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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

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Chapter Nine

 

They didn't talk about the incident at the temple all during the miserable walk to Kuroiso. Sano was too agitated about the whole thing, casting wary looks over his shoulder now and then as if he expected vengeful ghosts to come wailing down the road at them - - and Kenshin was just too tired to exert the energy. Too tired to do anything but place one foot doggedly in front of the other, his arms wrapped about his ribs inside the relative soggy warmth of the gi, his thigh aching like someone had stuffed hot coals into the wound and his head throbbing from what he was sure was a dangerously high fever.

He had to ignore such things. As long as he could walk - - he would walk. As long as he could keep the goal in mind, he had to focus on it. It worried him when his thoughts drifted. When he'd come back to himself in a completely different section of the road and have no notion of how they'd come to be there, or how long it had taken to get there. He'd come back to awareness sometimes with Sano's hand on his arm and Sano's strength shoring him up as he staggered. Sano would grouse about his stubbornness sometimes, calling him unflattering names - -saying rightly that Kaoru would hardly appreciate being rescued if it killed Kenshin the process - - and sometimes he wouldn't say a thing. He'd just stare down from under drooping wet hair, his dark eyes worried, his long mouth set in grim lines.

They had to stop when the rain became torrential. They found shelter in the forest in the form of an old woodcutters lean to that leaked rain horribly, but provided three sides of buffer against the wind driven water. How Sano had found it in the dark was beyond Kenshin, but he was grateful for it. More grateful than he would have liked to admit to sit down against the wall and just shut his eyes and shiver from cold and wet and illness.

"Kenshin?"

He didn't lift his head to acknowledge Sano's dripping presence.

"We don't have anything left to eat." Sano said that like it was a pronouncement of death.

"We'll reach Kuroiso tonight." He murmured.

"No," Sano disagreed. "We'll reach it tomorrow. You're done for the evening."

Kenshin tightened his lips, not prepared to waste his breath in argument.

"Don't give me that look." Sano complained, settling down next to him. "And people used to say I had no sense of self-preservation."

He sat there a moment, cracking his knuckles in nervousness, silently staring out at the rain drenched night.

"You think - - we're cursed?" he asked finally. "For staying in that place?"

Kenshin sighed and drew his knees up closer to his chest, leaning forward in abject misery. "I don't know, Sano. I don't think the dead have any power to curse the living. I hope not." He finished softly and Sano swung his gaze about to stare at him.

"Yeah, " Sano finally said. "I guess that'd suck for you, huh?"

Kenshin didn't answer. A body didn't like to dwell on the possibility of the ghosts of murdered people lingering near the place of their demise, much less coming back to haunt the one who'd killed them. Not a comforting thought at all, which was perhaps why he'd never held much to superstition in the past. Easier to deny the possibility than worry over the prospect.

"Its going to be a bad winter." Kenshin predicted softly. Were his teeth chattering? He clenched his jaw to prevent them.

"Yeah." Sano agreed. He leaned closer, a hand hovering on Kenshin's back - - pulled away a little, then sighed and wrapped a long arm about Kenshin and pulled him close to his warmth.

"If I pull the blanket out, its just gonna get soaked and then we'll have wet blanket over wet clothes over wet - - um, skin." He murmured, embarrassed at his act of charity.

Kenshin pressed his face against the damp heat of Sano's shoulder and nodded mutely. Sano wrapped his other arm around and shifted a little to accommodate Kenshin's weight against him. It was easy enough to lean there and let Sano situate them.

"I'm gonna get it anyway." Sano said softly, and withdrew one warm arm and dug in the sack for the blanket, got it draped over them in their pitiful little corner of the lean-to. It was almost pleasant, in a drowsy, dream-like sort of way, with the blanket tented over him and encased against Sano's body heat, with Sano's chin on his head and the weight of Sano's arms about his torso. He forgot to tell Sano not to sleep unless he woke him first, but then thought that it hardly mattered, for no bandit with a grain of sense would be out prowling in this weather.

He drifted out and back in again. It was gray instead of black, and the rain had reduced itself to a fine mist. Sano was snoring. Kenshin could feel the quiet rumble of it, his face pressed against the warm, smooth skin of Sano's chest. He'd ended up between Sano's knees at some point, draped against the length of Sano's body. Sano must have been having - - ah, interesting - - dreams for the rigid proof of such pressed into Kenshin's hip rather insistently. Disconcerted, he began to disentangle himself, but Sano's arms tightened around him and Sano's mouth twitched up in a smile and he mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like - - it'll be okay, just put your hand on it - - He shifted his hips a little and pressed himself more firmly against Kenshin's hip.

