Twelve hours in Borneo. Just enough time to off load goods purchased in previous ports and trade them for new cargo here. It was a busy port. A Dutch port with a great spattering of blonde heads and pale skin mixed in with the darker skinned natives. But even the natives seemed foreign, this far away from home, the tilt of the eyes and the structure of the faces Indian in descent.
In a show of generosity, Saitou bought lunch at a dockside tavern and Sano was cheerful enough about the free food to forget his grudge. They had beer and spicy native fare that Kenshin couldn't quite develop a taste for. Sano had no problems with it and finished his portion and hinted around for seconds. Saitou ignored him. Saitou told them of his contact on the English held island of their destination and what to expect once they got there, from the English authority. Which would more than likely be a great deal of scorn for the charges against one of their own and an unwillingness to allow them the freedom to hunt Winter down on their own.
"I thought," Kenshin said carefully. "That your contacts were aware of this man's activities and were in favor of stopping them."
"To a degree, yes." Saitou had an unlit cigarette between his fingers. "But it is no more simple to arrest an English nobleman without proper proof, than it would be to arrest a Japanese one. More difficult, in fact, since the crimes in question were committed for the most part in Japan and the English have a swollen sense of superiority."
"You should get along just fine with them, then." Sano said, not able to help himself.
Saitou lifted a brow at him, but did not lower himself to retort.
"So what are you saying?" Kenshin asked.
A faint, humorless smile tugged at the edges of Saitou's thin lips. "Subtlety is in order. And perhaps a bit of subterfuge - - which means Sanosake ought to stay shipbound - -"
"Fuck you, asshole."
"- - and you and I ought to be very polite to the English authority on the one hand and go about our own affairs on the other."
Kenshin was silent a moment, chin propped on his palm. Saitou was no ordinary policeman. Saitou carried the badge of law, but Kenshin knew very well that a great deal of his work went on within the shadows and was bloody and permanent in nature.
"So you will hunt him down if they will not and take care of the problem yourself?"
Saitou shrugged, expressionless "Would it offend your sense of morals, Himura?"
Kenshin frowned, uneasy and knowing very well that it showed. But it was not so simple a question and one he'd lain awake in turmoil over for many a night. He'd been willing to take Winter's life in the throes of panic and desperation, but could he do so in the calm light of reason? Could he break his vow after so long of keeping it intact? He supposed it would come down to the moment. He supposed it would depend on Kaoru and Kenji and the state of their well-being. If they were - - dead - - he supposed there was very little he wouldn't do to see Winter join them. And anyone else that had had a hand in it.
"Kenshin." Sano had his fingers around Kenshin's arm, just above his wrist, asserting enough pressure to get his attention. Kenshin blinked and stared at him.
"You okay?" Sano asked, concerned.
"You sort of went away there for a moment."
Had he? Saitou was still staring, waiting for an answer. "No. As long as he leads me to Kaoru and Kenji first, there would be no offense taken."
Saitou smiled, but of course it didn't reach his eyes. The smile of a man who killed for justice and felt no remorse for it. But then, Saitou never had. Saitou's purpose had ever been clearer than Kenshin's own.
"C'mon." Sano pulled him up by the same hold on his arm, whether he wanted up or not. "We've got about ten hours to waste. Let's see what Borneo has to offer."
Kenshin followed Sano about yet another port town, and found the smells and the sounds much the same. It all blended together into one colorful conglomeration when the mind drifted elsewhere. Sano was hot to play a few of the local games of chance and Kenshin hadn't the focus to argue with him, more interested in estimating the value of his convictions when placed against the welfare of that which he loved. If they were dead - - and a reasonable man, in the reasonable light of day had to admit that possibility - - then it wouldn't matter anyway. What would life be worth with that integral part of his heart torn away? He might as well wreck vengeance in the most fatal way possible. Would Kaoru frown in disapproval over that morbid thought? Maybe not, if Kenji had been harmed. He thought she would take a life without hesitation if it was in protection of her son.
His introspection lasted the afternoon, until finally he came back to the happenings around him sitting out on the edge of a empty dock, away from the noise of the crowded port with the empty seaweed wrappings of some rice and beef concoction that Sano had bought from a vendor and come here to consume.
