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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 25

 

Saitou had brought clothing back, when he'd returned the first time with the food. Kenshin was not certain if it were consideration on his part, or if he simply didn't want his own escape possibly hindered by Kenshin wondering about the dockside, attracting attention in bloody, torn clothing. Rather, he suspected the latter. Saitou's courtesies tended towards the practical.

Still, it was appreciated, shedding blood crusted trousers and donning the clean, loose native clothing Saitou had appropriated. He might have preferred his own clothing, setting out yet one more time after Kaoru, but that was lost to him, in the inn where they dared not return. So he belted on soft brown trousers, and a coat not unlike a hanten, over his shirt that was long enough to hide the sakabatou. Ever practical, Saitou. He'd even brought sandals.

Sano had seen to his wounds. Sano had tended them with that gentle, competent touch that had surprised Kenshin since the mountains, but still, he stopped Kenshin when he was changing shirts, a hand on his shoulder where one of the dogs had gotten a tooth hold.

"This is your sword arm. You gonna have a problem if we run into trouble?" Sano's hand lingered, palm cool against the fevered skin around the bite. It was sore, a little stiff, but he'd battled through worse.

"No."

Sano nodded, sliding his hand to Kenshin's neck, under the hair he'd refastened into a tail, and Kenshin thought the question a pretense. Sano's insecurities were understandable - - Kenshin shared them - - but he hadn't the time or the patience to deal with them at the moment. Not when he wanted very badly to find the ship Saitou had procured for them, sooner rather than later, in the case they did run into that trouble Sano had suggested. But Sano didn't say anything more, just sighed and laid his forehead against Kenshin's, big hand on his neck. A surprising act of quiet commiseration that made Kenshin draw breath, off balance, not having expected it.

Then Sano drew away, embarrassed maybe, that evasive look in his eyes that hinted at it, at least, and shoved his hands into his pockets. "Okay. You wanna get out of here, then?"

Kenshin nodded, crossing the lapels of the shirt and belting it, slipping the sword through that and donning the jacket loose to hide it. He would not go weaponless again, regardless of the local authorities disapproval. If he had to take up the argument physically, so be it. He had no intention of being here for longer than it took to board that ship and leave Ceylon behind him.

Sano snuffed out the candle and followed him out into the darkness. Hours yet till dawn and the sky was inky with cloud cover that spilled a steady, driving rain. No moon, no stars, but even with the lost time and disorientation he'd suffered, Kenshin's internal clock tended towards accuracy.

Sano didn't second guess Kenshin's sense of direction this time, following along, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his own native jacket, eyeing the dark alleys and the places possible danger might lie concealed. On edge as much as Kenshin. But the streets were quiet, abandoned in the hours of pre-dawn, the rain driving even the most relentless late reveler or diligent authority inside.

There were lights along the harbor though. Lanterns flickering weakly against stormy darkness. Always there were men awake and aware at the harbor, keeping ship's time, which was ruled by tides instead of night and day.

The port of Kolomtoa was one long stretch of boardwalk and docks, none of them labeled for the uninformed. Kenshin had no idea if a Dutch Schooner differed from a British one or an American one and comprehending foreign names painted on the bows of no few ships was beyond him. A daunting task, finding a particular ship, when the masts sprang like a vast, barren forest for what seemed miles of harbor. When only a portion of them were moored along the pier, a great many anchored in the bay, traveled to and from in small boats that even now dotted the water.

There was nothing to do but ask, which Sano did, having a greater grasp of the native language than Kenshin. Sano, like Kenji, had a knack for picking up foreign words and retaining them. Though he'd scoffed at Saitou's offer to teach on the voyage here, Sano having little patience for lessons that did not involve fighting techniques or sport, he'd picked up casual words easier than Kenshin. Sano claimed to be fairly adept with at least two Chinese dialects that he'd picked up during his travels on the mainland.

They were directed far, far down the harbor, by an inebriated old dockhand. A miserable walk, drenched and frustrated by the time they reached a stretch of docks where a round eyed sailor pointed when Sano spoke the name of the ship they were seeking and they saw a schooner three berths down with a modicum of activity. Men hunched under canvas coats in the rain, loading the last of provisions and cargo onto a fat bellied schooner with a much chipped, weather worn, golden haired mermaid gracing her bow.

