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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 24

 

Kenshin and pain were old comrades. Some of his earliest memories were of pain; the sting of the slaver's lash when he'd been too young and too small to do anything but cower under it. Seijuro's infliction of it - - Seijuro having odd ideas in the raising of a child - - in his efforts to make him strong enough, worthy enough to receive Seijuro's legacy. Too many years of fighting a war that had seemed noble at the time, with too few moments of respite. Fighting until his bones ached with the vibration of steel against steel.

Kenshin and pain were quite, quite familiar. Years of harsh acquaintance allowed him to push it to the back of his mind, even when his body screamed bloody murder. Desperation gave him strength that otherwise might have failed him when the sliver of a chance presented itself.

There was a trail of blood, an arc in the air, his vision so focused that he saw the individual droplets as they fell, when Winter spun backwards from his blow. Winter went down, off the side of the bed, but the other man was rushing towards him, calling out in alarm, pulling a small pistol out of his jacket pocket. Kenshin threw himself off the side of the bed, scrambling over Winter's sprawled body, even as Jun was rushing through a second, smaller doorway, screaming himself, a knife in hand.

The man was fast and Kenshin was feeling distinctly slow, but he caught the wrist as the knife hand descended, twisting it away from him, dragging Jun behind him, and slamming an elbow back into the man's face. He had the knife in hand even as Jun's lax fingers loosened on it, and flung it towards the other westerner as the man was squeezing the trigger of the gun. Kenshin threw himself to one side before the retort sounded. Two thunks of impact with flesh. One from Jun behind him who'd taken the bullet meant for him and the other from the knife he'd flung embedding itself in the Englishman's left eye.

Both bodies crumpled simultaneously.

Kenshin crouched there, the fingers of one hand pressed to the floor, his breath harsh and painful. He stared in dismay at the one sprawled against the door, blood seeping out from around the hilt of the knife in his eye socket. Thoroughly dead by his hand and he hadn't meant that. Hadn't been thinking much at all, simply reacting, and a vow he'd kept vigilantly for years had shattered.

Winter was sprawled on the floor at the side of the bed, not so far from his glassy eyed manservant, maybe dead too, for all the blood coating the side of his face. And if that were so - - well, he could not work up regret for it - - not at the moment when he was still reeling from his time under the man's care. Not when the words the man had said about Kaoru, to wound him, still bled raw inside his head.

There were the sounds of pounding feet approaching from the hall. Cries of men alerted by the gunshot. The other Englishmen and their servants. They'd have more guns and more men than he felt capable of dealing with at the moment, when he barely felt capable of keeping his feet.

The only route of escape was the window and he flung himself at it, crashed through, with a splintering of glass and wood. He hit the ground rolling, ground his teeth against the stab of pain in his side, but didn't let it stop his momentum.

The sky was stained with dawn, the trees grey in the distance. There was the drive and the road beyond that, so much clearer this time when his mind wasn't muddled with narcotics. The alcohol, he could function under the influence of. In fact when his blood was rushing, adrenalin high, it almost made things unnaturally clear.

A shot rang out, spiting up grass and dirt near his feet. He spared a glance back and saw figures at the shattered window. They'd be after him in short order. He welcomed it almost, now that he was in his right mind and unfettered, and in need of a fast way back to the city.

Another few shots, but they were far from the mark and he made the woods by the road. A lush forest, clearer in the wan light of dawn than it had been last night when it had all been shadows and hidden peril. A dancing green parrot scolded him from above, disturbed by his passage. He slowed, keeping close enough to the road, listening for the sound of pursuit. Careful now picking his way. If he survived another day, he'd feel the things he was trying hard to ignore, two fold. He'd probably feel them more now, if not for all the whiskey. So perhaps Winter had done him that small favor.

