title: Picture Bride | Part 3
rating: pg-13
author: Mir
email: mir@despammed.com
website:

disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin was created by Watsuki
Nobuhiro, published by Shueisha in "Jump," and
produced by Sony Entertainment. All rights are theirs.

AN:  I've planned this chapter as a way to introduce another group of RK characters who haven't yet made an appearance (if you exclude Kenshin's brief cameo in the previous chapter ^_~).  Don't worry… everything's going to come together sometime in the near future.  There's just so much background to build up before I can get to the part of the plot that really moves along.  Hope I'm not boring anyone to death!

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*part 3*
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"Hey Kenshin, you free tonight?  A bunch of us are gonna find ourselves some entertainment."  The speaker leaned his shoulder casually against the barrack's doorframe—into a groove worn smooth by countless men doing just the same.  His hands were thrust into the deep pockets of his workpants, leaving sunburned elbows jutting out into the air, ready and poised to catch any unsavory passersby unaware.  His pant legs ended abruptly in a rat's nest of unraveling threads just above the tops of heavy, half-laced work boots liberally stained with goodness-knows-what.

The object of his attention turned slightly, and his eyes rested briefly on his friend, then fell back to the wet cloth hanging from his hands.  "I'm doing laundry," he replied as though the fact weren't completely obvious.  "If you give me that ancient rag you call a jacket, I'll give it a good scrub as well."

"This?!"  Sanosuke protested loudly, eyebrows raised in feigned offense.  "Over my dead body, yeah."  It was a standing joke between them that Kenshin had once shrunken a pair of the other's underwear well past the convenient travel size mark.  "All night alone in the dark?  Shit Kenshin, there's no way I'm gonna let you languish by yourself in this hellhole while I'm out on the town, and you're wasting away from boredom.  You're coming out with us tonight, so stop making excuses."

"I'm not making excuses… I'm actually doing something that desperately needs doing…" the redhead muttered under his breath.  He attacked a particularly stubborn grease stain with renewed vigor as if to prove his point.  "…unlike some people I know."

Sanosuke, who had of course heard the remark, decided to let it slide by without comment.  With barely more than the twitch of an eyebrow, he reached up with one hand to run his fingers through his hair and tug at the ever-present trademark ribbon encircling his head.  "Doesn't it kill you to do other peoples' laundry all day and then have to come home and do your own?"  He scratched absently behind his ear, tone half-serious, half-joking.

And Kenshin merely shrugged, bare shoulders slim and white beneath the fading sunlight.  He stood barefoot on the floor, feet hidden beneath nondescript baggy gray pants, like everything else he owned—old, faded, and patched.  "It's certainly better than wearing dirty clothes and starving I think," he replied flatly.

"And, be that as it may—what can you say about your social life?  Still less than non-existent?"  It was another running joke that, between the two, they averaged a normal balance of work and play (with Kenshin doing all the former, of course).  Sanosuke paused, eyes staring ahead, mind engrossed on one particular thought that had surfaced unexpectedly.  "Wait… didn't Nishiki say that he'd seen you with a girl today?"  A smile began at the corners of his mouth then steadily expanded into a full-fledged smirk.  "Right… it was a new girl, wasn't it?  Fresh off the boat, silk kimono and all."

"Sano…" But even as the objection left his lips, he knew the battle had been lost.  He could dodge the question all night if he wished, but his friend would still be hot on his tail in the morning.  Still, he blushed.  "Nandemonai—it's nothing," he insisted in Japanese, the word falling from his lips as smoothly as the English had before.  His head dipped lower over the lukewarm water while he scrubbed harder as if to compensate for his evasive silence.

"C'mon, you have to have gotten her name at least.  Was she pretty?  Is she staying in San Francisco or heading inland?"  Having drifted over from the door to Kenshin's side, Sanosuke peered down at his friend's face, and then when that had no effect, unceremoniously elbowed him hard in the ribs.

"I said it's nothing.  We didn't exchange more than a dozen words.  She's the ward of Takani."  He could have followed the two as they'd left the dock, could have trailed them like a shadow and listened to learn more, but there had been a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach that told him he'd already guessed the truth. 'She's been promised to Yukishiro Enishi, of course.'

