Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin is the property of creator Nobuhiro Watsuki, Shueisha, Shonen Jump, and Sony Entertainment. I did not obtain permission from these parties.
"Hey, Kenshin, hurry it up, would you?"
I balanced on one end of the pathetic, leaky, miserable wood-shaving-excuse for a lifeboat with my sakabato in both hands, trying to hold my patience against the stubbornness of the school of fish under us to come closer, and the whining of Sano. I was hungry too. So hungry my head was light and it was an effort to keep my hands from shaking as I held my sword over the water, waiting for a good shot.
Of course, it would be hard to spear a fish this way, even under the best of circumstances. Still, I had pulled it off once already, making that exactly one meal, a silver fish shared between the two of us, in the last four days since we had been hopelessly adrift somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
I had not learned my lesson. That's my only excuse. I simply had not learned from the last time we had financial concerns at the dojo, and I let someone talk me into thinking the best way to remedy this was to take a job on a boat for a day or two. One might think that the events with Senbonya, the Kairyu, and the mixed-in business of opium-and-gun swapping might have stayed with me all this time, but…evidently not.
There! Luck chose to grant me a small favor by temping a fish to move close to the water's edge. It's back was a clear, broad target in that small second. My sword shot forward, spearing the fish through. Awkwardly, I swung my sakabato upward to keep the wildly thrashing fish from slipping from my blade, lost my balance, and fell hard on my rear end. The fish flopped onto the middle of the boat.
"Yes! I knew you could do it, Kenshin!" Sanosuke pounced on the fish, still flapping on the wet wood as it breathed its last.
Twenty minutes later the fish was only a few scales floating on a little puddle of leaked water at the middle of the boat and bone held in Sano's teeth.
I leaned back, trailing my hands in the water to wash off the fish guts.
"I'm thirsty," Sano said.
I raised my head to look at him.
He was sitting far on the other end of the little boat, with his arms resting on his turned-up knees, hands hanging down. He was not wearing his bandanna. It had rained the day before yesterday, and since trying to catch rain in your open mouth isn't very effective, he had used it to soak up the life-giving water that fell from the sky. After wringing it out several times, he had sucked water from the cloth, held it out to soak again, and repeated this process until his thirst was slaked. I had done similarly with a strip of cloth I cut from my gi.
Without the bandanna, though, his hair seemed to fall just a little more limply around him. He held the fresh fish bone in his hand instead of his mouth. His eyes were a little wider than normal… For some reason, my friend didn't look so much like the extremely tough thug who had once walked the treacherous Nakasen road all the way to Kyoto just to punch me in the face, catch me as I fell, and grin down at me as he explained he had come to be my strong right arm. I couldn't put my finger on it, but…
"Hey, Kenshin…did you ever think you might die this way?"
"Yeah…in a tiny wooden boat…in the middle of the ocean…of thirst?"
It was then that I realized why Sano seemed different to me. I remembered for the first time just how young he really was. His guard was down. Careless with thirst, perhaps, but he didn't seem to realize his emotions and fear were reflected clearly in his eyes. Or perhaps he did, and no longer cared. I wasn't sure.
I smiled as best I could with my sore mouth. "This one has thought of many ways that death might come…but never once in those dark dreams was it seen that a friend would be with him."
Sano smiled. It was one of the most honest smiles I had ever seen from one of the most honest men I had ever known. "Yeah, I guess I didn't either."
We were silent for a while, listening to the water bear the boat along.
"I'm kind of light-headed," Sano said. "I think I'll sleep a while."
He was looking at me with something new in his eyes…a strange plea that I didn't understand at first.
Instinct guided me. "That's fine, Sano.This one willstay awake and keep watch."
He snorted with the absurdity of my words. If a ghost ship full of rotting pirate-zombies had appeared on the horizon, we would have been glad to see them. But I think I had touched on what he seemed to be asking of me, since he seemed to relax as he lay down.
The boat was tiny, and Sano is a tall man. I made myself as small as I could to make more room for him, and I did as I said I would: stayed awake and kept watch.
The sky had been dark for days. It had been storming on and off for the entire week, a fact which had both gotten us into this situation and had kept us alive so far. The sun moved lower. I could feel it better than I could see it.
I glanced at Sano. He had moved in his sleep, his head resting against my ankle. Asleep, he looked even younger than I had thought he did before, and I realized what it was he had been needing from me.
