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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Six

 

Sano sat against the wall with his hands clenched between his knees to keep them from shaking, because he was in their way. Even the little girl was more adept than him when it came to cleaning bits of wood and debris out of bloody wounds. He listened to the rain patter on the roof, listened to the soft sound of clothing shifting as the widow and her daughter moved, of their whispered conversation - - of his own harsh breath - - and preyed it wasn't all for nothing.

Preyed to any damned thing that wanted to listen for those wounds on Kenshin not to be as horrible as they looked. For him to open those amethyst eyes of his and murmur that he was okay, even though he wasn't. Kenshin was like that. He didn't like to worry people. He'd go out of his way to avoid it. Too damned considerate by far.

But Kenshin didn't. Kenshin didn't move at all. Just lay there in the flickering light of the fire, with a clean blanket laid modestly over his hips and the rest of him bruised and broken and bloody, while a used up, battered village widow tried to stem the bleeding and pack the wounds with mountain herbal remedies and bind his hands and his shoulder and his thigh and the various other cuts and slices and abrasions, with clean strips of soft cloth that she'd no doubt woven herself.

They cleaned him up as best they could, and wrapped him in what were probably the best of their blankets. The widow sat there afterwards, wringing her stained hands, staring down at Kenshin as if he were some evil mountain spirit come to visit her house.

"They'll look for him and for you." She whispered, eyes lowered, head bowed. "Chojiro - - he had a use for me - - with him gone - - they'll kill us."

"They come here - - I'll make them sorry." Sano promised grimly.

"And the ones that come after them?" She asked. "The one's that come when you're gone? Who will make them sorry?"

He didn't have an answer for that. He couldn't think beyond Kenshin's welfare at the moment.

"He'll likely die anyway." She said sadly.

"He won't!" Sano snapped. "He's been through - - worse." He wasn't sure of that, really. The wounds were one thing - - and gods, his hands - - his hands - - but two days of exposure and blood loss - - that was another matter altogether. He wanted to go out and find every bandit in the region and smash them into pulp - - but the widow was right. There would always be more to take their places. Bokkai had said it was city yakuza who'd come asking for their help, though. City yakuza who'd wanted Kenshin dead. And a foreigner. When he got back to Tokyo he'd make some late night visits. He'd had enough shady dealings in his past to know who had connections here and who owed allegiances there. He ticked off on his fingers who he'd visit - - of who's blood would tarnish his knuckles first.

There was the sound of men's voices raised in the night. Sano's head snapped up. He was on his feet, fists clenched before the widow could cry out softly in alarm.

"No. No, Please." She whispered, gesturing to her daughter help her with the mat upon wooden platform on which they ate. "You cannot. You cannot be here. Neither can he."

"So - - what?' Sano asked, staring at the two of them as they rolled the mat aside. There was a weathered trap door under it.

"Here." the widow pleaded. "Take him down here."

"What the fuck is down there?" He was not at all fond of small, dark places.

"My - - my husband made it - - for me and Minako - - when the bandits first started coming. They took so many women - - I send Minako here still - - when Chojiro - -" she trailed off, shuddering and Sano could only imagine what the little girl had had to huddle listening to while her mother unwillingly entertained the bandit chieftain.

"Please. They'll see you're not here and they'll go."

Sano cursed and gathered up Kenshin, blankets and all. He had to half drape him over a shoulder to maneuver down the wooden foot holds that led down into the pit. And it wasn't much more than a pit. Kenshin would have had to duck his head in it. It was maybe four feet wide and six foot long and one side of it was filled with stacks of supplies, tools, root vegetables in sacks, rice and various other things. There was a folded mat and blanket, testament that Minako had spent more than one night hiding here.

The widow tossed the mat Sano had used last night down for him to pad the first one with, advised him to silence and shut the door. He almost yelped as the darkness descended. A flat, impenetrable blackness that made him blink in momentary shock at the complete loss of sight.

