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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn


Chapter Three


The rains came like the answer to a prayer. One day, dry, heat laden air and the next - - a body woke to coolness and the spattering of moisture that blew in from the open window. It was early enough that Kaoru could not be roused, even by a few errant drops of water, so Kenshin quietly rose, pulled on a house kimono and padded out onto the porch to watch the earth soak up the much needed rain. Stepping out into it would be foolish, no need to get a perfectly dry robe wet - - but whimsy overcame reason, and he stepped barefoot out into the yard and let the cool downpour coat his skin and plaster his loose hair about his face and neck.

He'd cut it, three years ago, when Kenji was born. One more testament of the life he'd turned away from. No need to wear it tied back anymore. Another whim on his part. He'd surprised Kaoru that day. Left her speechless for a few precious moments before she'd wailed over the loss. She'd understood, though.

It was a little longer now. Below his collar and his bangs were a mass that shadowed his eyes. Time perhaps to get Kaoru to trim it, but a little nostalgia made him cherish the length for the time being.

He sat under the overhang of the porch at the back garden, watching the rain make ripples in the koi pond, with only Cat for company, until Kenji woke and tottered out, tousled and unkempt from sleep. The boy immediately made to run into the rain, until his father detained him, knowing very well, that it would not only be water, but mud that stained sleeping robes that he had only yesterday washed. Kenshin got a wail and a foul glare for disturbing the fun, then another one from Cat when he suggested the child play with her instead. When Cat bounded away, the wailing cries of rebellion woke Kaoru, who appeared in short order, sleepy-eyed and yawning.

"What's wrong, Kenji?"

The child pointed one chubby finger at Kenshin and let out an inarticulate wail. Kaoru gave Kenshin a reproving look and he gestured helplessly at the rain.

"Did daddy not let you go play in the rain?" Kaoru said in baby talk, welcoming the pouting child with open arms. The tears dried up in lue of a mother's arms. Kenshin blinked, wondering what magic she had, that he did not.

"You'd get all wet and cold and probably get sick, then Dr. Genzai would have to make you take some awful tasting medicine and you wouldn't like that, would you? I'd feel just terrible, if you had to swallow something so icky."

That bit of logic struck home. Kenji looked at the rain, looked back to his mother and shook his small head solemnly. She smiled over Kenji's head in victory at Kenshin and he shrugged, shaking his head in amazement at her talent.

It was a lazy day, with the rain. Only one of Kaoru's students came, and Winter sent the few that came to him home, claiming a bit of ill-health. There was no gardening to be done, no washing, no repairing of the ceramic shingles that had come loose from atop the bathhouse. Dr. Genzai kept Suzume at home today, so Kenji had no one to play with other than Cat, and nothing other to do but worry his parents with his boundless energy. Kenshin's patience, as a general rule, far outshone Kaoru's, but on this particular afternoon, after spending the whole of the day cooped inside with a testy Kenji and the Englishman's dubious humor, he was more than willing to volunteer to go, when Winter suggested a professionally prepared meal. Winter had a taste for sushi and offered to treat, if someone might be kind enough to walk the short distance to the small restaurant at the edge of their neighborhood and pick it up. Already feeling ill, the man hesitated to risk the weather and make his condition worse. A reasonable attitude, and they had not had sushi for a while. It would make for a nice change.

So Kenshin braved an evening gone prematurely dark with cloud cover and rain. Walked under the dubious protection of the umbrella Kaoru had given him, and thought the fresh smell of rain in the air a wonderful thing. He was one of few people out on such a evening. A few drenched Furi-uri hurried past him, poles angled over their shoulders, a man pulling a cart laden with vegetables under a tarp. A wet, sorry looking dog that trotted up to Kenshin as he walked and sniffed the hem of his hakama, no doubt scenting Cat. They passed ways equitably.

