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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn


Chapter Seven


You knew Kenshin was fucked up when Kaoru was in danger and he couldn't stay awake long enough to spill all the grim details - - much less rush off to save the twit.

So, he'd married her after all. Well, he hadn't said as much in his feverish ramblings, but he'd managed to explain that Kenji was his son and he was too damned honorable by far to have a son by a woman he hadn't taken vows to. Hell, he probably hadn't slept with her until he'd married her.

Perfect. Proved right yet again. Sano thought he might make a damn fine mystic, as adept as he was at telling the future. His current prediction was that he probably wouldn't even get a straight story out of Kenshin until tomorrow, if then. Kenshin still had that high, dry fever which the widow said wasn't good. He'd made a couple of his wounds bleed again when he'd climbed up-top. His right hand and his shoulder were seeping red. The widow tore more strips of cloth, soaked them in herbal water and rebandaged all the wounds.

Sano refused to go back down in the pit. And the widow, with her recently battered face, bowed her head and agreed. They had come to her in the night, drunk and grieving, wanting her to pay her respects to Chojiro. She had declined and they'd hurt her for it. They hadn't asked if she'd seen Sano - -much less Kenshin. Maybe they figured they were long gone. Fools should have know better considering the condition they'd left Kenshin in.

So they left him on the mat by the fire, and the widow and her daughter bedded down together against the wall. Sano sat with his side to the warmth, awake and wary, just in case any bandits decided to try the widow's house again before the night was out.

He nodded off, despite his best intentions, before dawn, and woke to Minako moving gingerly around him to put water on to boil. She smiled down at him and he blinked and managed to grin up at her.

"I'm glad he didn't die." She said softly. And Sano blinked again, realizing he was curled around Kenshin's upper body. He disentangled himself carefully, running long fingers through his ruffled hair.

"Your mother outside?"

"Yes. She went to trade some cloth to the old man at the end of the street. He collects herbs and things from the forest - - even has some from the city - - she thought she could get something for his fever and for the infection."

"Oh. Well, that's really nice of her."

"You shamed her - - when you first came back with him."

"Oh - - well - - I didn't really - -"

"She understands that she owes a debt."

Minako had a very solemn look on her face. She was either small for her age, or a very somber, very unchild-like ten year old.

"Yeah. She does." Sano agreed, not willing to argue against anything that would end up helping Kenshin.

They got Kenshin up to take tea and a little rice. He'd drifted out of the moment of almost clarity he'd had last night. He lay limp and only half conscious in Sano's arms while the Widow tried to make him swallow the mashed rice. He was shivering off and on, from the spiking fever and the widow sent Minako for fresh water, which they soaked soft cloth in and pressed against his pale face.

The fever didn't break until the next evening. It was well past dusk when Kenshin woke in a sweat, insisting that he had to go and go now. He was easy enough to dissuade, simply by pressing him back down to the blankets and telling him that they'd go soon enough - - that he just needed to rest a little more.

Just a little more - -

It was dark and Kenshin was hot. He couldn't recall being hot for a very long while. He lay for a while, letting his eyes adjust to the scant light from the embers of a dying fire. His thoughts were difficult to collect, but not impossible.

The sounds of very early morning stirred beyond thin walls. Bird song, the mating call of insects - - the very light patter of rain on the roof. He lay snug against another body, which was part of the reason for the warmth and in the shadows he saw that it was Sanosuke, who had an arm across his chest and a knee over his thigh and his face pressed mostly into his hair.

It was not an uncomfortable place to be, when one let one's self luxuriate in the sheer physical repose of it. It was nice to lay there, drowsing against another redolent body. It was nice to feel the soft, slow tickle of Sano's breath against his hair - - He let his lashes flutter down, almost falling into sleep again - - almost, before other thoughts intruded.