He got the mats down by feel alone. Situated Kenshin and threw the extra blanket over him, sitting by his head thereafter, wondering what might be down here in the dark with them. He tensed when he heard the sound of voices demanding entrance. When he heard the widow's startled response and the sound of rapid talking. There was the sound of what might have been a scuffle, but there were no screams - - something crashed and broke and he hoped the trap door hadn't a latch, if he had to break his way out of this pit. He hoped very much she hadn't locked them down here.

Eventually the commotion stopped and after that, a long stretch of silence. Sano cracked a knuckle nervously. He hated the inactivity. He hated not doing anything.

A voice came, whispering through the layer of wood. "They have gone, but they may be back. Please stay there tonight.'

Shit.

"Fine." He hissed, capitulating to her fear. They retreated, leaving him in pitch silence. There was only Kenshin for company and he was poor companionship at best this night. Sano reached a hand out blindly and touched his hair. Dry now. Thick and soft and so damned short. Tragic, the loss of that hair - - he ran shoulder length strands through his fingers, then caught himself and pulled his hand back, berating himself for bemoaning the loss of a man's hair. It wasn't seemly. It wasn't like Kenshin was a girl he'd been courting.

But - - well, he had liked the hair, Damnit. Had appreciated the way it swayed when Kenshin walked - - like a luxurious, auburn tail. A man could admire such aesthetic things, couldn't he - - without seeming peculiar?

He returned his hand to it out of stubbornness and the feel of it calmed him somewhat. Made the dark a little less oppressive. It was chilly here though, encased in earth. Like a grave, he thought, with a shiver. It would do Kenshin no good, cold as he already was.

Sano slid his hand down to Kenshin's face, pressing his knuckles to his cheek. Still cool. Maybe it was the loss of so much blood. Maybe it was all the time spent in cold mountain rain. Sano didn't know the particulars of such things.

He stretched his legs out next to Kenshin, covering them with the outer blanket, and sat there with his arms crossed over his chest, holding the thin weave of his jacket closed over his chest. He was damned cold and he hadn't even lost blood. Damned uncomfortable place to spend the night, with his back to a rough plank wall and the smell of earth so strong he couldn't get images of graves out of his mind. He wondered what earth demons might be lurking about in the dark, attracted by the scent of Kenshin's blood and Kenshin's nearness to death. He didn't know if he could fight off evil spirits, though he'd try.

"Idiot." He whispered into the darkness again, still stung by the amazement that Kenshin had let himself be so thoroughly fucked-up. The foundation of a great many of his beliefs and ideals throughout the last few years of his life had been based upon Himura Kenshin's infallibility. It was like waking up one morning and having the sky be green instead of blue. Some things just didn't happen. Some things weren't supposed to happen. Kenshin overwhelmed by a ragtag bunch of mountain bandits was one of those things.

Sano shuddered and sneezed. He wiped a hand under his nose and cast a nasty glare upwards where the widow and her daughter were probably snuggled up warmly by the fire. He scooted down under the blanket, with the widow's winter food stock pressed against one shoulder and Kenshin's head at the other. Damned little space for a man to get comfortable. He shifted to his side and that didn't work either, not without jamming Kenshin with his knee and with no proper place to put his arms.

Kenshin didn't complain of his shifting about though, so Sano sighed and shoved an arm behind his head and wormed his torso close enough to achieve some small bit of comfort. Like he would sleep with a woman, his bigger body curled around a smaller one. It was okay, if Kenshin slept through it. It was okay to press his cheek against Kenshin's hair and snake his arm across his stomach if nobody ever saw. Besides which, it was a generous sharing of his body heat, which Kenshin needed. And it felt - - nice. It just felt good to cradle Kenshin in his arms when he was battered and bruised and needed Sano for a change.


Sano had hardly realized he'd slept when the intrusion of gray light pierced the thin veil of his lids. He was warm and he was snug and he never had taken well to rising early in the morn. He blinked grit out of his eyes and glared up at the square of hazy light above. Two faces peered down.

"What?" he said, testy.

"How - - is he?" the widow asked hesitantly.

Sano blinked and realized he was wound rather intimately about another male body. His initial embarrassed reflex of jerking away was hampered by the sacks at his back and the sluggish realization that doing so might do Kenshin more harm than good.

