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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Eight

 

Of course Kenshin would chose the most miserable portion of the day for his strength to give out. It had been sunny most of the morning, though cool and only started raining again for the last few miles of road. One moment they were walking, Sano reining in his strides to let Kenshin keep up - - and the next Kenshin was reeling into his shoulder, rebounding and going down to his knees in the mud. He didn't even put a hand out to stop his fall, just sort of toppled onto the road and lay there with wet hair streaming over his face and lashes a dark, fluttering slash over his cheeks.

"Fuck. Kenshin, wake up." Sano turned him over and wiped hair out of his face. Cool air and cooler rain not withstanding, Kenshin was warm to the touch, which meant the damned fever, which had been ever present since they'd left the Widow's house, had come back with a vengeance to bite him on the ass.

Idiot.

He slapped him not ungently, irritated and no small bit scared. He was not equipped to deal with a serious relapse. Kenshin lifted a hand, murmured something apologetic and tried to fend off a second blow.

"Well, okay." Sano said, relieved, but Kenshin's head lolled again, maybe not quite unconscious, but not functional either. He was trembling.

"Okay. Okay." Getting out of the middle of the road was essential. Sano figured that was as good a start as any. He got an arm under Kenshin's shoulder and heaved him up; took a moment to get a grip on the sack of supplies and Kenshin's unhelpful self before staggering down the road. That was ungainly at best. A body only had two hands. Easier, though less dignified, to haul Kenshin's not considerable weight over a shoulder, which would only take one hand to steady.

Kenshin protested that blearily, head down and ass up over Sano's shoulder, but he was too limp for more than incoherent vocal complaints.

"Sorry, it was either you or the food the other way - - and I'm getting hungry, so the food probably would have won out."

He was figuring on finding the shelter of some big tree or a rock ledge to wait out the rain and let Kenshin catch his breath. But the gusting wind had blown a clump of bramble away from a stone marker indicating an otherwise mostly hidden trail leading off the road. The markings indicated a Buddhist temple and Sano figured his luck was looking up.

He trudged up the trail, shaking dripping hair out of his eyes that he couldn't reach with his occupied hands. At the end of the path was a set of steps leading up to a crumbled stone arch and beyond that the wooden facade of a temple. It was overgrown to a great degree, exhibiting none of the fastidious natural landscaping prominent of most temples and shrines. There was a feeling of not so much serenity about the place as - - emptiness. It might very well have been abandoned years ago, what with the Meiji dictates against Buddhism.

Sano moved in under the drooping front stoop, just beyond a set of listing wooden doors and called. "Hello. Anybody here?"

His voice whistled away on the wind, unanswered.

"Well, I guess its just you and me." He muttered aloud and kicked in one of the doors. It rocked off its hinges, wood brittle from age or termites. He winced, not meaning to destroy it, just wanting in out of the rain.

He stepped inside to dank shadows and stale air. For a moment almost he thought he saw the remnants of destruction - - of a battle waged here in this most peaceful of places - - then the shadows rearranged themselves into simple disuse and decay. It was an abandoned temple.

"You are not welcome here."

Sano almost yelped in shock at the voice that whispered out at him from the dark, his mind imagining any manner of ghostly yurei, Oni or mountain demons taken up residence here. He dropped his sack and almost spilled Kenshin, whirling about to stare wide eyed into the shadows.

It wasn't a ghost. It was a monk. A frowning, unhappy seeming monk who stood at the entrance to the inner sanctum.

"Scare a body to death, will you?" Sano snapped.

"You're not welcome here."

Sano ran a free hand through his hair, wiping wet strands away from his eyes. In his experience - - with a very few limited exceptions - - Buddhist monks were not usually so sour faced and uncharitable.

"Its raining out there and my friend is sick - - wounded. We need a little shelter."

"Find it elsewhere."

Sano felt the pressure inside his head built. He narrowed his eyes and glared. "The hell - - What kind of monk are you?"

"Calm. You are welcome here." Another voice came from the shadows and a second monk moved into the antechamber. This one was kind of face and smiling sadly as he walked towards Sano.

"Brother Hideki speaks rashly. He means it not. Let us help you."

