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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Five

 

In the fall of 1880 Sagara Sanosuke had taken a slow boat to China, via Korea and meandered his way up through Manchuria and eventually into the Mongolian highlands. He hadn't particularly had a destination in mind, it was simply a matter of going wherever his feet happened to lead. He'd gotten honest work a few times as a caravan guard and those efforts had put coin in his pocket and put him on paths that he might otherwise have blindly stumbled past. Sagara Sanosuke's sense of direction had a tendency to fail him on alarmingly regular basis, so following in the footsteps of age old trading routes led him to interesting and exciting places. It introduced him to strange customs and stranger people and gave him the chance to taste new and exotic foods.

Chinese, Mongolian, Korean - - even the exotic Indo-Chinese cooking of the far south - - none of them really compared to a good old Japanese beef pot. Sometimes Sano missed the familiar flavor of Japanese cooking more than he missed the familiar faces.

Sometimes.

Sometimes he didn't think about home at all, so swept up in foreign culture and adventure had he become. He'd met a man in Nanchang who'd taught him the rudiments of a particularly devastating Chinese martial art. He'd pestered the master for days until the unassuming, quiet and generally patient man had given in to frustration and attempted to cease Sano's badgering the only way he thought Sano would truly appreciate - - by soundly kicking his ass.

Of course, it took a lot of ass-kicking to beat Sagara Sanosuke down and his durability had impressed the man. Sano had learned a great deal about the finer techniques of fighting that he'd never even imagined existed during his years as a brawler and a street fighter. In the six months that he studied under Chan he came to the realization that he'd been little more than a bumbling clown. Sure he'd had a few good moves - - no one in their right mind could discount the Futae no Kiwami, but compared to Chan, or that bastard Saitou - - or Kenshin - - it was a wonder they didn't laugh and poke fun at him behind his back

Damned embarrassing to contemplate. It made him flush hot every time he thought about it. Made him wish he could take back some of the things he'd said. Some of the things he'd done.

But he'd come a long way. His hand had healed so that he only felt the pangs of old injuries on particularly rainy days. He figured the ghost of those breaks would always be with him. A reminder of stupidity. Good sense had never been a strong point with him - - he could just admit the fault a bit more easily after walking over a good portion of central Asia. Kenshin had had something - - with the whole wonderer thing. It gave a body time to think - - time to learn things about the state of one's soul - - yeah, that was a good enough word - - time to make sense of the drama of one's past life and make decisions about the direction of the future. And there was the food and the fights and the hair-raising escapes from situations even a fearless man might have second thoughts about stepping into.

Truth to tell, Sano thought about those latter things a great deal more strenuously than he thought about the sate of his soul - - but sometimes even he could bask in introspection.

He'd had lost track of Chan in Hong Kong in the mid-part of 1883. They'd just sort of agreed to separate ways and it had been no great blow. Chan never had enjoyed gambling or brawling and he'd look down his stubby nose at Sano each and every time he'd come back smelling of beer and blood. And in the six months they'd journeyed together, Sano had learned most of what he wanted to know. He was a fast learner. He was, for the most part, an impatient one.

It was in the bustling port city of Hong Kong that he started to get home-sick. Well, not so much for the little shack he'd had in Tokyo - - as for Japan in general and familiar faces in particular. He'd never had a lot of close friends, growing up in the early years of the Meiji rule. Oh, he had drinking buddies and gambling cronies, all of who'd have abandoned him like a hot rock at the first sign of real trouble - - but no real friends. He'd spent a lot of years with a king-sized chip on his shoulder - - angry at the world - - angry at the Imperialist's who'd betrayed the only people he had called friends. Making new ones seemed to be just asking for trouble. Friends either betrayed you or they died and a body would just as well avoid the pain of either. So he gambled and he fought for a living and he'd made due well enough in his solitary life.

He didn't realize how lonesome an existence that was until Kenshin came along and kicked his ass. Kicked his ass and saved it in a way, all in the one act. Damned slippery rurouni with his ass-backward sword and his sweet smile and his quiet, sensible words. And Sano had been hooked. Drawn like a moth to flame - - and not quite knowing why or how. Only knowing that the little red-headed swordsman, who's head barely reached his nose had earned his earnest respect. And Sagara Sanosuke hadn't respected anybody in a very, very long time.

So whether Kenshin had been looking for a friend or not - - well he got Sano. And Sano got all the baggage that Kenshin had managed to attract to himself during his time in Tokyo. Meaning Kaoru and her horrible cooking and her rundown dojo and loudmouthed Yahiko, and fox-faced Megumi, with a tongue sharper and slyer than Kenshin's sword - - and the doc and his nieces and the girls at the Akabeko and even that brat in Kyoto and her freaky Oniwaban family - - Damnit, he missed all the familiar faces, and wondering around the mainland for three years was just getting - - old.

