Despite the morning sunlight that was cheerfully filling the Kamiya yard, the mistress of the household was angrily sweeping the dojo porch to relieve her tension. Not ONLY had she been forced to cancel classes for the day, but her assistant master was currently STILL in bed, whining like a 2-year-old over his ankle. She had one child to put up with, and a husband who often acted like a child. She didn't NEED a third.
"Kaoru, you're going to hurt the broom if you keep sweeping so hard, that you are."
Kamiya Kaoru stopped for a moment and gripped the broom angrily. "Kenshin, I'm not in a very good mood this morning."
"I can tell." He wrapped his arms from behind her and hugged her, burying his face into her shoulder. "Any particular reason?"
"If that stupid apprentice of mine-"
"Assistant master. Not apprentice." Kenshin corrected. His wife had promoted Yahiko two years earlier after he'd mastered the style.
"He's acting like a child." she huffed.
Kenshin chuckled. "It's not often he gets hurt, Kaoru."
"He shouldn't be getting hurt at all. Not being a master of Kamiya Kasshin. If he didn't lose his temper with the older students, he wouldn't hurt himself. Besides, it's ten o'clock in the morning. The brat should be up already."
"Brat! Brat! Brat!" A sing-song voice interrupted Kaoru's thoughts and anger, and she and Kenshin glanced down beside them. Five-year-old Kenji tilted his head and giggled, his pale violet eyes almost clear in the bright sunlight. "Yahiko's a brat!"
"Very GOOD, Kenji!" Kaoru grinned.
"Kaoru..." Kenshin groaned. He leaned to whisper in her ear. "It's NOT a good idea to teach him stuff like that."
"Hmph." she snorted. "I thought he had it down pretty good."
"Where's Yahiko?" Kenji asked.
Kaoru knelt down beside her son, leaning the broom against her shoulder. "He's still asleep, Kenji. Why don't you wake him up this morning?" She smiled.
Kenji's eyes instantly brightened. Kenshin groaned loudly, trying to catch his wife's attention. His attempt didn't work. Kaoru simply ignored him and continued.
"Kenji, just remember - do NOT jump on his right leg. Understand?"
Kenji nodded vigerously before turning and sprinting down the porch of the doji, proving his father's speed had indeed been heriditary.
"Yahiko's going to be mad." Kenshin shook his head.
"That's the understatement of the year." Kaoru smiled happily as she watched Kenji skid around the corner out of sight. Kenshin closed his eyes and braced himself, counting down.
*Three, two, one...*
Kaoru smiled and turned back around, resuming her sweeping, while now humming. Kenshin visibly cringed at Yahiko's yell.
Suddenly Yahiko appeared a few feet in front of them, hopping on one foot and holding his sword in the air, with Kenji hanging from the end of the sheath by his kimono. The little boy flailed his arms and legs and screamed for his older 'brother' to put him back on the floor, but Yahiko did no such thing. He did stop bouncing and grabbed a post that held the roof up, and continued to glare at Kenshin and Kaoru.
Kenshin forced a sheepish smile. "It was all Kaoru's fault." he mouthed, while pointing at his wife.
Kaoru glanced at her student for a split second before her anger rose back two-fold. "YAHIKO!!! PUT MY SON DOWN THIS INSTANT!!"
"You shouldn't have sent him into my room to wake me up this morning!" he yelled back.
"PUT ME DOWNNNNN!!" Kenji screamed.
Kenshin sighed and reached up, plucking Kenji from his high position. The boy squirmed for a moment, then curled into his father's chest and stuck his tongue out at Yahiko.
"It's about time you woke up." Kaoru snapped. "It's not like you have a life-threatening wound. It's just a sprained ankle muscle."
"Come on, how many days of my life have I been allowed to sleep in?" Yahiko demanded. "And I can't do much until Megumi gets here to re-wrap it!" he glared down at her.
At 18 years of age, Yahiko stood a good foot and a half taller then his sensei, and his muscles had toned and rounded out. His eyes had darkened into a deep brown-black, and his sword skill had improved greatly. He was now the protector of Tokyo in Kenshin's place, and though he loved his 'family' dearly, he did often get aggravated at them. Like this morning for instance, he thought with annoyance.
Not a moment too soon, the dojo gate swung open and Megumi walked in, with Sanosuke directly behind her. She smiled at the family on the porch. "I see everyone's up."
