attention.

"Do the authorities here take kindly to thieves stealing the purses of tourists?" Kenshin asked pleasantly and the kid snapped his mouth shut, glaring between them.

"Fuck you," the boy muttered and Kenshin pressed the bones of his wrist a little more sharply, smile never wavering from his lips. The boy reminded him somewhat of Yahiko, when he'd been that age. Surely and overly overconfident of his own abilities.

"That's impolite. Who taught you manners?"

"I'll give it a shot," Sano offered, leaning down, glaring into the eyes of a kid that was half a head shorter than Kenshin. "I'm all about manners."

The boy drew back, Sano's height and Sano cracking the knuckles of his big hand proving intimidating.

"Perhaps," Kenshin said genially, the less visibly threatening of the two. "You'd like to earn coin instead of stealing it?"

The boy scowled. "I don't do that. Pervert."

Kenshin felt his smile straining. Sano snorted, grabbed the kid by the ruff of his threadbare collar and hauled him into the narrow alley between buildings.

The boy's name was Kai. His mother was Japanese, lured away from home in her youth by a charming Ceylonese sailor. If he saw his father once in a year, it was a miraculous thing. The boy claimed sullenly that it was no loss of his.

Kenshin produced a small coin from Saitou's purse and the boy became more obliging. Most certainly he knew the lay of the city. When the work was available he ran errands from one end of Colombo to the other. His mother did laundry in the house of an English merchant and took work from many others.

"Where do they live, the wealthy Englishmen?" Kenshin asked, and the boy shrugged, waving a hand. "Colpetty. A lot of them along Galle Road. The richest out past the city in walled estates."

"Show us."

Having nothing better to do, the boy did. Mollified by the lure of coin, he made an informative tour guide, parting with information easily. Colpetty seemed the hub of English occupancy, an area crowded with shops and stone buildings and paved streets with gas lamps on the corners. A great many of the natives doing business here were dressed in western clothing.

"I don't know of a Merchant called Winter," the boy admitted. "But the English come and go as if they own the island."

Which of course, the English thought they did. Men of the west, Kenshin had discovered had the tendency to assume other civilizations beneath them, and fair game to manipulate or conquer. He wished very much the Meiji government had not welcomed them into Japan.

They spent the day touring the haunts of the English, and the boy, at the lure of more coin promised to discover what he could of Winter, or a japans lady of quality that might have come to the island. Winter had a purpose and Kenshin had not forgotten. Kaoru had a part to play in his plan and if he were to pass her off as the daughter of a man of power, he'd not slip her in under cover of night.

There was nothing to do but return to the inn after they'd set the boy on his task. Nothing but to let Sano draw him to the tearoom off the main lobby. The tea was strong and dark, and the food spiced liberally with curry. Sano liked it. Kenshin preferred subtler flavors. Sano downed a locally brewed lager, then another that smelled of cinnamon and spices and made Sano sigh and wistfully consider a third before Kenshin had sat all he could, and rose, leaving a few coins on the table, and returning to the room.

They saw no light from Saitou's bungalow in passing, and assumed he was about whatever it was Saitou found to occupy himself at night. No good things, Kenshin was sure.

Sano lit the oil lamp, when Kenshin would have done very well in darkness, and rustled around the room, while Kenshin sat cross legged on the futon, thinking dark thoughts.

She was here. She and Kenji. They had to be. They'd made good time, Saitou had said, and despite his injuries and the time he'd lost - - too much time - - there still might only be a week - - a little more than a week between them. Wishful thinking, but the other option was admitting they might be far beyond his reach.

Sano had rustled as much as he could, and finally sat down nest to Kenshin, legs sprawled onto the floor before him. "So, what do you think Saitou's up to?"

A great many things, no doubt. Kenshin shrugged minutely. "Much the same as us, I would guess. Information gathering."

"Hn. Think he missed that purse?"

"Eventually."

Sano sat there, fuel for conversation dried up. He shifted a little and his thigh touched Kenshin's knee. Deliberate move.

Kenshin shut his eyes. He couldn't, not with her possibly on this island - -in this very city - - with him. He'd betrayed the trust she had in him enough. He'd betrayed Sano's trust enough.

"Sano," he said softly. "We cannot."

He felt Sano tense. Felt the very aura of the air around him go still.

"Yeah. Sure." After a moment, and Sano pushed himself up. Unrolled his own futon and sat down with his back to Kenshin, busying himself with unrolling the cloth around his wrists. Offended. Hurt. And why would he not be, Kenshin having very much been willing to engage since they'd boarded the ship in Manila.

Kenshin's fault. It felt like knives slicing him up from the inside out. He couldn't understand how he'd been such a fool. How he'd been so weak to allow things that would only hurt the people he loved.

He bowed his head, while Sano sat there, simmering, so obviously simmering and imagined her expression when he told her. Imagined her eyes wide with pain, brimming tears, imagined Kenji at her side, not understanding the depths of his father's betrayal. Imagined Sano's back, at the rail of a ship, sailing out of his life leaving him to face a marriage that would never be the same. His choices. His misdeeds. No blame but his own.

"She's here - - somewhere, Sano," he whispered in the flickering light of the lantern.

Sano said nothing.

"I cannot - - with her so close." Irrational excuse. It made no difference how far a distance she'd been when he'd made his choices.

The linen over Sano's shoulders were taut, the faintest trembling of muscle. His hair was a dark collection of messy locks, but so much softer than one might think.

"You know what I wished?" Sano said, low, rough voice. "Just for a moment wished?"

"What?"

"That you'd never find her. That you and me - -" he broke off, showing Kenshin half a profile in the shadows. "But I don't want that. I want that girl and your kid back safe at the dojo - - and that just sucks for me - - because there's no place there for me anymore that I can see."

His voice broke a little, and Kenshin did, clenching his fists, feeling stinging wetness at the corners of his eyes.

He rose, dropped to his knees behind Sano, pressing his forehead against Sano's hair, an arm around Sano's neck. Sano lifted a hand, fingers biting into Kenshin's forearm. One of them was trembling.

Sano spun him around, dragging him to the futon under Sano's weight, Sano's arms fast around him, Sano's face in the crook of his neck. Lay there for a long moment, breathing in the scent of each other, the feel of hearts thudding beneath flesh and bone. Sano's hands moved to his hair, freeing it from the tie that held it, threading his big fingers and grasping tight, immobilizing Kenshin's head.

He looked down, eyes dark and serious. Not a look Sano usually wore. "I will fight for you. Not sure how, against a wife and a kid - - but I'll figure a way."

Kenshin laughed, miserably, bleakly and Sano cut it off, mouth over his. Devouring kiss, like he was staking a claim. Kenshin couldn't stop it. Didn't want to stop it. It was relief when Sano pinned his wrists and licked his way down his throat, nipping at collarbone, nuzzling aside the thin material of the gi and fastening his mouth to an already hard nipple.

He gasped, arching up, wrapping his legs around Sano's waist, wanting him closer. Wanting all of Sano he could get. He loved Kaoru, he cherished Kaoru and the things she represented - - the life she represented - - but she didn't make his body scream like Sano did. She didn't wipe everything clean, everything blank and white and blazing with sheer sensation when she slid inside him, remaking him for if only a few precious moments into something other than what he was.

"It'll work out. I'll make it work out," Sano was saying, afterward, damp, naked flesh against damp, naked flesh. Sano's arms tight around him, his face pressed into Sano's neck while he shuddered. It took a while before his mind started working enough to comprehend Sano's optimism.

Kenshin didn't believe it.

 

 

 

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