The restaurant was empty of patronage and Kenshin stood against the open door, watching the rain as the young man behind the counter prepared his order. Half an hour later, he carried the bamboo box of sushi home under one arm, the waxed paper umbrella balanced over his shoulder in the other. His sandals were coated with mud, as was the hem of his hakama. He opened the gates at the front of the dojo against a torrential gale of rain laced wind. Stood there for a second with his back to them, the umbrella held like a shield before his face while the wind lashed at him. Then it gave a gusty sigh and changed direction. It was no less wet, but at least rain wasn't driven into his eyes.

The lantern's on the porch had gone out, extinguished by the wind, no doubt. He thought nothing of it, more interested at the moment, in setting the box of food on the porch out of the rain and kicking off his sandals and immersing his feet in the shallow pale of water by the porch steps. It only occurred to him, after he'd taken that first step onto the flagstone leading to the steps that the lantern's inside the dojo were also dark. He hesitated, one foot on the lower step, gaze swinging around the corner of the main building to the outstretched portion of the structure where the living quarters lay. Also dark.

He fought the urge to call out - - "Kaoru, why are the lantern's out?" Because the cold, hard knot of premonition in his gut told him that there was more wrong here than the lantern's gone dark. He stepped up onto the porch, clothes heavy with water, stood there for a second, listening past the patter of rain for telltale noises. The doors to the dojo were first and center, a mere few steps ahead of him. He put a hand on the wood and gently slide it to the side. All dark and quiet within. The pounding of his blood was louder. The beating of his heart in the fear that the peace he had found had been disturbed. He dropped his head, the water from his bangs dripping onto his face.

One step into the smooth, polished floor of the dojo and something lunged at him out of the dark. A side attack. A flash of metal as a blade stabbed towards him. He sidestepped, caught the arm holding the blade and twisted it hard. There was a popping sound as an elbow was disjointed. A strangled cry. The blade hit the floor even as other shadows moved in on him from the darkness. He made out the shapes of them, dressed in black, with their faces half covered. Well trained, for the most part. Efficient killers, most likely, but not phenomenal ones. He caught a blade aimed for his neck between two fingers, slammed the heel of his hand against the flat of it and smashed it into the face of its wielder. Blood spurted, but only from the edge of the blade creasing the man's nose. He ducked and rolled to avoid another attack, came up under a man's reach and slammed the heel of his hand into that's man's jaw. That man staggered, not out, but momentarily stunned.

If he stopped to wonder what had become of Kaoru and Kenji, he'd be at a disadvantage. After three years of passivity, it was luck that saved him from being gutted from the one that came at him from the open dojo doors, as much as speed on his part. He slipped on rainwater and lunged sideways to avoid falling, the blade grazed his side as he did, cutting through material to scrape his skin. Kenshin hissed in surprise more than pain and slammed an elbow into the man's wrist. The sword fell and he caught it out of necessity, bringing the hilt up in an arc and smashing it into his attacker's face. The weight of it - - of good solid steel - - in his hand was staggering. How long since he'd held any weapon more dangerous than an ax? How long since he'd given the sakabatou to Yahiko in the vain effort to close the chapter of his life that belonged to the shadow of the Battousai? Long enough to lose his edge?

Maybe. But not against the likes of these. He parried with his stolen sword and the clash of steel made the hairs on the back of his arms stand up. Made his breathing slow down and his eyes narrow in concentration. If Kaoru and Kenji were dead, he'd use this sword to draw life's blood. But until he found out, he was not willing to break his oath and take a life.

With his bare hands, he'd held his own on equal footing with them. With the blade - - with the blade, he swept through them like an ill wind and stood panting afterwards, while they lay groaning or unconscious around him.

Six men. Six assassins in the night. He looked to the seventh who he knew was standing in the shadows at the other end of the dojo.

"Where are my wife and child?"

"My God," said that perfectly accented voice that he had come to know with frightening familiarity. "I'm not easy astounded - - but you, my dear boy, you - - leave me speechless."

"Winter." Kenshin said softly.