"Another missed opportunity – what am I going to do with you?"  And at that, he turned away, back toward the sinking sun, and as he stretched his arms behind his head, the symphony of creaks and cracks was accompanied by a yawn.  "Well, I'm taking you to the Hall tonight, and if you're lucky, you'll have the privilege of seeing me clean out Kawada and that good-for-nothing friend of his."

"The privilege?"  Kenshin retorted with soft-spoken sarcasm.  He dropped the last clean article of clothing into the bucket and stepped past Sanosuke toward the clothes lines outside.  "I suppose I'll come – but only to keep you in line, of course."

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They walked side by side through the darkened streets, and as the far-spaced streetlamps threw pale clouds of light across their faces, their footsteps echoed softly against the pocketed concrete.  The air was hot – not the scorching heat of midday that seemed to burn through clothing and flimsy building walls alike – but a lingering aftertaste that clung stubbornly to the night long after the last sunlight had faded.

Neither spoke as they threaded their way through the urban obstacle course of street posts and garbage bins, cars and bicycles, and casually ambling pedestrians.  But as the echoes of the city's motion swirled through their heads, they needed neither words nor glances to convey the subtle sense of ownership that settled silently deep inside.  Home is, of course, the place where one belongs…

The storefront they finally stopped beside was, without a doubt, the least-interesting on the block.  Painted a dull tan and peeling horribly, it decorated only by a small sign penned by an insecure and shaking hand.  A drooping dahlia, almost like an afterthought, lay flaccidly by the door, and the heavy curtains in the window were damp with condensation.

They didn't bother knocking at the main entrance but instead proceeded directly around the side to the small door half-obscured by cascading Wisteria.  Sanosuke, in the lead, pushed hard against the handle after only a moment's hesitation, then with a grin of anticipation, stepped across the threshold.

Together, they settled into the scene like fish into the sea – Sano through comfortable familiarity, Kenshin through nervous evasiveness.  He trailed after his friend, half his mind following the other's progress, the other half drifting in thought.  "There's a different crowd here tonight, it seems" he muttered, scanning the room more intently at the realization.  "Or perhaps it's just been so long since…"

And Sanosuke frowned in response.  His cheek twitched as he pulled his eyebrows together across his forehead.  "No, you're right… in half."  He would have spat distastefully into a vacant corner had Kenshin not glared accusingly in his direction.  "They're a gang of sorts – or rather, just another group of ruffians with delusions of grandeur – until recently, that is.  Now, there's this new leader who's developed these grand ideas about himself and his followers.  You know how it all goes, of course."  He shrugged, apparently more concerned with the ongoing dice game on the far side of the room than the possible ramifications of the newly-developing power struggles of those around him.

"Right…"  Kenshin replied, pulling his gaze away from the newcomers at last.  If he'd waited another moment he would have seen one, a thin man with long, twisted fingers and a nose like a hawk's beak, turn and tilt his head in his direction while muttering softly to the man by his side.  He would have paused at the bored look plastered across the other's features, tempered only by the dark fire smoldering behind his eyes.  But the moment passed unnoticed, and time, as always, marches on.

"Hey, it's Zanza…" The source of the observation was a particularly seedy-looking man leaning against the wall with his legs stretched out before him.  The red flush in his cheeks was undeniable evidence of the night's revelries, and his brow furrowed as he contemplated the street fighter's appearance as if the very state of the world depended on his analysis.

"Back from whatever shithole he crawled from…"  Another commented with palatable distain. 

"…and with some half-blooded shrimp under his arm."  The group's attention shifted then to Kenshin, who rocked uneasily from foot to foot as their eyes bore into him like needles.  And yet he said nothing.

"Might get blown over if he stood out on the dock —"

"Or mistaken for a girl if he went into town —"

And, having heard more than enough taunts and insults to meet his nightly quota, Sanosuke growled, his hands clutched threateningly into fists at his sides.  "Yeah, yeah enough already.  You gonna make room for us here or are you too scared that I'll clean you out like I always do?"  He had the advantage of height as he towered over the seated gamblers, and grudgingly they cleared a space against the wall for the newcomers.  Money exchanged hands, and soon it was as if the interruption had never occurred.