Maturity had been a part of Sano for as long as I have known him. He was taller than I was, had a much deeper voice, and harder features. I am nine years his senior, but there have been many times I have noticed that every sees Sano as a "man," but some would still see me as a "boy". I've been mistaken for a teenager more times than I care to admit.
Things were similar with Yahiko. I am eighteen years older than he is. While he respects, looks up to, and admires me in his way, the boy's ways were the ways of pride, of being a Samurai's son, and I keep to a very humble nature. This causes us to meet on more equal ground than we might if I was concerned with my pride as well.
What I'm trying to say is, while we are family to each other, I've never been expected to be a "big brother" to either of them. They had both always carried their own without needing someone to lean on for emotional support. Theirs was the sort of strength that others would come to rely on for the whole of their lives.
Sano was scared, and he needed to know he wasn't alone. I had told him, in my way, without harming his pride. I was glad I hadn't failed him.
The wind was a little colder now. I closed looking out over the water, keeping watch as promised. I thought of Kaoru.
I was sitting on the porch tending my sword when she came from the dojo and handed a battered sandal to me.
It was small, one of Yahiko's. He had actually broken it quite some time ago, and it had held up for a long while under the kind repair of Tsubame, but now there was little hope for the small shoe. It was splintered, and deep grooves worn into it with hard use.
"Yahiko needs new sandals," Kaoru said, a little unnecessarily. She held one of Yahiko's shirts, freshly taken down from the line. She ran her fingers across her own loosening stitching, old repairs coming undone. "No amount of my sewing skills can keep this together much longer. Besides, he's growing out of it, just like he's growing out of those old sandals."
She reached out and took hold of the sleeve of my gi. I never took much notice of my own patched and worn clothing. Worn though it was, it still served me as it should have, but it seemed to bother her.
Yahiko had his own job, with the Akabeko, but it would probably take all the boy had saved to buy for himself a new wardrobe. Kaoru, who held herself responsible for him, probably would try to stretch the budget even further to scrape up money for his clothes. And from the way she was looking at me, she was probably trying to think of the sacrifices she would need to make to get me new clothes as well.
The thought was enough to send me out onto the streets, wondering what I could find in the way of odd jobs.
I met Sano, who was out looking for the same thing. His roguish grin was lined with sheepishness as he explained that he was completely broke from an ill-turn of luck gambling. He had a destination, though: he was going to take on another job as a bodyguard for a ship heading to Hamamatsu. It wasn't going to pay nearly what Senbonya had offered, but it was something.
Against my better judgment, I decided to go along.
It was later, during that freak storm, as I was helping to try to put out the fires caused by a lightning strike to the mast, I decided that I simply wasn't meant to set foot on a boat. They all seemed to be exploding, being blasted apart by enemy fire, boarded by pirates, or sinking whenever I was around.
The storm grew worse, and suddenly fires were no one's worry anymore. The fires were quenched as water slammed down on us in one of the fiercest storms I had ever experienced. The rain squall hurled the ship sideways, lurching and swaying.
I picked myself up from yet another bruising fall, and suddenly Sano was beside me. Face ashen, he pointed behind me. I turned, saw that the foremast was oddly bent, the top of it leaning far to one side. In horror, I watched as the first fifteen feet of the mast split off and pitched into the sea.
Then a new wave rose up behind the rail and seemed to hover there, looming above us. The great wall of water was glassy clear; I could see suspended in it the debris of the men of the wrecked ship, limbs outflung in some kind of grotesque dance.
Then the wave struck. I was snatched off the deck, and at once engulfed in chaos. Blind and deaf, unable to breathe, I was tumbling through space, my arms and legs wrenched awry by the force of the water.
Everything was dark. Sensation was intense but indistinguishable. Pressure and noise and overwhelming cold. Twice I managed to struggle to the surface for breath, but another wave would roll me back into the water.
My head hit something with a sickening crack, which I found to be the wooden bottom of a small rowing boat. A hand suddenly burst from the darkness above me, and a fist wrapped tightly around the cloth of the front of my gi.
I was hauled upward, out of the water, gasping and staring into the face of Sanosuke. His nose was bleeding, I had time to notice, as he yanked me into the boat. "I wouldn't have found you, if it wasn't for the color of your hair," he shouted into my ear over the wind.
I could see a few other boats through the gale and darkness, others hanging on for dear life. The waves battered us mercilessly as we crouched at the bottom, bearing us away with breathtaking speed.
Eventually, the storm passed. But our peril did not.