"What are you doing?"

"I was trying to tie up loose ends - - but you seem to have unraveled things more than severed them. And I thought you were simply good with gardens and cats. Foolish me, eh?"

"Where are Kaoru and Kenji?"

Winter waved a gloved hand. "Oh, well and truly gone by now."

Kenshin felt his vision narrow. Felt the blood lust well up like a living thing too long restrained. He slid his bare foot forward, preparing for a stance that would take him across the distance to Winter.

"Not dead." Winter stopped him with those two words. "I would never waste so valuable a commodity when I have so great a need for it."

"Where? If you value your life, where?"

Winter stared at the bodies littered about Kenshin's feet. "Those were very talented members of the yakuza. And you were very efficient in dispatching them. Words cannot express how very impressed I am with you."

"Where - -" Kenshin took a step forward. " - - are they?"

"Somewhat single minded, aren't you?" Winter waved a hand, dismissing the query. "What intrigues me, is where you learned such skill - - its certainly nothing of the style your wife teaches - - And why hide it with such - - vehemence?"

"This is not about me - - where are they?"

"It wasn't. It truly wasn't before these last few moments." Winter smiled at him, that smile that he'd always found uncomfortable before, and now literally set the hairs on the back of his neck at attention.

"But now, I'm intrigued. Now I want to know why a swordsman of such - - skill - - hides in this pitiful dojo in the suburbs of Tokyo."

"Take me to Kaoru. She can tell you." Kenshin slid forward, smooth, graceful, circling Winter like Cat would circle a wounded bird.

Winter sighed. "So stubborn. North. They've taken her north, along with the little one. I've a need for her, you see. I had a girl who was supposed to serve a purpose for me, but she had a change of heart and I had to let her go."

The smile came back. "Her and her bodyguards. So very messy. But sometimes messy is nice. It alleviates frustrations. I needed a new girl. One that knew a few words in English. Your wife was so quick to pick it up. The little one will assure that she plays the part I need for her to play."

"The bodies in the canal." Kenshin stated.

"Yes. I'd just finished with them when I was attacked - - of all the ill-luck - - by thieves. They might have ended my plans then and there had I not been fortunate enough to be saved. You have my gratitude there, my boy. Really. I should have guessed it was nothing of luck and everything of skill the way you drove them off. I suppose I was a bit preoccupied."

This man - - this foreigner who he had invited into his and Kaoru's home - - had killed with such ease. Brutally killed and spoke about it as if it were a joke. The depths of his malice were as of yet, still hidden. But Kenshin knew evil when he saw it. He berated himself for not seeing and realizing the snake for what it was, long before this. Perhaps he had seen and refused to acknowledge it, for fear of disrupting the peace. The thought of Kaoru and Kenji in this man's power - - made his palms sweat.

"I do not kill as easily as you - - now." He said softly. "But I shall recover the ability if they are harmed."

"Kill me and you'll never know what has become of them. My men will kill them if I do not give them word to do otherwise. Perhaps they'll have their way with the girl before they do. She's pretty enough to amuse such as them."

Kenshin's lip pulled back in a snarl, he spun and drew the sword faster than thought. It was reflex born out of anger and fear. The sharp side of the blade stopped a hair's breadth from Winter's throat. Winter blinked at him, not quite flinching.

"Bravo. I didn't even see that one coming, and I pride myself on my own alacrity. But all my skill pales in comparison to you."

"What are you?" Kenshin hissed, amazed at the man's calm in the face of death.

"Me? I thought you knew. I'm a merchant, trying to get ahead. A bit down on my luck, but fate is smiling on me now."

"Fate has turned her back on you." Kenshin disagreed.

"No." Winter said, and fearlessly lifted a hand to press the blade away from his neck. "Fate smiles even now. She's given me opportunity. She's given me - - inspiration. Do you know, that I couldn't leave here with intimate knowledge of my presence in anyone's memory? The old doctor and his precious nieces were here all too often, for my comfort. My yakuza friends were headed to his dwelling this very night to take care of the problem. They'll make it quick, I'm sure."