"It's about time, too." Kaoru answered dryly. "Yahiko JUST got out of bed."
Megumi eyed the young swordsman critically, taking note of his wrinkled yukata and messy hair, and the competely infuriated look his eyes betold. "I see..."
"I'm glad you're here." he sat down on the porch and let his sword drop. "My ankle's killing me."
Kaoru rolled her eyes. "Even Kenji's not this big of a child."
Kenji only smiled devilishly towards Yahiko again, making sure his mother didn't see his look. Kenshin, on the other hand, saw the entire thing, and started to walk off. "Come on, Kenji-Chan. You can help me with the laundrey this morning! How does that sound?"
"Laundrey!" Kenji cried gleefully. "Can I wash the sheets?" Kenshin chuckled a 'maybe!', and the two disappeared into the side yard away from the others.
Megumi knelt down beside Yahiko and gently picked his foot up, running her smooth fingers over his rough skin. She felt the bruise there, and noted that her charge hissed at the contact. "You definitely sprained it bad." she sighed. "But, it's not broken. I'll just re-wrap it. Try not to practice or do anything that might hurt it more."
Yahiko nodded and watched as Megumi started pulling clean white cloth strips around his ankle, making sure to wrap it tightly. He felt a hand rest against his shoulder and he looked up, meeting Sanosuke's eyes, which sparkled with amusement at the scene before him.
"I can't believe you got so mad at a student that you hurt yourself. What an idiot."
"Shut up." Yahiko snarled.
"Sanosuke!" Megumi stopped and glared up at her husband angrily. "REALLY! You aren't one to talk! Coming home every week just about, with a busted hand or *something*..." she shook her head and tied off the bandage.
"I'm just teasing the punk." Sano grinned. "It'll do him good to bust his pride up a little."
Yahiko fumed from his position, but knew he couldn't jump up and hit Sanosuke with his sword - for fear of Megumi and Kaoru's wrath. So, he grumbled angrily from where he was and then gently stood up on the ground, testing his weight.
"How does it feel?" Megumi asked.
"It hurts... but thanks for wrapping it again."
"Well, I guess it's pointless to try and make you work today." Kaoru sighed. "Should he stay in bed, Megumi?"
"I don't think you can keep him in bed either." Megumi giggled. "I suppose he can walk around some. And do minor things. But NOTHING that will hurt that ankle anymore! And if you start feeling bad, come down to the clinic and I'll give you some pain medicine."
Yahiko nodded and Megumi turned around. "I've got to be getting back. Dr. Genzei is expecting me this morning." She waved to her friends and pulled Sanosuke out the door, to keep him from harrassing Yahiko anymore. Kaoru watched as they left.
"I'm going to get dressed." Yahiko announced gruffily, still slightly irritated at Kaoru.
"Hmmm. Okay." she replied distantly, her ears more tuned to listening to her husband and son from the side yard playing in the laundrey.
Yahiko only shook his head and headed back towards his room.
After a few minutes, he reappeared, dressed in a white hakama and dark blue gi. The reverse blade sword Kenshin once owned was strapped onto Yahiko's back where he normally wore it. Gingerly stepping off the porch and onto the ground, he glanced back at Kaoru, who had almost finished sweeping.
"I'm going to the Akabeko."
Kaoru looked up and blinked. "The Akabeko?"
"Yea..." He turned away from her and headed for the gate. "I've got to apologize to Tsubame... I didn't walk her home last night."
"I'm sure she understands, Yahiko." Kaoru smiled. "You did send her word, didn't you?"
"Yea, but... it's not the same. I'll be back later." The gate shut again, and Kaoru only shook her head, sighing loudly when she heard a crash from the side yard followed by an 'ORO!!', and decided it would just be normal day - even IF Yahiko had a sprained ankle.
Yahiko walked slowly down the busy, crowded streets of Tokyo, avoiding bumping into other people as best he could. He also tried not to show any outward signs of pain, hoping no one would stop him and feel sorry for him, or worse - laugh at him for being such an idiot to get hurt during sword practice.
He finally reached the Akabeko, which was starting to get busy with early lunch customers. Brushing the curtain aside, he peered in, hoping to see Tsubame somewhere in the center aisle. However, he only saw all the other waitresses, bustling around with trays of food. He frowned. She must be in the back, in that case. He stepped to the side and leaned against the wall, resting his ankle.