I saw it, bobbing gently on the waves. It was raining again, and Sanosuke was biting deeply into his bandanna for the moisture, looking in the other direction.
Without thinking, I jumped off the boat and into the water, swimming to it before it could drift any further away.
"Kenshin, what the hell are you doing?" Sano cried.
I saved my breath for swimming rather than answering. A few more strokes, and I grasped it in my hands.
It was a jug, a simple, clay jug, about the size of my head, with a stopper in the top and a thickly-braided rope tied through its loops. Holding it by the rope, I swam back toward the boat.
"A jug!" Sano observed as he assisted me back into the boat. "Is there anything to drink inside?"
The jug was empty, but that didn't matter. Grabbing for my scrap of cloth, I held it over the mouth of the bottle and squeezed the water from it. "Quickly, Sano! Help get some water in this before it stops raining."
Another half hour passed with us squeezing water into the jug, and we had it nearly half full. I wished I had found the jug sooner, but at least we had a little water saved now.
Three more days passed. I hadn't had more than a few sips from the jug.
If I survived, I knew I was going to catch hell for this later, but… There were better chances of surviving if only one of us really drank the water. Sano was younger, and physically stronger. The chances were very good he'd make it back to land, or hold on until help arrived, if I could lengthen his life by leaving the water for him.
He had no idea. We had decided to ration the water, only drinking when the sun was highest in the sky. Except I wasn't drinking any more than it took to moisten my mouth and pass a few drops over my vocal cords so that when I spoke he wouldn't hear my voice dry and cracking and suspect what I was doing. Eventually I wouldn't be able to hide the symptoms of my dehydration, but by then he might have already drank most of the water.
Another day passed. I was always drowsy. I began sleeping a lot.
Once I was awakened by Sano. Another school of fish was swarming just under our boat. I tried to catch one as before, but I was weak and dizzy, and my concentration lacking.
Luckily, he managed to catch one himself. He stood for hours poised over the side of the boat, and managed to catch one with his bare hands. He nearly tipped us over in doing so, but he did it.
Cutting off the fish's head with my sword, he grinned at me. "I guess it was about time I made myself useful around here. Come on, Kenshin."
"That's…all right, Sano. This one doesn't feel like eating just now."
He frowned, concerned. He glanced at the jug. "Have you had any water today?"
"Yes," I lied through a smile. "This one drank when you did."
"Maybe you should have a sip or two anyway. You might feel like eating some then."
"No, Sano. This one can't afford to lose the moisture, should the fish not stay down," I warned.
"All right," he said, not sounding too happy. "I'll save you some for later, right?"
I went to sleep again, and slept the rest of the day and most of the next.
I had fallen asleep sitting up, but I woke up on my back, my head propped against the side of the boat. My mouth didn't feel so dry… Opening my eyes, I saw Sano. He was holding the water jug, had the stopper in one hand. He had dribbled a bit of water into the groove of the stopper and poured it into my mouth when I was sleeping…
"That's for you!" I blurted before I could stop myself.
He sat back with a sigh, stoppering the jug again. "I knew it," he said, looking at me angrily. "I wish I had known it sooner. It was too good to be true the water lasted that long."
My secret was out, and I had been right about catching hell. "Sano, listen," I croaked.
"No, you listen, you self-deprecating, suicidal idiot! There's a few sips of water left in this thing, and you are going to have some if I have to hold you down and pour it down your throat. Is that clear?"
His eyes were furious and his hand clenched as if he were ready to do just that. I decided not to argue. I nodded in consent, and he moved to the other end of the boat, thumping thejug down between us.
"Oh, and I'm telling Jou-chan what you did. Oh, yes, Pal, when we get home you are gonna get it! I can't wait. You'll be wearing her knuckle prints on your cheeks for a week!"
I laughed, dry and rasping. He glared at me and I grinned back until the angry look dropped. He rolled his eyes. "I'm still going to tell her," he said.
"Good," I whispered.
The boat was sinking.
The jug, completely empty of fresh water, had been used to dip out seawater, as well as our own cupped hands in turns, but it proved to be a futile gesture, and wore us out further.
I was lying up to my chest in seawater, sleeping as usual, when I heard Sano's cry.
"Kenshin! I see it! Land! It's land!" His voice was rendered to no more than a faint croak from wind and thirst, but full of joy nonetheless.
I opened my eyes and lifted my head up enough to see the humped black shape on the horizon. It was far off, but it was undeniably land, solid and distinct.
