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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 27

 

Sano left and it was like relief of pressure that had built and built, held at bay the entire walk here, held rigidly in check while women with faces that were blurred in his memory had clustered, speaking too fast, too loudly to be anything but light and noise.

In this quiet place, in the shadows, with the sounds of a city muted and distant - - with no witnesses - - he choked on a breath - - leaned over his knees on the window seat, chest burning with the raw ache of spiritual pain made physical.

Arguing with Sano about the validity of hope was not a thing he could do and keep any semblance of composure. But he knew - - he knew that luck had swung his way on an edge finer than a sharp blade for far too many times for it to turn his way this one last crucial time. He felt it in his gut.

Images and smells and sounds slid across his memory, one by one, relentless, welcome, devastating. Her voice, her scent, the ghost of her smile or her scowl, of her furrow of concentration when she was intent on getting a stance just so, so as not to embarrass herself in front of students, the curve of her body in the darkness when she shed her robes - -

He dug his fingers into his hair and rocked, wetness winning past the barrier of clenched lids. She made him weep. She made him ache with a pain that pieced him to the core. Kenji thoughts made him want to find a bottle and drown himself in it. Made him welcome that offer of violence Sano had made him when he'd woken this morning - - made him very much wish for painful oblivion to escape the notion of his child dead.

He wasn't sure he wanted to go to the shipping authority and have his fears confirmed. He wasn't sure he wanted to go on period, when he doubted the pain and the grief and the guilt would ever go away.

Hiko would have laughed at him in scorn and called him a coward. Sano would have and cursed him. But he hurt and he was tired and there was a point fighting it became too hard.


The women and damned, there were a lot of them filling the courtyard that seemed the main gathering spot for the extended family, were more somber when Sano came back down. Pakshi and Satya had informed them of the details of the situation, and a multitude of somber, painted eyes turned to him when he shuffled into the courtyard.

The invited him into their midst with a clatter of beckoning, braceleted hands. They had a platter of cut fruit and a pitcher watered down wine on a low table that the majority of them sat around on pillows and strewn cushions. He sank down on a cushion between Satya and a plump girl of similar age. Two or three of them offered him wine simultaneously, and glared at each other afterwards. The old woman, Pakshi's husband's sister, if Sano recalled, poured it herself and Sano hid a grin at the miffed looks exchanged between the younger girls.

"How is he?" Satya asked, leaning forward with the superiority of longer acquaintance.

"Better, once we find out something one way or another." Sano didn't want to discuss Kenshin with them. He didn't want Kenshin a subject for speculation among them, when Kenshin was teetering on the fine edge of losing it.

But women were women, and they spoke among themselves of the tragedy. Of how horrible to die swallowed up by the sea. Of how terrible for a husband to lose a wife and child. But he was certainly young enough to marry again and father many more children. And was Sano married? Tall and fit as he was, he'd father fine sons.

Sano swallowed his goblet of wine and edged it over for the old woman to refill. She gave him a wry look, understanding his need and filled it to the rim.

"Uncle Narasimha left very respectable dowries for his nieces," the plump one, who he thought was called Natun, hinted.

"This is a nice house," Sano veered off that subject uncomfortably. "What did your uncle do?"

"Our father was the second son of the brother of a prince of Oressa." The old woman said. "Family money, even after the British tried to tax it to death. Narasimha had his books and was renowned in all of India for his studies. Even among the English, who consider themselves the only truly educated people. There is a room in this house filled with his books and his scrolls. Pakshi refuses to be rid of them, even though we could use the space."

She waved a hand at a quiet, very pregnant young woman at the edge of the gathering.

Sano slid his gaze across the assembled collection of women. Rajiv had made himself scarce, as well as Pakshi herself. No husbands, no brothers, only the one son. It was an unusual lack of men in a house full of women of marriageable age.

Pakshi descended not long after, in a sari of finer quality than her traveling one.

"Have they been pestering you with their nonsense?" She asked after stopping at a niche with the stone image of a graciously endowed, multi-armed woman and offering respect.

"He's a man," the old woman said, waving a dismissive hand. "What man shrivels under the attention of pretty girls?"