He clenched his fists, lifting the one with the dangling cuff, blood staining the metal around his wrist. Not his, for a change. If he had killed Winter - - and with that much blood, and the desperate force he'd put behind his blow, it was a possibility - - he wondered if Kaoru would approve this once. Or if she'd bow her head and mourn for his broken vow, no matter the monster that had prompted him to break it. He'd tried so very hard to live up to her belief in him, even if she had very little understanding of how cold and brutal the world could be.

Sano was more practical. Sano had said outright, no few times on the journey that had taken them here, that if Kenshin wouldn't do it, he'd happily kill the bastard that had thrown them all into this turmoil they found themselves.

He hadn't expected that it would be another life altogether that he'd end. A man whom he'd only ever seen this night. Collateral damage of Winter's war and honestly, Kenshin couldn't dredge up any great regret. It had been no innocent man who'd been about to perpetrate things upon him with Winter that he wanted very much not to dwell on. He'd had terrible flashes of memory last night, while they'd been amusing themselves with him, of things done in the mountains outside Tokyo - - though these English had practiced so much more restraint than the mountain bandits - - and it had fed the panic that lent him strength when his chance had presented itself.

He heard the thud of hooves fast approaching, muffled on the dirt road. Not many of them from the sound of it. He honestly had not expected an army, not with the aversion in the eyes of Winter's household staff. Other than Jun, they'd been an unwilling, frightened lot. The remaining Englishmen then, who very much enjoyed hunting down human prey.

He stepped out into the road, head lowered, listening to the sound of the hooves as much as watching them from under the veil of his bangs. Two horsemen. A shot rang out, and he felt the air move as it sailed past his head. A second and he moved half a foot to the side to avoid it. Looked up finally, picking his target, and brought up the arm with the sturdy chunk of wood he held, and hurled it like an ungainly blade at the closest rider. It took the man in the forehead, knocking him backwards off the rump of his horse.

The other rider, he recognized as Kilbourne, who had a pistol in one hand and was twisting his head in shock at the dispatching of his comrade. Crying out with rage he jerked on the reins of his wild-eyed, skittish mount, who likely wanted very little to do with this business of hurled projectiles and unhorsed riders. Kilbourne screamed something that Kenshin thought likely a profanity, and kicked his horse into bearing down.

It was simply a matter of stepping aside as the beast hurtled past, grabbing a fistful of main and tact, the horse screaming in protest, and launching himself up, slamming one knee into the massive body perched in the saddle. Kilbourne barely had the grace to stand without having to brace his legs for balance, keeping his seat astride on a moving horse that was scrambling for its own balance with Kenshin bearing down was an impossibility. He tumbled off the side, arms flailing and the horse, freed of no small weight, lurched forward, wanting distance between itself and this lunacy, with Kenshin clinging to its side. He pulled himself up, clutching mane and one leather rein. Clung low and let it run, half expecting shots to follow him.

None came. Kilbourne hadn't taken that fall well, then. Kenshin found he couldn't regret that tragedy either.

He caught up with the second horse on the road a good distance away from the house. Slowed his own mount and took the chance as the animals rustled in the young greenery at the side of the road to catch his breath. He leaned over his horse's neck, allowing himself the luxury of wrapping an arm around the throbbing ach in his side. The same rib, he thought with disgust. Sano would berate him for that carelessness.

He retrieved the dangling rein, and urged the horse into a distance-eating cantor, a smooth enough pace that it didn't have him gritting his teeth with each stride. There was no sign of pursuit. He had no notion of the way they'd taken to reach Winter's mansion, but he kept to the road that seemed the most traveled when he reached intersections and smaller trails leading off it. He passed few people. A lone cart pulled by a mule, led by a wizened farmer. A few men with baskets on their backs traveling the road on foot. He slowed once, and indicated the road he was on, and asked 'Colombo'? and got an affirmative nod.

Dawn had been washed thoroughly away by morning by the time he reached the first village on the outskirts of the city. More a collection of huts than anything else, the homes of farmers, no doubt, who tended the vast fields that surrounded the road. More traffic now, and he drew stares, himself ragged and shirtless on a horse with fine western tact. There were no English soldiers here though, so no one gave him more than a passing look. There would be though, when he reached the city and he didn't need that attention.