The tide of visitors ebbed and flowed as the night wore on.  Some came to gamble, some to drink, others simply to escape the boredom of an empty room and the monotony of day after day of mindless labor.  One man, cropped hair emphasizing his sharply angular features, reached absently into his pocket to retrieve a battered photograph that he squinted at in the dim light.  His eyelids drooped as he rhythmically ran his thumb across the woman's hair in slow, circular motions. Yukiko…  His lips moved soundlessly around his wife's name, and his mind danced backwards over a thousand memories, snapshots left behind across the churning Pacific.

He didn't notice the diminutive shadow that crept steadily besides him, didn't feel the light fingers brush against his clothing, and didn't turn as the retreating footsteps faded away in the opposite direction.

"How many have you gotten tonight?"  Strong arms abruptly encircled the boy and dragged him back behind the dingy screen spread haphazardly across the hallway entrance.  "If it's less that four you lazy, good-for-nothing —"

"Here, take this."  And without looking up he shoved the stolen wallet into the other's face with such force that the man released him in surprise.  "That's all there is.  It's not my fault that the crowd's thin tonight."  He retreated just barely out of grabbing range, chin tucked against his chest and clearly sulking.

"Not your fault, eh?"  The dialogue was familiar, a nightly dance between two actors who had long-since memorized their lines and perfected their parts.  "And I suppose your mother wasting away in the hospital and makin' us foot the bill wasn't your fault either."  He scowled in a gesture that would have been menacing had the boy not seen it countless times before.

"Of course it's not my fault," he insisted half-heartedly as he shoved his hands into his pockets and stared intently at the dirty floor.  "I never would have asked for help from such a rotten bunch of people."

"Why you insolent little —"  The boy tiredly sidestepped the backhand aimed in his direction and slid down the wall until his legs were folded up against his chest.  There was no point to running for there was nowhere to run to, but at the same time, there was no reason to submit to unnecessary blows either.  He tuned out the endless stream of insults and accusations and let his gaze drift back over the crowed – or at least as much of it as he could see through the large hole torn across the screen's second panel.

There on one side with a half-empty beer glass raised to the ceiling was Nakamura, and at his side was that ever-present friend of his Mitsukawa who could drink anyone under the table but never said a word.  Boring, boring.  An old man had passed out in the corner, one boney hand still clutching his dice.  Typical.  In fact, there was only one area that was even marginally interesting…  Who was that with the ribbon trailing down his back?  Oh right, Sagara – a.k.a. Zanza, fighter for hire.   The man leaned forward in concentration over his crossed legs, fingers tapping impatiently on his knees as he glanced out of the corner of his eye at his smaller companion seated beside him.

'That man, I wonder who he is…' The boy had gradually slid farther and farther away from his aggressor until he emerged out from behind the screen again and blended back into the room's deep shadows.  'Seems vaguely familiar… but probably doesn't come here often.'  The man himself was nothing special – besides that red hair that faded into dark maroon in the semi-darkness.  But still, there was something about him, some feeling of strength and unwavering confidence that even his quiet self-evasiveness couldn't fully hide.

"Stop cheating you moron!"  He was caught off-guard as the taller of the pair, Sagara, exploded from his seat toward the man across the circle from him.  He slammed his fist onto the floor scattering dice and drinks alike as his voice cut through the low hum of conversation like a knife through water, and the boy's head wasn't the only one to snap abruptly in his direction.

"What's that again?"  The other man challenged, clearly not intimidated by Sagara's reputation. 'There was a time when no one talked back to Zanza…' The boy thought as he regarded the unfolding scene with interest. 'But I don't think he's even gone by that name for a year at least.' 

It was clear that the outside world was fading for the two as they locked gazes across the space between them and tested the other's mettle with each inhaled breath.  Strength pitted against strength, the all but circled each other, testing for weaknesses and probing for opportunities.  Sagara crouched low to the ground with his legs tucked beneath him, ready to uncoil at a moment's notice.  Everything, from the muscles that tensed beneath loose clothing, to the angles of his chin as he waved his fist before his face, bespoke of uncompromising confidence and a temper that no one, in his right mind, would want to cross. 

The man beside him, the red-haired one with the quiet voice and downcast eyes, laid a hand on the streetfighter's arm, and when the other turned, a look passed between the two — one infused layers of nuanced meaning.  There was almost a collective sigh of relief, a room-wide exhalation as Sagara sunk back to the ground, nodding slightly at the words whispered by his friend.  Yahiko frowned and strained to hear.