"About damned time," Sano muttered, heading that way.

Kenshin started after him, then hesitated, something making the skin on the back of his arms prickle. He caught the edge of Sano's jacket, stalling his progress. Staring with intent into the shadows along the warehouse side of the dock, even as Sano paused, glancing back in question. He saw a glint of something. The almost imperceptible flicker of movement in the shadow of an alleyway.

Sano gave him a look, questioning and Kenshin flicked his eyes that direction, a subtle warning. Sano narrowed his own, glancing that way, but there was nothing now. Sano kept moving, casual saunter, that Kenshin followed, arms folded across his middle inside the jacket, fingers grazing the hilt of the sword.

The stone at Sano's feet spat up, simultaneous with the crack of gunfire. Sano yelped, dancing back, even as Kenshin looked for the source of the fire and found it as light flared from the muzzle of a gun on the roof of a building ahead of them. Sano was cursing, flinching as another shot hit too close, running for the closest shelter of an open doorway of a darkened warehouse with Kenshin on his heels.

Darker inside than out. The smell of tea battled with the stale smell of mold and dust, bales upon bales of dried leaves stacked within. There were the sound of footsteps pounding towards them, the tell tale clatter that he'd come to be familiar with from English soldiers when they ran. He did not wish a fight with them on the docks, within view of a ship he wanted badly to board. Why they were waiting for them here and now was in question though. Had they known they were coming, or simply posted at the docks, waiting to for them to attempt to escape?

He urged Sano deeper into the darkness, through the corridor made by bales of tea, even as men entered the warehouse in their wake. Turned down a maze made by bales and barrels and crates, and came to wide aisle where there was a light square of grey towards the far end. A back entrance leading out into stormy pre-dawn. That way then, towards avoiding this conflict and working their way around to the Gravenhage, slipping aboard unannounced if need be, in efforts to be on her when she sailed.

A man lunged out of the dark at them from between bales, wielding a knife, hard to see in the dark. Sano smashed a fist in his face before he could jab at him with it, and the man tumbled backwards into a bale. But he was only the first. Others scurried out like rats from the darkness, blocking the way out.

Natives mostly, with knives and clubs, but English soldiers mixed in. But not the usual spotlessly uniformed ones that usually patrolled the city. Collars loosened, jackets rumpled as if they'd spent hours at ease or, from the faint smell of alcohol, hours at a tavern, before they'd come here. It made sense. Winter had no official power here, but he'd claimed to have no few of his countrymen in his pocket. Off duty soldiers doing favors then, like the ones that had apprehended Kenshin at the park.

Kenshin stopped next to Sano, fingertips on his arm, a quiet warning to think before he jumped into a fray that involved no few guns. A few of them held lanterns, a stuttering light that cast more shadows that they chased away. But it would give them the light to aim by.

"The carrying of weapons is not permitted," one of the soldiers barked, rifle held at ready. Kenshin shifted his stance somewhat, giving them his side, not relaxing his hand on the hilt of his sword. Eyes traveling among them until he settled on a figure moving in from the darkness at one side. A bruised, sorry seeming man with darkened eyes and a bandage covering one side of his face.

Winter. Who had survived after all and stood there, between two of the English, a revolver in his hand, that he brought up, pointing directly at Kenshin.

"I should have listened to Jun's advice and killed you first chance I had."

Kenshin said nothing. Didn't move. Just stood there meeting Winter's gaze.

"I want those papers back, damn you," Winter snapped.

"I don't have them," Kenshin said softly.

Winter laughed, and there was the faintest trace of desperation amidst the bravado. A man that had risked much and lost much in the process. A man with very little more to lose but pride and his chance at vengeance. Sano's viper, waiting for his moment to strike.

"Did you think," Winter hissed. "I wouldn't know when passage was booked on the first ship out of port on the trail of your little girl?"

Kenshin's thumb caressed the tsuba of his blade, not quite enough pressure to slide the sword from the mouth of the scabbard.