So he started thinking about maybe just meandering his way back to Japan and seeing what was what with the land of his birth. He didn't necessarily have to head straight back to Tokyo. It wasn't like he was mooning over the lack of Kenshin's company or the taste of Kaoru's lumpy rice. It wasn't like he was almost afraid to see how smoothly life there was running without him. How nobody even much remembered his name, much less missed his presence. It wasn't like he was a little - - just a little, mind you - - worried about what sort of changes had gone on since he'd left.

If Kaoru had had her way - - probably a great many. She probably had Kenshin on a short leash by now and Kenshin - - enigma that he was - - probably had that idyllic smile on his face over the whole situation. Probably was right happy jumping at Kaoru's whim. He'd been leaning that way with ever increasing latitude those last few months Sano had been in Tokyo anyway - - even more so after the scare of thinking her dead and once that scare had been banished - - well, it had been pretty clear that Kenshin had been damned and determined not to let it happen again. It had been a mixture of love and honor and a sincere desire to protect an innocent - - to protect in order to make up for all the past ill-deeds done - - that firmly planted Kenshin in Kaoru's camp, Sano was certain of that.

Sano had decided they needed to sort out all the upcoming domestic bliss without his presence. Sano had decided that he had better things to do than hang around and get in the way. Kaoru had been irritating enough when she'd only been mooning over Kenshin. Gods help anybody whose stomach was easily turned, now that she was getting a return on those feelings. He couldn't have dealt with it.

Not to mention the little problem with the law - - which maybe, after a few years had melted away to obscurity. One could hope.

So Sano started thinking about going home - - which required enough money in his pocket to get a ride on a ship. Which presented a problem, since money and Sano never stayed united for long. It took bumming around Hong Kong for two months, gambling and doing the odd job here and there to get enough funds for passage and even then it was on a creaky old merchant vessel, teaming with rats, that was headed for Japan, by way of half the Chinese ports up the coast on the way.

It had been a slow boat over and it took a slower one to get back. But eventually he ended up in the port of Niigata on the western coast of Japan.

It shouldn't have been that overwhelming a trip from western Niigata to eastern Tokyo - - it took longer to get to Kyoto from Tokyo and he'd made that trip before. But he got side tracked in a little village south of Niigata and spent a week trying to win back the few measly coins he'd had left to him after the passage from Hong Kong. He got lost on the nefarious mountain roads after that, and ended up heading west again before a priest took pity on him at a Shinto shrine and pointed out the error of his way.

By then it had started raining on the northern side of the mountains and the paths became miserable and muddy and the days overcast and gray and he thought that central China hadn't been so bad after all. The weather moved with him southward across the mountains. There was even the hint of snow lingering above the heights in the distance and Sano wondered if winter was coming early this year and hoped vehemently that he wasn't caught in the mountains if it did. He'd had enough snow in Mongolia to last him a lifetime. He preferred the more temperate climate of Tokyo.

He was sloshing through mud and misting rain one morning, after spending a thoroughly miserable night under a thick trio of trees, when the sound of a youthful voice raised in alarm echoed down the trail at him. Shortly thereafter a boy of perhaps sixteen came pelting down the trail with what appeared to be officials of the law on his heels.

Sano having very little love for the law himself, and a good deal of sympathy for those about to get their throats ripped out by it - - stepped off the side of the trail and waited for the boy running down it to pass him by, then reached out a long arm and yanked the startled young man abruptly off the track, smothering his protest with a long hand over his mouth and a hissed warning to be quiet. He then shoved the boy into a thicket and stepped back onto the path as the police rounded the bend, raising their batons in threat as they saw him. He was very obviously not the young man they had been chasing. He was about a head taller for one, and the sharp lines of his face spoke of a different breeding altogether than the flat, round face of the frightened boy. He smiled, adjusting the sack over his shoulder and stuffing his free hand in the pocket of his jacket.

"Whoa. Whoa. Don't point those things at me."

The police hesitated, staring down the trail past him suspiciously.

"Have you seen a boy?" one demanded. "He would have just run down the trail."

Sano blinked. "Yeah, I saw a kid. Looked like bad spirits were on his heels he ran past me so fast." he jerked his head over his shoulder and shrugged. "Still running, probably."

The men exchanged determined glances and pushed past him, stomping down the muddy trail in search of a boy they'd never catch. At least not today. When they were well and truly disappeared down the path, the bramble rustled and the boy stepped out to the trail, a delighted grin showing yellowed teeth. He had short, bristly hair and a faint scar above one eyebrow. Part of the lobe of one ear was missing. The kid had obviously led no easy life.