Kaoru. Remiss of him to succumb to the comfort of lazy sleep when Kaoru and Kenji had been taken away from him. He gingerly attempted to extract himself from the tangle of Sano's long limbs. Sano was a heavy sleeper and Kenshin could tread soundlessly over dry leaves in the fall when he put his mind to it. Of course, it was not so easy when one lay in the embrace of the person of whom one wished to avoid notice. Nor when one's hands were dull, aching encumbrances at the end of one's arms. His shoulder complained and his thigh screamed in protest when he rolled to his knees, finally successful in escaping Sano's grasp.

He seemed to recall the echoing thunder of gunfire. The surprisingly painless entry of the bullet through his leg - - the body rocking impact of the one that had gone through his shoulder and taken the world away with it. There were only feverish flashes of imagery of what they'd done afterwards. Only vague recollection of how his hands had come to be like this. Only sibilant whispers of the things Winter had said to him before he had melted out of the nightmare and left only less eloquent, brutish figures in his place.

Sendai. That was where Winter had been going. That was where he'd said Kaoru would be. But for how long? He'd said he'd needed her for other purposes - - but he'd not said where. What if they were gone already? If the trail grew too cold, he'd never pick it up. He couldn't track a body over the sea.

Kenshin shuddered involuntarily, shutting his eyes at a wave of dizziness. He was weak. He felt it in the heaviness of his limbs. He could ignore the pain - - but the weakness presented a problem. He climbed carefully to his feet - - stood there a moment swaying, while the light headedness passed. He looked about the small house warily and drew back a moment in shock at the sight of two other sleeping forms by the wall. The presence of other people had escaped him. He half recalled a woman who Sano had argued with. A woman who had pressed poultices into his wounds and bound them.

He saw what looked to be his hakama on a rustic clothes rack. He limped quietly towards it, realized how badly he was favoring the leg and tried to correct the gait. It would do him no good if the leg healed weak due to his own squeamishness. Best to ignore the pain and let it do its share of the work so muscles did not weaken any more than they already had.

It was - - painful - - belting the hakama over the gi. The fingers of his left hand wouldn't curl and the right was only slightly more mobile.


The sound - - feel -- image - - of a stake driven through his palm made him jerk in response. He curled his hands close to his chest, bowing his head for a moment, willing the memories away. Willing everything away but the determination to be after his lost family. He looked for the sword - - and recalled that he'd never had it to begin with. Shook his head to clear it of lingering confusion and searched for his sandals. He didn't see any of a size. Only small ones fit for a woman and a child and the soft leather shoes that Sano wore. It wasn't winter - - lack of sandals wouldn't kill him.

"Where are you going?"

He blinked and turned to look at Sano, who'd sat up on the mat by the fire and was staring at him through the shadows.


"Don't be stupid, Kenshin - -" Sano pushed himself up and Kenshin narrowed his eyes, wary of his approach.

"I have to go."

"You almost died."

He had no time for Sano or his arguments. "Do you know where my sandals are?"

"Who the hell knows. In the woods. In the bandit camp. On the feet of one of the bandits that kicked your ass."

Ah, he'd been right about talking to Sano. He turned his back on him and walked for the door, concentrating on not limping. He felt Sano chase him down. Turned to glare over his shoulder before the hand could fall on his shoulder - -

"Don't try to stop me, Sanosuke."

"Try to stop you? You're gonna fall flat on your face twenty minutes down the road. Why should I try and stop you, dumbass?"

He inclined his head, willing to ignore the insult in favor of Sano not attempting determent. He reached for the door and Sano cursed and laid a hand on him anyway.

"Just wait a damned minute, Kenshin."

"Let go, Sano." Kenshin stood there, tense and angry and waited for Sano to remove his hand.

"The bandits are out there, you know. They're gonna raise all sorts of shit if they see you."

Kenshin lifted a disdainful brow and Sano leaned down and smiled humorlessly.

"Don't be so hasty. They almost killed you, understand? You know what sort of shape you were in when I found you? You feel it, Kenshin? How're your hands? You think you're gonna hold a sword anytime soon?"

He flinched at that - - that voicing of the incessant, treacherous little fear that even a reasonable, rational man didn't want to dwell upon.

"Take your hand off of me, Sanosuke. I won't ask again." He said that very softly and Sano tilted his head, gauging him, then slowly retracted his hand and straightened.