"Damn you." Kenshin hissed and stepped back, heart pounding in the beginnings of panic now. If he killed this man, and oh, how his blood cried out for that action despite more than a decade of not taking a life - - then he might never find Kaoru. If what Winter said was true, that Dr. Genzai was in danger, if not already dead.

"If you hurry." Winter said. "You might be able to stop them."

Kenshin glared, clenching his fist on the sword. There was the sound of rustling cloth and a grunt from behind him. One of the yakuza gained his feet, warily reaching for the weapon Kenshin had knocked from his fingers. A few of the others showed signs of impending consciousness. When he turned his gaze back to Winter, the man had a pistol in his hand. A new style gun with a round chamber that held more than one bullet.

"If I were you," Winter was smiling again. "I would be on my way to see about the good Doctor. I can't imagine how you'd feel if you were only a few moments too late. Those poor girls - - butchered. You can always try to track me and find your wife and son after you're finished. I imagine you've got a talent for that as well."

Kenshin hissed, and spun, decision made. He preyed he wouldn't regret it. He cut through the staggering yakuza without breaking stride, tensed for the gun being cocked. It didn't happen. He was outside in the dark and the rain and no shot came at his back. He slid the sword back into its sheath and darted for the gates, mentally calculating how long it would take to get to Dr. Genzai's house, how long to get the Doctor and the girls out and on their way to a place of safety and how long to get back to the dojo to pick up Winter's trail. Half an hour, if he was fast. A little more depending on what he found at Genzai's dwelling.

Winter put the gun back in his pocket, staring thoughtfully at the reflection the droplets of water Kenshin had dripped onto the floor made. Quite thoroughly surprising, really. It was so infrequently that Winter was taken by surprise anymore that he rather liked the sensation. He rather liked the thrill. But one had to admit, the sword at his throat - - so fast he'd not even seen it drawn - - that had gone a bit beyond thrill and well into fear of his life. In all the time he'd been here at the dojo, he'd seen nothing of the killer in Himura Kenshin's eyes. But tonight - - oh, tonight it had been there. And no casual killer, that, but a cold, deadly professional that would neither hesitate, nor blink an eye over the action. Winter knew that look. He'd seen it on a hundred faces during the various conflicts he'd lived through in the term of his life, both here in Japan and abroad. He'd seen the novices - - the men dragged into war against their will, the ones that killed but did so out of desperation and duty - - and then he'd seen the faces of the ones that were born to it.

Kenshin's eyes had been like that. Winter was lucky, he thought, to be alive. If he'd had drawn the sword under his robe, he might not have been. Wise of him not to. He was good, but he wasn't that good. He was a man well aware of his limitations and well aware of how to use them.

"Why didn't you shoot him?" the yakuza slowly climbed to their feet. They stood there by the doors, a bloody, ill-used group.

"I've changed my mind about him - - his death isn't necessarily what I desire now."

"More the fool you, then." One of them spat. "We'd heard rumors - - but never thought them true."

"What rumors?" Winter asked.

"Of the Battousai. Abandoning the sword and living in Tokyo."

"The Battousai?" that was a familiar name. Winter had been in-country during the revolution. Had helped fund the Imperialist's, help supply them with weapons and information. He knew the names of the premier killers of that bloody time.

"Himura - - the Battousai." He laughed. "Oh, good God and I've been living under his roof. How ironic."

They stared at him as if he were mad as he stood there chortling. Oh, but it was ironic. More than any of them could know. A few years past, he'd bet his family fortune on a venture with a visionary. A man who'd also been a premier assassin for the Meiji. He'd traded all the gold he could beg, borrow and steal to invest in the construction of a ship in return for unique and sole trading rights with the Japan that Shishio Makoto would have made. If not for the intervention of the legendary manslayer - - Himura the Battousai. He'd lost a quarter of a million pounds when that ship had sunk. Lost more when Shishio Makoto had died. He'd lost his backing, his credibility and his foot hold in the structure of power back home that desperately wanted the majority of the Japanese trade. He'd never expected the nefarious Battousai to look so - - young.