Kenshin blushed. There was no easy way to extricate himself from this without embarrassment.

"Sano." He hissed softly. "Wake up."

"Hummmm." Sano smiled lazily and slitted his eyes. Looked down at Kenshin and sighed, before shutting his eyes again. "It's too early. Go back to sleep."

"Sano!" Kenshin got an elbow between them and used it to lever himself up. Kenshin's weight centered about that bony protrusion in the middle of his chest, got Sano's conscious attention. He grunted and blinked up, annoyed.

"What are you doing, Damnit?" That came out as a growl, not nearly so pleasant as a half-asleep Sano.

"Trying to get up, Sano." Kenshin answered politely. He was still in intimate contact with Sano's morning erection and propriety dictated that he put a bit of distance between it and himself.

Sano blinked some more, took account of himself and his condition and how firmly he was trying to press said condition into Kenshin. Sano hissed through his teeth and shoved Kenshin backwards. Hard. Kenshin hit the ground, bad shoulder first and lay there blinking stars out of his vision. One would never think rain soaked ground could be so hard.

Finally a hand inserted itself into his line of vision and above that a disgruntled Sano. Kenshin warily lifted one of his own, thinking that if Sano gripped his injured hand with the same thoughtless force he'd used in disentangling them - - then he was very likely going to have to break down and scream. But to ignore the gesture of apology - - for that was most certainly what it was, put forth in Sano's own particular manner - - was unthinkable.

Sano reached past his hand to grasp his forearm and hauled him up. Steadied him on his feet thereafter and looked him critically in the eye.

"Sometimes I get testy if you wake me up too fast." He explained, a very faint stain of blush on his cheeks.

"Is that what you call it?" Kenshin bit the corner of his lip to keep from smiling.

"Shut up." Sano went to shake out the blanket and stuff it back into his sack. "We have nothing for breakfast, you know? Maybe we can catch something - -"

"I don't think I'm up to catching anything, Sano. And if I remember correctly - - ah, you were never that good at woodcraft."

He wished he hadn't said that the moment Sano's eyes got round and his chest swelled as if he'd been dealt a mortal insult.

"What do you mean by that? No good at woodcraft? I'm perfectly good at it. How do you think I survived all those years in the mainland? You think I'm inept."

Kenshin rather thought that Sano had spent a great deal of time carousing and gambling and drifting from village to village to beg, borrow or steal his meals rather than hunting them down in untamed wilderness. But one could hardly say that, and not expect physical retaliation and physical retaliation at the moment would only end up with him in more discomfort than he already was.

"I didn't mean it that way, Sano."

"What way did you mean it, then?"

"Ah, it's probably not that long a walk to Kuroiso. They've teahouses and taverns and vendors of all sorts that will sell food. Perhaps even a beef pot restaurant."

"Beefpot?" Sano's attention was snared in a direction other than injured pride. "A beefpot would be really, really good. You know, I half came back to Japan because I missed a honest to goodness beefpot. No decent Japanese cooking on the mainland."

And so went the conversation, guided by the rumbling of Sano's empty stomach. It was past mid-day when they reached the outskirts of the town. Even in the rain, farmers were out in their fields. The closer they got to the town, which was a fair sized community, if Kenshin remembered correctly from the last time - - oh years ago - - that he'd passed through it, the more small farmhouses cropped up.

Kuroiso itself was bustling with activity. There seemed an inordinate amount of people in the muddy streets. An unusual number of carts laden with goods left at a standstill in the light rain.

"What's going on?" Sano put a hand on a man hurrying past. "Why so many people hanging around town?"

"The rain's flooded the bridge." The man said. "The road north is blocked until the water's go down."

"Well, how long will that be?" Sano demanded, glaring at the little man as if it were fault of his. The man flinched, looking from Sano's bristling self to Kenshin's drooping one.

"A day or two if the weather doesn't get worse. It usually floods off and on this time of year." The man backed a step away, and when Sano barked no more questions at him, turned and continued on the way he'd been heading.