"Fine. Go and get killed. What do I care?"

"How long have I been here?' he needed to know that. Needed to know how much of a headstart Winter had on him.

Sano shrugged, an infuriatingly nonchalant look in his dark eyes. Dealing with Sano when he was like this made his head ache.

"You're not up to this." Sano said. "And you're too damned stubborn to realize it. All you're gonna do is get yourself killed the rest of the way and then who's gonna help Kaoru and the kid?"

That made him pause. That made him turn towards Sano and glare at him like he was an enemy.

"What do you know of it?"

"Just what you told me."

"What did I - -?" He couldn't remember telling Sano anything. He couldn't recall why Sano was here at all when he'd been conspicuously absent for the past four years.

"Not enough. I can put two and two together, though. What? Was somebody after you and they got in the way, isn't that the way it usually goes?"

"No - -" Not this time. He'd hoped never again. Sano was baiting him, he knew that. He just didn't know why.

"Leave me alone, Sano."

Sano laughed. Sano's lip curled and he jammed an arm out of a sudden, slamming a palm hard into Kenshin's shoulder. Either he'd gotten considerably faster over the last few years - - or the wound's were affecting Kenshin's senses. He went down, sprawling in the floor, knocking over a small table laden with spools of yarn. There were soft female cries and he realized that the woman and the little girl had been awake for some time, listening to them.

It hurt. It hurt bad enough to make his vision blacken around the edges, but he still shouldn't have gone down under it. He still should have been able to keep his balance and save himself that indignity.

Sano moved to stand over him, tall and shadowed in the dark house. Angry, maybe. At odds with him now.

"You can't even stand up under a little love tap like that, what're you gonna do when somebody really wants to cave your skull in?"

Kenshin stared at the floor, at Sano's ankles, hair a mask that hid the furious glitter of his eyes. He kicked out with his good leg and smashed his foot into the back of Sano's knee. Sano yelped in surprise and crashed down.

"I don't need you telling me how to fight."

"Yeah?" Sano glared at him from a like vantage, elbows propping himself up off the floor. "Wanna take bets on who can stand up first?"

"Quiet. Quiet." The woman was hovering at the edges, frightened, wide eyed. "They can hear next door."

Kenshin didn't care. Kenshin pushed himself painfully to his feet. His left hand was bleeding. The wetness stained his fingers. He staggered a step, his center so terribly off - - his legs shaking. Sano glared sullenly at him from the floor, not bothering to rise.

"Idiot." Sano murmured when Kenshin slid the door open.

Dawn stained the sky, but it was muted by the mist. There was a narrow, muddy little street outside this house and trees beyond that. There was nothing familiar here. From the rising sun, he knew in which direction north lay, but there seemed no easy path leading that way. How far off the main road he was, he had no slightest notion.

"Hey there, what's going on?" A voice from the house next door. A woman's annoyed tones. A man came out with a lantern and a woman followed, standing just under a thatch awning and out of the rain. A boy followed, fixed his eyes upon Kenshin and let out a shrill cry.

Sano started cursing behind him. The woman and the girl whimpered - - the woman muttering either prayers or curses to her gods. It occurred to him, that in his haste, he might have caused this woman and her daughter trouble.

There were the startled sounds of men awakened by the boy's cries and the boy himself yelling in righteous fury and pelting towards him with a hoe that he'd grabbed from the side of the house. He looked to be about Yahiko's age - - maybe a little younger. He had that same fearless look about him - - that same determination. Kenshin half remembered the Yahiko of the fever dream and lost himself for a moment trying to separate dream from reality, from truth - -

The hoe came down, sharp end first and his reflexes refused to cooperate. He saw it coming - - was painfully aware of the downward arc - - and couldn't make his body move to block it or even avoid it.

Sano's hand shot out past Kenshin's ear and caught the shaft of the tool and promptly smacked the pole back in the boy's face. The kid cried out and crumpled, clutching his bleeding mouth and nose.

"See?" Sano pushed him aside to get past and Kenshin's wounded shoulder hit the door frame painfully. He leaned there, panting while Sano stalked into the misty rain and yelled out into the morning.