"Oh, man, thanks a lot. You saved my hide. If they'd caught me, I'd have hanged for sure."

Sano lifted a brow. "Why? You a murderer or something?"

The boy shrugged, looking a bit defensive. "Maybe I am. I'm no sissy-boy."

"Didn't imply that you were. Just looked a little young to be a murderer, is all."

"I'm not a murderer. I'm a bandit." The boy clarified for him, almost daring him to have a problem with that profession.

Sano shrugged. "Whatever. Say, you got any food on you?" His stomach had been growling for the last day. He hadn't eaten since the Shinto shrine he passed yesterday and he figured if he went another day, he'd die of starvation.

The boy looked him up and down, a calculating look in his eyes. "You look pretty shifty yourself. You sure you're not a bandit, too?"

"Will it get me a meal?"

The boy laughed, clapping a hand on Sano's shoulder in camaraderie. "Well, I owe you. There's a village up the mountain where I have an aunt. She's a good cook. My name's Bokkai."


Bokkai was true to his word. A good hike up a narrow forest path a poor little village perched on the side of the mountain. It was a pitiful collection of shanty shacks and struggling garden plots. Bokkai said the men in the village did a lot of hunting, but a good portion of what the people of the village managed to produce went in tribute to the mountain bandits who made this particular portion of the mountain their domain. Bokkai seemed proud of this extortion. Bokkai's uncle was the leader of the bandits. Bokkai's mother, it seemed had been a rape victim, and had died in childbirth, leaving Bokkai to be raised by her sister. When he'd been old enough, he'd sought out his father among the bandits, only to learn that he'd been killed some years back. But, his uncle, Chojiro, having lost his only blood kin in his brother, had been glad to take the boy under his dubious wing.

Bokkai as a result, had the morals of a viper - - but he seemed a cheerful kid regardless, and who was Sano to complain when he was getting a meal out of it.

Bokkai's aunt regarded Sano when he showed up on her doorstep with her nephew, with narrow, tired eyes. The eyes of a woman who'd fought all her life against strong odds and finally just given up to inevitability. Her husband was small and mostly crippled, having badly broken his leg some years ago in a hunting accident. She had three other children hanging at her skirts and Sano felt bad enough bumming a meal off of her, that he offered to go out and cut the pile of wood sitting at the side of the house.

"Do widow Hatayama's, too." Bokkai's aunt was a shrewd opportunist and pointed at the adjoining pile of wood next to the shanty shack beside hers.

Sano sighed and did it, figuring he'd done nastier jobs in the last few years. Chopping a bit of wood was no particular hardship. As he moved to the small pile belonging to the widow next store, a skinny child hovered at the door to that shack, staring out at him warily. A woman moved up behind her, looking almost afraid to come out and see what he was doing with her meager store of firewood.

Sano jerked a thumb towards Bokkai's aunt's house. "She told me to chop your wood. In payment for a meal."

The woman, a skinny, used up looking thing, nodded nervously at him and bowed. Then backed away into the shadow of her house.

By the time he'd finished the rain had started in earnest. He sat down, wet and chill under the uncomfortable gazes of husband and wife. Bokkai chattered easily. The children were solemn and quiet, watchful of him and - - and he thought, somewhat awed of their older cousin. Maybe they thought he'd made something of himself, joining the bandits. Maybe they dreamed of achieving so great a goal for themselves one day. Who knew.

The rice was passable and the stew wasn't bad. It had a few chunks of meat mixed in with the vegetables, though it lacked the spices it needed to make it truly good. He really couldn't wait to get to the Akabeko and sit down to one of Tae's beef pots. He'd have one all to himself. Maybe he'd even go there before he found his way to Kamiya dojo and Kenshin. Well, Kenshin and Kaoru and hopefully Yahiko. There were a lot of folks he wanted to see.

It was getting on into evening by the time he'd finished and the rain made the afternoon all the darker. He hinted around that a nice dry place to stay would be much appreciated and Bokkai's aunt hinted that she'd rather have snakes staying in her house in the dark of night, over stray strangers her bandit nephew had dragged home. Bokkai complained loudly and that started a shouting match between what seemed the whole of the family. Sano promptly gathered up his sack and escaped into the welcoming rain.

It only stayed welcoming the brief amount of time it took to thoroughly soak his clothes again. He stood there, hair dripping water into his eyes, shoes filled with mud and water and wondered what sort of chance he had of finding his way down the obscure mountain path Bokkai had led him up, and back to the road. With his luck, he thought sourly, he'd end up traveling back up the trail towards Niigata.

He sighed, reshouldered the pack and figured he might as well start before the evening sucked all the light from the sky.