Sano turned questioning eyes to Kenshin, who stood there, mud spattered and soaked to the bone, exhausted and hurting and silently cursing the weather that prevented him from continuing on along that road despite all that.

"So what do you want to do?" Sano asked.

"The choices are limited. There are bridges down river - - but they're as likely flooded or washed out as this one. We'd waste less time, I think, waiting here for the waters to drop. And - - and perhaps a day of rest would do me good." He hated saying it. It felt like betrayal, the decision to dally here - - the decision not to keep moving, even if it were futile, on the trail of Kaoru and Kenji. It was his body's weakness that was letting them down as much as anything. His own stupidity in underestimating Winter's duplicity. He'd allowed himself to grow soft, body and mind and now look where it had gotten them all.

"Kenshin?"

"Humm?" He blinked up at Sano.

"We need something to eat.'

"I don't have any money, Sano."

Sano shrugged, not particularly dismayed, craning his long neck to scope out what he could of the town. There was a speculative sparkle in his dark eyes, a slight twitching of his mouth.

"And a place to stay." Sano added, distracted.

"I don't have any money." Kenshin repeated. He had, before the bandits. Not much, but Kaoru had a stash at the dojo that he'd raided before setting out. It was in some bandit's pocket now.

"Let's go and find an inn." Sano started off down the narrow street and Kenshin had very little choice, other than standing in the center of said street, but to follow.

There were perhaps, five inns in Kuroiso, and the majority were full from people stranded by the river. The last one, a quaint ryokan, had a room recently vacated by a merchant who'd decided to sell his goods in Kuroiso rather than take them further north. Kenshin leaned against the wall by the door and let Sano bargain with the hostess over the price of a room. How Sano managed to talk her into letting them the room without payment in advance was beyond Kenshin. Maybe Sano had gotten wilier in the years he'd been gone. Maybe the hostess merely liked the way he smiled at her, with that cocky, self-assured grin of his and his off-handed attempts at flirtation. Whatever he did, he had her blushing and giggling a little, casting him speculative looks from under her lashes.

They placed their muddy sandals among a row of others and followed her down a long, dimly lit passageway. It was an old inn, everything made of wood, straw and paper. The floors creaked under their weight. She led them to a small room, the only furniture being a low table bearing an empty tear pot and a tin of tea. There were folded futons against the wall and worn tatami mats on the floor.

"Baths?" she asked and Kenshin thought that after falling desperately into deep sleep, that a bath would be a most wonderful thing. But, he supposed it would only be proper to wash the mud and dirt of the road off, before lying down on the inn's clean sleeping mats.

"Please." He inclined his head, expecting Sano to do the same.

"Just a second," Sano smiled at the hostess once more, before catching Kenshin's arm and pulling him aside.

"Listen, you go and do the bath thing, I'm gonna go out for a little while and see if I can't make this grow." He dug in his pocket and held up a lonely little coin.

"You have money."

"Well, not a lot and you don't have to say it like that. Like it's a miracle or something."

Kenshin glanced back at the hostess, who waited patiently by the sliding door. "Is that all you have? It's not enough for the room."

"I know that. I'm gonna go find a game - - dice maybe."

"Sano - - you've little enough. Will you squander it?"

"I said, I was going to make it grow." Sano growled, offended.

"And when you lose the first roll, then you'll have nothing."

"You harp like a woman - -"

Kenshin sighed. "We ought not separate. I'll go."

"Oh no. Hell no."

Kenshin blinked at him.

"I don't want you anywhere near me when I'm gambling. You're this magnet for bad luck right now. It's like bad spirits are dogging your heels. You'll jinx me."

One had to be offended by that. But Sano was oblivious and Sano was eager to be on his way to squander his meager reserves. He could hardly be stopped if he was set on the goal. So Kenshin let him go without further argument - - he did not, nor had he ever harped like a woman - - and followed the hostess down stairs to the steaming baths.

It was a very nice bath and he was alone there and he sat drowsing in the hot water after he'd rinsed himself of mud and dirt and let his mind drift as it might. He lamented the unknown. Not knowing where Kaoru and Kenji were. Not knowing if they were hurt. Sano said Kaoru could take care for herself better than Kenshin gave her credit for and he supposed that was true. He supposed she was no submissive prisoner and wished Winter the full extent of her temper. He wished he'd listened better when Winter had taunted him in the bandit's camp. Wished he could recall all the things the man had said, instead of only an uncertain few. Very little had been clear after they'd tied him to the beams and driven the stakes through his hands.