"So, this is the bastard who caused all the trouble?" Sano casually inquired, giving Winter the once over.

Winter's eyes flicked to him. Others did, a shifting of nervous men.

"Looks like you kicked his ass right good," Sano remarked.

Winter's eyes narrowed and Kenshin saw the faint tensing as his finger tightened on the trigger. He moved before the retort of the gun echoed in the cavernous chamber, sword drawn so fast that sparks spit from the metal clearing the sheath. No thought involved, simply instinct that directed the blade and he felt the impact of bullet glancing off metal, a tinge in the tight scar tissue on his palm. He stood there, half in front of Sano, who the bullet had been meant for, glaring narrow eyed at Winter.

"Shit," Sano said, after the fact.

Winter blinked at him. No few of them did, scrambling to readjust weapons, the British glowering, trying stubbornly to seem unimpressed, the natives casting nervous looks amongst themselves.

Sano could hold his own against them, thugs with clubs and knives, given the chance, but guns were a whole different matter. There were only so many bullets that Kenshin could keep track of, before they cut one or the other of them down. The light was a problem. Men needed light to aim by, and there were two lanterns providing that.

"Kill them both, " Winter made a short, frustrated wave and Kenshin moved. Had to hope Sano did, as gunfire exploded, echoes of it reverberating through the warehouse.

He darted in, low, fast, feeling the blood rushing in his veins, the thud of his heart, the smooth leather of the hilt in his hand. He shattered the barrel of a gun before the second shot rang out. Knocked out the first lantern, and the man holding it. Delved into the mass of them, focused on nothing but the blade and the almost slow motion movements of the bodies around him. Took out the second lantern and this one shattered, the flames guttering on the ground. It needed a body to extinguish them. He provided it, toppling a native with a Billy club.

Darkness now, the warehouse plunged back into shadows. A few shots still ringing out, men yelling, and he couldn't spare a moment to discover if Sano were in the midst of it. Had to figure Sano was, Sano having a tendency to wade into danger instead of away from it. Sano would have to take care for himself, Kenshin could not allow himself to be distracted by it. His distraction, his weak spots for the things that mattered to him was how Winter kept getting the upper hand. And he had his own weaknesses to contend with, old wounds half healed and new ones reminding him very avidly of their existence.

He propelled himself over the back of the man he'd just dispatched, feeling the buzz of a bullet that whizzed past his head, lucky coincidence, and took a man with a rifle down. Came down and spun low, cutting the legs out from under another. Anything but the sakabatou would have hamstrung a man. Anything but the sakabatou would have left a trail of death in his wake.

Men cried out, scuffling, disoriented, the sounds of conflict that wasn't centered on him, letting him know Sano was holding his own. Kenshin crouched for a moment, half kneeling on the man he'd most recently downed, finding his bearing in the darkness. He took half a breath more to flex his hand around the hilt. He could ignore the pain, but he could not afford for a hand not entirely whole, to cost him his grip.

He saw the silhouette of a man in the doorway. Jammed the hilt of his sword into the gut of one staggering towards him from behind. Cut down another few unlucky enough to get in his way and took off after Winter.

Winter, half turned, fired at him as he ran out into the jumbled alley behind the warehouse. Kenshin dodged to the side, lunged in low and Winter fired again, not even aiming for him this time, aiming behind him. He heard a curse that sounded like Sano, ignored his own sense of self-preservation and looked back, seeing Sano clutching his side, back against the edge of the warehouse door.

Kenshin hissed air through his teeth and spun back and found himself facing the muzzle of Winter's gun. Too familiar a position. He froze, staring past that dark bole to Winter's eyes.

"You son of a bitch," Winter snarled at him, a furious man. A desperate one. "You've destroyed my prospects twice over. If you think I won't find your woman and your brat after I put a bullet through your brain and do the same to them, you're naïve."

He squeezed the trigger, but his finger lost strength even as his mouth opened, gaping, eyes shocked wide, looking down at the blade in his gut. A killing blow that angled up towards his heart. The same sort of blow that had killed Erizowa's daughter.