"Ex -excuse me - -?" A thin voice wavered at him through the rain. The little girl from the shack next door stood in the shelter of her doorway, staring at him. "We heard them yelling. The walls are thin." The child explained and Sano tilted his head, wondering what she was getting at.

"You can stay here for the night. In payment for chopping the wood."

"Oh. And that's okay with your mother?"

The child nodded. Sano shrugged, never one to pass up opportunity when it came calling. He stepped into the shelter of the one room house. They were dirt poor, but what they had was neatly arranged. The woman, he thought, was a weaver. There was a loom with a partially finished square of cloth and a few pots of dye in a corner. The widow Hatayama cast a skittish glance at him, and busied herself with heating water. From the smell of it, they'd already finished their own evening meal.

"Thanks for the place to stay. It's pretty nasty out there." He broke the awkward silence. The child bowed. The mother did.

"Um - - where should I - -?"

"There." The widow Hatayama pointed to a corner where there was already a neatly folded, well used mat. Someone else used to sleep here. Her husband, he figured. He didn't ask how long he'd been dead. Didn't ask much of anything, because he could see he made them nervous and the widow had that bruised look in her eyes that hinted she'd had bad experiences with men in the past. It had taken courage to invite him in.

"Listen, I'm harmless - - really. Just passing by on my way to Tokyo. I sort of helped that kid Bokkai on the road and he invited me back to his place for supper.

"Bokkai." The little girl said. "He's a bandit now."

"Yeah, so he says. What's your name?"

The girl looked to her mother questioningly and the mother hesitated, then nodded.

"Minako."

"Hey," he grinned at her. "I'm Sano."

She drew back from him a bit at the smile, like the only time people had ever smiled at her was when they were up to no good. He chewed on his lip over that for a bit, then pulled his pack over and dug around until he found one of the fancy little cloth dolls he'd picked up in a market in Mongolia in thoughts of Ayame and Suzume. He figured this kid needed one more.

"Do you know where I got this?" He held it out and Minako looked at it with round, awed eyes. She shook her head solemnly. "I got this in a little village on the Huangh river which is just inside Mongolia. Have you heard of Mongolia?"

She shook her head again.

"Well, its in China and its so big that it makes all of Japan look tiny."

She blinked, trying to comprehend that.

"I got it for a little girl I know in Tokyo - - but, well, I picked up some other things I think she'll like just as well, so you can have it."

Minako looked to her mother. The Widow Hatayama knelt before her tea pot, wringing her hands. Finally she nodded and something almost akin to a look of gratitude crossed her narrow face. She had a fresh bruise under one eye and since she didn't have a husband, Sano wondered who'd hit her.

Minako took the doll reverently, cradling it in small hands. "What's her name?" She asked.

Sano shrugged. "I dunno. That's up to you."

"Suzuko. I'll call her Suzuko."

"Sounds good to me. I knew a girl named Suzuko once. She made pretty beads in Tokyo."

"Tea?" The widow Hatayama asked shyly.

"Sure." Sano agreed. Warm tea would do his damp self good. He got up and ambled over to the mat near the fire. Sat down in a collapse of long limbs and took the ceramic cup the widow placed in his hands. She poured the steeped tea for him, then a small cup for herself and for Minako.

"Thanks. I really appreciate this." He said, when he'd downed the tea. "Say, do you know how far it is to Tokyo? I've gotten turned around a few times already and I'd just like to know I'm on the right track?"

"I've only been once." The widow said softly, not meeting his eyes. "I think it is only a few days travel - - in good weather.'

"Really?" he said, pleased. "That's great."

"Watch out for the bandits. They hurt mama." Minako leaned towards him to whisper and her mother's eyes widened and she shushed the girl with a nervous flutter of her hand.

"Don't listen." The woman said. "Bandits hurt everyone."

Sano glanced from the girl to her mother. The way the woman sat - - it was the way a body held itself when every breath ached.

"They do that to you?" he asked, indicating her bruised face with a jerk of his jaw. "The bandits?"

"No." The widow said, avoiding his eyes. "I fell."

"No, mama - -" Minako protested and got shushed again with a sharp gesture of the widow's bony hand.

"And you live next to one of them - -" Sano glanced meaningfully through the wall to the house next door.

"Bokkai doesn't live there." Minako said. "He only comes home when he's hungry or hurt - - but they let him because they don't have to pay tribute if they do - - and Chojiro owes a blood debt because of Bokkai's mother."

"You talk too much, child." The widow Hatayama said softly, but her voice was tired. Too tired to argue the facts. But obviously she didn't want to talk about it, so Sano scooted back to his corner and his folded sleeping mat and sat there listening to the rain while the widow and the girl set the house to order.