Winter had said, he thought, that he wouldn't hurt them. Had said there was no reason for him to. Why believe that when everything else from the man's mouth had been a blatant lie? Perhaps because at the time he'd said it, he'd had no reason to alleviate Kenshin's fears. No reason to lie anymore once he'd had what he wanted, which was Kaoru in his power and Kenshin at his mercy.

Why? Why bother? The man had killed a woman that he'd needed. A woman who knew a smattering of English. So he'd taken Kaoru to use in her stead. Why? Trade? Something about trade rights? Something about a past bargain that he placed the failure of at Kenshin's feet. A sunken ship, a dead business partner. Kenshin recalled bits and pieces of that accusation, but they were interspersed with bright slashes of pain and of the feel of Winter's hands on his body.

He shuddered, the ghosting echo of other hands on his flesh making his breath catch in his throat - - but those memories were all dark shrouded and uncertain. Just as well push them away and lock the door on them.

The floorboards outside the bath creaked with someone's approach and he took a breath, lifting a bandaged hand to wipe damp hair out of his eyes. It was only one of the inn's boys, who came with towels and a soft, clean robe and asked if there were anything else he needed.

"Bandages?" Kenshin asked and the boy looked at his hands and shoulder with curious eyes before nodding. Time to get out anyway, before he drifted asleep in the water and drowned. He dried himself and slipped on the house robe, gathered his filthy clothes and went back to the room. The hostess met him outside the door with a roll of clean cloth bandages and a small jar of some sort of herbal ointment.

"I'll have these cleaned for you." She reached for his clothing and he almost didn't give it to her, guilty that they hadn't the money to pay for the room, much less other services. But she didn't wait for his assent, merely exchanged the bandages for his gi and hakama and gracefully disappeared down the hall.

In the privacy of the small room, he divested himself of water soaked bandages, and sat on the unrolled futon and examined what he could of his wounds. His thigh was healing nicely, the flesh a healthy color. He dabbed a bit of ointment around both entry and exit wounds and wound clean bandages around his leg. His shoulder was harder to rebandage, so he decided to leave it be for the time being and let Sano help with it when he got back. He'd put off looking too closely at his hands, but finally sighed and rested them on his knees, turning them over to access the healing wounds. The flesh was knitting. It itched horribly and his fingers felt tight and graceless. But there seemed no loss of feeling, and they all moved, albeit with stiffness and pain, when he needed them to. Forming a fist was an impossibility. He hoped as they healed he'd regain dexterity. He hoped that he'd be able to grip a sword. He'd seen men with palms pierced by sword blades or arrows that had regained full use of their hands. Not quickly, but eventually. One had to be optimistic.

He wrapped his hands, and had to tuck the bandages in under themselves, not being able to tie them off by himself. One more thing for Sano to do when he returned. Despite minor irritations, one had to appreciate Sano's presence. Though Kenshin had walked many a hard road alone, and truth be told, preferred solitude when the road was dangerous and filled with pitfalls - - he had very seldom walked those paths as sorely injured and unarmed as he was now. Sano was - - a comfort. Sano was strength when his own was failing him - - and that was an unfamiliar feeling at best. An uneasy one, that reliance on another person.

He settled down, adjusting the small, bean filled pillow and the blankets that he'd unfolded with the futon and lay there in the dim light of a single flickering candle, letting the weariness seep back over him, letting his body relax muscle by muscle, ache by ache until even the candle became indistinct. Knowing he was stranded here at least for the night, made it easier to relent to the demands of his body. Made it easier to shut his eyes and let much needed sleep fall over him.


Sano had said Kenshin was bad luck. That ill-omen's dogged his footsteps - - well, maybe that wasn't the case. Maybe he was good luck after all. Maybe that luck just wasn't so much interested in Kenshin's well-being as the well-being of those around him.

Sano had won at dice. Repeatedly. He hadn't had such a string of good fortune for - - oh, years. Years and years. Maybe it was the fact that most of the men gathered in the back rooms of inns and taverns gaming were hayseed farmers or pot bellied merchants with nothing better to do, stuck here as Sano and Kenshin were stuck here, but to while away their time losing money at games of chance. None of them, most surely, were the seasoned gamblers that Sano liked to consider himself.

