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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn


Chapter 28


The smell of food woke Sano up. He lay there, sunlight coming in from the inner shutter slats slanted across his face, and figured it was close to noon. Breakfast was long gone, so it must have been lunch smells that were drifting upstairs to disturb his sleep. Of course, hunger tended to trump sleep with him. Always had.

He yawned, stretched and pushed himself up from the nest he’d made for himself. There was a lump across the room, where Kenshin had made his own bed, which showed no signs of stirring. He pulled on his borrowed shirt and ran a hand through his hair, then ambled over and toed Kenshin under his blanket. He got a look for that, from under tangled hair.

“So, I think they’re making lunch. You wanna come down with me and get some?”

Kenshin made a non-committal sound and shifted an arm over his eyes.

“That a no?” Sano stood there, waiting.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Yeah? When’s the last time you ate? You remember?”

A long silence, and Kenshin finally moved his arm to stare up at Sano. He looked about as enthused at the idea of eating as he might about the notion of amputation. “I’ll get something later, Sano.”

Sano huffed, not entirely understanding how a body could ignore not having eaten for two days, emotional turmoil or not. Nothing had ever had the capacity to dull his appetite. But he allowed Kenshin the courtesy of not arguing the point and went downstairs by himself.

Lunch was indeed underway, most of the household in the courtyard about the task. The chatting paused when he appeared, all eyes turning his way, before he got the smiles and a bevy of enthusiastic greetings. The younger ones, Satya, Natun, and Disha abandoned their work to descend on him, flirting shamelessly. He could understand Kenshin maybe not being up to braving this.

Sano soldiered through, letting them lead him to the low table and offer him a prime place in the pillows. Pakshi came out not long after with her daughter, bearing bowls of food, not all of it recognizable or particularly appealing visually. She asked after Kenshin and Sano shrugged.

“He’s not up to much of a big meal.”

Pakshi nodded. “I understand. I’ll see he gets something later without a houseful of girls to pester him.”

“We don’t pester, aunt,” Natun pouted defensively.

The old sister-in-law, whose name he believed was Vachya, snorted. “Ha. The way the lot of you pant over this one and talk about the other, you’d think there were a shortage of men in India.”

“Vachya,” Pakshi waved a hand at her. “Don’t stir trouble. You embarrass our guest.”

The old woman chuckled, not deterred in the least. Sano gave her a look, amused.

Pakshi shook her head, smiling slightly. “There is a favor I would ask of you.”

“Sure,” Sano was more than willing to work for his board.

“Rajiv usually accompanies the girls to the river with the laundry, but he is behind in his studies and I would keep him here for extra lessons today - -“ she ignored the boy’s groan and went on. “Would you accompany them to the river? With the unrest from so many come to the city because of the famine in the north, I would feel better if the girls had the escort of a man.”

Which was how Sano found himself at the Cooum River, sitting on the broad stone steps that descended into the edge of the water itself watching Satya and two of her cousins while they scrubbed their laundry, laughing and chatting amongst themselves, sari’s pulled up to bare brown legs. Hundreds of people gathered here, washing either clothes or bodies in the brown waters. The women not too modest to show a little skin as they pulled sari’s up, or down as they worked or bathed. Nothing like Japanese women. Sano rather liked it.

He waded into the water himself, trousers and all, not quite so bold that he was willing to strip down to nothing but the loin clothes that some of the men had, and washed off the dried residue of seawater and sand that the rain on the walk home last night hadn’t already rid him of.

Afterwards he sprawled on the steps above the water line and let the warm sun dry his clothes while the girls finished up. They bundled their damp wash up and balanced it atop their heads, graceful even under their ungainly burdens. Sano strolled along, devoid of burden himself - - and he had offered - - taking note of the vendors hawking their wares along the street as they walked.

A few people ran towards them and he craned his neck, taller than most of the people around him, looking down the street towards some sort of disturbance that rippled through the crowd ahead. There were the sounds of shouting and of agitated people. A regiment of city guard, mostly uniformed Indians, but a few Europeans among them, rushed by, almost clipping one of the girls in their hasty passage. Sano caught her arm, keeping her from losing her footing and stared after the retreating soldiers.