"C'mon! C'mon you son's of bitches, I'm waiting for you!"

Kenshin wasn't good for anything at the moment. That was painfully clear. In a little bout of vindictiveness Sano hoped it had hurt like hell when he'd hit the floor - - but him proving a point to a pig headed Kenshin did not include Kenshin getting his skull smashed by any other interested party.

Oh, and there were interested parties lurking about. Bokkai's cry had roused the predators. They must have been in and about the village, sleeping off last night's drink - - harassing the villagers into paying respects to a man that deserved none. A few of them slunk out from the woods. A few from houses that they'd probably intimidated their way into. There were maybe seven of them, not counting Bokkai's bleeding self and Sano grinned with absolute delight at their approach. He'd been dormant too damned long and his skin fairly twitched in anticipation of perpetrating a bit of richly deserved damage.

The first one rushed at him like a lumbering bear. No finesse, no fighting style, just a big man with a rough staff. Sano planted his foot in the big man's balls and watched him go down with a choked cry and a reddening face. These men were little more than common brawlers when you got down to it. Less by far than he'd been when he'd first started fighting in the streets of Tokyo as a kid. He could have taken them then, when all he knew were the crude elements of hit and take a hit and if you didn't go down under it, give another blow of your own.

He laughed grimly while he kicked their asses, because he had a score to settle. His knuckles were bloody, but he didn't feel it. He took a hit in the side from somebody's club and that knocked the wind out of him, but a body learned not to let that stop him or he'd end up dead.

He rubbed bruised ribs afterwards, and glanced back with a triumphant grin to the widow's house. The woman and the girl were hovering in the doorway behind Kenshin, looking terrified - - just ashen faced and scared and that took some of the bluster out of Sano's victory. He hadn't killed these guys and even if he had, there would be more and word would get around that she'd harbored their enemies and she'd pay.

"Fuck." He hissed and stalked back to the house, yanking up Bokkai by the scruff of the neck and shaking the boy out of his bubbling whimpers. "You tell them - - all of them - - that if they start coming back here and harassing these people, that I'm gonna come back and kick all their asses for them. You tell them that."

"You shit head!' Bokkai wheezed at him through a broken nose. "We're not scared of you."

"No? No?" He tossed the kid into the street, jerked him up when he sprawled and herded him towards the trees on the other side. Found the biggest, thickest tree of the lot and focused his chi - - focused his everything into a point at the end of his fist - - and used the futae no kiwami that a renegade Buddhist monk had taught him to shatter it. Not just shatter it, but to pulverize it to the point that fine particles of wood dust exploded outwards and a section of some three foot of trunk just ceased to be. The tree toppled backwards, creating a ripple that spread through the trees behind it. The boy held his hands up to shield his face, wide eyed and suddenly frightened out of his bravado.

Sano turned around and walked back to the widow's house.

"You've killed us." The woman said hollowly. Minako clung to her side. "No matter what you say - - when you go, they will come and take their revenge."

"Then you need to leave." He knew when he said it, how ridiculous a statement that was. If she'd had the means of leaving, she wouldn't have stayed here and endured the hell that she had.

"Go to Tokyo." Kenshin said softly, face lowered, so that all a body could really see of him was nose and mouth. "Find the Kamiya dojo - - there's a garden to tend - - and a cat - - you can stay there. Tell anyone who asks what happened."

She blinked at him owlishly, terrified as much at this suggestion of change as she was of the bandits. "We have everything here - -"

"You have nothing here." Kenshin looked up and his eyes were narrow and angry. "They'll tread over you till they destroy you. Take what you can carry and go to Tokyo. Its not that far a walk. A few days."

She sobbed and clutched her child and nodded helplessly. "Who shall I ask for - -?"

"No one. There's no one there. Tell the students - - if they come - - that Kaoru is away. That she'll be back. Anyone that asks, tell them that I told you to tend the dojo."

"Who are you?"

He laughed softly, humorlessly. "Kenshin. Himura Kenshin."