Oh, and he'd taken their money. He had a full pouch of it now in his pocket and a belly full of sake and beer consumed during an evening roaming from one tavern to the next looking for a new game. Damn, but the spirits must have been smiling at him - - must have been sorry for landing him in the midst of a pit of ghosts and were making it up in the best possible way. He cackled his delight out loud in the middle of the street, and passerby looked at him oddly, like he was a madman staggering through their midst. He hardly cared, so delighted was he.

He got to the inn and smiled beautifically at the hostess, asking if she wouldn't mind having supper prepared. A great deal of supper. He ticked off his wants one finger at a time, and her eyes got wider as his list grew. He paid her for it in advance, plus extra coins for the room. Might as well get it out of the way in case his luck did decide to run out and he lost what he'd gained. He was not unrealistic and was well aware of how fickle fate could be, despite Kenshin alluding that he was the worst sort of fool. Squander the money indeed. He'd show Kenshin what he knew.

Of course, Kenshin wasn't awake so he could gloat, when Sano reached the room, despite the floors creaking like the inn was about to fall down. A damned heavy sleeper for a man who'd lived the life Kenshin had - - but a body had to suppose it was more fever and injury that made him sleep the sleep of the dead rather than simple lassitude. He'd probably dropped off not long after Sano had left - - though from the look of him, he'd taken the time to use the bathes the hostess had offered. Clean hair, clean bandages, clean house robe.

"Hey?" Sano whispered, feeling remiss in disturbing Kenshin from much needed sleep. But he supposed decent food was a good enough excuse. A body needed to eat as much as sleep if it ever wanted to regain full strength. Kenshin didn't stir from his soft query though, so Sano sank down with his knees on the edge of Kenshin's futon and reached out to touch his shoulder. He hesitated, the gap in the robe revealing a breadth of pale skin and the bruised edges of the unbandaged bullet wound in Kenshin's shoulder. The bandage on the one visible hand atop the light blanket was coming unraveled.

That bothered Sano, the sloppily wound bandage. Made his palms itch a little in annoyance for some reason he couldn't name. Made him want to pound a few heads for causing the wound that caused Kenshin to have to fumble with a dressing that he couldn't properly tie off on his own. Somebody needed to pay.

On impulse - - maybe to see if the fever was still there, maybe - - maybe because the candle light cast the fading bruise on Kenshin's cheek in a strange color - - he reached out and touched the side of his face. Grazed a thumb over the bruise in question like he might hesitantly and unwillingly touch an offered infant. Light as a feather and afraid he'd break it.

Only Kenshin turned his face into the touch and sighed, warm skin against Sano's palm, lips murmuring a name. Not Kaoru's name - - but Sano's, and for a moment, Sano thought he'd woken up and caught him, and froze in the act - - but Kenshin's long lashes remained fixed over his pale cheeks.

He should have pulled his hand away. Should have had the sense to back off because a man just didn't sit there, stunned by the fact that another man had murmured his name in sleep - - or by the feel of another man's skin under his palm, or the silky brush of another man's hair against the back of his hand. Of course Kenshin called his name - - they were traveling together, after all. Natural. Nothing to it at all. Nothing to make his thoughts stall or his muscles freeze. Nothing to make a sudden wellspring of guilt rush up within him. But it did and he couldn't pin point why, other than the fact that he ought to be pulling back and he wasn't. That he damn sure ought not be letting his thumb drift over to graze the contour of Kenshin's bottom lip.

Kenshin shifted again, and the lashes trembled this time. Sano jerked his hand back as Kenshin's eyes opened, a little hazy, a little befuddled, not evidencing much of those cat-like reflexes he exhibited when he was in somewhat better form.

"What's wrong?" The violet eyes narrowed and the brows drew down and Sano figured he must have looked appalled, sitting there with his hand clutching at his chest like he'd just been scalded.

Damned if he'd admit what he'd been about, so he forced a smug smile and reached for his full purse and jingled it.

"Nothing's wrong. I won big time, is what. You owe me an apology."

Kenshin blinked, staring beyond Sano as if he expected something to spring up in the shadows, then back and down to the little leather drawstring pouch in his hand.

"You won?"

"Don't say it like its never happened before." Sano said dryly. "You just have no faith, is all. C'mon, get up, I've got supper being fixed."

Kenshin sighed, lifting a hand to brush hair out of his face and hesitating at the unwinding bandages. An almost apologetic smile crossed his lips. "I couldn't tie it off very well."