“What do you think that’s about?”

“Another riot,” Satya said. “Someone stealing food from a merchant, who objects and it gets out of hand. The city regiment is not lenient with thieves. Less forgiving still with those the British think incite rebellion against their rule.”

“We should go another way.” Natun said worriedly.

“I’ve heard tales,” Satya said as they veered down a side street away from the gathering crowd along their original path. “Of bodies littering the streets of towns to the north, where people protested the British rule. Terrible tales.”

“Rumors,” Natun said unhappily.

“They’re not,” Satya snapped. “They cling to their rule like tyrants and those that oppose them meet violence. Aunt Pakshi and uncle Narasimha didn’t wish to believe, because they were wealthy and supported the British and only saw the kind hand of their masters.”

“Shush,” Natun said sharply. “Or I’ll tell Aunt Pakshi what you say.”

Satya pouted, but shut her mouth.

Sano looked back, at the distant figures of more people running from the riot. There was the faint pop of gunfire and the girls started. He clenched his fists, thinking of unarmed crowds and frightened soldiers with guns in their hands.

“C’mon,” he urged them to a faster pace, taking the huge bundle from Disha, the smallest of the lot and slinging it over his shoulder. The sooner he had the girls away from the outskirts of the mess back there, the better.

~ ~

The view from the attic window was spectacular. The Bay of Bengal a sparkling blue expanse of water, dotted here and there with the shapes of ships. It was peaceful sitting there, staring out upon it - - a mindless activity, which required nothing of him, yet drew his thoughts away from other things.

It was there Kenshin was sitting, back against the sill, knees drawn up, when Pakshi rapped softly on the door. She entered, a covered bowl in her hands that he supposed Sano had asked her to bring him. The thought of food made him vaguely sick, yet there was an emptiness in his gut, a parchment thin feeling that made his hands shake just a little, that was sign enough that he’d gone too long with no nourishment. He’d gotten soft. There had been lean days when he’d been wondering after the war, that he’d gone longer with only water to fill his belly.

“Pakshi san.” He inclined his head to her and she sat the bowl on the sill at his feet. Simple white rice with a piece of grilled flat bread atop it.

She stood staring out at the bay with him for a long moment, then smiled wistfully. “I spent many days with no appetite for anything but sleep and tears when I lost my first child.”

He looked at her sharply, surprised at that admission. “Pakshi san - - I’m sorry.”

“If not for Narasimha I might have wasted away, a young mother adrift in her grief. But he was adamant, my husband, even in his own grief, that we go on.”

He stared at her, at the lines on her face and imaged the tales they told.

“So we tried again, and we had Nanda, my eldest daughter, and she thrived. As did Rajiv - - who young Rajiv is named for. I lost my fourth child to a fever not a month after he was born. And the fifth was still born - - but I had taken a fever in the weeks before his birth - - so I blame myself for that. Rajiv the elder lost his life in the service of his country. His regiment went south two years past to help with the flooding, and he was killed when the supply wagon he guarded was overturned in a river crossing.”

Kenshin sucked in a breath, horrified at that calm confession. At so many young lives lost before their time. “I - - I’m so sorry - -“

“What is - - is,” she said. “If my faith is to believed, they will live again. I do not know what yours dictates.”

He shut his eyes, having little enough faith of any kind to believe in optimistic fairytales. His beliefs tended towards darker things. Vengeful things.

“We go on - - those of us who survive. What other choice do we have?” she asked.

None, he supposed, since he’d found he had little taste for the notion of death. He couldn’t answer her, but she didn’t seem to require one of him. She inclined her head with a jangling of earrings, and left him to his contemplation of the bay.

He pressed his palms against his eyes and leaned that way over his knees for a long while, before he blew out a breath and straightened. There was nothing to do but reach for the bowl of rice and flatbread.

~ ~

Sano came back, after being gone for most of the day. He smelled of river water and spoke of half naked women bathing in public and riots in the streets. Kenshin sat in the window and listened to the sound of his voice.