Sano was musing about the allure of the Indian mainland and how much he liked the look of Indian women and how the food wasn't so bad that he couldn't get used to it.
"Why?" Kenshin asked, feeling rather like he'd missed a great deal of Sano's conversation - - which he had in all truth, for most of the morning.
Sano shrugged. "Wouldn't be a bad trip, you know. Ceylon, where we're headed, is right there. Wouldn't be much to get a boat ride to the tip of India and from there I could bum around - - whatever - - and eventually work my way back east. I've heard Calcutta is the place if you like a town with a little punch to her."
"You're thinking about traveling through India?" The concept was starting to sink in and with it a growing sense of hollowness in the pit of his stomach. It was hard, thinking about losing Sano on the heels of thoughts of losing Kaoru and Kenji.
"Well - - yeah. I don't think going back to Tokyo with you and the family anytime soon is really the best thing to do - - unless you wanted to rent me Yahiko's old room and we shacked up together. You think Kaoru would mind much if we screwed around once in a while or would she - -"
"Sano! That's not funny." Kenshin frowned at him and Sano smiled and shrugged.
"Yeah, I thought as much. So I was thinking about other alternatives." The smile didn't really reach Sano's eyes. It was a little sad, a little wistful. Sano hadn't looked so regretful the last time he'd left Japan's shores for wider horizons.
"I was - - distraught - - for a very long time, when you left the first time. I knew why you thought you had to - - but I still grieved. The worst part, I think, was not knowing whether you would ever come back - - if you were dead on some other shore and I'd never know. I don't like that sort of ignorance."
"So what do you want, Kenshin? What solution do you have to this problem? IS there one? I've been thinking and thinking and I can't come up with shit. I know what you want. You want all of us in one place where you can keep an eye on us - - just like things used to be."
"That wouldn't be that bad." Kenshin said softly.
Sano leaned over, face very close to his, breath tickling his skin. "You think? You think she wouldn't figure it out eventually? She's not the brightest rock in the pile when it comes to certain things, but she's not stupid and we're not saints, neither one of us - - despite how hard you try - - she'd figure it out. Or at least enough of it to make your life miserable."
Kenshin sat there, arm curled around one updrawn knee, thinking that Sano had a point there. Thinking that no matter how hard he tried he caught himself looking at Sano sometimes in a way that a man ought not be looking at another man, with thoughts running through his head that most definitely ought not be there - - but he'd crossed that bridge already and no use wishing it hadn't happened because wishes were useless things that only muddied the waters instead of helping them run clear and honestly - - honestly he didn't regret Sano. He couldn't regret Sano, because his heart lay as firmly in that direction as it did with Kaoru and Kenji. If he could keep Sano with him - - with them - - he would - - a man could have urges, after all and not act on them. A man could school his face not to betray licentious thoughts lurking behind his eyes. Whether Sano could was another matter, Sano at the heart of things being more honest than Kenshin and by far more direct in what he wanted and what he didn't. And more than likely not apt to hide certain jealousies. When Kenshin gave it some thought, it seemed that even years ago, when they all had been together under less complicated circumstances Sano and Kaoru had been at odds and well - - it just hadn't occurred to him that it might have been over him.
"Sano, will you not make that decision just yet?"
Sano shrugged, gazing out over the water as if he already imagined himself on distant shores. He didn't look particularly happy over it. He looked lonely already. But he'd deny that, of course, if one pointed it out.
Kenshin slid his fingers around the back of Sano's neck, pulling him close enough to touch foreheads. "Just think on it."
"I am thinking on it."
Kenshin kissed him. Lightly on the side of the mouth and again, grazing Sano's closed lips.
"Bribery?" Sano asked and a man could have taken offense, if a man didn't know how confused and hurt Sano probably was. A man had to, feeling much the same himself.
"No." It was likely the last chance before Ceylon when there would be no time for anything but outmaneuvering the British and racing to find Kaoru and Kenji.
Sano's arm snaked around his back, fingers twining in his hair and pulling his head back. Sano peered down at him warily. "You sure?"
Kenshin blinked, not certain if he meant the accusation of bribery or the attempted kiss. A hint of a smile touched his lips.
"I said so, didn't I?" it was the answer Sano would have given.