Sano eyed him warily, not quite certain he trusted this new monk any more than he did the discourteous first one. He wasn't sure he wanted to hand Kenshin down when the man reached for him. But he couldn't very well stand there all day with him slung over his shoulder - - and he did need help. "Okay - -"

"This way - -" the monk said, after taking a cursory look at Kenshin's flushed face and the dirty stained bandages on his hands. He led Sano down a painfully narrow dark hall to a small cell with bare wooden floors, bare wooden walls and only one small squat table against the wall. The monk unrolled a weathered tatami mat and gestured for Sano to put Kenshin down upon it. The monk then brought a pair of ragged, musty smelling old robes and urged Sano to rid himself and Kenshin of the rain soaked clothing they were wearing.

Kenshin came awake in the midst of that and batted Sano away, glaring indignantly at the attempt to rid him of his gi.

"You're wet." Sano sat back on his heels, the monk's robe scratchy on his skin and stretched tight across his broad shoulders. Kenshin blinked at him and Sano saw the thought processes as they registered behind his eyes. Recognition, understanding of the situation. Wary acceptance as he attempted to pull the gi off himself and couldn't quite get his stiff fingers to accomplish the task.

"Let me." Sano suggested and got a testy glare for that mercy as well. A sick Kenshin on a mission, was not, he was finding out, a generally agreeable one.

"I can do it. Why are we here?"

"Because you fell down, idiot."

Sano let Kenshin struggle out of the gi and tossed the wet thing in the corner with the hakama that Sano had already taken from him. He handed him the robe and watched him fight with it.

"I'm wasting time." Kenshin murmured, finally victorious over the robe, but it was an exhausting victory and he collapsed back onto the threadbare mat afterwards, breathing hard, staring sightlessly at the dim ceiling.

"You're pushing it and your body's not up to it." It felt so nice to be the voice of reason. Sano so seldom took that role. "Listen, its raining hard, it's late. Just let it go for tonight. Tomorrow we'll see about getting back on the road again."

The monk came back before Kenshin could gather the energy to argue that point. He had a tray with a pot of steaming water, a crock of powdered green tea and a pair of cups. He folded to his knees as gracefully as any geisha and poured water, then spooned exact amounts of the powdered tea into the cups.

"Good for the soul and the body." He smiled softly. A soft man, with a soft face and a soft demeanor.

Sano helped Kenshin up to sit against the wall, and handed him a warm cup. Kenshin held it awkwardly between both injured hands, and still the liquid trembled from the tremors in his arms. Sano sipped his own tea, shutting his eyes at the influx of warmth.

"This place is in bad shape." He commented. "You two the only ones here?"

"No. There are Kanbe and Jotaro, Masakado and Noboru and Tadahisa. We are all here."

"And you're - - ?"

The monk smiled again, still soft and sad. "I am Tokaji."

"You guys have some bad luck when the Meiji came down on the following of Buddha?"

"Luck is a thing we make for ourselves. It is an illusion."

Sano rolled his eyes. "Yeah, whatever. You'd just think with what - - seven of you, that this place would be in a little better shape, is all. But I guess you're all too busy contemplating shit to do a little housekeeping."

Tokaji smiled and refilled Sano's cup with water and tea. He offered more to Kenshin, but Kenshin refused, looking like he was about to slide down the wall into a heap on the mat at any minute. The monk carefully took Kenshin's cup from him, sitting on the floor by the head of the mat.

"You should sleep. Rest is the best thing for the ills that ail you."

Kenshin stared at the monk, as if seeing him for the first time. He looked to Sano, wary question in his eyes.

"Just go to sleep. We're in a Buddhist temple, its not like they're gonna poison our tea."

Kenshin's eyes widened a little and he glanced down to the dregs of tea left in his own cup by the mat. Sano sighed, frustrated and tired.

"I'll be right here. And I even promise to stay awake this time, ' kay?"

"You never stay awake.' Kenshin said softly.

Sano sniffed and waved towards the mat. "Just sleep."