Pakshi gave her a sharp look and Sano got the feeling the two of them, eldest of the household, butted heads frequently.

"Fetch Rajiv from where ever he's off to. I'll need him as escort."

"I'll go," Satya said.

"No." Pakshi said simply and the girl settled back down, pouting.

"So, we ready to go?" Sano asked and the woman nodded.

"Okay. I'll get Kenshin."

 


The Madras port authority complex was on the north side of Fort St. George, which served as the headquarters for the British government in Madras. There was a concentration of English there, diplomats, soldiers and their families, and the architecture reflected that with a touch of European lines.

It was close to an hour's walk from Pakshi's house, but the afternoon had cooled somewhat, rife with a strong breeze in off the bay and the path she led them on was less congested than the way in from the docks. The streets here were more orderly once they reached the north side, a great deal more white skinned people mingling with the brown. A great many uniformed soldiers, both British and Indian on patrol.

The Port Authority was a sprawling, white washed stone complex that looked as if bits and pieces of it had been added on with different flavors of architecture over the years. There was a congestion of traffic outside, carriages and wagons and tethered horses. People coming and going from various offices, on various errands.

Pakshi, one of the few women in evidence, weeded her way inside, with Rajiv, Sano and Kenshin in her wake. Her sex and the rich cut of her sari afforded her some respect, men making way and doffing caps. There were no few military men in evidence, some in red-coated uniforms, some in sand colored ones. Pakshi found a clerk and made inquiries and was directed to offices in the back. Another clerk took note of her, as they made their way forward, and rose to politely inquire what service he might grant. Their exchange of English was too rapid for Sano to easily follow, so he stood there, next to Kenshin, and watched a cluster of men who were very obviously military outside an office at the end of the hall. There were raised voices within and soon a man of some rank, if the array of decoration on his uniform breast were any indication, came storming out. The lot of milling soldiers outside the office fell into step as he stalked down the hall, passing them with nary a glance.

Rajiv tugged on Sano's sleeve, eyes wide and whispered in his halting Japanese. "It is him. Sir Fletcher."

"Who's he?"

"He commanded the order of the Star of India, the fiercest of regiments. He is second only to Lord Roberts in command of the army in Southern India."

"Seems pissed," Sano observed, watching the retreat of the broad shouldered, balding man in the company of his subordinates.

Pakshi, after a pause while the General passed, was still speaking with the Clerk. After a moment, the man went to the very office Sir Fletcher had stormed out of, and spoke quietly to the occupant. He waved them forward as a harassed looking Englishman stepped out.

"Lady Pakshi," he said and glanced past her to them. She indicated Kenshin and him and spoke in English and Sano picked up words here and there. Kenshin was very still and very quiet, picking up less than Sano, Sano figured. The man offered Pakshi a chair on one side of a cluttered desk. Kenshin refused, standing just inside the door, so Sano stood with him, waiting while Pakshi spoke with the official.

There was nothing in his face, as they spoke, that indicated the good fortune of having found survivors of a shipwreck. Whenever he cast a glance at Kenshin, all he saw was hair shielding his eyes, and a mouth taut with tension. Finally, the man rose and Pakshi did, the former showing her out with a hand hovering at the small of her back. Inclining his head respectfully at her, and casting them all sad, tired looks, before he retreated back into his office.

"What did he say?" Sano asked, before the door had even closed.

She didn't answer, moving through the press of people, scarves swaying. Finally, when they'd breached the doors and stood on the wide stone steps outside, she turned and tried to take Kenshin's hand in hers.

He refused to let her, backing a half step away and asking simply. "Tell me what he said, Pakshi San."

"They have found no survivors. The Eastcourt went down far enough from land that they hold little hope for finding any. The Company has called off its search and the only reason that the British navy still carries out its own search is that General Fletcher had a son on board the Eastcourt and has great influence with the admiral of the British fleet here in Madras. But soon, they too will stop their patrols. I am sorry."

"Thank you, Pakshi San," Kenshin said quietly.

"Wait, but there's always a chance, right?" Sano said. "You hear of sailors or fishermen whose ships went down in storms floating around on debris for days until somebody finds them."