He declined dinner downstairs and Sano gave him a look verging on a glower, patience running thin. Kenshin held up a placating hand and murmured, ‘tomorrow, perhaps.’ Which Sano did glower at, but left, muttering under his breath.

Sano returned to the attic room late into the night, this time smelling of curry and wine and perfume, staggering just a little. There had been music and laughter that had drifted up even to the attic. Sano brought with him a small urn and a bowl with rice and a skewer of meat and onions. He thrust them both on Kenshin with a lazy grin and sank down almost on the spot he stood, to sit cross-legged on the floor by the window.

“Pakshi used to be a temple dancer, did you know? She’s taught the girls - - and damn, but its something to see.”

Kenshin picked at the food, sipping at the wine direct from the urn since Sano had neglected to bring a cup. He found the taste marginally more appealing than he had the last time he’d eaten. Perhaps it was the distraction Sano provided. Sano’s half drunken talk soothing in a strange way.

Sano drifted off, and Kenshin sat with his mostly empty bowl and watched him for a while. The flutter of thick lashes on tanned cheeks. The disheveled way that dark hair, which was growing longer than Sano usually wore it, fell this way and that across his forehead and cheek. The smooth skin of youth. Sano had scars, but none of them showed. He tended to heal well, scars fading almost to obscurity. Kenshin knew where they all were, each and every one.

He shut his eyes, not so soothed of a sudden in this room with Sano and the things Sano made him ponder. He rose, silently gathering the urn he’d drained and taking it and the bowl with him as he left the room. The house was quiet now, its occupants retreated to their beds. He traversed the stairs, recalling the creaky ones and avoiding them. He took the bowl to the kitchen off the courtyard and rinsed it in water someone had drawn and left in a basin on the counter. Then he took himself to the well and the little alcove with its wooden bench to cleanse himself. He drew a second bucket to rinse his hair - - he very much suspected there were still grains of sand in it - - and twisted it to wring the water out after. He stood in the courtyard, borrowed clothing damp against his skin, staring up at the square of starry sky above.

He hoped very much that Pakshi was right. That Kenji’s young soul would find life again. That Kaoru’s would. It was a nice thought. A comforting one. He tried to repress the pessimistic realist inside him that insisted that that was the very reason it was probably not true. The world was simply not that kind and death, he very much suspected - - was simply death.

Sano stirred upon his return, blinking at him blearily. Kenshin went to the blankets he had against the wall by the window, shut his eyes and sat with his back against it. He cracked them open when he heard Sano moving. Sano gathered up a blanket of his own and tossed it down by Kenshin. Kenshin opened his eyes fully and gave him a wary look, in no frame of mind for any notion Sano might be entertaining in his not entirely sober head.

“Sano - - ?”

Sano waved a hand at him, frowning. “Shut up. Give me some credit, will you?” He sank down next to Kenshin, glaring at nothing in particular. He didn’t say anything for a long time, then finally - - “I understand a lot more than you think I do, you know?”

Kenshin stared at his hands across his knees and conceded that point. “I know.”

“Just so you do.”

They sat for a long while, side by side, a cool breeze drifting in from the open window. It smelled like rain might be moving in. Sano finally reached out an arm, draped it across Kenshin’s shoulders and pulled him against his side. Kenshin shut his eyes, things fluttering inside him. Guilty things - - that he could allow himself the utter comfort of Sano’s physical presence - - that he could crave it - - after having failed Kaoru so utterly. Cold and alone was what he deserved. And then, fool, take what you can get. A voice inside his head that wasn’t Kaoru’s - - Hiko’s maybe. Or something Sano would have said. Or maybe just the pragmatic part of himself that knew if he let it, the misery would eat him alive.

~ ~

Days at Pakshi’s turned into weeks and Sano was content enough with the excuse that word still might come of some miraculous discovery of shipwrecked survivors. He didn’t think Kenshin believed it. Kenshin knew too much of death to ever believe it. But Kenshin was getting better - - if you considered leaving the retreat of the attic to actually appear in the courtyard with the rest of the household better. Engaging in conversation would have been a whole other realm of recovery, but he wasn’t there yet.