But the boat wasn't willing to carry us any further. I finally struggled to my knees as the water rose too high for me to lie down any longer. Sano was looking around frantically, trying to think of something to do.
"We can't give up now! Not when we're so close!"
Suddenly he grabbed me and plunked me into the water. Grabbing my hands, he placed my palms on the edge of the boat "Hold on, don't let go, Kenshin!"
"What are you doing?" I tried to say, but my voice was so hoarse it came out only in a tiny whisper, and he didn't hear.
I watched as he stood up on the sinking boat, leaned with his fist upraised. "Hohhh!" His fist shot through the air, through the water, and slammed into the bottom of the boat.
There were cracking sounds, both sharp and moist as the boat broke apart under his powerful blow. I floundered a moment before I caught hold of one of the broken pieces and held on, dizzy with the exertion.
Sano's head broke from the water in front of me, holding onto a piece of wood of his own. He grinned at me, a feral grimace of effort, and I tried to smile back. It had been a good idea. The wood that we held onto would do us no good as a boat any longer, but might keep us afloat until we could reach that land.
We held on a while, bobbing on the waves. I was drifting off without realizing it until I felt Sano's powerful grasp as he snagged my wrists. I blinked at him as he dragged me further up on the piece of wood. "Damn it, Kenshin!" he snarled. "Can't you stay awake for more than a few minutes?"
He had abandoned his plank and stayed with me, not letting go of my wrists.
The waves were becoming more troublesome the closer we bobbed to the land. A sense of lassitude was stealing over me. I couldn't feel much anymore other than a mild headache, caused by my parched state, and Sano's crushing grip on my hands to remind me of their existence. My head went underwater and I had to remind myself to hold my breath.
The wave subsided and the wood rose slightly, bringing my nose above water. I breathed, and my vision cleared again, slightly. A foot away was the face of Sagara Sanosuke, hair plastered to his head, wet features contorted against the spray.
"Hold on!" he roared. "Hold on, God damn you!"I smiled gently, barely hearing him. A sense of great peace was lifting me away, carrying me from the sea and chaos and weakness and thirst. There was no more pain. Nothing mattered. Another wave washed over me, and this time I forgot to hold my breath.
The choking sensation roused me briefly, long enough to see the flash of terror in Sano's eyes. Then my vision went dark again.
"Damn you, Rurouni!" his voice said, from a very great distance. "Damn you! I swear if you die on me, I'll kill you!"
I had to be dead. Everything around me was a blinding white, and there was a soft, rushing noise, like the wings of angels. I felt peaceful and bodiless, free of terror, free of rage, filled with quiet happiness. Then I coughed.
I wasn't bodiless after all. My head hurt. It hurt a lot. I became gradually aware a lot of other things hurt, too, but my head took precedence in no uncertain terms.
I cracked my eyes open slowly, then shut them again as bright light assaulted me.
"Thank God you're awake!" came voice of a very relieved-sounding Sanosuke.
"Where--" I started to say. My voice was a salt-encrusted croak, rusty with swallowed seawater. I could feel seawater in my sinuses too, which gave my head an unpleasant, gurgling feel. I coughed again, and my nose began to run profusely. Then I sneezed.
"Ugh!" I said in complete revulsion at the resultant cascade of slime on my upper lip. My hand seemed far off and insubstantial, but I made an effort to raise it, swiping clumsily at my face.
"Be still, Kenshin; I'll help you," Sano said, his voice cracking with barely-controlled laughter. I opened my eyes my eyes enough to catch a brief glimpse of his face, before vision vanished again in the folds of a rough facecloth.
He wiped my face thoroughly, ignoring my strangled noises of suffocation, then held the cloth to my nose.
"Blow," he ordered.
I did as he said. To my surprise, it helped quite a lot. I could think better, now that my head was unclogged.
Sano grinned down at me, his hair rumpled and stiff with dried salt. He was wearing a blanket draped about his shoulders.
"How do you feel?"
"Horrible," I rasped truthfully. He handed me a cup full of water, which I stared at stupidly for a few moments before it occurred to me to drink it. It was the most delicious thing I'd ever tasted! There was absolutely no salt in it, and it was cooler and cleaner than the taste of the rain that had kept us alive on the ocean.
"What's happened? Where are we?" I asked when I was finished.
"What happened? Not very much. I just held onto you for a time and eventually I felt sand under my feet. I carried you out of the water, and kind of lay there on the sand until someone found us." He rubbed at one eye with his hand, and even though his grin was broad, I noticed his hand trembled with fatigue.