Sano nodded of a sudden and released him, climbing to his feet and offering his hand to Kenshin, who stared up at him uncertainly.
"Well, c'mon then. We've only got a few hours till the boat sails."
Kenshin was willing and the willingness didn't seem forced or calculated, so Sano damned sure intended to take advantage while the mood lingered. He had a handful of coins and a few pieces of local paper that he'd won in the games of chance he'd drifted through this morning. He let the inn keep of the first cheap lodging he passed name his price for a room for the afternoon. He didn't frankly give a shit what the man must have thought he needed the room for, what with Kenshin in tow and no baggage between them.
Sano was better prepared this time. He wasn't drunk and Kenshin wasn't, and being coherent he had every intention of doing this right and proper, instead of rutting like animals in heat. Of course, good intentions went awry when he got his hands on Kenshin's skin and Kenshin's hands found him and circled him, tentatively almost and curiously, as if he didn't quite recall the first time they'd done this. He probably didn't. Sano didn't remember much of it, save the recollection of sensation and satisfaction.
He sprang to life, hot and hard and desperate under Kenshin's fingers and his body demanded closer contact, overriding all the plans of his head. He lunged forward, grasping the back of Kenshin's neck and kissing him open mouthed, bearing him backwards onto the lumpy, prickly feather stuffed mattress.
"Sano - - Sano - - calm." Kenshin breathed against his ear, stroking his back and his sides, trying to shift so that Sano's weight didn't press down uncomfortably.
Sano couldn't comprehend calm at the moment, too overcome by his body's need and honestly not so old a hand at the game as some of his bragging suggested, to control the urges. Whores for the most part, didn't care how talented a man was or how long he lasted, as long as they had coin in their pockets.
Kenshin was better at it. Kenshin's fingers wound through his hair and Kenshin's lips and tongue traveled over the skin he could reach. Kenshin urged him to roll off and he did, reluctantly, then shivered when Kenshin slid close to his body and pressed his lips to the hollow of Sano's throat.
Okay. That was nice. Kenshin moved down his chest and Sano bit his lips, ashamed that all he'd wanted to do was rut without finesse, his sex so hard between his legs that it hurt - - it damned well ached with need - - while Kenshin had the presence of mind to do what Sano had intended all along, which was to make it something more than simple fucking.
"Sorry - - sorry - - " he gasped out an apology, to which Kenshin didn't respond, Kenshin's hands running down his ribs and the muscles of his stomach and lower - - god lower - - then back up again, as if Kenshin were working out the terrain of his body by feel alone.
God knew, he knew the feel of Kenshin's, as much from imagination as from those few precious gropes he'd been able to steal. Small boned and lithe, tight, hard muscle, soft skin, soft hair, soft lips, hard length of flesh between his legs. Sano caught that between the fingers of one hand and heard a satisfying gasp. A little foreplay was fine - - yes, fine indeed, but if Kenshin tried to draw it out too long, Sano just might die from the stress.
He grasped Kenshin's rear with his free hand and pulled him back up where he could get to his mouth and murmured his concern. "Are you trying to kill me, Kenshin . . .?"
"Are you that delicate?" Kenshin smiled at him, but his eyes were a little dilated and his skin had a fine sheen of sweat and his lashes fluttered a little at what Sano was doing with his hands, his own hands going a little lax when Sano pulled him close, groin to groin, and lifted his leg up over Sano's hip. His nails bit into Sano's flesh when Sano let his fingers drift behind Kenshin's sex.
"Okay." Kenshin gasped, after the tremor had passed. "Okay . . ."
Sano, being at heart, an optimist, had acquired from a dockside shop in the last port they'd visited, an ointment for just such occasions. He'd almost forgotten it, but Kenshin's attempt at prolonging the moment had helped Sano reassert a little coherency back into his thoughts. He groped after his jacket and the fumbled in the pocket, tossing out various collected junk until he found the small, ceramic jar.
"Better than lamp oil." Sano made an attempt at a grin, but couldn't quite manage it, the situation by far to serious for levity.
Kenshin blinked at him, having had a moment to catch his breath and his wits while Sano searched his pockets. "Less glass on the floor, as well."