He breached a gentle slope in the road and the city sprawled below, bordered by sparkling coast and winding tributaries. The water was dotted with the tiny black shapes of ships, the harbors more crowded with them.

He'd made good time, he thought. He rode until he reached the outskirts of town, shanty huts and muddy streets, the smells of cooking, the smells of human sweat and animal waste. He dismounted, leading the horse, until he spied a hovel off the road with a rickety fence and collection of laundry hung out to dry. There was no one in the yard, so he opened the gate and led the horse in, let it go and took a threadbare shirt off the line. There was a battered straw hat lying near the well, and he took that as well, figuring the horse adequate exchange.

Back out onto the street then, amidst a great many people heading to and from the city proper. He gathered his hair into a knot and shoved the hat over it, obscuring an identifiable characteristic should any of Winter's 'friends' in the guard be on the look out for him. Simple to blend in with the natives then, with the hat shading his face and the shirt hiding the marks of the lash.

He found his bearings easily enough and headed towards the inn. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as soon as he rounded the corner onto the street where the inn lay. He kept walking, head down, aware of men loitering, trying to be casual in their surveillance. A pair of British soldiers taking their ease down the street, another few out of uniform under the awning of an outside tavern. There was no outward sign that anything unusual had happened here, but they were waiting for something. Him maybe, though it was improbable that word of his escape had beat him here. Saitou or Sano, then.

Saitou he trusted very much to avoid notice, but Sano was less circumspect. And if Sano had been in a panic over his disappearance, Sano might have engaged in foolish acts. If they'd taken him it would add whole new worlds of complication to Kenshin's life.

He walked past the inn, mingling with a group of native workers until he was a good ways down the street, before splitting off and heading towards the city center. If Saitou were to be found, a good place to start would be the embassy. At the very least they might be able to get a message to him or be aware of any Japanese citizens taken into custody.

A block down the busy street from it, he stopped, lingering by a cart selling carved figurines, and took in the unusual number of English soldiers patrolling the street. A pair stood brazenly outside the gates of the embassy itself blocking easy entrance. Kenshin moved down to the shadow of an alley where he could stand unobserved and figure out exactly what to do next. Finding Sano was a given, but he needed Saitou's connections and Saitou's fluency to discover what ships had left three - no four days - - past on their way west.

He'd been so close. He'd missed them by a day when he'd arrived here. His own fault for being weak enough not to have made better time chasing them down after Tokyo. His own fault for practicing restraint when that restraint had only hindered him. A few days would have made all the difference.

A rat scurried past his feet, into a crack in the wooden wall of the building he leaned against. He swung his head around, seeking what had startled the rodent into fight, and caught movement in the shadows. A dark figure coming at him, and he spun, one hand extended in warning, before he recognized Saitou and widened his eyes in surprise.

"Fool," Saitou didn't stop, knocking his arm aside and slamming the palm of his hand against Kenshin's shoulder, shoving him back against the wall. His back screamed bloody murder and Saitou kept coming, grabbing a fistful of Kenshin's collar and hissing. "Damned fool. I asked one thing of you - - patience. And it was beyond you."

Kenshin smacked Saitou's hands away from him. "Your interest in helping me only went so far as what benefited your investigation."

"Which is impossible now that you've stirred a hornet's nest of English furor. You attack an English noble in his home and expect there not to be consequences? I expect Sagara to act the idiot but I thought you possessed marginally more common sense. You proved me wrong."

Kenshin clenched his fists, patience this thin, brittle thing that held little tolerance for either Saitou's insults or his hands upon his person. He'd had more than enough of that from enemies in the past day.

"Where is Sano?" He asked softly.

Saitou was sharp enough to pick up the leashed tension in his voice, for he canted his head, studying Kenshin for a moment with narrow eyes, before shrugging. "As if I'm his keeper. But someone needs to be. Lax of you to leave him unsupervised."