"Yeah." Sano agreed and thought, he needs your help, so don't just sit there like a lump, but damned if he could work up the nerve to touch Kenshin again when the first time had just been - - wrong. He didn't even want to think about what had been going through his mind.

"Sano?"

"Huh?"

"Will you fix this for me?" Kenshin asked very patiently, like he was talking to a child or a drunk. Well, maybe Sano was a little drunk. Maybe all that beer and sake was to blame for any eccentricity. It was a good excuse. It was a comfortable one.

"Sure." He reached for Kenshin's hand, straightened the wrappings on first the one, then the other and tied them off. Nice and snug and clean. He got Kenshin up and stood there gawking like a fool at the loose way the borrowed house robe hung open, until Kenshin straightened it up, pulled it properly closed and tightened the sash. If Kenshin noticed, he didn't make an issue of it, he just catfooted across the tatami mats and out into the hall, not making a fraction of the sound that Sano did.

"How long were you gone?"

Sano calculated in his head. "I dunno. Five or six hours. Its full dark out there now."

The inn had a pleasantly proficient cook. It was a good meal and Sano left it stuffed and happy and blissfully hazy over his earlier discomfort. He was sure it was the alcohol. Absolutely certain. Kenshin would probably even laugh about it and agree if he admitted it to him.

If - - if pigs flew and Buddha showed up dressed like a geisha and offered varied acts of sexual depravity.

So Sano shut his mouth about it and finished off the rest of the sake he'd bought with dinner and let the buzz accompany him to sleep.

He woke up very late the next day, alone in the room, all tangled in blankets and clothing, head a pounding swollen thing at the end of his neck.

Why, oh why did he ever drink? He moaned about that for a while, nauseous and miserable and not particularly concerned with anything else. If Kenshin was up and about on his own, that was great - - Sano couldn't care less at the moment where he was or what he was up to.

Kenshin crept back in not long after, a soft rustle of clothes and the barely perceptible pad of bare feet on tatami mats. Sano didn't bother to remove his arm from his eyes.

"Sano?" Kenshin finally had to break the silence that Sano was perfectly happy with.

He didn't answer right away, so Kenshin shifted a little closer and laid fingertips to Sano's arm, urging it away from his no doubt blood-shot eyes. Sano blinked up unhappily. Kenshin looked awake and relatively well, with his hair caught at the back of his neck and his gi and hakama clean and wrinkle free.

"How much money do you have left, Sano?"

"Why?" Sano asked suspiciously.

"There is a railroad station in the next town. If we had enough for tickets, the train could take us to Sendai in a day. It would take many days on foot."

"Trains - -" Sano moaned and moved his arm back over his face. Ships he could take, even steam ships - - trains he had never held much fondness for. Still - - - "I dunno. Enough probably. Is the bridge clear, yet?"

Kenshin sighed, picking at the edge of his sleeve absently, looking distinctly unhappy. "Almost. They think part of it was washed out. We may have to go downstream after all."

"We gonna wait and see - - or head out?" He silently wished for the former, moved his arm of his own violation after a moment of silence and peered up at Kenshin.

Kenshin shrugged, and murmured unwillingly. "Wait and see - - for a little while. This evening - - the water should be low enough to tell for sure."

"Okay. Fine. Maybe I can win some more money by then."

"Sano - -" Kenshin frowned, distressed and wary. "- -please don't lose the money we'll need for the train."

"What makes you think I would?" Sano barked and regretted it as the sound of his own voice reverberated inside his head. He winced and curled onto his side. "Argghhh. Remind me not to mix sake and beer again, will you?"

"I'll remind you, but you'll do it anyway."


By the time Sano's hangover had faded and he was ready to get up and search out food, Kenshin had dosed off again. Sano contemplated rousing him to accompany him, but decided against it. Kenshin needed every minute of sleep he could get.

Sano picked up lunch from a street vendor and wondered down to the river to see how bad the bridge was. There were a fair number of other curious folks as well, and there were constables keeping people away from it.

"You'll know when we know." Was the practiced reply as frustrated travelers were sent on their way, though it looked to Sano as if the center portion of the stone bridge had been washed away.

Great. He made his way back into town, thinking about finding a game of dice to pass the time - - then feeling the sting of guilt over the prospect of not winning and losing the money he had and having to go back and tell Kenshin. He sighed miserably, and stalked back to the inn, a victim of his own conscience.