"I don't know." He snapped, wondering if they'd expected him to stay awake all night with a hand on Kenshin's pulse. But, he had a hand on his stomach, under the blanket, resting on very smooth, soft skin that was warm to the touch. Very warm.

If he'd started out the night sharing his heat with Kenshin, then Kenshin had turned the tables on him during the early hours of morning, going from alarmingly cool flesh to alarmingly warm.

"Damn - - he's hot." Sano pushed himself up and pressed a hand to Kenshin's face.

"Fever." The widow said it like it had been as inevitable as the monsoons.

"Can I bring him up?"

"No." She said quickly. "They're still in the village."

"Well, we're not staying in this damned pit." One night was enough.

"Better not to move him."

"Its damned cold down here." And dark. "And I've gotta take a leak."

He climbed out of the pit and stretched. Took his leak in a jug in the corner, which the girl took outside and disposed of. Cold rice for breakfast and warm tea.

"Here. He'll be warmer with this." The widow gave him Kenshin's gi, all clean and neatly folded. It still bore ragged holes in the cloth and the weakened stains of blood which were damned hard to get out.

"Wake him if you can." She said. "And make him take this." She had a ceramic pot of what smelled like herbal tea.

"It's too cramped down there."

"Move things up here." The widow Hatayama had an answer for everything. She was desperate, he thought, to preserve the questionable safety of herself and her daughter. So Sano grumbled and bitched and spent an hour shifting things carefully out of the pit to a corner of the house and ended up with slightly more room than he'd had before. They all froze in the midst of this process at the sound of yelling outside. It sounded as if drunken men were raising a ruckus. It probably was.

"They hang around the village a lot?" Sano asked softly, his eye to a crack in the door.

"Many of them have blood relations here." The widow said fearfully. "Like Bokkai - - "

Blood relations through rape, then. It was a wonder the widow Hatayama had escaped the same fate. Bearing some get of Chojiro. Maybe a smart mountain woman knew ways to avoid such a thing.

"Please - - go back down." She pleaded and he reluctantly returned to the pit, with a bowl of rice, a jug of warm tea and a lantern which he sat on a wooden stool he'd left in the corner. They shut him in, but he had the lamp this time and more room to move. It didn't feel as much like a grave.

He sat down cross legged next to Kenshin and put a hand to his forehead. His skin was dry and warm, not the sweaty sort of fever that Sano was used to. It was like his body was so hot, that it ate up the moisture before it could gather.

"Wake up, Kenshin." He said softly, brushing hair aside, running a thumb around the edges of a swollen cut running from temple to hairline. "I really need for you to wake up and take some tea." He got an arm under Kenshin's shoulders and gently levered him up. Got himself against the wall with Kenshin's in the crook of his arm. Kenshin's head lolled. Sano pressed his hand against Kenshin's forehead and tilted it back.

"If you don't wake up, I'm gonna have to pour it down your throat. It'd be nicer if you took it on your own - - but she said you needed it - - so you're gonna get it one way or another, hear me?"

Kenshin obviously didn't take his threats seriously. Sano sighed and reached for the gi, slid the blankets off Kenshin's shoulders and tentatively picked up his bandaged hand to slip through the arm. One through and he gingerly lifted the other one. The bandages of Kenshin's left hand were stained with blood and his fingers hot and a little swollen. A man could lose a limb from such infection. Frightening, frightening thought - - Kenshin crippled in such a manner.

Kenshin jerked as Sano turned the hand. His whole body convulsed and he lunged weakly back against Sano's chest. A reflexive, defensive gesture that he hadn't the strength to back up.

"Whoa, whoa - - its me, Kenshin. Calm down, calm down." He wrapped his arms Kenshin's slim torso to keep him from twisting away and was surprised at the ease of his success. The struggles ceased, but Sano thought it was more from sheer exhaustion than recognition of his voice.

But then, Kenshin could still surprise him.

"S- -Sano?" A hoarse whisper. A disoriented whisper. His body was quaking ever so slightly.