"You - -" Winter gasped on the last of his breath, then toppled, sliding off Kenshin's blade.

Kenshin stood there, staring, thinking he should feel something more than he did. When he'd killed the man at Winter's mansion it had been unintended - - a desperate reflex action and he'd regretted it. This - - he'd known exactly what it was he was about and gone about it with clean, quick efficiency. His vow truly thrown to the four winds and he couldn't - - at that moment - - work up the emotion to care.

The rain was washing the blood off his blade, turning it pink and translucent.

Blood.

Sano. He spun, numb washed away like the blood, as he recalled Sano hit. The look of surprise on his face. But Sano was still on his feet, back against the warehouse door, one hand inside his jacket against his side, but looking less than mortally wounded.

"Sano?" Kenshin moved towards him, blade still naked in his hand. There were bodies in the warehouse that were groaning, painfully trying to push themselves up.

"Winged me," Sano said, trying for a grin, but wincing instead. Kenshin swallowed, not believing him, reaching out with his free hand and lifting Sano's jacket. Sano moved his hand so Kenshin could see. A gouge above Sano's hip, bleeding profusely, but not deep.

He looked up, meeting Sano's dark eyes. Worried eyes.

"You okay?" Sano asked.

Kenshin was not aware that he'd taken wounds. But then, he didn't think that was what Sano had meant. He shook his head, finding that he could not, at the moment, speak of it. He thought Kaoru would be terribly disappointed in him. All her faith shattered. She might not look at him the same again and she might have the right, because all it took to invite the stain back in was the blood at the end of a blade. He'd spent years convincing himself of just that, after all.

Sano's fingers caught his jaw, and he blinked, surprised, into Sano's eyes again. "Remember. Snake. Head. You did what needed doing. Don't forget it."


Sano wasn't sure Kenshin believed him. Despite the grim look on Kenshin's face, there was something hollow in his eyes. Guilt, self-recrimination - - who the hell knew what was going through his head with his sword fresh from gutting the son of a bitch who lay in a wet heap in the mud beyond them. The rest of the bastards were certainly alive, some of them struggling back to painful consciousness even now.

Sano pushed himself off the wall and put an elbow into the face of a man that had staggered out from the shadows of the warehouse, and Kenshin blinked, having missed the movement entirely, which just boded damned ill if Kenshin's attention was that badly shot. Kenshin didn't miss things. Not even the little stuff.

Sano caught Kenshin's arm, getting them moving, ignoring the sting of the bullet graze in his side. Hard to tell if it were blood or rain dribbling down his hip, but he didn't have the luxury to stop and find out. Kenshin shook off whatever had been stalling him, and sheathed the sword, picking his way behind Sano through the narrow little passage between this warehouse and the next. Garbage littered and treacherous, it was as quick a way back out to the pier as they had available to them.

Onto the dockside street and other than a sailor at the rail of the closest ship at berth staring with sluggish interest in the direction of the warehouse, their little scuffle, gunshots and all, had caused no one to spill out into the streets to find out the source of the commotion. Sano figured anyone sleeping it off on this street, was probably too drunk for a little late night or early morning brawl to disturb them.

Kenshin slipped warily past him though, hand on the sheath of his sword, moving that way he did when he was on the prowl, that perfectly lethal grace that he moved with when he wasn't trying to hide it and make the world think he was something less than what he was.

Sano was less cautious and strode out, staring up at the rooftops, figuring if there was somebody still up there willing to shoot at them, they might as well get it over with. But no shots came. Nobody came pursuing them at all, the hired thugs probably running soon as they realized their payroll was dead, and English soldiers more than likely not wanting to have to explain how they'd come to be embroiled in this to begin with. But that wouldn't last. Somebody would grow balls and report it to somebody not in Winter's pocket. So he and Kenshin needed to be safely out of here before the law descended.

Their ship was a couple of berths down, maybe far enough for the men scrambling around deck not to have noticed the scuffle down the street. Maybe not, because a big, pale haired guy with a glower and wicked boat hook in hand, barred their way before they even got the end of the boarding ramp.

"Gravenhage?" Sano pointed to the ship.