Sano gave him a look, wondering if he were being chided for that clumsiness. He only vaguely recalled knocking the damn lamp over in his efforts that night.
"I was drunk." He defended himself.
Kenshin lifted a brow and urged him back down. It was a matter then of finding the best way about it when one wasn't driven by blind, desperate instinct or drunken haphazardness. Not so easy as with a woman. Not so comfortable or naturally welcoming, but Sano had never in his life balked at challenge and he doubted Kenshin ever had. So they managed, and more than managed, with Kenshin's rear pressed up tight against Sano's loins and Kenshin's pale back slanting down towards the mattress, forehead pressed into the cloth, fingers clutching at the sheets. There was the new scar from the bullet wound on his shoulder, crisscrossed by strands of hair, and fainter, much older scars here and there along his back. Sano bent over, pulling Kenshin closer, hands encasing Kenshin's sex, while he pressed his face into the loose hair at Kenshin's neck and listened to the sound of Kenshin's labored breath mingling with the sounds issuing from his own throat.
And afterwards lay recovering both their breaths on sweat dampened sheets, staring at a ceiling rife with cobwebs and warped timbers. Sano was at a loss for words. He never had been much for talk after his bouts of sex in the past. Hard to know what to say to a woman after the fact. He usually ended up making a fool of himself - - though not - - adamantly not, he assured himself - - during the act itself.
"Sooooo - - how long between here and Ceylon?" One had to make an effort at nonchalance. It was imperative to pretend the world had not just shaken on its axis under him. There was silence for an answer and Sano grimaced and thought himself an idiot and chanced a glance out of the corner of his eye in Kenshin's direction.
Kenshin was thinking, Sano could see that clearly enough. Kenshin had his eyes mostly shut, staring up at the same ceiling that Sano had, but more than likely not seeing it. A body cringed to imagine what thoughts were running through his head. A body began to feel a little self-conscious and question the quality of its performance.
"C'mon, it wasn't that bad." He tried to get the sound of humor into it, but it came out sounding whiny. Foolfoolfool!!
"What?" Kenshin looked his way, a little cognizance seeping into his eyes, a little attention spared for Sano from whatever musings had him in their grip.
"Nothing." Sano grumbled. It wasn't as if he'd expected to be gushed over afterwards for his prowess. It wasn't as if he'd wanted Kenshin all close and cuddly like a woman, for god's sake.
"Ummm." And Kenshin did roll closer and rest his cheek against Sano's shoulder. Some consolation there, but he didn't speak and he didn't let any clues slip as to what he was thinking, which irked Sano to no ends, when he needed just a little bit - - a tiny little scrap of confirmation. Instead he got silence and a comfortable presence at his side and himself starting to make wild guesses at what was going on inside Kenshin's head. He was probably thinking about Kaoru and badly stretched loyalties and promises and bemoaning his own lack of conviction. That was Kenshin all over. Never good enough for his own sense of righteousness. Always shouldering the blame and taking the bulk of the punishment. It pissed Sano off. It had always pissed Sano off.
"What?" he finally snapped, loud enough and irritated enough that it broke through Kenshin's musing.
Kenshin tilted his head and blinked up at him questioningly. "What, what?"
"What the hell are you thinking about?"
"I don't think." Kenshin said slowly, in all seriousness. "That India is a good idea right this moment. There's a great deal of unrest with the English and all. It's not a safe time to tour, I really don't think it is."
Sano blinked back, irritation knocked out of him. Kenshin hadn't been worrying about Kaoru at all, but about him. He didn't know whether to be gratified or offended that Kenshin didn't think he was capable of taking care for himself.
He rolled over of a sudden, looming over Kenshin with his elbows planted in the mattress to either side of Kenshin's head. "So you're saying, you don't think I can handle a little violence between the clumsy English and the Indians?"
"The English have guns. A great many guns." Kenshin countered, "And you're not always very wise about who you anger and who - - -" Kenshin paused, drawing breath, pulling a corner of his bottom lip between his teeth when Sano pressed down with his lower body. " - - and who you don't."
"Sooooo, I'm not wise?"
"Of course you are. Occasionally. Once in a while. You have rare moments of brilliance."
"Asshole." Sano felt better. "How long before the ship sails?"