"Hey - - you didn't forget me after all." Sano leaned over so Kenshin could see him. Kenshin blinked, long and slow with that glazed look of the deathly ill.

"I - - thought you were - - dead. You didn't come back - - and you promised - - you'd come back." The clear amethyst of his eyes was almost indistinct against the black of dilated pupils. There was nothing coherent in his gaze.

"Yeah - - well - - I figured you were busy - -"

"It's cold." Kenshin's lashes fluttered shut and Sano shook him a little to keep him awake. "No you don't. You need to drink some tea."

He got the luke warm tea and sloshed some of it into a cup and got even less of that into Kenshin's mouth. He made a terrible nurse maid. He figured half a cup would have to do for the time being - - and he was lucky Kenshin stayed conscious for that much. He got the widow down in the pit to look at the swollen hand and she washed out the wound, pressing yellow puss from the torn flesh and repacking it with herbs. They checked the other major wounds while they were at it, but none of the others seemed as bad as Kenshin's left hand.

Kenshin slept through it all. Trembling occasionally, jerking a little when they messed with his hands. Slept until Sano had to shake him awake again to make him take more herbal tea and a weak broth.

"Kaoru - -" Kenshin said softy, in the midst of that. "I'm late - - I'm sorry - - I am - - but there was a fair on the Nihonbashi Bridge - -"

"What? You had to stop and people watch?" Sano knew Kenshin well enough to be familiar with his eccentricities. He was an avid observer of humanity, even if he held himself apart from it on most occasions.

Kenshin babbled more things, off and on, in and out of consciousness. Sano answered back for the most part. He slept that night with the small lantern flickering, his body wrapped around a fevered Kenshin.

Woke up the next morning to an elbow in the face and a panicked, not quite sane Kenshin trying to claw his way out of the tight space they shared. It was hard enough getting one's wits back when woken normally out of a sound, pleasant sleep, much less when one had a desperate samurai on one's hands. Sano tasted blood in his mouth. He lost the air in his lungs from Kenshin's knee in his side and only got the upper hand - - despite Kenshin's weakness - - when Kenshin aimed a blow at his face and was lucky enough to connect.

Sano figured it hurt Kenshin a lot more than it hurt him. Kenshin cried out, going boneless of a sudden, curled around his damaged hand in the midst of tangled blankets. Sano spit blood against the far wall and laid a hesitant hand on Kenshin's shoulder. Kenshin flinched in reaction, curling tighter, cradling his hand. Not anyplace close to being in his right mind.

"It's me. Sano. Remember?" he tried touching again. Didn't get the cringing this time, so boldly pulled the smaller man up against his chest. Kenshin was stiff and unresponsive against him. Lips pressed tight, lashes fluttering on his cheeks. His skin was warm through the gi, hot where Sano's hand touched bare flesh.

"Its okay. Its okay." Sano felt the bumbling fool. He didn't know how to give the necessary assurances. Didn't know what was going through Kenshin's fevered mind. What pain he was feeling. What horrors he was reliving. He tightened his arms and rested his chin on the top of Kenshin's head.

"Sano?"

"Hey. Yeah."

Kenshin pressed his face into Sano's neck and shuddered; clutched weakly at the back of Sano's jacket, but his fingers failed him and he made a helpless, choked sound.

"Its okay." Back to that same mantra, which might be a blatant lie, but Sano didn't know what else to say.

"Sano - - I have - - have to - -" He trailed off, losing the train of thought.

Sano thought about all the things Kenshin might have to do and figured what would be at the top of his list right about now.

"You need to take a leak?"

A long pause and he figured Kenshin had drifted off on him. Then a small inclination of the head on his shoulder. Okay. The widow had provided a container for that, though Sano hadn't figured he'd have to help in the operation. But Kenshin's hands weren't much good to him at the moment. He wasn't much good for anything, that short burst of desperate energy having used up everything he'd had. So Sano blushed like a virgin on her marriage night and took care of things, and hoped to hell Kenshin was too out of it to ever remember.