The guy nodded warily and Sano gave him his best, least threatening smile and said in Ceylonese. "We've got passage booked."

The guy stared at them dubiously, stared down at the hilt of Kenshin's sword and damned if Kenshin didn't have an expression on his face that might have given any sane man pause. So Sano sort of shouldered in front of him, amazed that he was the one having to put on the harmless, negotiators face, and repeated, slower, in case he'd spoken it wrong, or the guy didn't understand the language any better than he did.

"Sagara." He indicated himself, then jerked a thumb back at Kenshin. "Himura. Guy booked us passage yesterday."

The sailor frowned, then barked something over his shoulder, and another darker fellow came to the end of the ramp and looked down and said something back. Completely incomprehensible language. It didn't even sound like English.

Then, the dark one said in heavily accented Japanese. "You late. Another few minutes - - left without you."

He beckoned and they edged past the boathook and up the ramp.

"No baggage?" The dark one asked.

"Traveling light." Sano shrugged.

The sailor motioned them to follow as if he had better things to do, and led them to the hatch leading below decks. "Cabin this way."

They passed the open door of another cabin, where a matronly woman in a sari and a girl looked up at their passage, then down to the end of the corridor to a room little larger than a closet with two hammocks on hooks, one above the other, neither one long enough, Sano thought, to accommodate his length. Figures Saitou would book them the cheapest berth possible.

He leaned against the door while the sailor left, wondering if they'd get breakfast, while Kenshin stood half in the room, staring blindly at the dusty corner. Reliving things inside his head, Sano figured. Second guessing himself maybe. Thinking up ways to ramp up that guilt he liked to carry around. Idiot.

Sano lifted his jacket finally, looking down at the finger thick furrow in his side. It was still bleeding, soaking into the waist of his trousers.

"Sano," Kenshin finally swung his attention back to reality, and stared with concern at the wound.

Sano shrugged. "No big deal."

"We need to stop the bleeding." Kenshin looked around for something to accomplish that. There were wool blankets inside the unstrung hammocks, but damned if Sano wanted scratchy wool against a fresh wound. He was ready to tear a few strips off the hem of his jacket when there was a soft feminine gasp and the older woman from down the hall stopped in the passage and stared with dark, black rimmed eyes at his bleeding side.

"It's okay --" he started, figuring she'd freak out and maybe call one of the crew and the last thing they needed was trouble before the ship was out of dock. But she only called something to the girl, who stuck her head out their cabin door, then swept past Kenshin who was standing there dripping, and not doing much of anything useful, and took charge like a woman who was used to men who didn't have the sense to care for their own needs.

"How long has this been bleeding? Come, come," she urged him out of the doorway and down the hall towards her cabin. He gave Kenshin a bemused look in passing and let her pull him that way. He half saw Kenshin slide the sheathed sword out of his belt and set it inside their own small cabin, before he drifted after, standing in the corridor outside the door while the girl gave the woman strips of cloth to clean the wound, then opened a box filled with little jars.

The woman spoke excellent Japanese, though she was Hindu if Sano were any judge. Old enough to be his mother. Hell, old enough to be his grandmother, maybe, but still not bad looking with her black hair only lightly streaked with grey and pulled back tightly in a bun at the back of her neck. She had a red bindi dot on her forehead, and large dark eyes that spoke wisdom and mystery.

She dabbed ointment of some sort into the furrow, which stung like a bitch at first, then turned the whole thing blessedly numb. Then placed a thick wad of clean bandages over it and secured it with a strip of cloth wound round his waist a time or two.

"Thanks - - for this," he indicated his newly bandaged wound, shrugging on his damp jacket again, feeling a little embarrassed, standing there with bare torso in front of a pair of strange women. "Umm - - you speak pretty good Japanese."

"As do you," the woman smiled at him and he thought maybe there was a gentle jibe there, but wasn't certain.

They stood staring at him, the old one and the young one, who was looking up from under her lashes, a slight smile on her face, less subtle than her mistress.

"Um - -yeah. Thanks," Sano backed out, feeling awkward. Kenshin bowed at them politely, silently, and preceded Sano down the corridor back to their own cabin. Better to stay off deck and out of sight until the ship sailed out of dock.