"What do we do now?" the yakuza wanted to know.

"We ride north out of the city. Visibly north. I want him to follow that path. Send word to your contacts in the mountains - - let them know what to expect. Send word to the ship that I'll meet it at Sendai instead of sailing out from Edo bay."

The Yakuza nodded and two of them pelted into the rain. The rest waited for him to gather his thoughts and abandon this place. It had served its purpose and more. It had given him new purpose.

Through the rain slick streets of Tokyo with a stolen sword through his sash and he'd promised himself that he'd not take the sword to hand again. Not the killing ones, at any rate. The reverse blade he'd have happily wielded, but that he'd given to Yahiko - - yet one more way to sever those pesky ties to the past. He regretted it now. He wanted that familiar weight at his side, and that familiar balance in his hand. He wanted not to have to concentrate to remember not to use the sharp side of the blade - - though he'd come so close with Winter. He never would have taken it up, if not for the fear over Kaoru and Kenji. Would have dealt with the assassin's another way. He ought to throw it down now, save that he was afraid of what he'd find at Dr. Genzai's. Save that he was afraid he'd been dormant too long and nothing short of a sword might give him the upper hand.

Strange. Fear was not a casual concept with him. Fear was a stranger. Real fear, the kind that made him question his judgment, the kind that made his hands shake, the kind that made that tight knot of uncertainty ball up in his gut. It took a wife and a child to bring it out in him.

He pushed it back, because he couldn't afford its interference. He couldn't afford shaking hands or hesitation. Not when he was this out of practice. More the fool him.

There. Up the narrow little street, crowded with both residences and a few businesses, all of them shuttered against the rain and the cool air it brought with it. The doctor and his nieces lived in the back of his clinic. The clinic itself sat nestled between a larger dwelling and the shop of a seamstress. There was a gate to a narrow alley leading to the small garden behind the clinic. Kenshin took that path, rather than the more obvious one of the front door. Around the back and the garden was undisturbed. The back porch unlittered and the sliding doors unmolested. The house seemed quiet enough, but he felt no false hope. Competent assassins would leave no trace of their passage - - not unless they wished to.

For a moment, Kenshin stood, his back to the wood beside the sliding doors, listening for sounds other than the constant patter of rain. He heard what sounded like a child's sigh inside. The rustle of a small body turning in sleep. He let out his own breath in relief. Not too late then.

There was a sound from the roof and he froze. A shuffling heavier than rain rolling off the tiles. Kenshin backed silently into the deepest shadows at the corner of the porch. A dark clad body dropped down from above, hitting the soggy earth with a splat that could not be avoided. Another followed it. There was the muffled sound of splintering wood from inside the dwelling and Kenshin hissed softly, urged into action by the fact that there were more than these two. That others were already invading this house.

They had long knives in their hands, and probably other weapons on their persons. He flowed out of the shadow like a vengeful curse - - drawing both sword and sheath from his belt, slamming the hard, metal tipped end of the sheath square into the face of the nearest assassin. Bone shattered under the blow. The man let out a muffled, strangled moan and collapsed. The other one was professional enough not to be distracted by the surprise of his comrade's fall and came at Kenshin skillfully with the knife.

Not skillfully enough. Kenshin sidestepped and brought the hilt of the sword up under the man's jaw, spun and cracked the still sheathed weapon up against the side of the yakuza assassin's head. Which ended that conflict quickly enough. He ran for the house then, even as a startled, shrill cry sounded from within. Didn't bother with struggling with the sliding doors but hurled himself through the thin wood and came to a rolling stance with the sword out and gleaming in the near pitch darkness. Two more shapes, with similarly gleaming blades. Four assassins for one old man and two young girls. Ridiculous and shameful. Someone had too much time on their hands.