Sano fell asleep on the mat, with his face to the wall and a thread bare blanket over his shoulders and woke to the sound of the loom. The widow had probably been up with the dawn, diligently working, while he'd slept the morning away. Minako was already outside, in a day that boasted only a fine mist, checking the state of the garden plot out back. Sano grumbled and groaned and pushed himself up. His stomach protested its empty state almost as loudly as his bladder protested its fullness. He smiled weakly at the widow, who only briefly met his eyes before her own were downcast once more - - and shuffled outside to answer the call of nature. The chance for breakfast, he figured, had already been missed. They'd probably not had enough to share anyway.

Bokkai was out there, talking with a man at the side of his aunt's house. He grinned at Sano when he saw him, beckoning him over even as the man gave Sano a shifty glance and walked away.

"There you are." Bokkai said jovially. "I wondered where you'd gone."

"The widow next door let me in." Sano shrugged.

Bokkai grinned. "Don't let Chojiro hear of it. He's got a thing for her. Don't know why, skinny thing that she is."

"Yeah, well, I won't be staying long."

"Long enough for fresh brewed beer? My uncle just finished a batch."

One could hardly turn down beer and the possibility of breakfast with it. There was beer and rice and Bokkai's aunt had no problem sharing it with Sano. She even did it with a smile this morning.

"She's in a good mood." Sano observed to the boy and Bokkai grinned. "Yeah, we made out well and I gave her a portion of my cut."

"Oh, rob a wealthy merchant or something?"

"No. City yakuza. They paid well for our help."

Sano sniffed. He had very little respect for the yakuza. "What'da they care about mountain bandits?"

Bokkai's narrow chest swelled up. "They care that we know the mountain routes better than anyone. They care that nobody comes through these passes without our knowing. Somebody came through they were looking for and we found him." Bokkai's grin grew wicked and he leaned in close to whisper. "He found us really, so Bunzo the eight fingered says. Says uncle Chojiro and a few men were in the midst of a little - - fun - - when this guy come up out of nowhere and beat them off with a stick. All six of 'em and just one of him and I believe Bunzo cause I saw the bumps and bruises. Uncle Chojiro was madder than anything - - even though the yakuza had paid good money to keep an eye out for him."

Sano picked the last grains of rice from his bowl, wondering if he could beg another portion from Bokkai's aunt. Yakuza intrigues were the last thing he cared about. The recounting of bandit atrocities would only make him mad and right now he was counting on Bokkai's good will for a little more breakfast before he got back on the road. So, he might as well tweak the boy's ego.

"Oh, you guys must be pretty famous for the yakuza to come to you for help. Who was this guy, some rich merchant or some politician they wanted in their pockets?"

"They said he was some old samurai or something from the revolution but I don't believe that 'cause I saw him and he wasn't much older than me - - or you at least - - and there ain't no samurai any longer what with the new government and all. But he was good with a sword - - before the foreigner shot him, that is. Those yakuza left limping worse than uncle Chojiro and his men. But he'll get his, 'cause the yakuza left him for uncle to deal with and uncle was pretty pissed off."

Sano sat there and sipped his beer thinking about displaced samurai and young seeming revolutionaries. It struck a chord. Made his right hand itch. He balled it in a fist, then flexed the fingers listening to the joint's pop.

"You might not remember it, but the revolution was only about fifteen years ago - - there are a lot of samurai still about. Hell, I was in the revolution towards the end- -but I was a hell of lot younger than you are now."

Bokkai shrugged. "Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. Doesn't matter. He's probably dead now anyway, after uncle being at him for - - what, almost two days now. He stopped uncle from having the widow Hatayama, but Bunzo Eight Fingers said he was prettier than her anyway and that uncle'd just as well finished what he'd started with him as with her."

"You in on this?" Sano asked, muscle twitching in his jaw. He thought he'd knock the kid's head against the table if he grinned and said yes.

"Nah. They wouldn't let me. Said I was too young and to go and watch the road. That's when you helped me out."

"How many of you guys did this samurai kill?" He had to wonder if retribution was justified. Had to wonder if there weren't bodies lined up somewhere if some honest to goodness pre-Meiji swordsman had cut through them. Those sorts of men generally left a trail of blood in their wake.

"None." Bokkai said. "Not a one. Lot of broken bones - - lot of aching heads - - but he didn't kill a one."

Sano knew an ex-samurai, ex-assassin who could sweep through a room full of men with a sword faster than the eye could follow and not kill a single one. A young-seeming, girl-pretty one, who you'd never think had prowled the revolution by looking at him.

"What'd he look like?" Sano asked. He thought he'd crush the ceramic mug he held if he didn't untense his fingers.