"Such things do happen," she agreed, but she sounded less than hopeful. "They will carry word to you at my residence if anything is discovered."

 


 

It was easy enough to slip away. Even from Sano who kept casting him worried looks, but was willing enough to give him the space that he so badly wanted. Simple to fall back, as they walked, Sano distracted by something on the street, and melt into the crowd of a bisecting road.

Towards the bay and the dock street that ran adjacent. Through those crowds that he barely registered, until the docks became fewer and more dilapidated, and finally the wharfs gave way to stone jetties and eventually to sand beaches. The docks were far and away, the forest of masts grey in the distance. The outline of the city was as well, its profile foreign and strange from the rooftops of Japan he was used to. The sounds of it were muted by the crash of waves.

There was nothing here but fishing shacks and trees shielding a dirt road leading towards the city outskirts, where the occasional person walked, baskets or bundles perched on their shoulders, or balanced on their heads. There was the shrill laughter of a group of boys, playing tag with the surf. Further down a pair of fishermen hauled in a wide expanse of net. Kenshin stopped on the beach staring out into the water at the darkening vista of the horizon. Afternoon coming to a close and he wasn't sure where the day had gone. It seemed only hours ago that Sano had woken him on the ship.

The boys screamed in delight down the beach, having found some spidery crab and tossing it among themselves. He thought he saw a smaller one out in the waves, past the white crashing surf. Bobbing in the current, face small and round and paler than these Indian boys. Familiar. He shaded his eyes against a sun close to the horizon, trying to make out that small shape. He was in the water before he realized he'd been moving that way, fighting his way through waves that wanted to knock him off his feet, looking for that small dark head, but the swells kept hiding it from him.

A surging whitecap knocked him off his feet and he went under, struggling up desperately seeking that vision. But it eluded him. All he could see was foam and the occasional gull riding the waves that inexplicably pushed him back towards shore. He sat on wet sand once he'd reached it, the froth rushing up and dragging the earth out from under him with each pass. Dug his hands into the sand helplessly and stared into the face of the uncaring sea. There was nothing he could do. Nothing he could do. The thought kept repeating itself in his head, again and again. Sometimes in her voice. Her tones of accusation. Useless. Everything he was - - all his skills, all the experience in the world at the sorts of things he'd been brought up to deal with - - useless to them. He'd as well grown up that superstitious, ignorant peasant farmer as a swordsman of notorious repute for all the help he'd been them. That farmer might still have a family, safe and poor and working their fingers till they bled in someone else's fields. But alive. At least we'd be alive.

Nothing he was had made any difference for them and he knew what he had to do. He rose, an odd, faint numb in his extremities. An odd muffled numb padding his senses. He'd wondered far from Pakshi's house, but he knew the way back. Stone sober, he could find his way back to any path he'd previously tread.

It was dark by the time he reached Pakshi's house. Her street was filled with the smells of supper cooking, of grilled meats and spices. A wealthy street to boast such scents. He stood outside the door and listened for Sano's presence. Heard his voice, finally, amidst the voices of women, likely in the courtyard. Not this way in, then if he wanted to avoid confrontation. There was an alley between houses and he navigated that, a neat stone path, well tended, that led to a walled enclosure where chickens rustled quietly in the growing shadows. The gate was latched, but up and over was not a hindrance for him. He hesitated at the top of the wall, and instead of dropping to the yard below, leapt to the open sill of a window on the second floor.

He crept through a darkened room that smelled of perfumes and spices, with silks over the arms of a chair and womanly things scattered on a vanity with a small, scuffed mirror. It did not smell of Pakshi's scent, so he moved on, silently moving out onto the railed deck that overlooked the courtyard. A large yard, with a fruit baring tree, and a fountain, and a large stone pit which a fire crackled in merrily, roasting skewers of something, while women sat on the edge, keeping charge of the cooking. He saw Sano sitting cross legged under the fruit tree, several of the young women not charged with the cooking, gathered around him. Sano looked less than pleased with their chatter, a scowl on his face, his mouth tight. Not so much annoyed with his feminine hosts, Kenshin thought, as with him. Sano would be upset and angry.