The girls loved him though, as girls of any nationality tended to. Maybe it was the quiet manners when he did actually do more than nod at a comment directed towards him, or the aura of tragedy, because he had that in spades. More than likely, though, Sano figured, it was as much the pretty face and the way he moved.

They earned their keep. The roof got patched, the chicken coop in the back garden rebuilt, the garden wall plastered, the interior wall of the well patched, and any number of other things that required a man’s touch. If nothing else the labor snared Kenshin’s attention. Sano was man enough to admit that he had little talent in the way of woodwork or construction. He could do heavy lifting all the day long, but building a coop that was square on all sides and didn’t tilt a little precariously was beyond him. Kenshin was enough of a perfectionist that he couldn’t stand idly by and let Sano mangle a job. Though he was far from a master carpenter himself, he was better at it than Sano. Or at least patient enough to think things out before plunging into the project.

They discovered the city, sometimes in the company of one or more of Pakshi’s household, sometimes on their own, which Kenshin preferred. Walking in silence and taking in the ambiance of an ancient city that seemed to ever change with the times, and yet still retain the bones of its origin. The temples scattered about were varied, dedicated to multiple deities. The one Pakshi and her family preferred was dedicated to her patron goddess, Shakti the Mother goddess. Pakshi had served in her temple as a young girl before she had married.

Sano picked up a great deal of English and some Hindu. Kenshin learned slower, but then his heart wasn’t in it and he was less likely to sit with the women for hours after supper while they chatted before retiring. Sano thought he understood more than he spoke, though. Kenshin was very adept at appearing oblivious when he was anything but.

But as the weeks melted into a month, and then two and it became painfully apparent to all concerned that no word was coming, Sano began to sense a certain restlessness in Kenshin. An unease when he sat too long in the comfort of the house, or had a meal before him that was large and sumptuous, with the company of a household of women that seemed very much content with their addition. As if he thought he might not deserve it.

And Sano, who liked to think he knew Kenshin very well indeed, thought it might be just that. That mindset he’d had before Kaoru had convinced him that he deserved a place to call home as much as any man. The mindset that had set him wondering for close to ten years after the war - - just punishment in his mind - - for the acts he had committed.

But he spoke nothing of it. And it was only Sano’s intuition that had the hairs on the back of his arms standing up sometimes, when Kenshin stood too long staring at the haze of distant land beyond the city.

They were on an errand for Pakshi one day, escorting Rajiv to market for supplies. The boy skipped ahead, happy to be out without the watchful eyes of mother or grandmother, while Sano and Kenshin strolled behind, enjoying the mid morning sun and the strong breeze coming in off the bay. Sure sign of a storm on the way, but for the moment it cut through the oppressive, humid heat that seemed a constant in the city.

The market street was lined with shops with colorful awnings under which merchants displayed their wares. Women in their colorful sari’s and girls in their pavadas. Men in their traditional sarongs, or their dhoti’s, the Sikh’s in their turbans as well as the ever present influence of western fashion worn by the English and those that wished to be like them.

Rajiv had run ahead, pausing, as a boy might to gawk at a merchant’s display of knives. Curved daggers with ornate sheaths that looked more decorative than practical. Sano gave them a look in passing, not so jaded that a display of weaponry, even small daggers of dubious efficiency did not catch his attention. Kenshin didn’t glance that way, his eyes fixed on something in the crowd ahead of them.

The boy skipped ahead, weaving through the crowd and Kenshin called his name sharply of a sudden, but the call was lost in the clamor of the crowd.

“What?” Sano started even as a man in the crowd ahead of them cried out, brandishing a curved blade longer and more wicked than the ones on display. People cried out in fear and surprise, scattering away from the screaming man, even as he descended, weapon raised, upon a crisply uniformed English soldier who’d been browsing the stalls with a lady of European descent upon his arm. The woman screamed and the soldier fumbled for the firearm holstered at his side. Neither wild eyed attacker or startled, gun wielding English officer seemed to notice the boy standing like a fear frozen rabbit between them.