"I sent a message to Jo-chan. She and the brat will probably be galloping here in all haste, ready to cry over us or beat us over the head with their toy sticks. Or both."
"Where is 'here'?"
"Yep. We ended up exactly where we were supposed to, except without the cargo…or the crew…or the ship…"
I groaned at thisand leaned back onto the futon, thinking dimly how comfortable it was after lying on the splintered wood of the lifeboat.
Sano was seated beside me, his back against the wall. He looked up and smiled a greeting at someone. Looking too I saw an elderly woman standing at the door.
Though on in years, she was still a handsome lady. She must have been very beautiful when she was young. She was carrying a tray with steaming bowls of food toward us.
"I heard your voices and guessed the young man was awake," she said kindly, setting the food down before us.
My mouth watered almost more than I could control it, and I struggled to remember my manners. "Thank you very much for your kindness," I said.
She waved a hand. "Oh, think nothing of it. You can both stay until you can recover. My husband Daisuke and I can get a bit lonely sometimes, and your company is welcome. Your friends Sanosuke-san said will be coming are welcome too. There's plenty of room."
"Thanks, Aijo-san," Sano said, muffled, and I saw as I glanced at him he was stuffing food down his gullet as fast as he could pick it up the chopsticks.
But Aijo-dono only laughed and offered me a bowl of miso soup. "I hope you have the appetite he does. I don't have the chance to show off my cooking very often to guests."
"Hey, Lady, you can adopt me!" Sano exclaimed, his mouth filled with rice balls. "I want to eat like this forever!"
"Sano!" I exclaimed again.
Aijo-dono laughed again. "I'm going to enjoy having you boys around."
There was a scraping noise and a muffled curse outside the room. She stood up quickly. "That must be Daisuke, with the firewood. He always tries to carry it all in at once--you boys eat up and I'll be back later--Daisuke, you old fool, wait a minute!" She vanished outside, sliding the shoji closed behind her.
"She's a very sweet lady," Sano observed, eating more slowly now. "I wish Jou-chan was more like her."
"This one likes Kaoru-dono just as she is," I said, sipping my soup.
"You won't like it much when she gets here. I'm still going to tell her you wouldn't have any water for yourself."
I grinned at him. "You're going to get it just as bad for not noticing."
"And I'll deserve it for not noticing." He leaned forward, eyes boring into mind. "Don't you ever do that again. Do you hear me? Maybe next time you're lost at sea, or trapped in a cave-in, or marooned on an island with Yahiko or Kaoru, you can sacrifice yourself to keep them alive, but not me. Never with me."
I might have tried to explain my actions, tried to tell him that if I hadn't let him have all the water, neither of us might have had the strength to dip out seawater when the boat was leaking, or break it apart when we needed something to float on, or hold both of us above the water when the waves rose to drown us, but he was looking at me with those eyes again.
For just a moment, I caught a glimpse of the boy he had been, the nine-year-old who had looked up to the captain of the Sekiho army. He was looking at me with the same eyes that had looked on his captain as Sagara Sozo lifted him up and slung him over the cliff into the river, then turned away to face the hail of bullets that ended his life.
…and I understood…
Don't save my life. Don't abandon me out of harm's way. Though it means my death, let me stay by your side and face it with you. Don't set me adrift again as the ghost you left behind, with every breath I take as one that you will not…
Once again I felt placed in the uncustomary seat of "big brother" and my "little brother" was asking for my protection against the only thing he had ever wanted to be protected from: my own sacrifice.
I had made many strong promises in my life, each one kept, even when it had nearly cost me everything, my life, even my very sanity, my sense of self. I could not tell him that I would never give my life to save his, because it was a promise I would never be able to keep. But still…
I smiled at him, closing my eyes and reopening them to reset the deadlock that had held our eyes together. "Sano, you and I, we can always face death together, anytime you like. I promise."
He looked at me a moment longer, then smiled back slowly…and he understood.
Author's note (updated):
There are a few scenes from this story, that were adapted from Diana Gabaldon's Voyager, although I didn't know it at the time of this fanfic's writing since the idea was suggested to me by my cousin as a bit of humor without her telling me, thinking I'd never notice. It bothers me--a lot--but I've been asked not to take the story down for it, so I won't unless it really bothers someone else, and then I may consider it again. In the meantime, I'll credit it to D. Gabaldon and add to the disclaimer that I don't own the novel Voyager any more than I own Rurouni Kenshin.