He took advantage of the bathes that he'd foregone yesterday and flirted with the pretty hostess afterwards, just to make himself feel better after the awkward thoughts he'd been entertaining about Kenshin. She eventually had to return to her duties, which left Sano bereft of purpose. He could have gone out looking for - - well a body hesitated to say 'trouble' - - but it fit well enough considering his mood and the boredom that the afternoon had brought with it, but getting in a tavern brawl here might get him thrown into jail, which would irritate the hell out of Kenshin and throw them seriously off schedule.

Nothing to do but slouch back to the room and lay down on the futon with his hands behind his head and contemplate how completely bizarre this trip home had turned out to be. And he'd thought what he'd get was a nice welcome from old friends, a string of long nights where he got to share all his tales of the mainland, his adventures, his close-calls, his overall conquest over the exotic and the foreign. He hadn't even had his beefpot yet.

All he'd gotten was a half-dead Kenshin on a mission. A damned and determined Kenshin who only periodically delved into moments of reason and rational over this pursuit of Kaoru and her child. Their child. Funny, thinking of Kenshin as a father. Not that he wasn't disgustingly good with kids - - kids loved him. It was just - - well, it was Kenshin. It was liking contemplating himself with a kid on his coattails. Scary thought. Sobering one.

Sano rolled onto his side and stared across the arm's length of distance between them at Kenshin's profile. Straight, fine nose, long, dark lashes resting upon high, delicate cheeks. Slender jaw and sharp chin - - generous lips, that could pull you in with that smile of his, or just as soon thin out in dead earnestness and make a body take a step backwards in consideration of self-preservation.

Damn, but he was pretty and the worst thing about this nice, clean dry room, was that two bodies didn't have to press together in the night for warmth. Sano sighed miserably in admitting it. Hated himself for admitting it. It wasn't bad enough that it was a man he was having such thoughts about, it was a married man with a kid.

Ah, but he was the worst sort of lecher. And the only thing worse than a lecher was a bored lecher, who had nothing better to do than lay there imagining things in his mind, now that he'd admitted the worst and cursing himself for each twisted image. He wondered if Kenshin might have been open to - - certain things, back before he'd decided to fixate himself on Kaoru - - back when things had been simpler and he'd just been a temporary guest at Kamiya dojo instead of a permanent fixture. There had been times - - now that Sano thought about it - - that it might have seemed that way. It made a man wonder about Kenshin - - pretty as he was - - and what alliances he might have made in those long years after the revolution. It made a man wonder what advances men might have made towards a sixteen year old Kenshin, freshly split from Hiko Seijuurou, and new to the cause.

It managed to piss him off, all those considerations. It was irritating enough - - yes, damned irritating, that Kaoru had managed to drag him into matrimony, much less any number of faceless lovers from the past. He tightened his fists and ground his teeth and thought maybe going out and initiating a good bar brawl might be just the thing he needed.

"What are you scowling at, Sano?"

Kenshin was blinking at him, eye's heavy lidded and still clouded with sleep.

"Nothing. Shut up. It's your fault."

Kenshin blinked again, baffled. "Sano, have you been drinking again?"

"Shut up!!" Sano pushed himself up, angry and flustered and - - oh, damn damn damn - - aroused enough that his erection made a right impressive tent out of his pants. He brought his leg up and glared down at the traitorous thing, thankful that it was dim enough in the room that Kenshin might not have noticed.

"Sano - - did you lose the money." Kenshin pushed himself up.

"No, I didn't lose the fucking money!"

"Then what - -" Kenshin's eyes lost some of that large, half asleep bewilderment. "- - is the matter with you?" Sano supposed Kenshin could only take being yelled, cursed and bitched at so much before he got pissed off himself.

"You wanna make something of it?" Sano snarled and wished, oh just wished Kenshin would, because wouldn't it be nice to get rid of his frustrations upon the person who'd caused them?

Kenshin stared. Opened his mouth and shut it, then shook his head.

"No.".

Sano sagged. Diffused. Just like that. Soft voice. No anger. Nothing to get his back up even more than it already was.

"Forget it." He said. "I was drinking and I'm just a damned mess, is all."

"Its okay." Kenshin assured him, getting his legs under him and rising.

