Sano had changed.
Kenshin had seen the changes before Sano had woken up, when they'd had him undressed and uncovered, cleaning out his wounds and wrapping them. His hair had indeed grown longer, and there was the roughness of stubble about his chin, where before he had gone smooth. The same familiar red bandana, worn and shredded. He had always been very tall and lanky, but muscle had grown onto his long limbs, filling out his body. The last hints of boyishness had been carved from his features by time and care. His body had new scars. Thin and white against the tan of his skin. Old burn scars on his left bicep and chest, flattish, upraised and shiny. The last two fingers of his right hand were curled and wouldn't lie completely flat when Kenshin had taken his hand to wash the grime away, a sure sign that he had injured the hand once or twice more when he'd been on the continent and wherever else he might have traveled.
He spoke in his sleep a little, face scrunching as he reached out beside him, searching. Once, Kenshin caught his hand and held it, listened as Sano murmured, "Emirii…" and relaxed into peaceful sleep again.
And Kenshin had a sense that something terrible had happened. Maybe it was when he'd heard Yahiko shouting and had ran out into the rain to help carry Sano into the house. Maybe it was the jolt of touching his friend's ice cold skin, a brief scare that had him fumbling for a pulse. Maybe it was the way Sano had drawn comfort from the clasp of his hand, the name he said that had brought him rest.
Or maybe it was, far more simply, this being the first sign or word from their friend in several years, unless one counted a battered and yellowed letter than reached them two years before. In a moment of thoughtfulness, the former fight merchant at least wanted everyone to know that he was alive, assured them of his well-being. Then not another word. Kenshin didn't worry. His missed Sano, hoped for his happiness, but he didn't worry. One just simply didn't have to worry about Sano.
But there were exceptions to every rule.
Kenji was insatiably curious about Sano. Kenshin and Kaoru, and once in a while, Yahiko, had made an effort that Sano wouldn't be entirely a stranger to the youngster when he returned. And Sano would return. He had promised, after all, and few things were as important to Sanosuke as his friends.
So stories of their former fight merchant were told to Kenji almost before he was really old enough to understand them, until Sano was instilled into the household as easily as an absent but very beloved brother and uncle. It figured that the last time Kenshin went to check on Sano and found him awake it would be with Kenji leaning over into his face like a cat.
"I've done something," Sano had said, and had opened his eyes to look into Kenshin's, a plea for understanding in them.
I've done something.
And Kenshin worried. But not so much about what Sano might have done, but rather the beginnings of fear deep within his friend.
"Sano, don't you know there's nothing you can confess that would cast you away from us?"
Both Sanosuke and Kenshin looked at Kaoru, who was smiling warmly down on Sano, two fingers tapping the place over her heart for emphasis.
A moment of silence stretched with Sano looking at ceiling again.
"They killed my…they killed Emirii," he said.
That name again, the one whispered in his sleep. "Who was Emirii, Sano?"
"My…I was going to marry her." Sano still stared at the ceiling. "I though…we thought there was maybe a kid on the way, but even if there wasn't, I was going to marry her."
He sagged a little into his pillow, as if those brief sentences had tired him out past even his own amazing endurance. The only sound for a while was the heavy breathing of Kenji, asleep in his father's arms.
"Met Emi on the mainland," he continued. "Pretty thing. Half Chinese. She'd been struck by lightning when she was a child, had a white streak in her hair. Beautiful eyes, big, pale golden-brown. Sweet smile. Had a weird family, but nice people. Peaceful people. Tolerated me."
There was another long moment of silence.
"Ever hear that metaphor about a black sheep?" Sano asked quietly. "One different in a flock of many? That was her brother. They were twins. She was older by fifteen minutes, they said. Emi loved him, but she was the only one who did. Couldn't really stand him myself. Had a smart mouth on him, no respect for anyone, not even himself… I tried to ignore him a lot because I knew we'd just get into fights otherwise, and I didn't want to upset Emi…you know…"
There was another long pause, and again, neither Kenshin nor Kaoru moved or shifted.
"You know…" he said again, his voice hollow and somehow personal, as though he'd forgotten that there was someone besides himself in the room to hear, "I told her once everyone used to call me 'roosterhead' back at home. Thought it might make her laugh. But she didn't think it was funny. Instead, she said she thought I reminded her more of a hawk." He smiled sadly. "Silly girl, but…took me a long time to realize she wasn't teasing.
"Then her stupid brother, Masanori…he's a troublemaker, yeah? Or he used to be, but I guess he got tired of not being taken seriously. Joined up with a band of mountain bandits fighting rival gangs, like that was going to make something of him. He pissed off one too many people and his family--and Emirii--paid the price."