"Saitou - -" Kenshin warned, too tired for insinuation. Just wanting to know that Sano was all right. That at least one thing that mattered to him was safe.

Saitou turned on his heels without answering, striding down the alley away from the embassy street. There was little choice but to glower in frustration and follow. Saitou slowed his pace once back out onto a pedestrian crowded street, casually stuffing his hands into his pockets and strolling along as if he hadn't a care in the world. Kenshin followed, looking very much, he suspected, like a ragged, shoeless servant skulking in the wake of master. He was beginning to limp, despite his efforts otherwise. He'd stepped on something during that last flight from Winter's house that had badly bruised the instep of one foot. The calf of the same leg was throbbing from the bite of one of Winter's dogs. He'd need to clean that soon, as well as the other puncture wounds, or he'd regret it.

Saitou led him out of the more affluent section of town, to a considerably more run down area. The buildings were barely more than huts with thatch roofs, the streets muddy and rutted and narrow. A great deal of the people loitered, having nothing better to do than squat in alleyways playing games of chance or gather and cast covert glances at passerby.

There was a hut down a narrow tract that Saitou headed towards. He didn't bother rapping on the flimsy door, merely pushed it open and strode in. Kenshin stepped across the threshold in his wake, barely had the chance to glance at the shadowed interior of the shack before Sano descended upon him, fists clenched and glowering.

"Where the fuck have you been?"

Kenshin stepped back hastily, all too familiar with Sano's methods of venting frustration. He was most certainly not up to being hit by Sano and keeping his feet in the process. He held up his hands, placating, staring with some small bit of desperation into Sano's angry eyes.

"Sano, I'm sorry - -"

"Sorry?" Sano's knuckles popped he clenched his fist so hard, shaking it in Kenshin's face. "You just take off with no word and you're gone all day and all night and you think 'Sano, I'm sorry's' gonna cut it? I ought to kick your ass."

Kenshin noted that the knuckles of the fist threatening him violence had already been bloodied. Knuckles scrapped and crusted with drying blood, as if Sano had been out brawling.

"You were worried. I apologize,"

"I wasn't worried, I was pissed off that you think you can't trust me to handle my end." Sano drew himself up, drawing all the wrong conclusions. Working himself into a lather over the indignity.

"You think I can't - -" Sano began, then stopped, narrowing his eyes. "What the hell happened to you?"

Kenshin supposed he had a bruise or a scrape or two visible.

"What the hell - -?" Sano grasped his wrist, the one with the dangling cuff, and held it up between them.

Saitou had lit a cigarette and was observing the two of them. "Excellent question, Sagara."

And that was it. He let his back hit the wall behind him, leaned there with his eyes shut, trying to formulate an answer that would satisfy Sano. And once he let himself simply stop, his endurance dissipated, taking his legs with it. He slid down the wall to the floor, sat there with his arms on his knees, with Sano gaping down at him in surprise.

"They're gone," he whispered, staring with wavery vision at the bloody cuff on his wrist. "Already on a ship bound for Europe."

"How the hell do you know that?" Sano demanded, sounding less sure of himself now.

Kenshin lowered his head, letting his hair hide the embarrassing wetness spiking his lashes. He wouldn't let Saitou see his weakness. He wished Saitou were not there, because he'd reached a point somewhere along the way, that leaning on Sano's strength when his own wavered was a welcome thing, instead of an embarrassing one. But not in front of witnesses, and especially not Saitou, to whom all weaknesses, in friend or foe, were things to be exploited.

"Winter told me," he said, voice breaking. Raw, like blood had scorched his throat.

"Winter? You saw the bastard?" Sano crouched in front of him.

"Yes. Water?"

It took Sano a second to register that. He grabbed a bottle off a ramshackle table and thrust it at Kenshin. Whisky it looked like and Kenshin laughed miserably. A little madly, and waved it away.