Sano swore, shoving aside people trying to flee the area in an attempt to approach it. But Kenshin was already there, the Indian with the scimitar howling, clutching at his empty hand and what might have been a broken wrist, the cry of the English soldier, as his gun arm was knocked aside, his aim badly disrupted as Kenshin staggered against him, as if he had lost his footing. The boy was on his backside in the dusty street no few yards from where he’d stood in the middle of the conflict, round eyed and stunned.

“Clumsy oaf,” the Englishman was cursing Kenshin, who backed away, holding up empty hands, apologizing in his rudimentary English. But it wasn’t Kenshin who was his primary concern, but the bearded, wild-eyed Indian, who still clutched his wrist. The crowd gathered around, hemming him in as the soldier called for the city guard, his gun pointed threateningly at the man who’d tried to attack him. The man’s sword, surprisingly enough, was lodged in the wooden beam of the second story awning of the building behind them.

Sano hauled Rajiv up by the collar. “You okay, kid?”

The boy nodded mutely, staring with no few members of the rest of the crowd brave enough to have stayed, at the sword still quivering minutely above their heads. There were murmurs in the crowd, as more uniformed soldiers arrived, of Thagi.

“I don’t know what happened?” Rajiv finally admitted shakily. “I was there - - and then, I was not.”

“Yeah, funny that.” Sano looked over his head at Kenshin who had worked his way out from the center of the conflict and was weaving his way through the outer edges back towards the two of them.

“What’s Thagi?” Sano asked and the boy looked up at him with white around the rims of his eyes, frightened.

“No good is what they are. Thieves and assassins who kill for the honor of Kali. They’re few now - - because of the English. But they appear now and then causing trouble. They hate the British.”

He glanced at Kenshin, who shrugged a shoulder. “He did appear to have a grudge.”

“You don’t see them in the city much,” Rajiv said, craning his neck as the crowd dispersed, the city guard having hauled the sword wielding Thagi away. The British officer and his lady had also melted into the crowd. “I’ve heard Auntie Vachya say they used to roam the countryside, strangling travelers and cutting out their eyes in the name of Kali, then stealing all their belongings.”

“Ouch.” Sano placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and got him moving. The merchant they’d been sent to visit was no more than a few blocks down. “Sounds like the British taking them out was a good thing.”

The boy nodded in agreement.

Rajiv stayed very close the rest of the trip, carrying his sack of rice, while Kenshin shouldered the cask of wine, and Sano the sacks of grain and flour. The women were appropriately shocked and relieved when they returned to the house and the boy told them what had happened. Rajiv was pressed for some time to his mother’s bosom, while she bemoaned ever letting him from her sight again.

The storm did come that night, blowing in off the bay and pelting the city with rain and winds. Two days and when the sun next came out, the city was waterlogged and already high humidity became unbearable.

Sano came back to the house, as shirtless and barefoot as Rajiv, the both of them having accompanied a few of the girls to the river, to find Kenshin holding some conversation with Pakshi in the courtyard. Kenshin bowed to her when they burst into the house, the chattering lot of them, and retreated. Pakshi forced her frown into a smile, and welcomed them back, offering watered wine to ease their thirsts.

Sano stood in the midst of the girls and watched Kenshin ascend the stairs, the hairs at the back of his neck standing on end.

~ ~

Sano was happy. Sano had a place that he was welcome - - more than welcome - - that he was needed - - that he might build a family. Kenshin wanted that for him. Wanted Sano happy more than any other concern he had left. Wanted Sano safe - - as safe as this world would allow - - at any rate.

Sano deserved that. Deserved more than his company, when he wasn’t sure if he could ever be whole again. He felt - - displaced and fractured and not all the warm comfort of Pakshi’s house could ease it. He thought it might even be making it worse. He couldn’t stay. The grief, the guilt, the unease churned under his skin like grains of sand itching for him to just - - move. To walk and not stop walking. Again. Like he’d felt before. Owning nothing but the clothes on his back and the sword at his hip. Calling no place home. No companions to ease the solitary nature of the road.

Only he had no sword. He’d given that to the sea. And the companion he had - - he wanted safe and sound away from the ill luck his presence seemed to bring. Only he didn’t - - oh, he surely did not wish the lack of Sano and Sano’s bad fortune with money, and Sano’s tendency to provoke conflict and Sano’s sour temper when his stomach was empty.