There was blood in his urine, which made a man cringe, thinking of the things that had likely caused that. Handling Kenshin's private parts made him recall the state he'd found him in, bound and naked and bloody and he started wondering what the bandits had done to him other than the obvious wounds they had treated. Made him sit there and grind his teeth and clench his fists so hard the joints cracked, while he thought about things he'd tried not to think about before now. Bad enough to think about Kenshin tortured - - but raped . . .

Bokkai had said as much. It wasn't inconceivable - - Kenshin looked young enough to fool a body into thinking he was little more than a boy fresh into adult-hood. He was damned sure pretty enough to make a man look twice at him - - to make an honest man consider things that an honest man might not normally consider about another man - - let alone what some stinking mountain bandit might find suitable to quench his primal needs.

Bastards. He stood up so fast, in a fit of righteous anger, that he slammed the top of his head against the low ceiling. Sat back down of a sudden with stars dancing before his eyes, rubbing the growing lump on his head. He needed to take his frustration out of someone. Needed a body to pound. Needed vengeance, because nobody hurt those few rare people that Sagara Sanosuke loved and got away with it.

"Sano?" Kenshin half rolled to his side and stared with heavy lidded eyes at Sano, sitting in his ungraceful heap. "What are you doing?"

"Seeing stars."

Kenshin blinked slowly at him. He licked his dry lips and said worriedly. "Is it dawn? We should move before daylight - - they'll be on our trail otherwise."

"Who. Who'll be on our trail?"

"The army. We took Arato's head - - they'll want retaliation."

Arato's head? Arato? Arato. Hadn't there been some Tokugawa warlord or something named Arato? A warlord killed late in the revolution - - or assassinated maybe? It had been a great blow to the moral of the Tokugawa forces, he thought.

"We?" he asked wryly.

Kenshin shut his eyes, letting his head fall to the mat. "Orders. They want it - - for the army to see."

"Oh."

Kenshin was silent for a long time, face hidden by the loose fall of his hair.

"I'm sorry." He murmured, long after Sano thought he'd fallen asleep. "He was an old man - - he didn't - - have a chance - -"

Sano sighed, rubbing his head one more time before shifting over to plant his butt on the mat near Kenshin. He arranged disarrayed blankets, absently smoothed strands of hair back behind Kenshin's ear, revealing the pale slash of old scars on his cheek. Kenshin's long lashes trembled against his skin, his teeth worried anxiously at his bottom lip.

"Doesn't matter. It's all over now."

"I should get home - -" Kenshin murmured, "Kaoru will be upset - -"

"She'll get over it." Sano predicted.

"Unnhhn." Kenshin was drifting again. Sano could tell from the way his face relaxed. Sano let him go, it being easier to sit there and stew with vengeful thoughts while Kenshin was silent and still.

He went up to the house after a while, and his face must have been terrible to behold for the Widow Hatamaya put a hand to her mouth and pattered over to him like she needed to prevent him from charging out the door and taking on every bandit in the province.

"I can't take this." He growled. "I can't take them carousing out there and us stuck in here like frightened rabbits. It's not right."

"Don't cause us trouble." The Widow Hatamaya said and thrust a bowl of rice in his hands to distract him. Not just rice this morning, but rice with wild mushrooms and diced vegetables, which was a nice change.

"I made soup for him. See what he will take." She was very much trying to deter him from the violence he so dearly wished to perpetrate. He finished the last of his rice and licked his fingers, canting her a look that said he knew what she was doing - - and he submitted to it - - for the time being.

"All right. You come down and check his wounds?"

She nodded.

Minako watched the little path outside the house through a slit in the door while her mother climbed down into the pit with Sano. Kenshin woke up once, while she was pressing infection out of his left hand, not quite crying out, but definitely distressed. Sano put hands on his shoulders to keep him down, earnestly apologizing for the pain they were causing. Fever glazed plum eyes stared up at him, uncomprehending, maybe not even recognizing him.

"Hiko - -" he murmured. " - - did I take a hit?"

"Yeah, a couple." Sano said.

"I'm sorry - - I'll do better - - next time." Kenshin closed his eyes.