Sanosuke's hands curled into fists. "Happened while I was away. Came back to find their graves all lined next to each other, and when I found out what had happened I--" His eyes widened as he looked to Kenshin. "I…stopped thinking."
Strong words. Weak voice. But Kenshin understood. Blinded by grief and rage, Sano had gone after the ones who had done it. It was as simple--and as devastating--as that.
"Did you kill Masanori?" Kaoru asked quietly.
Sanosuke shook his head. "No. I didn't learn the punk was the cause until…afterward. He…looked too much like Emi anyway. I don't think I could hit him even if he was here right now. Not in the face, anyway."
"So the men who were after you are from one of these rival gangs?" Kenshin asked.
"I guess. I was all the way back in Japan before I even knew anyone was after me. If I'd known, I wouldn't have come back here and brought trouble to you guys."
Kaoru smacked him lightly upside the head. "Idiot. You're our friend, Sano. You're part of our family. You should know by now you can always come to us when you need help!"
Kenshin nodded his agreement, catching Sano's eye. He said, "These aren't just ordinary mountain bandits…or street gangs…are they?"
"No. I don't know all that much about it, other than it's wild and it's organized. Both at the same time. Got this guy who was raised by mountain bandits looking after the whole thing named Dodonpa. He's wild, too, but smart. Anybody who followed him got wealthy, so he's got some serious loyalty on his side."
"Did you kill him?"
"No. His son. Dodonpa's aim is to collect a complete debt of life from me for taking his only family. Since my intended and her family were gone, he sent goons after that idiot Masanori, and killed some gambling pals I had out on the town, anyone they thought I might care about in the slightest. I decided to get the hell out before anyone else got hurt because of me, and started making my way back to Japan, figuring he wouldn't be so willing to leave his home turf himself and just send some goons I could take out pretty easily. I was wrong. The guys he sent after me are pretty good.
"But, see, this is why I can't stay, Jou-chan. I have to get out of here, before you get caught up in all of this."
"No, Sanosuke," Kaoru said.
"You heard what I said."
"Listen, Jou-chan, I made a huge mistake! I let my grief do the thinking for me and bit off a hell of a lot more than I could chew." He rapidly looked from Kenshin's face to Kaoru's and back again. "I don't know what you might have been up to these last few years, but I had no right to come bumbling around here and destroying your peace. It's my sin…and I'll pay for it alone."
"And just when did you ever let me go it alone?" Kenshin asked, and leaned forward slightly to look Sano squarely in the eye.
Sano rolled his eyes back to the ceiling. "Why are you two so stubborn?"
"Why are you?" Kaoru muttered, glancing at the clock by the wall. "Where's Yahiko? I told him to be back before midnight."
Sano swore vividly, and Kenshin put a hand on his shoulder to warn him against trying to sit up again. "Sano, you'll do us no good if you tear open those wounds again."
"The kid might be in trouble. I've seen the way these guys move. I don't know what kind of training they have, but it's like they always know what each other is thinking. It's just…eerie. I can't explain it."
Yahiko dodged the two simultaneous thrusts again, cursing Kenshin lightly for not passing on his abilities to predict moves, even if Yahiko had been developing his senses on his own, more or less.
But this was just…uncanny. Of the four of them, they had paired off and moved in absolute sync. This, he'd thought at first, might have made them easier to predict, but it was just the opposite. They had ever-moving, swaying stances that were distracting and hypnotic. Their attacks were revoltingly disjointed, and he thought it might be possible to become seasick from watching them.
And still, for all the possibility of choreography, he still could never seem to guess what they were about to do until they had almost done it.
The rain and ice and water were a hindrance as well, a steady flood rising in the lower parts of the streets. Yahiko was beginning to realize that he might need help as he backed further away, since he could do little except defend himself. He parried blows as they licked out, but was unable to manage more than that, unable to switch to offensive. What sort of fighting style was this?
Another twenty minutes passed, and he backed up slowly to avoid their coordination. It occurred to him that he was being herded, and he began to look for a way to break out of the little routine they had settled into. He watched their movements, looking for patterns and found none.
In another situation, Yahiko might have been enjoying the challenge. But he had been out in the cold too long, and his nerves were tight as bowstrings. He didn't like the sense of the men that advanced on him, either. They were calm, but not especially assured. They almost seemed sad in their "duty", light expressions of regret in the flashes of eyes and the parting of their mouths as they moved in and out around him.