Sano would have fallen asleep if he hadn't forced himself up and out of the quiet peace of the musty little cube. Kenshin was out, curled on his side on the thin tatami mat, bandaged hands drawn up to his chest. Lying down next to him was just a little too tempting for Sano's peace of mind. A body could get dangerously used to such a simple thing as warm flesh and soft hair and having something to press against at night - - a body could feel guilty over the itch between his legs in the early mornings, pressed against said warm flesh and said soft hair - - not that the itch didn't come on a regular basis and was subsequently quenched - - it was just - - well he ought to be thinking of breasts and curving hips and womanly things while he was about it. Ought to be remembering that girl in Nanking who could do the most amazing things with her mouth. Or the little half Indian, half Chinese whore whom he'd helped out with a certain problem in Hong Kong and who had repaid him with admirable gusto afterwards. A very nice girl, who he'd dreamed about for long lonely nights after.

They were appropriate material for his dreams to explore in those moments just before fully wakening - - Kenshin was not. Kenshin was most adamantly not! And though he blushed thinking about it, damned if he hadn't waken the past few mornings with red hair fluttering about his subconscious instead of shiny black. A body could get irritated with Kenshin for that sibilant invasion.

So Sano stalked out into the run down temple in his borrowed robe, two sizes too small. There wasn't a whole lot to it, the shrine out front where the public could come and meditate. A series of cubicles off to the back where the monk's stayed. A covered garden walkway that led through over grown grounds. It hadn't been a rich temple to begin with - - it was falling down now. He figured that somebody had to come up here occasionally to warrant seven monks. Or maybe they were die hard Buddhists who thrived on the isolation and wanted nothing more than time and space to contemplate the meaning of - - everything. Of whatever it was that they believed the states of their souls depended upon. Sano never had been much for meditation. Never had reflected much on the simple essence of nature. It was. He was. End of story.

He stood under the leaking roof of the walk, staring at the gray afternoon, at the sodden forest flanking the temple, at a rain that didn't seem to want to stop once it had started. It had been a dry summer, he'd been told. He'd seen the evidence in stunted crops on the way from Niigata. With the advent of fall the weather seemed determined to make up for the lack. He saw the whispering movement of a figure in the rain. Sloped shoulders and bald head of a monk, gliding through the rain with silent steps. Almost he called out, but really, what did he have to say to a monk? He looked down at his hands, at knuckles scarred from too many impacts and figured that the most talkative monk he'd ever met was Anji and that wasn't saying much. Of course, Anji hadn't been a monk anymore when Sano had met him - - he'd been on a mission of vengeance - - or retribution against the Meiji government who'd taken everything away from him. Sano figured he was still paying penance for that in the prison they'd put him in.

He looked back up and the monk he'd seen walking the garden path was gone. Just vanished into the rain or the forest. He sighed and walked back into the temple, back to the main shrine where he'd dropped his pack. Tokaji had provided tea, but not food and a body had to figure with this place looking as it did, that they had damned little to spare.

"Hey!" he called out to a fleeting figure, but the monk melted into the shadows of the back hall. Sano ground his teeth and stalked into the meditation chamber, looking for his sack, figuring there'd be trouble if it had mysteriously disappeared. One didn't generally equate monks with thieves - -but, these particular monks were damned eerie with their broken down temple and their ghostly movements. But the pack was where he'd dropped it and fully intact. It was only a matter of finding a place to prepare the food.

"Hey - - Tokaji. You around here?" he called out. His voice echoed off the walls.

Tokaji didn't answer. Sano huffed in annoyance, shouldered the damp pack and padded towards the back hall towards the cell where he'd left Kenshin. A simple fire to boil a handful of rice wasn't such a horrible thing to ask. It wasn't like he wanted to prepare a feast. Damned unsociable monks.

Sano's stomach growled ominously. He counted the hours since breakfast and groused over the fact that it had been so sparse, Kenshin being in the damned irrational hurry that he was in. It was one thing to want to follow after Kaoru as fast as possible and quite another to deprive a body of vital food in the process. He paused in his mental reproach, attention caught by a flash of movement behind him.