The widow tied the bandage off and looked up at Sano, frowning. "He shouldn't have tried to - - help me. It was no business of his. It's his own fault - - this." She wrung her hands so desperately that her short nails left red scratches on her skin.

"Not everybody turns their back on folk in trouble. Not everybody lets people like Chojiro walk all over them."

She shook her head, not able or willing to argue with him. She rose and shifted past him, climbing out of the pit, but leaving the trap door open to the shadowed light of the hut.


Nothing mattered. Everything did. The world was awash in blood. His own. Kaoru's. Kenji's.

Sano's.

He saw Tomae's dead eyes staring up at him and couldn't shake the image from his mind. Over and over and over the light of life went out and they were simply dead, brown orbs. Sometimes they turned into Kaoru's eyes. Sometimes they were his own and he was drifting above, staring down at his twisted corpse - - amazed at how fragile he looked - - how breakable.

He was cold. It ate at his bones and frosted over his skin until he couldn't move for the frozen ice that had encased his limbs. He couldn't think for it. Hiko bitched at him - - from a distance - - berating his lack of ingenuity - - his lack of simple common sense. He didn't know what exactly, he'd done to deserve the censure - - but then Hiko didn't really need a reason - -

- - -He was running through the woods. The mountains outside of Kyoto, he thought. There was blood on his hands that he didn't recall the cause of. He had been overtaken by a group of enemy samurai on the road and had killed them to man. Eight bodies littering the ground. Yet he hadn't taken a wound. He was sure he hadn't taken a wound.

His hands ached. It hurt to grip the sword, so he paused in the dappled shadow and slid it back into its sheath.

The blade was backwards.

He furrowed his brow in confusion - - bewildered that this blade could steal so many lives. It wasn't supposed to. But he'd seen the blood and the sliced flesh and the gasping last breaths of men he didn't even know.

He hadn't the time to wonder, though. There was a battle over the ridge where he was supposed to be.

Only it wasn't a field of death, littered with the bodies of men and horses - - it was a small mountain house, with its small garden plot that reeked of familiarity. Tomae came to the open door, dark, straight hair loose about her face. She didn't quite smile at him. She never really smiled. But she welcomed him, he thought.

There was a vivid red stain on the front of her kimono. His sword dripped with blood. He dropped it, fingers numb - - aghast.

What are you doing? Kaoru asked. Why isn't the gate fixed? I asked you this morning and you keep getting distracted. What's wrong, Kenshin?

He was sorry, truly he was. But Sano had come by and talked him into walking into town with him and they'd ended up playing at dice and then trying to talk Sano out of the debt he owed because of it. And Sano had scratched his head afterwards, looking sheepish and apologized for the trouble, though Kenshin doubted he really was sorry, and explained that it had just been a spot of bad luck and he'd win it back the next time.

Its okay. But maybe next time you ought not wager what you don't have, that you shouldn't. Kenshin sat on a low stone wall by the road and rubbed his hands, trying to work the ache out. Sano snorted and sat next to him, close enough to touch shoulders.

It'll be okay. Just take this. Sano handed him a cup of tea and he blinked at it. Take it, Kenshin.

He really didn't want it. He furrowed his brow and turned away, and Sano wrapped an arm around him and pulled him back, holding him against his chest with one long arm while he raised the cup with the other. Like he might with a child who couldn't be trusted to hold it on their own. He couldn't raise his hands to fend off the indignity and arguing any point with Sano could be exhausting if Sano had his mind set. So he relented and opened his lips to accept what Sano gave to him, and warmth flowed in and around him with the tea.

It fended off the snow. But not for long.

He looked down and found himself calf deep in white. The snow was spattered with blood. It mostly hid the bodies that had fallen into it. Yahiko was propped against the snow covered trunk of a tree, holding his guts in by hands pressed tightly over the gaping slash in his belly. The sakabatou quivered, tip first in the tree trunk next to him.

The boy gazed up at Kenshin accusingly.

Look what happened. Its your fault. You gave me this and never taught me Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu, to truly use it.