"Damnit, Kenshin," Sano complained and rose in a huff. "It's all I have, less you want me to walk down the street to the common well. And that's not gonna happen until you tell me what the hell happened."

He took a breath, swallowing and did. Part of it, at least. The things they needed to know. There were certain things the details of which he'd not speak.

Sano sat on the floor opposite him, swearing, wearing that look he had when he very badly wished to go and find trouble.

"Can you find the name of the ship?" Kenshin asked Saitou.

And Saitou, who'd been quiet during his explanation, hissed a curse under his breath - - a decidedly offending curse aimed at Kenshin - - and tossed the butt of his cigarette to the floor, stabbing his foot down upon it as if it were some poisonous insect. "So not only do you invade the homes of the English - - you leave a littered trail of their lords dead behind you to incite their wrath? What happened to your silly vow, Himura?"

"Shut the fuck up, Saitou," Sano surged up, fists clenched, putting himself right in Saitou's face.

Saitou looked at him in disdain, then past him down at Kenshin. "It doesn't matter what plots these lords were about, the English won't let this insult pass. They can't allow precedent that threatens their power. We'll be lucky to get off this island alive, much less find the name of a ship."

He stood there, staring narrowly at Kenshin for a few more silent beats, then turned, moving to a corner where a long black-sheathed blade rested. Beside it leaned Kenshin's sakabatou.

Saitou picked up his own, holding the scabbard lightly, the fingers of his other hand grazing the hilt. "You've caused me a great deal of trouble."

"He got you all the proof you need, signed, sealed and delivered, so I don't know what you're bitching about," Sano shot back.

Saitou smiled thinly. "It won't matter if I can't get it to someone who has the interest and the power to do something about them, and at the moment, you've made that a difficult task."

"Yeah, well," Sano grumbled. "If you wanted easy would you have taken this job?"

Saitou canted a brow, amused, it seemed. "Hnn. I'll not risk what contacts I have in the light of day, now that you've set the English on alert. Tonight I'll see what I can salvage. I'll see what I can find out about your ship."

Kenshin let his head drop, resting his forehead against a knee. Sano said something to him - - or maybe Saitou - - but the words were distant, obscured by the rushing of white noise and faint headedness.

 


 

There had been a brawl on the docks that Sano had initiated. He'd been pissed, and frustrated and annoyed at both Saitou for being a smug bastard and Kenshin for having no faith in him. And scared, though he hardly liked admitting the feeling. Scared that maybe Kenshin hadn't left him high and dry on purpose - - which feeling he should have gone with instead of convincing himself otherwise - - and being scared made Sano twice as determined to find trouble and knock it on its ass.

But, he convinced himself Kenshin had done what Kenshin always tried to do, which was shoulder the brunt of the burden, like he didn't think anybody else capable of pulling their own weight. Always trying to protect - - which was fine and good for the women and the kids - - but damnit, Sano could damn well protect himself. He could protect Kenshin's sorry ass, when he'd taken more than he could humanly deal with, so he ought to have figured out by now that leaving Sano behind was a bad idea.

So Sano had been pissed and Sano had been looking for trouble, and he'd found it, and started a brawl skulking around the docks, looking for sign of Kenshin, that had encompassed two or three dockside taverns by the time he'd cut and run, when the authorities had descended.

Saitou hadn't been pleased when he'd come back in the early hours of morning worse for wear than when he'd left the shitty little hovel Saitou was using as a safe house. Saitou had looked like he wanted to add a few bruises of his own, and though Sano would have welcomed the chance to get a few licks of his own in on the smug bastard - - he was owed, damnit - - Saitou had been sharpening that damned long sword of his, and it was naked in his hand and Sano wasn't stupid, thank you very much, despite what some people thought.