"Well," Sano said, taking stock of the cabin. There was a spindly table bolted to the wall with a chamber pot atop it. A couple of nets for stowing gear hanging from hooks inside the door. That was it. The top hammock, when strung up looked to put a man's face not far from the low ceiling. Neither one offered many options to do anything other than sleep, unless a man got damned creative. All things considered, Sano doubted Kenshin would be up for anything mundane, much less creative for the foreseeable future. Which meant this was going to be a long five days sailing to Madras.

"You get the top bunk." Sano flopped down on the newly strung bottom one. Kenshin gave him a tired look. Slowly let himself fold down to a comfortable position, cross-legged against the wall next to the corner where his sword was, gone silent, turning things over in his head.

Sano sighed, figuring that going over it again a waste of his breath. Kenshin would chew on this as long as he had to, either coming to some reasonable conclusion or some skewed, honor bound one that only someone raised in the way of a hidebound samurai could fathom.

"I think I'll take a nap." Sano stuffed his hands behind his head, finding a comfortable enough position in the hammock if he let one leg dangle just so. "Wake me if they ring the breakfast bell."


It wasn't breakfast that woke Sano from his doze, but a crack of thunder. He started awake, clutching for support that wasn't there as the hammock swayed. This was no ship at port, but one well out to sea, he could feel it in the constant, rollicking motion when he put his feet to the deck.

"Damn, " he swore softly, having no fondness for storms at sea. The last one, on the boat back from China to Japan, had had him vomiting into a pail for a day and a half. That was one of those little details he'd left out of his adventures when he'd recounted them to Kenshin.

Kenshin who still sat against the wall, arms across his knees, head down, dozing maybe, despite the storm in that guarded position he'd resort to when there were enemies at his back, or demons nipping at the edges of his sanity. Sano figured those demons were mightily agitated now.

He sighed, swinging his legs off the hammock and perching there a moment as the boat tipped under him, trying to steady his head and his stomach. Whatever had been blowing into port when they'd boarded this ship, they'd apparently sailed right into. He blew out a breath, trying to find that calm that would stave of nausea. Stretched and winched a little at the pull from the wound in his side. His clothing was dry though, so he'd slept a good few hours, he guessed.

He nudged Kenshin with his foot and his head came up, eyes mostly hidden by unruly hair.

"So looks like we've got a storm." Sano stated the obvious.

Kenshin didn't offer response. He looked a little paler than usual. Maybe not dealing so well with all the rocking of the deck either. It made Sano feel a little better, the idea of shared nausea.

"I'm hungry. Gonna head to the galley. Coming?"

Kenshin shook his head. The long silences always tended to make Sano a little crazy. A little irritable.

"You gonna sit here and sulk?"

Kenshin slanted a narrow eyed look up at him.

And it wasn't fair, accusing him of it. Really it wasn't. This was a no small thing to Kenshin. It had been no small thing when he'd admitted to the death at his hands at Winter's estate and that hadn't really even been his fault, far as Sano could see. What he'd done to Winter - - well, Sano had heard those threats - - Sano would have killed the guy and it wasn't even his family that had been on the receiving end of them. It was a wonder Kenshin had been thinking at all. Likely, he hadn't been.

But, Kenshin pushed himself up. A little less graceful than usual. A little effort put into gaining his balance once he had his feet under him. The sway of the deck maybe - - maybe he'd just gone stiff and sore from the damage he'd taken under Winter's care, finally. It was overdue.

Sano stuffed his hands into his pockets, and headed out the cabin down the corridor and the hatch leading down. Found the galley easy enough by the scent of food. It smelled like gruel and exotic spices - - not an entirely appealing smell when he was a little unsteady on his feet - - but his stomach was rumbling despite it and Sano was game to give it a try.

A long narrow cabin, with two plank tables with benches bolted to the floor and a swinging door leading to the galley proper. This was the passenger galley, not the crew one, and there were about a half dozen people already there. The two Indian women. A group of Hindu men with beards and turbans gathered together at the end of the table. An elderly European looking man with his nose in a book, ignoring them all. The women were playing some game involving an embroidered, cross-shaped piece of cloth and an array of small gaming pieces.