"I dunno. It was raining a lot. Like I said. Young. Not much bigger than me - - had a scar on his face." The boy made two diagonal swipes in the air with his finger."

Sano almost laughed. He sat the mug down with a thump, leaning forward to try and control the knotted breath that caught in his throat. To try and control the sudden impulse to smash Bokkai's face until it was bloody.

"Where's he at?" he managed to choke that out without faltering. Without yelling it into the boy's face. Without just jumping up and breaking things - - heads included.

"Back at our camp."

"You take me there?"

"I can't. You're a stranger. Besides, uncle Chojiro told me to stay away for a few days.'

"You owe me. I saved your life. Besides, are you a boy or a man, for them to shield your delicate sensibilities?"

"I'm not a boy!"

Sano snorted, head still lowered between haunched shoulders. "They treat you like one. I wouldn't let them treat me like that. I'll back you, if you want."

If it was one thing Sano knew how to do, it was tweak a teenaged boy's fragile ego. He'd had enough practice tormenting Yahiko. This one was no different. Not as sharp as Yahiko. Easier to work.

Okay, Bokkai, agreed, needing to prove a point. Okay, Bokkai, said, but you deal with Chojiro when he goes off. Sano could do that. Sano was more than willing to do that.

He didn't want to think about what he'd find. Didn't want to really contemplate whether that all too accurate description belonged to something he knew. Easier to walk and not scowl and not clench his fists if he convinced himself that it wasn't what the nausea in his gut insisted it was.

It was an hour's walk up the mountain, following what looked like a game trail for a ways and then through simple, dense forest. He tried to remember the way. Tried to pick out an odd shaped tree here a jutting rock there, just in case he had to come back on his own. All he needed was to be lost in the wilderness with bandits in the woods. If he could find that village again, he could find the main mountain pass. He didn't know if he could find it from here.

It was a rocky place where the bandits had their hideaway. A few crumbling walls hinted that it had once been more forever ago. He couldn't tell if it had been a temple or something else. The weather and time had eaten all the ornamentation, only leaving the occasional walls from which shanty shelters had been erected. Not many of those. Just a handful of run down structures. One had a trickle of smoke coming from a vent hole. The main fire pit in the center of a much traveled clearing was wet and dead from the rains. There were two rough beams buried in the earth and a cross beam lashed to the top ends of them. The wood was stained with more than rain. The smell of blood was too strong to miss, even diluted by the rain, as they passed.

"They took him down." Bokkai observed, emotionless.

"Huh?"

The boy jerked his head at the scaffold. Sano looked closer and saw pits and ruts where spikes had been driven in time and again. Saw the darker stains about those indention's and shivered thinking what had been nailed up there.

There was a man asleep in one of the open faced shelters, sprawled like he'd passed out from too much drink. His snores were a soft disturbance of the silence. There was another in the shadows beyond him sitting haunched over a ceramic jug of what might have been beer, half awake, simply staring at the dirt in a drunken haze.

There were a few more in the other shelters, mostly passed out.

"That's my uncle." Bokkai indicated one of the shelters where a rumbling snore emanated from under a lumpy blanket.

There was a space next to Chijiro's hut, where an old wall had fallen, making sort of a natural enclave. It was still open to the rain, but there was a wall on two sides and a relatively flat surface of stone beneath.

There was a body there, that looked dead, all limp limbs and pallid skin. Naked. The signs of abuse were - - gut wrenching. The hair was wet, making the color indistinguishable, but it was hardly more than shoulder length, so it couldn't be Kenshin.

Even the rain couldn't wash away the blood. He couldn't see the face, because the man's profile was pressed into his arm. They'd gone to the trouble to bind his narrow wrists to a ring in the stone. Why restrain a corpse? Why restrain anything that looked like it had gone through as much hell as this? From his position, bare bloody back to the sky, Sano thought maybe they had used him like the woman he'd let get away from them.

Of course it wasn't Kenshin. Kenshin would have never let himself - - Sano narrowed his eyes, staring past the diluted blood and the new gashes on the skin of that slim back and saw the line of an old scar, running diagonally from shoulder to side. His breath caught in his throat and the bile rose up. How long ago had Kenshin gotten that scar? He ought to know, he'd been there - - but his mind wasn't working.

Sano took a staggering step into the alcove, skidded to one knee on the stone and with a shaking hand pushed wet hair back from a pale profile. The delicate line of one high cheek bone was partially obscured by swelling. Blood crusted the nostril and a split lip was still slowly seeping red. His skin was so cold that Sano pulled his hand back in shock, but he'd felt no beat of life when he'd touched it. He sat there, on his knees, utterly bereft of action for a moment. Staring. Horrified.

"Is he dead?" Bokkai asked, snickering.