"You think?" Sano canted him a look, a little more collected now that the throbbing in his pants had gone down.

Kenshin didn't have an answer to that. Kenshin was a little wary of Sano's psychosis, but he smiled anyway and suggested they walk down to the river.

"I think part of its washed away." Sano said, anything to get his mind back on track.

"Humm. We'll see I suppose. Its only about a three hour walk down stream to the next village with a bridge."

Sano figured he might as well stuff his belongings into the sack, just in case Kenshin decided he wanted to make that walk now, before darkness fully hit. Down to the river then, and through the people and carts parked about the mouth of the bridge. The two constables guarding it were bickering with a merchant and his wife and their cart laden with bags of produce. The wife's shrill voice was enough to make a man wince. The constables were sufficiently distracted as a result.

The river was still dangerously high, its water choppy and brown with debris washed down from upstream. But the bridge was no longer submerged. It was wet and littered with bits of rubbage, but whole, for the first forty yards. Then there was nothing but a span of empty space over the swift moving current. A section of bridge, some twenty feet in width had been washed away. There was nothing left but the two stone pylons on which it had been supported.

"Well, I guess we walk downriver." Sano sighed, shifting the sack on his shoulder.

Kenshin stood there, staring across the water. "Its not that far."

"What, the next bridge?"

"To the other side of this one."

Sano laughed, then realized that Kenshin wasn't kidding. "Are you fucking out of your mind? This is not a happy river. Fall in and it won't let you back up."

"Its not that far. There's the pylon half way."

"Oh, for fuck's sake - - Kenshin - - you serious?"

Kenshin slanted a look up at him. "Three hours to the bridge Three hours back to the main road - - that's a day's worth of travel. I can make it across. Can you?"

"Does it matter?" Sano snapped sourly.

Kenshin winced a little at that. "Yes."

There were shouts of a sudden from the mouth of the bridge. The constables had taken notice of them and were yelling for them to get off the bridge.

"Sano, can you?"

Sano swore and swung the sack off his shoulder. "If you can do it with that leg - - then I sure as hell can."

Kenshin didn't even nod agreement to that boast, just turned, took one deceptively simple step and launched himself off the jagged edge of the bridge. He landed like a cat on the pylon ten foot out in the midst of the choppy river, and leapt from that with hardly a pause, making reaching the other side seem painfully simple.

If I drown, Sano thought sourly, I'm gonna come back and haunt you, Kenshin. He tossed the sack with a mighty swing, not waiting to see if it reached the other side, backed up a half dozen paces and ran at the edge, hurling himself off and into the air. Reached the mid-point with room to spare, and jumped for the other side before he could think about breaching a similar distance without room to build up speed. He almost didn't make the other side. One toe hit the edge of the bridge and the other one floundered in water. He windmilled his arms, losing balance and Kenshin clutched at his jacket yanking him forward. He scraped his shin on the rough edge badly, but it was better than falling into the river, and lay in a tangle of limbs atop of Kenshin afterwards, breathing hard, counting his blessings and thanking whatever good spirits were watching over him.

"Sano - - your elbow - -" Kenshin shoved at him to get him to roll over. He did with a gusty sigh, bending his knee and drawing up his leg to see his shin.

"You get my pack?"

"I got it."

"Good. Look, I'm bleeding."

"I'm sorry." Kenshin peered at his leg, then across the bridge at the constables who were shaking helpless, frustrated fists at them. "I think we ruined their day."

"Yeah, they look pissed. But, I'm seriously doubting anybody else is gonna take this route."

"Probably not." Kenshin got up first, rubbing the side of his hand over the wound in his thigh. "We can walk until its full dark, then reach Shirokawa tomorrow. I'm told trains stop there every day, so we should be able to get a ride and maybe even reach Sendai by the day after."

"Yeah, sounds like a plan." He didn't ask what they were going to do once they reached Sendai. Didn't inquire what path Kenshin planned to take if his quarry was long gone with Kaoru in tow.

Hope and determination had kept Kenshin going so far. No reason to dash it now. Hell, Kenshin was probably already prepared for the worst. Kenshin was enough of a realist - - had seen enough of the brutal side of life - - to realize that the odds of them catching this Englishman, were not in his favor.

Sano got up, dusted his hands off on the sides of his pants and held out a hand, indicating the trail forward.

"All right then, if we're almost there, then lets get started."

 

 

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