Kenshin settled a little more comfortably beneath him, opening his legs so that Sano lay between his thighs, snaking his hands up along Sano's ribs to his shoulders. "A little. No reason to leave just yet . . ."
Sano was smug and not so subtly satisfied with the afternoon's endeavors. He was most thoroughly satisfied with himself, despite a few moments uncertainty, quickly quashed under the ego of a young man who had always been painfully confident of his own abilities. That was okay. It made Sano happy and Sano being happy, made Kenshin happy - - and Sano was not so near-sighted in his exuberance that he let slip the reasons once they were back amongst the familiar faces of the sailors they'd spent a good deal of the last month in the company of. Though one doubted that the mood would escape Saitou, who had a preternatural perception when it came to reading people. One could only wait and see how much heed he paid Sano and hope - - very dearly hope - - that as usual Saitou found better things to occupy his attention.
One might also have hoped, not more than a few days past that such a coupling as he and Sano had had, might have cured the both of them - - of similar notions on board the ship where discovery was not only likely, but inevitable in such closed quarters. Kenshin's intentions were so very good. So very reasonable when he'd walked back onto this ship, but a day out, when Sano sidled up to him in a narrow deserted passage, caution died on his breath, sucked out by Sano's closeness and Sano's scent and Sano's body under his hands. They broke apart, gasping a little as a door opened down the way and one of the foreign passengers walked out, heading for the deck, never bothering to cast a look towards the darkened end of the passage. It made Kenshin's heart thump a little faster though, the near call, and he gave Sano a stern look and straightened his gi, before padding down the hall towards the deck himself.
Sano trailed him, grinning lazily, hands in his pockets, hair a little more disheveled than usual from Kenshin's fingers in it.
"You know," he said, leaning on the rail next to Kenshin and staring out over the relatively calm waters. "They picked up a load of cotton from Borneo. It's down in the back of the hold. Nobody likely to walk up on a body down there. Nice and quiet and softer than all the barrels of rice wine that was there before."
"How do you know that?" Kenshin pulled a strand of hair pulled loose from the tail at his neck, from his mouth.
"I get around. Saitou's not the only one with contacts, you know."
"Unh." Kenshin lifted a brow and leaned down on his elbows, watching the sliver of silver fish that raced alongside the boat. "So - - do you speak any English?"
"Any English?" Kenshin canted a sideways look up at Sano's sun-backed silhouette.
"Yeah. Like, are you gonna be able to understand anything when we get to Ceylon? Most of them know English - - at least where we're going."
"Who told you that?"
Sano shrugged, looking disgruntled. "Saitou."
"You had a civil conversation with Saitou?"
"I am capable, you know. Of dealing with assholes and not going off."
Kenshin looked back down at the fish to hide a smile. "You've depths and depths, Sano. You hardly ever surprise me anymore."
"Humph." Sano frowned, not sure how to take that. "I've picked up a few words from him. He offer to teach you any?"
Kenshin frowned himself, thoughtfully. Saitou hadn't. Strange that he'd offered Sano. Perhaps he thought Kenshin might have turned him down - - or perhaps he'd just as well Kenshin not speak the language. It would make him dependent upon Saitou to a certain degree and give Saitou that much more control of the situation and of him. He vaguely recalled some of the lessons that Winter had held with Kaoru and Kenji - - but only the few words that Kenji had proudly repeated to him stuck in his memory.
"C'mon." Sano broke Kenshin's brooding silence. "Let's go out in the sun and work on your grip."
The weather was good. The wind was on their side the whole way from Borneo. The captain proclaimed that they would make port at Ceylon ahead of schedule. Sano's nerves began to string tight. Kenshin's began to settle, that dread calm seeping into his expression that foretold that there would be very little in the way of levity or relief the last day at sea. Not that Sano expected it - - though he would not be adverse to the latter if Kenshin chose to grant it. The bales of cotton in the hold had proved a private enough retreat.
When the shoreline of Ceylon came into view on the gray horizon of the ocean, he and Kenshin and Saitou, along with a few other passengers stood at the rail along the prow and watched its advance. Soon enough they'd be on its shores and the hunt for Kenshin's lost family and the scoundrel that had taken them could begin in real.