Sano blinked. Sano got up, slowly, staring at the few droplets of rain that spattered the stone at his feet. Took one step - - two towards the boy, then lashed out in an artless, backhanded blow that sent Bokkai crashing into the stone wall. The boy's head hit with a crack and he crumpled. There was a knife in the boys belt and Sano snatched it up, turning back to Kenshin's body. He severed the rope from the ring. Slid the blade between the rain swollen bonds around his wrists freed them. He held the mangled hands gently in his own. Cold hands with bloody wounds through the center of each. He pulled him up into his arms and Kenshin's head flopped bonelessly. There was no resistance in him, his limbs were loose and heavy, his skin so, so cold.

"Fuck." Sano said, pressing his face into Kenshin's wet hair. "Fucking idiot! Why'd you let this happen? I was just coming to see you."

"Who the fuck are you?" A gruff voice snarled at him. A shadow fell over him. "What are you doing?"

Sano sniffed. Laid Kenshin back down and turned to look over his shoulder. A big man stood there. His height almost, but much, much thicker. There was gleaming dagger in the man's meaty fist and growing fury in his eyes as he took in Bokkai's crumpled form.

"You Chojiro?" Sano asked, climbing to his feet.

The man grunted. "Did that brat bring you here?"

"You do this?" Sano asked, voice beginning to shake.

"What of it?" The man shifted, a sneer crossing his lips. A few of his comrades were stumbling out of the shelters. "You want a taste of it, boy?"

Sano's lip twitched.

"You know him?" Chojiro asked, passing the dagger to his other hand. "He didn't scream as much as a woman - - but he felt as good as one."

"Wrong - - thing - - to say." The anger swelled up inside of him, but it was a cold, controlled thing that he focused in its entirety into the clenched fist at his side. He lunged, faster than Chojiro could bring up the knife and his fist, backed by the power of the futae no kiwami, smashed into the bandit's broad face. Bone and flesh and muscle had no defense against an attack that could pulverize stone. The bandit's head shattered and bone and blood flew.

It wasn't pretty. The only regret, was that it had been quick. Too damned quick a death by far. The other bandits saw it and gaped and Sano snarled and yelled things at them that he didn't remember later. They were no great fighters. They were simple mountain bandits that preyed on the weak and the wounded and they were no match for Sano in his fury. The one's he didn't take down, ran stumbling for the woods, leaving him with the dead and the unconscious. He wished he'd killed them all. He did not share Kenshin's opinions about such matters. Some people deserved death.

Others - - did not. He turned around then, bereft of enemies, with nothing else to do but go back and decide what to do with Kenshin. He picked him up off the stone and carried him to one of the abandoned shelters out of the rain. Laid him down on dirty blankets and looked around for something decent to wrap him in. Ah, there, in the floor, a bloody indigo gi that had once been of a finer quality than anything these bandits might possess. He pressed it to his face and inhaled. It smelled of Kenshin. His then.

He pulled Kenshin up against him, pulling the gi around him, careful with his hands even though it hardly mattered anymore. Laid him back down with that folded about him, a more modest corpse to be sure and went dully back out into the rain to search the other shelters for the sakabatou, for surely it was about somewhere if Kenshin was.

He didn't find it. But he did find the rest of Kenshin's clothing and brought that back, figuring if he took Kenshin home, it might as well be in a dignified manner. No one ever had to know about what he'd suffered.

The bile rose up in Sano's throat again as he sat there, narrow eyed over Kenshin's body. He ground his teeth fighting against the ungainliness of tears.

Why? There was no one there to see and didn't a friend deserve as much? He grasped Kenshin by the arms and pulled him up, crushing him close, fingers biting into the flesh of his shoulders in his grief. There was a spasmodic twitch of the body in his embrace as his hands dug into the right shoulder. A reflexive jerk of muscles and Sano's fingers pressed into a wound that leaked fresh blood through the material of the gi.

Sano's mouth popped open. Dead people didn't still bleed, did they? They didn't jerk and twitch out of the blue. But he was so damned cold. But not stiff. There was nothing of rigormortis about him.

Sano shifted Kenshin in his arms, pressing his cheek close to his mouth, searching for the feel of warm breath.

There. Almost imperceptible. A wheezing little trickle of breath against his cheek. Not much, but it was something. It was a sign that life still lingered somewhere beneath the cold and the blood. So much blood on the outside that he doubted Kenshin had much left inside his body.

"You in there, Kenshin?" Sano balanced Kenshin in one arm, using the other to brush back the lattice work of wet hair from his face.