He spun, hairs on the back of his neck standing up, staring into the shadows, wishing one of the damn monks that lurked about this place would think to light lanterns. He'd thought - - he'd damned well thought - - he'd seen the glitter of a blade. But when he squinted into the shadows at the mouth of the shrine there was nothing. He walked back that way, warily, not distrusting his senses so much to shrug it off. There was no one in the shrine and no noise of anyone hastily leaving it. He'd have heard as loudly as the floor complained under his own passing. No one and nothing save the dust and the cobwebs and the accumulated leaves and debris gathered in the corners and around the base of the wooden statue of Buddha that sat nestled within its niche at the back of the main shrine.

Sano cursed, uneasy now. He put a hand on the wall by the hall and it came away wet with rainwater leaking down from the roof. He looked at it, and for a moment, with his nerves razor thin as they were, the water seemed dark as blood, staining his hand. He widened his eyes, looking at the wall, but all he could see was a darker stain of dampness in the shadows. No color pierced the veil. He wiped his hand on the pale brown of the borrowed robe and the cloth absorbed the wetness with no sign of stain.

Water then. Simple water and he was loosing his mind. Fine. He disliked this place. He disliked its inhabitants. Storm or no, he wished Kenshin were in a state to walk, for he'd just as well quit this temple and find a nice place off the road to shelter.


Kenshin came awake, blinking grit from his eyes, sensing movement in the shadows surrounding him. He rolled to his side, disoriented, muscles aching bad enough to make him groan, and whispered Sano's name. Sano didn't answer. Sano wasn't here, unless Sano was asleep in the corner - - which was possible, but no - -there was no sound of soft snoring, no sense of Sano presence close by.

He shook hair out of his eyes and peered into the shadows, vision slowly adjusting to the dark. There was a little grated window far up on the wall that let in a few weak rays of gray light. Not enough, though, to penetrate the darkness. He thought there was a figure there, standing in the deepest shadow. Silent. Staring. Not even betraying itself by the scant sound of breath.

Who are you? What do you want? Where is this? The questions hovered on his lips, unasked.

"There's blood on your hands." A low voice drifted out of the shadows. A bitter voice. Kenshin almost looked down at his hands to see - - but survival instinct warned against taking his eyes from the man in the shadows.

"It's stains on the bandages." He said softly, getting an elbow under him. It was hard. His head was pounding and thick, his limbs unstable.

"You're steeped in it." Accusation.

Kenshin drew breath, wide eyed, wishing Sano hadn't left him, because he wasn't certain it was a man's shape at all in the corner and if it were fever that gave him such a hallucination, it would have been nice to ask a saner head what they saw.

"Who are - -?"

"Leave this place. You disturb the peace."

"Son of a bitch - -" That came from down the hall outside, along with the creaking of the floorboards under heavy footfalls, echoing up the corridor and overpowering the soft condemnation from within the small room. Kenshin's gaze swung to the gaping door, back again to the corner where the shadows still lurked. Sano stalked in, dropping his drawstring sack on the floor, looking disgruntled and disturbed.

"Damned monks are starting to piss me off." Sano declared, seeing him awake.

"Sano," Kenshin asked softly. "Is there someone in the corner?"

Sano's eyes widened and he whirled, staring hard at each corner in turn. He frowned and looked back to Kenshin skeptically, one dark brow arched in question.

"Why?"

"I thought - - perhaps I was dreaming." He had to have been, for no person, no matter how deft of foot, could have slipped through that door past his notice.

"Maybe it's hunger." Sano suggested, flopping down on the mat next to him. He dragged the sack over and dug through its contents.

"Sano, where is this?"

"Old Buddhist temple off the road. Place is about to fall apart. Monks are about as friendly as snakes. Well, 'cept for the one. But, anyway, you hungry?"

He was, a little. But it was a hollow sort of hungry and he didn't think he could stomach much food.

"Where?" He could not recall how far up the road they'd gotten. He could remember very little of the walk after the bridge. He wondered if Sano had gotten them off track, for he didn't know of any Buddhist temples in operation along the portion of road he thought they ought to have been traveling. Shrines yes. A few small, untended ones. More Shinto ones than Buddhist, by far.

Sano shrugged, finding something edible within the sack and taking a bite out of it. "I dunno. Up a path. Trees, rocks, same old, same old."

Thunder rumbled outside and the walls trembled. Sano hunched his shoulders a little, looking sullen and no little bit wary.

"What's wrong?" Kenshin didn't remember him being spooked by the sound of thunder.