He saw a set of small shapes squirming back against the wall their sleeping mats were set against. A larger, groggy one at the other side of the room. An assassin stood over each mat, weapon raised, hesitating only because of his entrance. Perhaps they'd been expecting their comrades. In the moment it took them to realize that he was no friend of theirs, he'd unsheathed the sword and taken out the first one. It was an effort to remember to reverse the blade and strike with the dull side of the sword. He might just as easily have taken the man's head off, as slam the dull side of the blade into his neck hard enough to smash his face into the wall over the frightened girls.

He turned to the one threatening the doctor then, and that one had a touch more skill than the others. That one dodged his first attack and lunged at him with the long knife. He parried it aside with enough force to knock it from the man's hand and stepped in unexpectedly and fast to press the business edge of the blade against the man's throat. Shocked black eyes blinked down at him.

"Get the girls and get out. Through the back. Wait for me at the gate." He told Genzai and heard the old man grunt as he pushed himself up off the floor. The girl's whimpered, searching in the dark for their sandals and night robes. Kenshin waited until they'd stepped outside into the rain before he whispered up at the last standing assassin.

"You're not very good at your trade. Perhaps you should find another. Take a message to whatever men command you - - they've chosen the wrong people to attack this night. That whatever understanding they have with the Englishman, they would do well to rethink it where it concerns the Kamiya Dojo and the friends of the Kamiya Dojo. They will receive a visit - - each and everyone of them - - should they not, from someone who is very good at this trade you play at."

"Who - -?" the man gasped, his breath short against the threat of sharp steel.

Kenshin stepped back, grim eyed and angry. "Listen to the rumors. Battousai the manslayer is not dead." He flipped the blade and used his palm against the flat side to smash it against the forehead of the yakuza. The man went down with a whistling of breath, eyes rolled up in his sockets.

Dr. Genzai and the girls were waiting at the gate for him, shivering and soaked in their nightrobes. Terrified. He had no patience in him to comfort them. His mind was too far afield, wondering how much of a headstart Winter had on him Wondering where Kaoru and Kenji were. He moved through the alley and they followed him, silently. Suzume clung to her older sister.

Out into the street and Kenshin paused, looking for other yakuza. He sensed nothing of malice. Sensed no spying eyes. So he moved on.

"Do you have a place to stay tonight? Someone you're not close to? A place no one would think to look for you? A patient perhaps?"

The old man nodded. "Yes. Who where they? What did they want of us?"

"Yakuza. They wanted your silence. Tomorrow, take the girls and leave Tokyo. Go and stay with Miss Megumi. Do not go home for clothing or money. Tell no one where you go. Do not come back here until I let you know it is safe."

"But how do we - -"

"Here." He dug in his gi for what money he had on him. Some of it was Winter's. Fitting, he supposed. He didn't want it.

He wanted to leave them and chase after his own family, but their fear and his own sense of responsibility wouldn't let him abandon them until they reached the house of Dr. Genzai's patient. Kenshin faded into the shadows then, waiting only long enough to see the door open and the old man and his young nieces step inside into welcome warmth.

Then he ran back to his own dwelling. To open gates and a muddy yard where water stood in pools on ground too hard from drought to properly soak it up.

Empty. They had taken all the life out of it. The dojo doors stood open, and rain had darkened the floor two body lengths inside. He stood at that portal for a moment, then carefully slid the doors shut and moved down the porch to the sleeping chambers. There was no sign of disturbance. She had not put up a fight. Perhaps she had not been able to. Perhaps she'd been under threat of sword or gun - - or perhaps they'd held Kenji's life over her head. Winter had said he'd do that. Winter had said he wouldn't hurt them. Winter had said he'd needed them and in that one thing - - Kenshin believed him. The man would not have done this otherwise.

Winter had said north Whether that was true or not remained to be seen.



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