Nothing. No smallest flutter of soot-dark lashes against ghost-pale skin. A little blood trickled from the split of a swollen bottom lip, which brought to mind the places where even more blood was seeping out. Sano hissed and looked about for something clean enough to bind wounds with. Finally settled on ripping bands from the bottom of the hakama rather than use the flea infested blankets the bandits nested within. Wound the strips carefully around Kenshin's hands, around his shoulder, with thick pads of cloth pressed to either side to compress the bullet wounds, and around the seeping holes in his thigh where the bullet had passed shallowly through flesh and muscles and exited diagonally through the other side. Not as bad a wound as the shoulder or the hands, but it had bled enough to carry its weight.

Bokkai had said two days. Two days he'd had these wounds untended and he'd yet to expire of them. He wasn't big enough to have that much blood in his body, but then again, he'd survived things that would have killed most men twice over and come out still fighting.

Sano sat there afterwards, cursing himself for not paying more attention when Megumi was treating patients - - huhn, when she was treating him, for that matter. He didn't know what to do other than stop the bleeding. He didn't know how to combat so much lost blood, so many grievous holes in Kenshin's flesh - - the utter listlessness of his limbs. He couldn't carry him the two or more days walk back to Tokyo like this. Kenshin would never make it. Kenshin looked as if he were on death's door now.

The only place Sano could think of to take him was back to the mountain village and hope the widow Hatayama would take pity. He didn't know anyone else that might show a grain of it.

It was still a matter of getting him there. Sano found the cleanest of the blankets and wrapped Kenshin within it; picked him up like fragile porcelain with an arm under his knees and one under his shoulders, not certain what other things were broken inside him and hesitant to toss him over a shoulder if there were broken ribs.

Either Kenshin had shed weight, or Sano had gained strength in his travels, because his burden was negligible. Or maybe it was simple adrenaline fed fear that made it so. Maybe his muscles would scream protest in the morning after hours of trudging about the woods with Kenshin's dead weight in his arms.

Of course it took longer to get back than it had to leave. He couldn't find the game trail. He couldn't find the distinctive rock or the twisted tree. He cursed his bad luck and he cursed the malicious forest spirits who were likely setting him astray. But finally he stumbled upon it, found a little stone trail marker that led to the village.

Of course it was raining heavily again by the time he trudged up that muddy trail. The rain made Kenshin and his blankets seem the weightier. But it served a purpose, Sano supposed sourly. It kept the villagers inside their meager homes, so no prying eyes saw him stagger to the widow Hatayama's door and softly beg for admittance.

The girl, Minako slid it open on warped tracks. Her small, wary face peered up at him, her eyes widening as she recognized him. He might have been carrying a corpse for the silent expression of horror that crossed her face. He heard her mother's soft cry from within, and the widow Hatayama rose from her loom and rushed towards them, shaking her head in dismay.

"No." She cried softly. "Not here. You can't bring him here. Go away."

"Why the fuck not?" Sano was out of patience and out of what small bit of tact he possessed. He was tired, he was scared and he wanted Kenshin out of the rain and someplace warm and dry and non-hostile. "He saved your life, woman. Don't you recognize him? You'd turn him away when he didn't turn away from helping you?"

The woman shied back, a hand to her mouth, tears of - - what, fear maybe in her eyes? Or shame?

"You don't understand." She sobbed, still at no more than a hoarse whisper. "Chojiro wouldn't have killed me - - what he did - - what this one did - - he only made it worse. Chojiro will punish me for it - - and maybe Minako this time as well. You can't bring him here - -"

"Chojiro's dead." Sano said flatly. "He won't be punishing anybody."

She blinked at him, disbelieving. "How - -?"

Sano just stared at her. His arms were starting to tremble from the strain. He hadn't felt it until he'd stopped moving.

"It doesn't matter if - - if Chojiro is dead. There will be another to take his place - - there will always be another and we have no protection against them. They'll come seeking him - - if you stole him from them."

"Please - -" he ground out between clenched teeth. If he went down to one knee now, which his legs were threatening, he didn't think he could get back up again. Not with Kenshin's weight in his arms. "- - help me."

Minako looked up at her mother, her small lips trembling. She laid a hand on the widow's arm. "Please. Papa would have helped."

The widow Hatamaya sobbed and stepped back, clearing the way for Sano to pass, flinging an arm towards the mats closest to the fire where she and the girl slept. Sano heard her slide the door shut behind him. Heard the sound of their feet as they followed him. He laid Kenshin down and flung the sodden blanket from him. Looked up pleadingly to the woman, hoping against hope that she knew a smattering about tending wounds. A mountain woman might, with no one else to tend injuries within a day or more's journey.

He'd never wished more for Megumi's presence than he did now. The woman had the tongue of a shrew but she could work healing miracles with her hands - - and he thought very much, that they needed a miracle now.

 

 

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