A quandary to be sure. But an easy one. Sano safe was worth more than his own selfishness. So he did what needed to be done and told himself that was all there was to it.

He gave Pakshi the courtesy of forewarning. Thanked her for her generosity and wished well upon her house. He waited until Sano was out of the house, accompanying the girls and Rajiv, to see the lights at the nearby temple, then gathered what few things he had. The most serviceable of the clothing that Pakshi had given him. A battered travel pack with the bare essentials that a man on a long road would need. A knife that she had given him that had belonged to her son. An old blade in need of sharpening, eight inches long, with a plain sheath. For his needs, it would do.

It was past dusk when he left, bowing again to Pakshi and old Vachya who had come out with her sister-in-law to watch him leave. Pakshi handed him a very small pouch, which he tried to return, but she folded his fingers about it, promising it was but a pittance. Enough to see him fed for the next few days, should he need it. He hated accepting it, but standing there arguing with her was pointless, with old Vachya glaring and calling him a fool.

He knew the way out of the city. North, to the city gates, which were open still, to late travelers. Beyond were fields of rice and imported corn and the outlying villages of the farmers who tended them. There was a tributary of one of the rivers that cut through the city running parallel to the road, and smaller fingers of that feeding the fields.

Other than out of the city, he had no destination in mind. There were roads that led to places. He would figure it out as he went. It was a plan that had served him well enough in the past. He tried to ignore the pang of unease that stirred in his gut at setting out on it now. Tried to ignore the regret because his loss would surly be someone’s gain.

He stared with intensity at the distant dark haze of foothills, easy to see past the miles of lush flatland with its web work of tributaries and flooded paddies. There were other travelers on the road. A tiny speck of a man leading an ox. A small cart pulled by an old man heading towards the city. A group of men with no baggage at all, workers perhaps or some of those poor that gravitated towards Madras in hopes of food or work. Travel worn men who eyed him with keen speculation as they passed on the road. Out of reflex he went to lay his hand upon the hilt of a sword that wasn’t there and took a breath, clenching his fist over nothing.

They passed each other peacefully enough on the wide dirt road between paddies. Trees swayed on one side, rustling in the breeze. A dog lay in the intersection of a small path leading off to a tiny shack off the side of the road. It growled low in its throat as he passed. A gentle warning to keep his distance.

Its dark eyes flicked beyond him, towards the road he had traveled, ears pricked at the sound of another traveler moving up the road. Keener ears by far than Kenshin, who glanced over his shoulder and barely saw the shape of a lone man some ways back, steadily making progress in a distance devouring lope.

He turned back around, not slowing his pace. He shut his eyes as he walked though, breathing deep, heart thudding in something that might very well have been relief.

It took perhaps half an hour for Sano to catch up with him. He had a pack over his shoulder and a pissed off look on his face. The sound of his teeth grinding was audible as he slowed his jog to a walk and stalked beside Kenshin. Kenshin said nothing, hardly knowing what it was he actually did want anymore, too many things churning about inside him to have a clue. Sano happy. Sano safe. Sano and the temptation Sano brought with him safely distant from him, because when he got too close he could not shake that terrible guilt of the betrayal he’d dealt her. Sano’s company. Sano.

“You’re a bastard, you know that?” Sano finally stabbed a finger at him, maneuvering around to stand in his path, stalling his forward progress. “You slip out of the house without even the courtesy of telling them goodbye. What sort of asshole does that?”

“It would only have been painful. For everyone.”

Sano let out an explosive exhalation of breath. “Right. And slipping away like a thief in the night because you’re too much of a coward to deal with a little emotion isn’t hurtful at all.”

“I spoke to Pakshi,” Kenshin said softly.

“Really. Pakshi. Figured she’d tell me the news with the rest of the house, huh?”

“I thought - - I thought it better that way.”

“You thought - -? You son of a - -” Sano growled and swung at him. Kenshin just shut his eyes and let the open palm of his hand connect, let Sano get out the frustration and the anger that had the veins in his neck standing out.