A ship's boy, dark skinned and skinny and not more than twelve, asked in English what they wished. Sano caught part of the question. The elderly Indian woman was kind enough to translate. "He asks if you wish breakfast?"

"Sure," Sano said and glanced at Kenshin

"Just tea."

The lady told that to the lad, and the boy scurried through the galley door.

Sano sat down not far from the women, Kenshin settling beside him. He leaned an elbow on the table and put on his smooth smile. He had hit and miss success with women, some loved him, some hated him and damned if he knew exactly what any of them were thinking, but these two had helped him out and he assumed some good will from them.

"Thanks. Again. I keep meaning to pick up a little English."

The older woman inclined her head. "Wise choice. The English are voracious in their pursuit of empires. Knowledge of their tongue is only prudent."

"You're pretty good at a lot of languages, huh?"

"My husband was a scholar of some repute."

The boy brought out a trey with a bowl of lumpy, white porridge and two metal mugs of tea. Kenshin looked at Sano's bowl, then away. Sano took a breath, figured if it came up again, it couldn't look much worse than it did now, and delved in.

"What game is that?" Kenshin asked softly, sounding a little strangled, and probably not really caring about it as much as he was trying to get his attention away from the sight and smell of Sano's breakfast.

"It is called Chopat," the older one said. "It is a very old game."

Kenshin gave her a faltering smile, inclining his head, but his heart wasn't in engaging in conversation, that was clear. Sano slid down the bench, leaving his empty bowl behind, and looked at the game himself. It didn't seem the sort of thing one might easily place bets on - - it seemed rather a long, complicated mess, so his interest was limited. But the younger girl was pretty - - dark and exotic - - and it was better than sitting there trading silences with Kenshin.

"So, you two headed for Madras, huh? You live there?"

"For many years," the matron said. "I am Pakshi wife of Narasimha Chopras. This is Satya, my niece."

The girl lowered her lashes and gave Sano a flirty look. A man had to be flattered, especially sitting next to Kenshin who had the irritating and entirely unwitting ability to draw female attention. Sano remember fondly how it had habitually driven Kaoru mad. Doubly so when Kenshin hadn't noticed half the time.

"Satya. Pretty name." Sano grinned at her. The girl didn't blush, and she should have, sitting next to her aunt and looking at Sano the way she was looking. Or maybe it was just him being used to Japanese girls and not Indian ones, and she wasn't really casting him an invitation with her pretty eyes.

"Thank you, Pakshi san, for your help before," Kenshin said. And maybe he'd noticed the invitation in the girl's eyes too - - amazing - - because there was actually the slightest hint of edge in his voice, which made Sano's grin all the wider.

She inclined her head, accepting that. Waiting for them to return the favor of names.

Sano jumped in when Kenshin didn't immediately. "I'm Sano. He's Kenshin."

"What business do two fine Japanese gentlemen have in Madras?" the niece asked tartly, and Sano had to laugh, never having had the occasion to be called a fine gentleman before.

"We're after a ship," Sano said, and caught the barest flicker of Kenshin's eyes. Not happy with him blurting their intentions for all to hear. Kenshin could be damned secretive, but then, Kenshin had grown to manhood in the midst of a lot of dicey politics and backstabbing during the revolution, so maybe it was just survival instinct. Sano sure hadn't had to deal with the dark maneuverings of the minds behind the Meiji when he'd been doing his part in that same revolution. He hadn't been anybody's weapon - - not like Kenshin had been.

"Ah. Many ships travel to Madras."

"This one has a girl and a kid on board - -"

"Sano - -" Soft warning.

"Yeah? I don't see what difference it makes."

Kenshin said nothing to that flare of temper. Just folded his hands around the mug of tea and stared into its faintly rippling surface. The woman, Pakshi, watched him for a moment, dark eyes moving from him to Sano.

Finally she turned her attention back to the game. "Would you care to learn - -?"

"Sure." It was close to a week's sailing time from Colombo to Madras, India. What else did he have to do?

 

 

 

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