Pakshi was not below though, and he moved on, quiet as Cat on the prowl, until he found a room with a presence within. He knocked once, softly on the door, before slipping in. She looked up in surprise at him, her hands stalled in the process of twining her long hair.

"Forgive me, Pakshi san, for the intrusion. But I need my sword."

She stared at him, large dark eyes, a woman that had without doubt been a beauty of her generation in her youth. Carefully she laid her hair, unbound, across her shoulders and nodded. Rose, and went to a large trunk just inside her door. Inside, atop folded clothes and cloth and the packages a woman might buy to take home with her on the completion of a long journey, lay his sakabatou. She retrieved it and offered it to him upon her open palms.

"He was afraid for you when he gave it to me for safekeeping."

Kenshin closed his fists around the sheath, meeting her eyes for a long silent moment. Not entirely remembering what had happened that night on the ship after he'd learned of the sinking of Kaoru's boat. Perhaps he had given Sano reason to doubt.

"Thank you - - for everything. Thank you for taking care of him - -" he broke off, not sure what it was he needed to ask of her. Too many things battling for dominance in his head. He couldn't shake the vision of Kenji bobbing in the waves - -or the sound of Kaoru's voice in his head.

He backed away, leaving her the way he'd come, heard her call out, but ignored her. Down that walk like a shadow and out the window to the garden gate.

No meandering slow journey this time, sure of his path as he was, back to the outskirts of the city and the beach. Full night now, the moon risen high and casting wan blue light upon the world. The dark shielded him and the weapon he carried from late night travelers that he passed. Held close to his body, even the night watch were none he wiser.

The beach was deserted when he returned to it. Fishermen returned to their homes, nets neatly stacked far enough up the beach that the tides could not reach them. Even the gulls had left, retreated to wherever it was that they nested for night. The only life was the small, skittering crabs that rushed in with the tide, scampering across wet sand, before the returning water pulled them back out. There was a twine ball, lodged in the sand, the toy of some child left behind when he returned home, safe and sound to the arms of his mother.

He drew in a shuddery breath, vision wavering on that abandoned toy. Kenji had had such a ball, that he used to play with Cat, the one game Cat lowered herself to engage in, the stalking of that tossed ball. He could hear Kenji's laughter, delighted by so simple a thing as a cat pouncing on a ball.

He could hear it now, a whisper amidst the crashing of the waves. A fleeting shimmer of white in the corner of his vision and he thought he saw a figure standing out in the waves. A woman in a pale, drenched kimono. Dark hair streaming across her face.

What good is that? She whispered and he clenched his fist around the sheath of the sword. Look where you and your ideals got us.

The waves crashed against her back, but she remained unmoved, the only wavering of her form from the water filling his eyes. He saw, hiding half behind her, a small figure, clinging to the back of her kimono.

"Forgive me," he whispered, thigh deep in the surf, and flung the sword out into the water. It was swallowed up, beyond where she waited, with barely a splash.

"What are you doing?" The question came in the form of a bellow and not in her tones. H glanced away from her, to a figure stomping down the beach. Sano, trudging through the sand along the trail of his own footprints.

"Go away," he yelled back, Sano part of the problem. Sano one of his sins against her.

"The hell - -" Sano stalked down the beach towards him, maybe having followed him all the way from Pakshi's house, alerted by that lady.

When Kenshin looked back for Kaoru, she was gone, flitted away in the white caps. He drew a desperate breath, furious at Sano for following him, for interfering, for chasing her away.

"Damn you! I don't want you here - -" He screamed it at Sano, shoving him backwards when Sano splashed into the water. "She was there - -they were there - -"

He flung an arm out towards the vastness of the ocean, where nothing but moonlight glinted now, nothing but vast darkness broken by the pale lines of whitecaps rolling towards the beach. Sano stared in confusion at the water, then back at him.

"You threw your sword away." That was Sano's concern.

"What good did it do them?" He backed away, deeper into the water and a wave crashed against his back, staggering him. "She blames me. I see it in her eyes."

"She - -? Who? Kaoru? Have you lost your damned mind? Get out of the water."