"Yahiko!" A girl's voice made him jump slightly, and he groaned when he realized it was only Leiko, another young waitress. He couldn't stand the girl - and she was always trying to talk to him or hang on him.
"If you're looking for Tsubame," she said haughtily, "she hasn't come in yet today."
He snorted. "Yea, right. She was supposed to come in today at 10:00 this morning."
"I know. But she hasn't come in yet." Leiko persisted. "Tae-San just headed for the Kamiya dojo to ask if you had seen her."
"I haven't seen her since two days ago, actually."
"Oooh." Leiko grinned. "Did you two have a fight?"
"No." he said coldly, hoping she could go away. He could feel his ankle throbbing, and a slight headache coming on. He decided to head to Megumi's after seeing Tsubame to get some pain medicine after all.
"Oh." Her voice sounded disappointed. "Well, I'm telling you, she's not here." With that Leiko turned back around and headed towards the back of the Akabeko to wait on her customers. Yahiko eyed her with aggravation as she went, and then turned and stepped back outside to wait.
"What?" Kaoru stared at Tae, surprised. "You mean, Tsubame hasn't come in at all this morning? That's unusual..."
"I know." Tae shook her head. "She's always right on time! I know it can't be her day off... that's tomorrow. I can't imagine why she hasn't shown up yet. She said she would stop by here though, to see how Yahiko was feeling. So I thought I'd come over and ask if you'd seen her, by chance."
"She hasn't been by all morning, and I've been up since 7:30." Kaoru said worriedly. "Yahiko just headed for the Akabeko to visit her and apologize for not walking her home last night."
Tae suddenly gasped. Kaoru's eyes widened. "What's the matter?"
"She walked home last night...by herself!"
"I asked her not to. I was going to walk with her, but she insisted she go by herself!"
"Kaoru...the laundrey's finished... Oh! Tae-San." Kenshin smiled politely at the guest. "I didn't know you were here! What a nice surprise."
"Kenshin, something terrible has happened!" Kaoru cried.
"Tsubame didn't show up for work today." Tae said, her eyes wavering. "And she walked home last night by herself! I'm starting to worry that something may have happened to her!"
"Now, let's not over-react. Maybe she slept in." Kenshin suggested.
"No, she was going to come by here this morning to visit Yahiko, before she came into work." Tae insisted.
"She didn't stop by..." Kenshin shook his head. "Or I didn't see her, at any rate."
"If you didn't see her, and I didn't see her, then I doubt she stopped by." Kaoru replied slowly.
"Where did Yahiko go?" Kenshin asked.
"He headed for the Akabeko a few minutes ago to see Tsubame... but Tae said she hasn't come in yet..." Kaoru's voice was even more worried.
Kenshin put a hand on his wife's shoulder. "Now, Kaoru. Why don't we all head to the Akabeko. I'll bet that by the time we get there, Tsubame will have shown up, and everything will be fine." He gently escorted his wife, Kenji and Tae out of the dojo, locking the gate behind him.
Yahiko slumped down outside of the Akabeko, eyeing the crowds. They appeared to have gotten much busier since he'd stepped back out. His foot was starting to throb, but he was determined to wait until Tsubame showed up.
However, his eyes caught notice of something else familar, aside from his girlfriend. Flame red hair walking towards him. Yahiko scrabbled off the ground and brushed himself off.
"Hey Kenshin." he said dully, watching his older friend stop in front of him. "Did you guys come out for lunch? Because I'm getting hungry..."
"No... Not exactly." Kenshin smiled. "Have you seen Tsubame today?"
"No. One of the girls inside said she hadn't come in yet, so I was waiting for her." Yahiko responded. "But with all the people out today I can't see hardly anything."
"She STILL hasn't come in?" Tae asked.
"No. Is something wrong?" Yahiko frowned at Tae's worried expression.
Tae took a deep breath and glanced at Kaoru, who looked just as worried. Kenshin's smile had faded as well. She then turned to Yahiko, who just looked confused.
"Last night, Tsubame walked home by herself... And she said she was going to visit you this morning, but she never showed up at the Kamiya dojo. And she hasn't come into work either, and she's an hour late. Tsubame's NEVER been that late before; she's always right on time! And I'm just very worried... something had to have happened..." Tae forced herself not to start shaking. Tsubame was a like a little sister to her, and she dreaded the thought of anything happening to the younger girl.