So he'd settled down on the threadbare futon and nursed the bottle of cheap whiskey he'd snatched on his way out of the brawl. Just planned to shut his eyes for a few minutes and get a little rest before he headed back out to see if Kenshin had showed back up at the inn, but it was full day when he woke, and Saitou was gone, and he was just getting himself up, head throbbing with the dregs of a hangover, when Saitou stalked through the door with Kenshin on his heels.

It had honestly taken Sano a good while to even register the details, he'd been so pissed off/relieved. The bruises, the stain of dried blood peeking out from under the collar of the threadbare shirt that Kenshin was wearing. The utter exhaustion in Kenshin's eyes. Like it was sheer willpower alone that was keeping him on his feet.

Come to find out, after Kenshin had quietly explained what had happened, it had been. He was an idiot, Sano was in agreement with Saitou there, for letting this happen without giving Sano a heads up what he was about, but Sano's desire to smack him up against the head sort of dissipated in the face of the knowledge that somebody else had already smacked him around pretty damned thoroughly. And to top it off, they'd missed Kaoru and the kid by days and the break in Kenshin's voice when he'd admitted that, made Sano itch to go out and shed some blood of his own.

He wanted to shed a little of Saitou's, because it was fine and well if he bitched at Kenshin when Kenshin was down, but damned if Saitou had the right. And Saitou was mean about it, hitting Kenshin where it hurt and Kenshin just lowered his head and went quiet, likely berating himself a hell of a lot more than either one of them was.

It was a blessing when Saitou slunk out to do a little reconnaissance, to get a few supplies while Sano cleaned wounds Kenshin wasn't showing much interest in. He had a couple bad bites that Sano poured whiskey on to clean. Kenshin hissed softly the first shot that penetrated, but didn't make a sound after, just sat there while Sano fussed over him. Thinking maybe he deserved that pain, if Sano were any judge of Kenshin's more twisted rationales, and he liked to think he was.

Sano cursed a little himself, softly, under his breath, while he cleaned the dirt out of the scrapes on Kenshin's back. A lot of purpling marks, some of them deep enough to have broken skin, most of them made by somebody with a lash. Kenshin hadn't been big on the details of what had happened to him, but his body betrayed the truth of the matter.

He wasn't talking though, even when Sano pressed. His head drooped finally, while Sano was trying to pick the cylinder lock of the metal cuff around his wrist, lapsed into a fitful doze.

He started out of it when Saitou came back, eyes wide, hand searching for the hilt of a sword that wasn't there. Saitou had a few supplies, a package of food, some flat bread and curried rice, a staple hereabouts, that he tossed Sano's way.

Saitou sat down on the one rickety chair, just as good at his silences as Kenshin, until Sano couldn't stand it from either of them any longer and demanded. "Sharing a few damn details is not a bad thing. And that goes for the both of you. Assholes."

Kenshin cast him a look from under his hair, maybe an iota of guilt. Saitou's expression didn't alter, he just sat there, unwrapping his own piece of plain flatbread and eating silently. Not good company, which was news to Sano, after having been stuck on a boat with the bastard all those weeks.

Kenshin settled back down, gingerly resting his back against the wall, not much for idle conversation either. Sano muttered under his breath and portioned out the food. Kenshin didn't have much of an appetite, that was clear, but was practical enough to eat what Saitou had brought anyway. Times like this, it was no telling when the next meal might be.

Kenshin drifted off again, and Sano did, after finishing off what whiskey he hadn't used to clean Kenshin's wounds. He roused when Kenshin did, as Saitou was slipping out again, the open doorway showing that dusk had fallen.

He sat there afterwards, in the silence of Saitou's absence, and finally asked what he hadn't earlier. "So, you're not gonna tell me everything that happened, huh?"

He caught the glint of an eye as Kenshin flicked a glance up at him, but it was hidden soon enough when he lowered his lashes, lowered his chin and all Sano could see was the fall of hair. "No."

Simple enough. Sano nodded. A man had to respect that, even though he didn't like it.

Finally though, Kenshin did speak, voice soft enough that Sano had to lean forward to hear the words. "Saitou was right. I've made mistakes. Made choices that haven't been - - practical. I could have stopped this."