Sano made a grab for him and Kenshin hissed, evading him, but not the wave that crashed into his back, the solid sand under his feet one moment and nothing the next, turbulent water sucking him under. His back scraped bottom, salt water invaded his ears, his nose, his throat. Burning. He lost his sense of direction for a moment, no notion where surface was. Panicked. Every instinct he had screaming to fight for the surface - - even though part of him said, don't - -this is what they felt. Take the path they did and let the scales balance.

But when his feet found sandy bottom his body followed instinct and he launched himself up, spitting water and gasping for breath, considerably further out than he'd been when he'd gone under. Sano was a dark shake a dozen yards further down, desperately searching the water. Sano saw him and cursed, hair clinging to his face in dark streaming strands.

Kenshin tread water, the bottom out of his reach. There was nothing here but waves and beach and Sano. No ghostly wives. No ghostly children. The waves carried him closer to the beach and he didn't fight it. Sand under his feet again and he staggered towards shore. Sano fought his way through the waves, angling towards him. Kenshin had lost a sandal along the way. Sano still had both of his.

"She's gone, Kenshin," Sano barked at him, jaw clenched, fists clenched. "And I'm sorry- - I'm truly, truly sorry - - but she's not blaming anybody for anything anymore. And even if you weren't fucking losing it and seeing her ghost - - well her ghost would be a damned bitch if she's blaming you for any of this."

"Shut up," Kenshin cried, indignant, wailing rage blackening the edges of his vision. He hit Sano, and Sano staggered a pace back, raising a hand to his mouth. Looked at the blood on his fingers and pulled back his lips in a red rimmed grin.

"Yeah - - okay - -" he swung back and Kenshin didn't even try to avoid it.

Sano probably pulled the punch - - and it still knocked Kenshin back onto the sand. He lay there, both hands over his eyes, blood in his mouth, jaw throbbing. World reeling, and it wasn't from the blow. He could take a decent blow.

He felt the shifting of sand as Sano knelt next to him. Not touching. Just a presence.

"What do you want, Kenshin," Sano asked hoarsely. "You wanna die and join them? That what she's asking you to do? That what you want? "

"Yes," he said through clenched teeth. Then, with sinking despair. "No." Because he didn't - - not deep down where the center of him was. And maybe that was the worst betrayal of all.

"Whatever you think you're seeing - - hearing. It's not her." Sano said. "I know the twit - - and the last thing she'd ever want was you dead. She loved you, idiot."

Loved. Past tense. Sano had admitted it finally - - given up on his pretense of hope. It was a blow of sorts that he hadn't expected.

"He was three years old, Sano. He was only three - -" Everything was a blur. His throat so thick he could barely get the words out.

"I know - -I'm sorry - -" Sano did lay hands on him then, hauling him up roughly, wrapping long arms around him. Kenshin balled a fist in Sano's wet shirt, pressed his forehead against his shoulder and sobbed.

 


 

Sano swallowed blood and a little bit of sand and knelt there while Kenshin let out his grief. Other than that craziness on the ship, it was too long coming. Craziness tonight, too, with Kenshin claiming to see ghosts. He cast a wary look at the ocean, having a healthy respect for the things in the shadows and ghosts in particular - - the shades of Buddhist monks haunting their dilapidated shrine had cemented that, thank you - - and he half expected to see something hovering out there.

But there was nothing but waves, and the occasional glimmering white cap, that he supposed someone crazy with grief might in their gnarled, fevered imagination think to be a figure drifting in the water. And he believed what he'd told Kenshin. If Kaoru ever came back to haunt him as a spirit, she'd be a benevolent one, not some accusing shade pushing him towards whatever it was Kenshin had been trying to convince himself of. She'd spent the entirety of the time he'd known her damned and determined to convince Kenshin that he wasn't the monster he thought past deeds had made him.

Of course that didn't mean Kenshin wasn't seeing some sort of kappa, out to cause mischief. Water spirits were notorious for sensing weakness and exploiting it. And Gods knew, Kenshin had enough vulnerabilities now to fall prey to it.

Sano drew his brows, wishing they were further up the beach, out of the edge of the tide and things that held power in it. But he'd brave the ill intentions of water spirits if he had to, to let Kenshin get this out. Sano had lost a person or two in his life and all holding back the grief got you was messed up. You screamed, you cried, you beat the shit out of something if you had to, but you let out. Didn't mean you didn't carry it with you forever, one way or another - - but at least it got you through the day. And the next. And the next.