She nodded and hustled the child inside to dress and gather what they could. Kenshin leaned against the door frame, not making an effort to move, not looking at Sano.

"Will you see them to Tokyo?" he asked softly. "There are likely more bandits on the road."

"No." Sano stuffed his scuffed hands into his pockets. Kenshin looked up at him, a little surprised at that refusal. "They've dealt with mountain bandits for longer and better than most. I'll see them to the main road. But I'm going with you."

Kenshin drew breath and Sano held up a finger.

"If you even open your mouth and something stupid comes out - - like 'I don't need your help, Sano.' Or, 'It's not your business, Sano.' I swear I'm gonna knock you on your ass again."

Kenshin didn't say it. Kenshin stared out at the collection of battered figures Sano had left in the mud. He hadn't been out in the rain, but his hair was damp, strands of it clinging to his face and neck. Still fevered and flushed, still trembling a little now and then, but trying to hide it.

"You've improved."

Sano shrugged, scratching the back of his neck. "Yeah. Picked up some new techniques here and there."

Kenshin looked over his shoulder at the woman and the child, who were frantically deciding what part of their life to take and what part to leave behind. "You should not have brought me here."

Sano wasn't about to argue that point. He changed to subject.

"I never did find the sakabatou - - you want I should ask some of these guys what happened to it?"

Kenshin sighed. "I didn't have it. I gave it to Yahiko."

Sano gaped at him, aghast. "Oh for crying out loud, can't I leave you alone for a second? Why'd you do a thing like that? What's the shrimp gonna do with it?"

Kenshin didn't answer. He went back inside and slid down against the wall, with his bandaged hands propped on his knees and waited for the widow to pack her belongings. Sano stomped around in the rain, frustrated and hyped. He urged each bandit that regained consciousness to make a hasty retreat from the little village. Kicked the ones that were slow to rouse and ushered them on their way as well.

The widow was finally ready, with a tiny cart piled high with things stuffed in and around the frame of her broken down loom. Smart woman. She had a trade and had no intention of leaving it behind. Sano thought that with a little luck, she and Minako might do all right in Tokyo.

They walked them down the long winding trail to the main road. The widow lead the way, knowing the route better than Sano who'd only traveled it once and Kenshin, who'd never traveled it at all. It was a slow trip down, Sano pulling the cart and the widow and Minako following behind. A body pretended at more care with the cart over ruts and inclines than a body would have normally taken, setting a slower pace than he'd have chosen for himself or maybe even for the woman and the child. Kenshin was the problem here, even though he'd never admit to it and would kill himself trying to pretend he was in full working order. Kenshin was sweating from fever and limping when he didn't have his mind on covering it. He was holding the arm with the shoulder wound tight to his body inside the lapel of his gi. His eyes were on the ground before his feet and not at all on the surrounding wood, which was a dangerous thing for a man with enemies.

It was a damned good thing he had Sano. And it was a damned good thing Sano was such a charitable soul, because Kenshin's appreciation of his presence had so far been somewhat disappointing.

They parted ways with the widow at the main mountain pass, cautioning her not to dally in the trip south. They had the whole of the day to get themselves out of the bandit's territory and into more generous climates. Sano doubted any of the bandits would attempt to chase them down today. Maybe not ever, if they thought the widow had not taken the road to Tokyo alone. He wasn't sure they'd come after them at all, what with their leader dead and their ranks battered. They'd done their duty to the yakuza - - gotten their money - - so what gain to risk another beating for the mere sake of vengeance?

"I think they'll be okay." Sano commented, looking back up the trail one last time at the dwindling forms of Minako and her mother.

Kenshin offered no opinion, walking very carefully and very steadily northward. Sano shifted his pack and lengthened his stride to catch up. He could outdistance Kenshin on a good day, with his longer legs. Today he had to continuously hold himself back.

"So you gonna tell me more about what the hell is going on? Or am I gonna have to guess?"

Kenshin walked a while longer in silence, and finally, when Sano was beginning to growl a little in frustration, he slanted him a weary look.

"It's my fault. I brought him home. I felt there was something - - odd - - about him, but I ignored the feeling."