Kenshin had laid his son down in his bed, and had quickly dressed in only a few minutes. Sano had been distraught, absolutely adamant about the dangers Yahiko could be facing.
For Sano, it had been an oddity to see Kenshin without a sword at his side, and he'd asked after it, then nearly lost control of his mouth when Kenshin confessed passing it on to Yahiko not all that long ago.
"What are you going to fight with, then?" Sano demanded, and had to be wrestled back into bed again, with Kaoru threatening to sit on his chest if he so much as looked like he was thinking of getting back up.
They were still arguing when Kenshin slipped away to put Kenji down, still arguing when he slipped out into the rain. The brief stop at the dojo almost didn't happen, like as not he could need a weapon. He couldn't use any of the decorative katana, so he chose one of the smooth lengths of the wooden swords that Kaoru usually favored. It was heavier and more familiar in his hand that the weight or feel of the shinai, but still felt strange where he slipped it into his belt. It was too light, and without the heavy security of a sheath. Completely useless for battoujutsu, but wiser to take it along than to go out with nothing.
He was drenched in icy water in an instant, feeling treacherous footing underneath his sandals. Yahiko should have come back a long time ago.
He had only taken a step from his porch when he sensed him. A lone man, just arrived, with a decent sword aura. Decent. Not especially bad, nor especially good. Not challenging or malevolent, either. Only waiting.
Kenshin rested his hand on the unfamiliar wooden sword, his teeth putting a little pressure on each other. So, they knew that Sanosuke was here. Chances were good that they knew about Kaoru and Kenji. But then, he had been fairly assured of that since Sano told him about the debt of life sought on him. Yet to have a single one here, spying…
Kaoru had more than decent skills, and at face value, could dispatch this one swordsman by herself without trouble.
But…Himura Kenshin knew better than to take things at face value. Damn it. Yahiko might have to wait. He took a few steps from the porch, then jumped straight into the air, landing neatly on the roof.
There was a young man there. He looked quietly surprised to have been discovered, but it was shown in no more than a couple of blinks of his eyes. He was dressed in black, had long hair that was very prematurely streaked with white, and had a good old-fashioned daisho at his side, looking strange thrust into a belt of skin-tight clothing instead of any sort of formal samurai wear.
"Who are you and what are you doing?" Kenshin asked shortly.
The young man blinked again, then smiled slowly, a puckering of dimples on his youthful face. "Chang Masanori," he introduced himself. "I was seeking the man who might have been my brother-in-law. Are you a friend of Sagara Sanosuke?"
Kenshin allowed several seconds to pass, staring at the young man through the rain and the waft of mists where the frigid air met the heat of the house fires. He had the same long and light golden-brown eyes and the sweet smile Sano had used to describe his intended. He had a Chinese roundness to his face, an accent from the continent, but Japanese eyes and style to his hair and stance. He looked, perhaps, as evenly cross-bred as his name suggested.
"It had been this one's understanding that you had been killed by one called Dodonpa."
"More or less," Masanori said evenly, his smile fading. "He believes he killed me, and that's why I'm still alive. Sanosuke's inside, right?"
"Sanosuke wouldn't be especially happy to see you," Kenshin predicted.
The young man huffed juvenilely. "He wouldn't hit me, not as long as I have my sister's face." He thrust up both thumbs and smiled widely. "That's how he always is."
"This one feels he knows Sano far better than you, if you believe that," Kenshin said softly. Sano had, in fact, said he didn't think he could hit Masanori because he looked so much like his twin sister Emirii--but Sano was good at "getting over" such impediments. He would see Emirii and Emirii and Masanori as Masanori, and that would be that.
"I appreciate your concern--"
"It's not concern for you. It's concern for him. Sano would have a difficult time forgiving himself if he harmed Emirii-dono's brother when she had cared for him so."
Masanori's face twisted in anger. "Shut up! What do you know about my sister?"
"This one knows it is the fault of her brother than she and her family are dead."
The young man's anger rose ardently on his pale face, and he bent slightly, as if he might spring to attack. Then, with obvious effort, he forced himself to calm down.
"I never meant," he said tightly, "for anyone to get hurt. I always thought I was the only one who would be in danger if I screwed up or angered the wrong people. I never meant for any of this to happen, especially not to Emi. Sanosuke is…he's the last chance I have to redeem myself in my sister's eyes." Masanori spread his hands wide in appeal. "I don't care what everyone else thinks of me. They can hate me, they can try to kill me. I wouldn't care if they succeeded. But not Emi. I don't want her to hate me. If I find a way to protect Sanosuke, then, even if she doesn't love me anymore…" He swallowed hard. "Then at least she won't hate me for what I've done to her.