I couldn't. Frozen tears ran down his cheeks. He tried to ball his fists and couldn't. Kamiya Kasshin Ryu is good enough. No one will come after you if that's what you use. No one will hunt you down - - I can't do that to you - - or to anyone - - you didn't need to know - -

You're such a idealistic fool. Hiko stood over him. When had he fallen into the snow? You won't pass it on. You won't use it. What did I give it to you for, then? My health? Fool! Insipid, little fool. You can't escape what you are - - don't you know that?

Kenshin - - Kaoru called, wanting him for something. Something mundane and pleasant, like going into town for tofu, or fixing the broken track under a door - - or keeping Kenji out of trouble while she taught a class - - it was so nice not to have to watch his back or sleep with his sword. It was nice to wrap his arms around Kaoru and pretend that he was something he was not and might never truly be capable of being.

Kenshin - - she sounded distressed. He could hear her voice, but couldn't find her person. The call became fainter and he more frantic in his searching of the dojo. There was something wrong. There was blood on the sakabatou. It seeped from the leather of the hilt where he held it. It hurt, but he tightened his grip anyway, padding through the rooms on silent, bare feet.

She was gone. It was like she'd never been there. The dojo was cold and empty. Frozen. His panic became palpable, lodging in his throat like a chunk of unchewed food.

Kaoru! He called her name. The rooms were endless. His foot slid on frozen blood and he went down to one knee, one hand pressed against the cold floor. He cried out as the pain flared, reeling.

She was gone and he had to find her. He knew the trail to follow - - it was only a matter of getting out of this place. Out of the cold - -

He called her name again and weight pressed down against him. A large hand clamped down over his mouth, a body pinned him down.

Darkness. Utter, hopeless darkness.

Kenshin blinked sightlessly into the void, Kaoru's name a shrill cry in his throat, muffled by the hand over his mouth. He struggled under the oppressive weight, but his limbs were tangled in clothing or blankets and the body was larger than his by a good amount - - and he had no strength. It bled out of him even as he strove to throw his captor off.

"Shush. Shush. It's me." A quiet whisper against his ear. Lips pressed so close to him that he could feel the warm rush of breath against his neck. He didn't register the me. But he couldn't argue against the strength that held him immobile. He tried to take account of himself and the situation he found himself in, but his thoughts kept drifting aimlessly. It took more focus than he presently had to keep them firmly on track. He thought he heard the faint sound of voices drifting down from above. Voices raised in argument - - in anger. The sound of breaking pottery. A woman's cry.

A soft curse next to his ear. An involuntary tightening of the hand on his mouth, a tensing of the body draped over his own.

"Shit. Shit. Shit." More whisper soft curses and the Me melted into images of Sanosuke. Only he couldn't tell Sano that he understood and to ease up because the hand wouldn't leave his mouth. So one had very little choice, but to lay there and endure, with a head spinning from lack of breath and a body beginning to protest from individual aches that made themselves known one by one by one. He was cold, even with the entangling blankets and Sano's warmth atop him. Cold down to his bones.

Eventually the noise from above faded and there was only the faint sound of soft sobbing. The Sano form released him of a sudden and pushed itself away, taking its warmth with it. There was the sound of scuffling in the dark and then a square of dim light crossed briefly by the blackness of a moving body. He heard Sano's lowered angry voice and the answering tones of a distraught woman.

Distressed women made him recall Kaoru and his own priorities. Hard to remember all the details, but he knew he had to make himself move - - had to go north to find her.

A pale, round eyed foreign face flashed across his mind's eye. A name came with it and he hissed. More images that made him shudder - - and he tried to push those away to some harmless place where they wouldn't interfere with calm rational.

With effort he kicked the blankets off. It was cold without them. His legs were bare. The soft material of his gi hung from his shoulders, gaping open so that cool air kissed his chest and stomach. He tried to pull it closed and his fingers wouldn't work right. They were hot and swollen and filled with pain. He opened his mouth - - shut it - - staring helplessly into the darkness at the damaged things at the end of his arms.