"Well, your instincts are usually pretty good - - he was a foreigner?"

A nod. "An Englishman - - "

So Sano got the tale. In slow, careful bits and pieces, as if Kenshin were considering each bit as he related it. Reexamining the details as if he might have missed some important clue while he was living it.

Kenshin had to rest an hour down the road, though it galled him. They drained the water jug the widow had given them and Sano refilled it from a mountain spring off from the road. They had packages of supplies from the widow's stock, which Sano figured would make quite a few good meals along the road. He had a rolled blanket in his pack that he hadn't had before and a metal pan for cooking. Kenshin had a pair of oversize sandals that had belonged to her late husband. She'd been generous with her things. Just as well that the bandits didn't get what she'd left behind, or the family next door.

"You know, its not a crime for you to admit to being a little weak." Sano complained of Kenshin when the smaller man stumbled on the road. Kenshin glared at him, and pretended he hadn't heard.

"You got holes in your body." Sano said. "They fucked you over but good, Kenshin - - a little rest is only gonna do you good."

"I can't."

"Oh. Right. I forgot. You're too stubborn to take care for yourself. You'd rather ignore - -"

"Shut up, Sano. You make my head ache." Very quietly said. Very polite tone, words not withstanding.

"No, that's the fever, idiot."

How Kenshin did it was beyond Sano. How he walked that road only a few scant days after lingering at death's door.

They stopped with the full onset of night and Sano got out the supplies for supper. Kenshin sat down against a tree and was asleep practically as soon as he stretched his legs out.

"Idiot." Sano muttered and threw the blanket over him. He found relatively dry tender and managed a small fire. Wrapped sweet potatoes in leaves and set them at the outskirts of the flames to roast and boiled water for tea. The widow had given them herbs for Kenshin's wounds. Herbs for fever to put in the tea. Fresh bandages and directions on what to do for infection. He thought he remembered well enough. Kenshin would know, now that he was himself again.

It was getting damned cold and Sano sat close to the fire, feeding it sticks now and again, poking at the potatoes and wishing he were better at soup. He'd give it a try tomorrow. Throw a bit of dried fish in and some bits of dried vegetable. He could only muck it up so badly. He prodded Kenshin when the potatoes were soft and harassed him into eating his portion. Kenshin's appetite was dirt poor. He got down a measly half of his potato and Sano finished the rest. He drank all of the tea though and finished off what was in the pan. Then sat there clutching the blanket around him, shivering a little.

"She said to check your wounds. Said they'd have to be cleaned and repacked if there was infection."

Kenshin shrugged, not arguing the necessity. He let Sano take his hands and clumsily unwrap the stained bandages.

The right one was healing well, but Kenshin still winced and went a little pale seeing the damage. He tried to close his fingers involuntarily and could only bend them about half way before he made a pained sound and stopped. He looked about as stricken as Sano had ever seen him with that failure. Shocked and frightened by the shadow of being maimed.

"Just don't fuck around with the wounds." Sano said. "You don't give them time to heal right - - then you will be sorry. Believe me, I know. It took my hand twice as long to heal 'cause I wouldn't let it rest."

"Sano - - I had dreams - - nightmares of them doing - - this - - but it wasn't real. My hands - -"

"What else do you remember?" Sano asked it cautiously, carefully. Kenshin shook his head and held his hand close. Sano couldn't see his eyes to see what he was thinking - - whether there was pain there, or horror or simple confusion. He really preferred the latter. He'd really rather Kenshin didn't remember the other crimes they'd committed against him.

"It's okay. Never mind. Let me see the other one."

They sat there, shoulder to shoulder afterwards, with their feet out towards the fire and the shared warmth of the blanket.

"We should set watch." Kenshin said. "There are still bandits all along these mountain roads."

"Sure." Sano agreed. "I'll take first. I'll wake you when it's your turn."

Kenshin slanted him a look, disbelieving. "You'll go to sleep."

"No I won't. You think I survived traveling through half of China without keeping an eye out at night?"