Kenshin wrung himself dry eventually, limp against Sano for a while after, until he stiffened a little, maybe embarrassed at the show of weakness, and pushed himself away. His hair, come loose from its tail in the waves, was a sodden, sand crusted mess clinging to face and shoulders.

"So - -" Sano had no idea what to say. So he pushed himself up, reached down and caught Kenshin's arm, hauling him up whether he wanted up or not and got them further up the beach where the sand was soft and dry, out of the domain of anything possibly out there lurking in the water. He collapsed back down then, and after a moment, Kenshin did beside him, barefoot and hollow eyed.

"You lost your sandal." Stating the obvious seemed safe enough. Sano was almost afraid to mention the sword, lost out there in the water. Gods knew what Kenshin had been thinking doing that - - but if Sano were any judge it had been some guilt-ridden attempt to punish himself. He'd regret it, Sano figured, sooner or later.

For a long time they sat there in silence, watching the waves, the slow migration of the moon, the distant silhouette of some ship sailing towards Madras harbor.

"It hurts," Kenshin whispered, barely audible.

"Yeah."

Kenshin dropped his head, tangling his fingers in his hair and didn't say more.

By the time it started misting, the moon was far behind them and the horizon over the bay turning purple and red with the onset of sunrise. Sano figured they'd sat out here long enough, clothes gone dry becoming damp again with early morning showers.

"C'mon," he pushed himself to his feet and held out a hand for Kenshin. After a moment, Kenshin accepted it and let Sano pull him to his feet. It would be a long walk back in the rain to Pakshi's and he hoped they still had a place in her home after all the drama. A smart woman, with a family of her own to look after, might well rescind her offer to houseguests not acting entirely within their right minds.

He got as far as the jetties and the houses at the outskirts of the city, before he lost his way entirely, standing in indecision at an unfamiliar cross road. He hadn't been paying a great deal of attention to his surroundings when he'd been scrambling to keep on Kenshin's trail out here. He'd barely caught sight of him at the end of Pakshi's street after she'd alerted him of Kenshin's coming and going with that sword.

Kenshin took the lead then, silently, taking the path Sano would not have chosen, if it had been left to his devices. Leading them a meandering way through grey, mostly deserted city streets in the hours before true dawn, towards Pakshi's house.

Almost he was embarrassed to knock on her door, at this hour, but he was tired and wet again and manners had never figured greatly into Sano's decision making. So he pounded a fist against the doors, while Kenshin stood mutely behind him. She answered it herself, after a few minutes, wrapped in a long robe, with her hair in a long braid across her shoulder.

Kenshin bowed deeply to her, without quite looking her in the eye. "I'm very sorry for the inconvenience, Pakshi San."

She looked more relieved than irritated, Sano thought. "What is life without its inconveniences?" she said. "I rise before the girls, regardless. I was awake."

She ushered them in, out of the rain. The courtyard was glistening with it, water running across the flagstones to a central drain. "If you wish to avoid answering questions from the girls, go upstairs now, though. You'll find dry clothing in the big blue trunk - - my husband's - - my son's - - that should make due. Go, before they rouse."

There was very wan light seeping through the inner shutters in the attic. Just enough to see by without lighting a candle. Sano found the trunk, filled with men's clothing. The belongings of Pakshi's dead. He found he wasn't picky, very much tired of wet cloth against his skin. The clothing, size wise was more suited for Kenshin - - Pakshi's men having been of average size and height, but they were loose enough to fit, even if they were short in the arm and leg. Even the plain ones were of a very fine, very soft fabric, with fine embroidery along the edges.

It had been a very long time since Sano had slept, none since the night before he'd sat vigil on Kenshin on the ship. He felt it now, that seeping exhaustion. He fell into the pile of blankets he'd tossed against a wall, trusting this time, that he could leave Kenshin to his own devices. He was asleep before he'd fully nestled down into his pallet, the sound of the rain on the roof a quiet serenade.

 

 

 

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