And it hurt. He staggered, ear ringing from the impact of palm against the side of his head. Sano had very little concept of just how strong he was.

“Are you completely addled?” Sano shouted at him.

Kenshin barely heard it through the ringing. “Possibly now,” he muttered, rubbing gingerly at the spot.

“Damn you, Kenshin. You really thought you were gonna get away with leaving me behind? Without even a fucking word? Like I don’t mean anything more to you than any of those girls back at the house? You damned ass. I should of just let you go you and to hell with you.”

“You should have,” Kenshin agreed softly.

“Why? Who are you punishing? Me? You? The both of us?”

“I’m not - -“ Kenshin snapped his eyes up to meet Sano’s in denial. “Not you - “

Sano nodded, sneering. “Right. You then. I figured that. I wanna kick your ass so bad right now.”

“I’m sorry, Sano.”

“What you are is frustrating. And so damned tangled up you don’t know up from down anymore, much less the difference between a good decision and a bad one.”

Kenshin looked away at that, not entirely sure Sano wasn’t in the right there.

“We had this conversation, Kenshin.” Sano reminded him. “More than once. Thought I’d made myself clear.”

“Sano - -“ his voice broke and he had to swallow and try again. “I don’t know what I want - - I don’t know that I can be - - content again. I let myself for a little while and - - I paid for it. Kaoru did and - - and Kenji. You even. Go back to Pakshi’s - - go back to Japan - - find the home you deserve, Sano.”

He moved around Sano, taking to the road again. Sano stood for a moment, fists clenching so hard that Kenshin heard the joints popping.

“What about your home?” Sano snapped, stalking after him. “You’ve still got one, remember? You just gonna abandon it and leave everybody back there wondering?”

The very idea of going back to the dojo made Kenshin short of breath. Of going back to the place where Kaoru and Kenji’s essence dwelled. The place where Kenji had been born, where Kaoru and he had shared a room and a bed and a life. No crevice or corner of that place wouldn’t destroy him. Bad enough when he’d only thought them kidnapped and believed with all his heart that he’d get them back. To return there now - - was beyond him. It was cowardice and he didn’t care.

“There’s no more home for me, Sano. Not there. I can’t - - not where we lived - - not - - “ He swallowed, vision wavering for a moment, before he blinked it clear again. “Yahiko will take care of the dojo. He’ll need a place of his own. He’s a master now of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu style. He can carry on Kaoru’s father’s legacy. The widow is there and her daughter. They’ll feed Cat - -“

His voice broke again so he stopped talking. He’d said enough. He felt sick.

“Yeah,” Sano said bitterly. “ Guess they’ll all be fine thinking we’re all dead then.”

“You could return and tell them.”

“Fuck you, Kenshin.”

Sano stalked along in silence for a while after that. Then after a good half mile of muddy road, he said through clenched teeth. “You know what? You’re right in one thing - - home’s a funny thing. Without people there that matter - - its nothing more than a roof and four walls. You’re my people. Where you’re at - -that’s home for me. Whether it’s in a nice snug house with plenty of food or starving our asses off on the road. You don’t get that - - well, I got no problem pounding it into your head.”

Sano looked at him, as if he were expecting something from him and it felt like there was something huge and ungainly stuck in his throat. He worked to swallow it down, bereft of words. Sano had said enough for the both of them. So he simply nodded. One quick jerk of his chin that was all he could manage, before lowering his head and letting his hair fall over his eyes to hide the embarrassment of water spiked lashes.

“Think you’re gonna leave me behind - - asshole,” Sano muttered, reiterating his initial thoughts on the matter.

“It was a mistake.”

“You think?” Sano snorted. Then after a bit. “So, where we headed?”

“I don’t know.”

Sano stuffed his thumbs through the sash at his waist. “Okay. I’ve been that road before. It’s a big country. A lot of places to see.”

Not much now though, with night fully fallen and only a few stars out to keep the whole of the world from stark darkness. The road was clear enough though, for a pair of men used to traveling at ungainly hours. And the sun would rise again soon enough and illuminate the way.

No matter the state of the rest of the world, it always did.




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