"You traveled half of China?" Kenshin blinked at him with tired amazement.

"Yeah. Told you I was gonna see the world. Let me tell you about the winter's in Mongolia - - you think you've seen snow here in Japan - -"

Kenshin nodded off somewhere in the midst of the retelling of Sano's first winter on the mainland, but that was okay, Sano figured. They had all the way to Sendai for him to recount his adventures. What good were adventures after all, if you couldn't share them with friends.

Sano was asleep. Kenshin woke to the soft sound of his snoring and warm, dappled sunlight on his face. They had slid down next to the tree during the night, with himself lying close against Sano's side, his face pressed against Sano's shoulder and Sano's arm curled under his neck. He was stiff and sore and moving seemed a daunting prospect. The fact that it was dry and sunny beyond the canopy of leaves made it harder still. His hands were dull aches at the end of his arms. The bullet wounds were nothing - - things he could ignore. Things that would heal and he'd be no worse for wear - - but his hands - - the thought of being crippled in such a way terrified him. He might have given Yahiko the sword - - but he'd never, ever imagined himself not being able to take it up again if he needed. That had not been part of the plan. He pressed his forehead into Sano's warmth and tried to quell the trembling.

"Sano." He murmured, trying to find another train of thought. Trying to focus on Kaoru and Kenji and the path that led to them. "Sano, wake up."

Sano snorted and blinked, yawning mightily.

"Wha' time is it?"

"Morning." Kenshin told him. "You fell asleep."

"No, I didn't." Sano blinked again, and Kenshin could see the befuddlement of sleep chased away by the clarity of awareness.

"Shit. I did. Hey - -" Sano shifted a little and dragged his arm out from under Kenshin, blushing pink and distancing himself just a bit. "Uh - sorry. Didn't mean to crowd."

Kenshin shrugged, sharing heat with Sano was no embarrassment. Sano was - - well, Sano and a body just didn't feel inclined to self-consciousness with him. And when a body was sick and cold with fever chills - - he was comfortable.

Sano insisted on breakfast. Kenshin would have foregone it, but Sano looked aghast at the prospect of ignoring perfectly good food since they had it. They compromised and made it quick. Warm tea felt good going down and it was a luxury of the road that Kenshin wasn't used to.

So they took to the road that snaked down the north side of the particular mountain they'd been crossing on full bellies. Sano was happy. Sano talked about the things he'd done on the mainland. He pulled a few things out of his pack that he'd picked up along the way. The conversation lulled when it began raining, and they walked huddled and miserable through the downpour. The cold damp made Kenshin's hands ache horribly, made his muscles groan in protest and his legs leaden and weak. Sano suggested stopping and waiting the weather out, but he refused, and Sano bitched and complained as he stomped through the mud next to him.

They came to a swaying wooden bridge spanning a deep chasm. Kenshin looked down once and a vertigo that he'd never experienced hit him so hard it made the world reel. Sano put a hand on his shoulder and asked if he were okay and he nodded, gluing his eyes forward for the rest of the way. The dizziness persisted though, even back on solid ground. Sano's speech became a distant drone - - not quite comprehensible.

He knew he was in trouble when he saw the ghostly shapes of armed horsemen cross the road, swords and imported American guns in their hands. There was no sound. No stirring of crusted mud in the road and no disturbance of the trees and brush at the side of the trail into which they rode. Sano never blinked an eye.

There was blood on the path further up - - he couldn't recall how many strides from the place where the troop had passed. Blood leaking from the woods - -

"Sano - -" Kenshin said softly. His voice was distant, overpowered by the pounding of blood in his ears. He wasn't sure if Sano had heard.

A man came careening out of the woods, mouth open in a soundless scream, running straight at them as if he meant them harm. Kenshin grabbed for a sword that wasn't there - - miscalculated in the placement of his feet from that lack - - from the shock of pain from clenched fingers - - and staggered into Sano. He thought, as he fell, that the man's throat had been neatly sliced and that the blood that coated the road had run from that wound. But he wasn't sure, for the figure faded as quickly as it had appeared.

Kenshin's sight went with it.



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