Sano drew a long breath, nodding. "Yeah, I guess you could have."

Kenshin looked up at him, that look in his eyes that was just a little bruised, just a little vulnerable, like the things Sano said mattered to him. And that - - that just made Sano feel like he wasn't such an idiot, good only for the grunt work and the brawls.

"I know you've had your fill of killing. I know it tears you up the things you did in the war - - but somebody had to do it, right? Somebody somewhere, always has to do the dirty work or it don't get done. I gotta tell you, I wish you'd gutted the bastard early on. Maybe it would have made a difference, maybe you'd still have had to chase Kaoru down. Maybe you and me would've never - - Either way, he'd be dead and a viper without a head ain't gonna come back and bite you when you're not expecting it. Go ahead, tell me how wrong that is."

Kenshin looked away, mouth tightening, saying nothing. Nothing he could say, when Sano knew damned well, he knew he was right. Kenshin might hold stubbornly to his ideals, but he wasn't naïve.

"You do what you gotta do," Sano said. He flopped back onto the futon, staring up at the cobwebby shadows of the ceiling. Not a lot to say after that, but he was glad he'd gotten it off his chest. Nothing to do but pass time waiting for Saitou to get back with information neither one of them was equipped to gather.

He dozed off again to the sound of gentle rain on the thatch roof. Woke again with Kenshin nudging him on the shoulder with one foot, letting him know Saitou had finally slunk back.

Saitou took the time to run a hand through wet hair, to brush rain off his damp jacket, before deigning to give them his attention.

"Well?" Sano asked, impatiently.

Saitou pulled a tin of cigarettes out of his pocket and tapped one of the brown sticks out, and even Kenshin got an annoyed look on his face and finally seconded Sano's query with one of his own as Saitou was lighting it.

"Saitou?"

"The name of the ship you're seeking is the Eastcourt." Saitou gave Kenshin a look. "The only European bound vessel that left four days past. Your wife and boy were on board."

Kenshin didn't move, but Sano could almost feel the sudden, rigid tension; the aura of utter focus that swelled out of nowhere as he stared at Saitou, waiting.

"As luck would have it," Saitou finally continued, enjoying no doubt, making them wait. "The Eastcourt has a week's layover in Madras to board passengers and cargo, before it starts the voyage home."

"How do you know they're on this boat for sure?" Sano asked.

Saitou gave him a look. "Because I bothered to learn the language and can ask a question without inciting a block wide brawl, you moron."

Sano bristled. Kenshin laid a hand on his shoulder, forestalling his retort.

"Can we reach Madras before they depart?"

Saitou mouth curved in something someone with a loose definition of the term, might have considered a smile. "I've booked you passage on a Dutch schooner named the Gravenhage, headed for Madras. It sets sail an hour before dawn."

Kenshin let out a breath, fingers tightening on Sano's shoulder. "You have my gratitude, Saitou."

Saitou snorted softly. "No, what I have is you in my debt. A great deal of debt that I will collect at a time and place of my choosing, Himura."

Kenshin inclined his head, accepting that with a hell of a lot more grace than Sano would have.

"You're on your own from this point out," Saitou said, heading for his pack against the wall, checking the rolled documents that Kenshin had procured, before buckling the thing up, and hauling it over his shoulder. He grabbed his sword, slipping it through his belt.

"You get a ride, too?" Sano asked.

Saitou inclined his head. "A Chinese junket headed for Hong Kong. From there - - home. It may be take some political maneuvering to have these men and their cohorts tried by the British government, but rest assured none of them or their interests will step foot on Japanese soil again without consequence. None of the ones Himura left alive, that is."

He had to get in that one last dig. Kenshin accepted it with an inclination of his head, though, which Saitou considered, then returned. A modicum of mutual respect. Saitou didn't even offer Sano a glance, before he shifted his pack and strode out the door.

 

 

 

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