"Nothing. Why are you awake? I told you to go to sleep."

Kenshin lifted a brow at that bit of bossiness, but took no offense. Sano was curt when he was nervous and he was clearly strung taught now.

"I thought I heard something - - "

"Really?" Sano turned interested eyes his way.

"It was nothing. There was no one. My - - imagination." He hesitated saying that because he'd never been prone to fever dreams before. Never been prone to anything but the cold, hard reality that his senses shared with him.

"What'd you think you heard?"

"A voice. It said to leave this place. That I disturbed the peace here."

"Huhn. Sounds like that snitty monk Hideki. Said the same to me when we first got here."

Kenshin curled the fingers of his right hand, felt the ache in his palm, the stretching of a scab trying to form. Imagined the hole driven through from one side to the other and for a moment lost himself in that spiraling pit of horror that was born of the fear of being permanently maimed.

"Kenshin," Sano was crouched over him, his long fingers wrapped around Kenshin's wrists, holding his hands between them. "Don't pick at the bandages - - okay?"

He hadn't realized he had. Had missed entirely Sano moving to stop him. Maybe he was having hallucinations. Distressful that not only was his body betraying him, but his senses as well.

Sano offered him food, but it was stale and unappealing so he declined. Sano shrugged and consumed the remainder, not so picky.

There was a monk in the doorway that had made no sound coming down the creaking hall. Kenshin almost recalled his face. He recalled the pouring of tea. He blinked, wide eyed at the monk, and Sano, alerted by his gaze, turned and surveyed the visitor.

"I was just looking for one of you guys." Sano complained. "You have a kitchen around here? And that Hideki guy was in here bothering my friend."

Sano's curtness could be often appalling. Kenshin shook his head, trying to soothe over offense. "No. Perhaps not. I was dreaming - - and only thought I heard a voice. Your hospitality is generous, and we do not wish to abuse it."

He gave Sano a sidelong look, which Sano ignored. The monk smiled and glided into the room. "We have little enough to offer in the way of hospitality. We are a poor temple. But there is a hearth in the back, where you may light a fire and prepare food, if you wish. We have none to offer. I'm sorry."

Sano shrugged, gathering up his sack, very much interested in food and having very little care over abandoning Kenshin. Kenshin, woozy of head, with the heat in his body making his limbs trembly and weak, would have preferred Sano's company - - if only to chase away discomforting hallucinations, but there was little arguing with Sano's rumbling stomach. It often ruled Sano's good sense.

"You gonna be okay?" Sano thought to ask over his shoulder in the process of leaving.

"Probably." Kenshin sighed and lay down, wishing the monk would take himself off as well, for the utter quiet of his presence was unsettling. Even the rustle of his robes was muted.

"I will tend these, if you'd like." The monk's fingers ghosted out and touched the back of one bandaged hand. Kenshin pulled the hand a little closer to his body, almost refusing, but good sense told him that dirty wounds would soon be infected ones. He nodded, shutting his eyes for a moment to settle the swimming of his vision.

Perhaps it was longer by far than a moment, for when he opened them next, at the sensation of cool, gentle hands lifting his wrist, the monk had a tray next to him with a basin of warm water and strips of clean cloth. He unwound Sano's clumsy wrapping and furrowed his brows at the crusted scabs, the red edges of inflammation and the blaring discoloration of bruising that seeped half way up Kenshin's fingers and down into the fleshy part of his palm. Kenshin turned his own eyes away after a brief glance, stomach fluttering nauseatingly. The monk dipped his hand in the basin and let the water wash away the old poultice and the dirt.

It was a silent tending, and Kenshin flinched more than once as puss was pressed out of inflamed spots and herbal remedy packed in. The monk moved to the other hand and performed the same ritual, then he unerringly found the gunshots wounds and cleaned and changed their dressings. He'd been there, Kenshin thought, hazily, when Sano had tried to help him with the removal of cold, wet clothing.

"They must be painful, these wounds." The monk finally broke his silence. Kenshin had almost forgotten he was there, comfortable in the aftermath of the monk's tender care.

"Humh." He agreed, slitting his eyes open.

"Yet you travel with them, to the point of exhaustion."