"So, please. I just want to help Sanosuke. For Emirii."
They got first blood.
A blade from behind, right through his bicep. The arm wasn't completely useless, with a force of will, but it hurt like hell, bled vigorously. Yahiko was getting tired. They were wearing him down.
It was irritating by far, but they just fought so damn weirdly! If they'd knock off the nonsense and fought him honorably, he'd have a chance.
Yahiko changed his tactics many times, trying to shift the balance his way, but the only time he had been able to create any sort of offense at all was when he started employing a little flight. With high jumps, he'd started bouncing erratically on roofs, even brought the four down to three with a Ryusuisen that he had to admit was more luck as badly as he was aiming by then.
Leaving the injured one behind, the three began to move in unison, circling him. He was out of energy, and they knew it.
But they also seemed to believe him dangerous, and kept their distance. In fact, he was surprised by the way they had backed up before he caught another shadow out of the corner of his eye.
Whipping wet hair out of his eyes, Yahiko backed up sideways, trying to keep all his opponents in his sight.
The new man was one he hadn't seen before. Dressed similarly to the others, he was bigger and broader. Yahiko had not seen him when Sanosuke had been attacked.
The newcomer's skin was much darker than his fellows, and his voice deep and rumbling as he said, "You little cowards. Could you not simply take him?"
"No, sir," came a soft, sullen reply. "He is crafty."
Yahiko bit the inside of his lip to avoid smirking. Crafty, was he?
"Fine. Leave him to me."
A sword was drawn, glinting dully, and without any further word or warning, he attacked.
Reflexes Yahiko had worked hard to develop saved him, legs and feet springing back, carrying him out of harm's way.
The big man kept coming, swinging the blade from side to side. It made an almost ringing sound as it passed through the air, followed by a soft thukk as it bit into the support of a porch, slowly on slightly.
Yahiko raised the sakabato.
The man moved his blade into an attack position.
His hand twitched then and Yahiko's blade was almost simultaneously beaten aside. He parried the ensuing thrust and the dark man brushed his riposte aside and was at him again.
This time Yahiko didn't bother to counter. He simply parried and leapt back, baring his teeth in effort.
"You fight well, my boy. Such skill, and yet so much unfulfilled potential. Sagara shall go to hell in shame for your death alone."
Yahiko stood his ground and held it as the man attacked again. He returned blow for blow as fast as he could, seeking openings everywhere. There were none.
"Tell me what Sanosuke has done!" he demanded.
But his opponent seemed to be finished with talking. He pressed forward and Yahiko had to fall back once more. It was like trying to duel a glacier.
The man drove him back steadily, and he dodged among thin cherry trees and supports. Yahiko made the mistake of attacking once when he should have been defending and barely stopped a counterthrust inches from his breast.
Yahiko, with not many options left to him, began to experiment. He left the man a small opening, just for a moment, knowing that he would come right through it and straight toward his heart.
He did, and Yahiko parried it at the last instant, then began to yield once more, backing up, giving ground. Parrying and retreating, he fell back another fifteen feet or so, fighting defensively, conservatively.
Then he gave the man another opening.
He dove in, as he had before, and Yahiko managed to stop him again. The big man pressed the attack even harder after that, driving Yahiko ever back.
Anger flashed through Yahiko as he realized he was being herded again, and he stubbornly stopped and held his ground. Long, rough moments went by under the song of steel, both swordsmen fighting furiously.
Then Yahiko gave the opening one final time.
He knew it would be the same as before, and Yahiko's right leg was across and back behind his left, then straightening, he gave his opponent's blade the barest beat to the side as he sprang backward, immediately extending the full length of his arm, sakabato gleaming even in the weak light.
He did as Yahiko hoped, beating at the blade and advanced normally when Yahiko dropped to one knee and swept his other leg out.
With a grunt of surprise, the swordsman went down. Victory was within his grasp, but then Yahiko made the mistake of taking one more step backwards.
He stepped on something hard and uneven on the ground, there was a loud squeal and a thunderous snap and pain such he had ever known flooded through him, beginning at the thick metal teeth of a steel-spring trap that had sunk deeply into his left leg.
A cry of agony and rage tore from his throat, and acting on instinct and desperation, he dug his fingers into the spaces between bloody flesh and clothing and steel, trying to pry the trap from his tortured limb. All that talk about cowards and not being able to "simply take him", just to guide him into this dishonorable trap? He didn't even see the hilt that came down on his left ear before he crumpled into the icy sludge, mercifully freed, even if only temporarily, from the pain.