"You can't…" Words and phrases were muffled by the rubbing of fabric and the clicking of dice.  "…don't you remember…"  He found himself inching along the wall, drawn by some inexplicable reason toward the two men.  "…started like this before."  And just as it seems as though he'd moved within comfortable hearing range, the conversation abruptly stopped, and he felt the sensation of eyes boring through him as though he were nothing but glass.  Despite the summer heat, he shivered.

'This must be what the presence of a real streetfighter feels like' he thought to himself as he stared deliberately at his shoes. 'Not like all those sleazy scumbags who hang around here.'  But when he finally lifted his head and glanced out from beneath bangs that flopped across his face, the eyes he met were soft and violet — deceptively gently… and almost innocent.  Almost.  Suppressed as if submerged beneath the surface of a lake, lurked darkness, dense and foreboding, edged with anger… and sadness?

But as quickly as the contact was made, it was broken with the swift, almost guilty turn of a head, and Yahiko was left with only a lingering sense of déjà vu.  He might have stood there indefinitely, just contemplating the experience, had the rough shove from a careless drunk not sent him sprawling to the floor.  He landed on his side, barely missing someone's head with his left foot and another's shoulder with his right.  As it was, the impact with the floor was enough to knock his breath away.

"Why you clumsy little…"  He opened his eyes to the red, scowling face of the Boss's lead hit man, and he cringed.  "…ungrateful brat always too full of himself…"  He hadn't realized before how the man's eyes bulged when he yelled or how red his nose became when he drank.  "…I've just been waiting to get my hands on you—" He snatched the boy up by the collar and hoisted him unceremoniously into the air.  And, at that one moment when the mettle of men are tested, the room seemed remarkably quiet, and not a soul moved to his rescue.

"I've had just about enough of you—"  The man reached for his back pocket as the boy squirmed and lashed out with hands and feet. "—what do you say we just…"  The blade was barely four inches long, but its appearance unfroze the tableau like a painting suddenly coming to life.  Men scattered toward the walls for refuge, and Yahiko's heart skipped a beat in his chest.  He opened his mouth to yell but couldn't seem to form the words he shouted in his mind.

Then it happened.  The movement was nothing but a blur, so rapid he might have mistaken it for an illusion if it hadn't just occurred right before his eyes.  But there was no denying it.  The small man, the red-haired one, sprung from the ground like a lightning bolt streaking in reverse toward the sky.  And then the attacker, knife and all, spun wildly around an axis originating at the point where the redhead grasp his wrist.  He struggled for a fleeting moment, the boy entirely forgotten as his limbs searched haphazardly for purchase but found none.  His eyes shone in the lamplight with something deeper, more primitive than the simple pleasure of picking on those who posed no threat to him.  They shone at last with fear.

Even with as little formal training as he'd had, Yahiko could almost feel the strength behind the man's attack, almost see the intangible ripples of confidence radiating outward from his grounded center.  There was, in the very least, no question as to the redhead's competence… And then, with the fluid shift of weight and a sharp rotation of his hips, he revered his opponent's path and threw him to the ground as the loud crack of broken bones echoed throughout the room.  The henchman, winded and astonished, cradled his injured arm to his chest but could not seem to draw his eyes from the man who now stood above him. 

"It's him…" he managed at last to stammer.  His voice increased in volume as he pushed himself backward across the floor and astounded spectators stood mutely by.  "Don't you recognize him?  Don't you know what he did?"  He was almost yelling as he lifted a shaking hand to point in accusation.  "Murderer!" 

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*end part 3*
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Right.  So it's been way too long since I last updated, but classes have started again, and my professors seem to think it's fun to give me an inhumane amount homework.  So I'm sorry for the extremely long delay.  Hopefully next time....

Again, thanks so much to everyone who's been reading this story: Linay, ixchen, Kawaii Kokkei Tsuita no Neko, Chiki, Gochan, haku baikou, Mystical Angel, Vesca, The Weird One, sunshine, LadyShiin, star0704, ayumi-dono, jeslyn-nighthawk, kleptomaniac sam, MP, RurouniGochan,  CynicalCorpse, Kairan Akiyama, Angel, heki-chan, jeslyn-nighthawk, Gypsy-chan, Sabrina-star, Koneko, Fuuko-san, Oyuki, Jason M. Lee… and anyone I may have missed!  Your kind words motivate me to write

                        - Mir  (09.13.03)