"Pain can be ignored. Exhaustion - -" he shrugged, half smiling. " - - that is not so easy to avoid."

"Flesh will knit if you let it. You have a great reservoir of will that sustains you - - " the monk smiled sagely and laid fingertips to Kenshin's chest. "- - you radiate with it. Such strength requires great discipline."

Kenshin watched the monk warily. The monk turned his head and looked away, gazing blindly into the shadows, silent as monks tended to be.

"What temple is this?" Kenshin was not uncomfortable with long silences, he preferred them, truth be told, over aimless chatter, but something about the quiet in this place disturbed him. So he asked the question he'd asked Sano and hoped for a better answer.

"An old one."

Hardly more informative than Sano. "Ahhh." He said slowly. "What township or village is closest?"

"Kuroiso is a day's walk to the north."

Kenshin tried to wrap his sluggish mind around that. To put that distance in perspective to where they might be on the road. He'd walked this road before, he ought to recall a temple.

"People would come from Kuroiso and Otawara and even Yaita province to this temple. We had powerful benefactors - -"

"And then the revolution and the new Meiji government, who had little tolerance for Zen Buddhism when they wanted Shinto as the new state religion." Kenshin finished for him when the monk trailed off.

The monk's mouth twitched a little in a smile. "Little tolerance at all.

Kenshin chewed at his lip, half remembering tales of a Buddhist temple that had blithely ignored the warning of a fledgling Meiji government, its monks serene in their isolation from worldly things, confident in their state of nirvana - -

- - those first few years after the revolution had been violent and ripe with strife with the changing of the Tokugawa to the Meiji.

"Not long after the Tokugawa had fallen, there was a temple," Kenshin said softly. "That gave safe harbor to the family of a Tokugawa lord."

"I remember the story." The monk said softly.

"They were betrayed by a monk of their own order to the Meiji forces and retribution was sought."

"Yes. That too."

"Is this that temple?"

The monk inclined his bald head.

Kenshin felt a little dash of cold unease whisper through him. A little stab of malice that bled in from the very air. The monk looked up, frowning, as if he too felt the same thing.

"You came here - - to this temple - - afterwards?" One had to hope such was the case. He was not prone to believing in old wives tales and ghost stories. He was not Sano - -


- - Sano found the kitchen on his own. It wasn't much of a kitchen, but what did a body really expect of a bunch of monks who didn't eat most of the decent foods in the world because they were afraid they'd pollute their flesh or because if the food tasted too good, then they were being indulgent and you couldn't damn well have that.

Sano liked indulgence. He loved good food. He had no problem wallowing in earthly pleasures. He'd give a great deal for a good bottle of sake right about now. A nice long drunk would be nice. Maybe he could even get Kenshin hammered and get him to let up on his frantic chase after Kaoru for a little bit. Not that Sano wanted him to loose the trail - - well what trail there was after so many days - - and it wasn't like it was just Kaoru involved, there was a kid - - but hated to see Kenshin run himself into the ground in the process. Kaoru, twit that she was, wasn't incapable of taking care for herself. It was just that the enemies they'd usually had to deal with back before Kenshin had gone all domestic, had been the Battousai's enemies and a normal girl - - even a girl who was a master of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu - - well, it was hard to stand up to those sorts of men. Sano was rightly worried for her, he was worried for a kid he'd never met, but mostly he was worried that Kenshin would kill himself before he had the chance to do anything about it.

Sano got the fire started in a hearth that looked as cold as death and used his own pot to boil rice. He sucked at it, of course. It stuck to the bottom of the pan and scorched, and what was edible on top had that smoky flavor and was gooey to boot. He put a portion in a little wooden bowl to take to Kenshin and ate the rest of what was edible himself, sitting cross legged by the hearth, staring out the open doorway at the rain. It was well into evening now and the rain showed itself as the occasional silver streak in the darkness. He found an old lantern, its sides long since torn out by time or rodents, but the wick still there and a little bit of wax. The light guided him back through the shadowy temple with his offering of burnt, soggy rice. Kenshin was half asleep when he reached the little room. He'd put himself in a corner, with his back to the wall, his head resting on arms crossed atop updrawn knees. He was dressed in his own clothing, which couldn't have been completely dry after only a handful of hours here. He stirred when Sano walked in with the flickering light.