How - -? He half recalled the shuddering thump of a mallet driving a spike through flesh. Half recalled himself shrieking from the impact. He could recall very little else beyond that. Very little directly proceeding it, for that matter.

He got to his knees, hands pressed against his chest, eyes slowly adjusting to the faint light coming through the square in the ceiling. It was not that far up. No further than his own height - - but at the moment even that scant distance seemed impossible. He'd try it though, for he had to get up and out and find Kaoru. He thought he was late, very, very late, in his pursuit of her. The notion of that tardiness made his heart thud in his chest. The beat of it was painful almost - - Everything was painful.

Ignore it. Concentrate past it. Reach out the right hand, which didn't throb so horrendiously and force his fingers to curl around the rung of wood at the top of the square of light. It hurt, but a body could focus past the pain. And if he got his arm up to support his weight, he wouldn't have to rely on the hand. The dizziness was harder to ignore. It made his head feel half its normal weight. Made his vision spin and threw his equilibrium off. Take a breath and let it pass - - only it refused to go away.

It was dark at the top, nighttime, he thought. There were still the sounds of low voices arguing, when he pulled himself to the floor. It was the floor of a small house. There were figures against the low light of a fire. Two big ones - - one small one huddled in a corner who stared at him with wide, shadowed eyes.

That littlest form betrayed him. Lifted a sleight arm and pointed and the biggest figure whirled and babbled things in a Sano voice and rushed over to get in his way as he was trying to get off his knees and to his feet.

"No no no no." Sano voice was saying and big hands grasped his shoulders and kept him kneeling on the floor.

"Let go." He murmured, indignant at the restraint. A woman hovered at the outskirts of his vision. Thin and battered. There was blood on her mouth, but he knew Sano hadn't done it. Sano didn't hit women.

"No way." Sano said firmly. "You're not going anywhere just yet."

He blinked past Sano to the child - - a little girl. A skinny, hopeless looking little girl. She clutched a small cloth doll in her hands. The sort of child that needed protection from the ravages of the world and so seldom got it.

"My sword - -" he murmured. "Where's my sword?"

"Dunno." Sano said. "All I found was you."

His sword. His sword. He needed it. He felt naked and helpless without it. How horribly careless of him to lose it. Oh, but maybe he hadn't. Maybe he'd - - given it to Yahiko.

He shuddered, pressing his lip between teeth - - thinking himself the proper idiot.

"Hey," Sano got an arm around him. "You're gonna freeze. Come by the fire."

"No." The woman whispered. "What if they come back."

"Then I kick their asses. I'm not shoving him back down there when he's gone to all the trouble to come up."

"I need to go - -" Kenshin insisted, single minded in that goal. "Kaoru - -"

"Will be fine. You're the problem, idiot." Sano levered him up and his legs refused to hold his weight and his vision spun precariously, so Sano ended up half carrying him to the mat by the fire. The room spun off kilter and he had no center, no balance and the lack frightened him.

"Where you gonna go when you can't even walk? You have any of that tea left?"

Sano held a cup up to him, insistent - - like the Sano he'd seen in the dream - - had it been a dream? One hoped so. One fervently hoped so, considering the other things he'd seen there.

"Sano - -" he tried to push the cup away, needing to impress upon Sano the importance of why he had to leave. "- - He took them - - I thought this way - - but he lied. I have to find them."

"Who's he and who did he take and where?"

Too many questions. They made Kenshin's head pound. He lifted a hand to press against his face, but the movement send blades of pain up through his fingers. He picked clumsily at the bandages, distracted and Sano caught his wrists and held them apart.

"Kenshin!" Sano said, a little sharp. A little worried sounding.

Kenshin blinked up at him.

"Who? Who do you have to find?"

The memory came flooding back. The fear. He had forgotten for a moment what he needed to do. Where he needed to go. To Sendai after Winter. Because that's where Winter said he would meet up with the ship carrying Kaoru and Kenji. But he was far off track and he had no notion of how much time he'd lost.

"Kaoru." He said softly. "Kenji."

"Who's Kenji?" Kenshin heard Sano ask, before he slumped forwards, into Sano's arms and the world went away.

 

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