"We should leave here." He said softly, as soon as Sano crossed the thresh hold.

"What? It's the middle of the night." Sano was not so quiet in his reply. Kenshin winced, eyes shadowed in the dark.

"Why?" Sano demanded, when Kenshin didn't answer immediately.

"We shouldn't be here."

"What'd the monks tell you that?" Sano clenched his fists, damned and determined to hunt that bastard Hideki down and teach him some manners.

"Not - - in so many words." Kenshin looked stricken, a little wide eyed when he lifted his head to look up at Sano. "Its just a feeling. There's no rest in this place. Not for us."

"Well that's just fucking great. You wanna tromp back out in the rain because you've got a bad feeling? In a Buddhist temple?" He really did have the urge to grab hold of Kenshin's gi and shake sense into him.

"Sano - - can't you feel it?" It was an earnest question. Sano narrowed his eyes at it suspiciously.

"Feel what?"

"Cold. The air is cold and it goes beyond mountain air."

"Yeah, well - - fall's coming early."

"There were deaths here Sano. Wrongful deaths - - they don't want us here."

Sano stood there, blinking - - quite suddenly feeling the cool air on his skin. Quite suddenly imagining a presence behind him that was unseen and unheard. Kenshin's talk of unjust deaths and ill-will made the hair on the back of his arms stand up.

"Oh for shit's sake, what are you saying? You saying this place is haunted? You saying the monks here are living with the ghosts of the murdered?"

"No." Kenshin pushed himself up with a soft grunt and stood there with his back against the wall, looking serious and no little bit hesitant.

"Then what?" Sano yelled, flinging his arms out. The flame flickered, the rice went tumbling out of the bowl.

"Sano, you have blood on your robe."

Sano looked down and gaped at the smear on the front of the borrowed robe. It wasn't old blood, it was new and he recalled with vivid clarity wiping his hand on the spot to rid it of seeping rainwater.

"Fuck." He cried and fumbled with the belt, wanting out of the thing and back into his own clothes, damp or not.

Kenshin averted his eyes a little at Sano's nudity, not that anything impressive was showing, what with the cold that he now acutely felt and the apprehension that Kenshin had begun. He tied his belt around his loose pants and shrugged on his jacket.

"There's blood on the wall there, as well." Kenshin pointed out, and Sano saw well enough a very old, browned splatter of blood against the wall.

He felt himself pale. Felt the blood drain from his face. He had a healthy belief in ghosts and ghostly things. And the ghosts of murdered spirits were the worst of all. He recalled the flash of the sword that he'd seen from the corner of his eye - - what he'd thought might have been a trick of the light or a bit of reflected lightening - - perhaps it wasn't after all. Perhaps it had been the reincarnation of a murder.

"You're saying this place is haunted?" He demanded, loud in his upset over the possibility.

"I didn't say that - - exactly." Kenshin tried to worm his way out of the fact that he'd proposed just that. "I just said that there was bad karma here and we ought to go."

"Nonononono, that is not what you were getting at. Don't even try and tell me that is not what you were getting at. The walls were bleeding. Do you understand? And I saw this monk in the rain and it was like he was floating and I swear I could see the forest through him - - " He was certain that he had, now that he thought about it.

"Sano, please calm down." Kenshin had his hands up, trying to placate.

Sano shook a finger at him. "You calm down!"

"I am calm, Sano."

Sano glared.

Kenshin sighed, gently brushing his forehead with the tips of his fingers. "I just think that something very bad happened here and that it is no good place to spend the night. Places can be - - ominous - - without being haunted."

"You're lying." Sano could hear it in his voice. That patient attempt to alleviate Sano's fears. "You suck at lying."

"I'm not."

"Yes, you are. You think there are ghosts and you're just not saying because you think I'll get upset. Do you think I'm a girl or something to jump at bumps in the night?"

"No - -"

"Do you think I'm scared of ghosts?"

"Sano - - you're shouting."

"All right. All right." Sano swept up his sack and waved a hand at the door, inviting Kenshin to use it before him. "You wanted to go out into the rain. That's fine. I'll go. But not because I'm scared of ghosts. Understand?"

Kenshin pushed himself off from the wall, stood there a moment, breathing, trying to get his balance or his strength. He inclined his head, not willing to argue over what Sano was afraid of and what he was not.

"Where'd that one monk - - Tokaji, go?"

"He left." Kenshin said.

"Yeah? What'd he say about ghosts?"

"He - - said nothing on the subject."

"You didn't ask?"

"I'd asked other things."

"What things?"

Kenshin paused, one hand gingerly on the wall, and looked up at Sano with that narrow, serious look he sometimes got. "There was a massacre here, not long after the revolution. I heard stories. The monks hid the family of a Tokugawa lord and were betrayed in their efforts. When the government forces came - - there was little mercy shown. It was a bad time. There was little leniency shown for those that did not bend to the new government. It should not have happened. They were only monks and women and children."

"Aghhh - - murdered monks and children. And women. Women make the worst ghosts. They're vengeful by nature anyway."

Kenshin lifted a dubious brow, opened his mouth to disabuse Sano of such a notion - - then tensed, gaze swinging ahead of them into the shadow by the mouth of the hall leading to the main shrine. There was a figure there. A robed, bald figure that melded with the dark. There was a stain of red that coated the side of his head, that seeped down into his robes. The monk stared at them for a heartbeat and then moved away - - well glided away at any rate and in no mortal direction but right into the wooden wall, passing through it like smoke through netting.

Sano let out a startled yelp. A very undignified yelp that he couldn't rightly help.

"Sano." Kenshin said, sounding strained. "You're hurting me."

A body had to blush. A body had to pry his fingers off Kenshin's shoulders and pretend he had not grabbed a wounded man and placed him quite squarely before himself and the bloody ghost of a murdered monk. It was embarrassing.

"Go go go." He shoved Kenshin, not ungently, to get him moving, wanting out of this place so bad now he could taste the urgency.

"Sano - -" Kenshin swung around, hauling Sano off his balance, yanking him back as the dim glimmer of a sword flashed before them. But not at them. All he saw through the shadow was the shade of a faceless figure bringing a sword down in quick, precise movements, the blade biting into the soft stomach of an unarmed monk. Blood spattered. The monk fell and faded into obscurity. The attacker was gone before he was.

Sano swore, seeing flickering echoes of other atrocities in the darkness of the shrine. Seeing the destruction that he'd thought he'd glimpsed when he'd first come here out of the rain.

You promised. You promised to spare us. The monk Hideki moaned from the floor, staring up through eyes black as pitch at some unseen entity. His scream echoed off the walls, even as thunder rattled the walls and made the floor shake. Sano half screamed with him, startled beyond his ability to stop it by the thunder and the sudden white flash of lightening outside the hanging door.

He caught Kenshin's arm and practically hurled them through that portal and out into rain that was a damned welcome change from the musty unease of the temple.

They huddled under a thick tree afterwards, after a hectic race down the unkempt path from the temple, Sano trying to get his nerves under control, pretending he'd not been utterly terrified by the goings on up at the temple. It was one thing to face a flesh and blood enemy, no matter how insurmountable that enemy might seem and quite, quite another to stand face to face with a ghostly one. Sano shivered and tried to stop it, for shoulder to shoulder as they were, Kenshin was sure to feel it and it was important not to seem the coward or the fool in front of him.

"It wasn't just me - -" he had to ask, sniffling as water dripped off the point of his nose. "Was it? You saw too, right?"

"I saw." Kenshin said after a moment, very quiet, very subdued, not much showing of his face but hair and mouth and chin.

"You okay?" Sano canted his head to get a better look at Kenshin's face in the dark. Kenshin looked up, a weary smile on his lips, his eyes echoing that, large and regretful almost.

"I'm okay, Sano."

"You don't think that guy Tokaji was a ghost, do you? I mean I touched him. He felt real. I drank tea he made." Chilling thought, that. Consuming a thing made by ghostly hands.

"I don't know. There was no malice in him either way."

Sano pulled his knees up close to his chest, cold and wet and trying not to shake in the after effects of fear.

"Either way? Either way? Oh, that's just perfect. Just fucking perfect - -"

 

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