Yahiko found that all the noise around him faded into the distance. People suddenly seemed miles away and yet, at the same time, so close that they almost sufficated him. His headache grew worse on an instance's notice. It was all he could do to remind himself NOT to assume the worst. He managed to stay standing, and after a moment, met his friends' eyes.
"I'll go look for her. I'm sure... everything's... fine." He turned away, hoping to hide the worried look in his eyes - but he knew that Kenshin would see it without seeing his face. Kaoru probably would as well. He slowly started walking away, the deafening thud of his own pulse pounding in his ears. When he knew he was far enough into the crowd and out of his friends' sight, he started walking faster.
*She has to be around somewhere. She doesn't just not go into work, and she doesn't pull practical jokes... maybe she's just not feeling good today...* The same words raced in his mind, but underneath them were hidden thoughts of fear.
His legs took him to Tsubame's home, which he found empty - no matter how hard he beat on the door. Sighing, he turned back around. He had no other choice - he had to search the city of Tokyo. His face hardened with determination, and Yahiko instantly started out to find Tsubame.
Kenshin's sandels scuffed the ground as he walked outside the Kamiya Doji gate and into the dark road. It was 9:00 PM. Some 10 hours had passed since he and Kaoru had accompanied Tae back to the Akabeko, and since then no one had seen neither Yahiko or Tsubame. Kenshin's eyes narrowed as he scanned the darkness around him, but he felt nothing out of the ordinary. So, he simply hung the lantern outside the door, in case Yahiko came back that night.
He watched as a few fireflies hovered and drifted around him, offering the only light to the cloud-covered night aside from the lantern on the gate. His memory traced back to the day he'd left Tokyo to defeat Shishio...when he told Kaoru good-bye in the dark. He sighed heavily. He had hoped Yahiko would have a life unlike his - without partings and sorrow. Kenshin's heart was glad that he had found peace with Kaoru and the birth of his son; but now it was Yahiko who faced a problem concerning someone he loved. He hoped things would turn out, but Kenshin also knew that so far, no one had any clues to Tsubame's whereabouts.
Just as he was about to go back inside the dojo, a quiet voice called him.
"Kenshin. You didn't have to wait up for me."
Kenshin turned and forced a weak smile. "It wasn't any trouble, Yahiko."
The young man stopped in front of the gate, and even in the lantern light, Kenshin could tell that the white hakama had become dusty and dirty. The dark blue gi was smeared with dirt as well, and Yahiko's face and arms were dusty from walking all day. Kenshin also noted that Yahiko's ankle was swollen more then it should have been. He obviously disobeyed Megumi's orders and walked too much.
"You look tired." Kenshin said quietly. "Come on inside. I saved some soup for you. Kaoru's already gone to bed with Kenji."
Yahiko nodded, fully aware that Kenshin saw the fatigue in his eyes and the worry etched on his face. At the moment, he didn't care about hiding his feelings or pride. Kenshin would always be able to see through such things, somehow. He followed the ex-assassin into the dojo.
Once inside, Kenshin motioned for Yahiko to sit down on the floor, and the young swordsman did as he was expected. Kenshin handed him a bowl of soup and then gently picked his ankle up.
"You should rest this tonight." he replied gravely. "Megumi-San won't be too happy when she sees how swollen it is, that she won't."
"I don't care." Yahiko sighed. He gazed down at the soup, deciding that he wasn't hungry. Kenshin picked up on his thoughts, however.
"You'd better eat. You don't want to lose what strength you have."
"I looked all over the city." Yahiko turned his gaze to Kenshin, who had stood back up to find some bandages. "I looked EVERYWHERE. And I couldn't find her. I asked people if they'd seen her... no one had. I have no idea where what to do..."
Kenshin knelt back down and began to pull Megumi's bandages off to replace them. "I'm sure she's around."
"I..." Yahiko quickly looked away, shutting his eyes so he wouldn't have to look into Kenshin's deep violet pools. He could feel his face burning. "I love her..." The words choked out of his throat, and he waited for Kenshin to chuckle at his confession.
"I know." Kenshin's voice was quiet and gentle. No hint of amusement at all. Yahiko felt a weight lift off his heart knowing that Kenshin wouldn't make fun of him.
"I just don't want anything to happen to her. This is all my fault."
"You shouldn't blame yourself." Kenshin rubbed a damp cool cloth over Yahiko's ankle, hoping the swelling would go down some before he put the bandages back on.
"I should." Yahiko clenched his teeth together. "If I hadn't sprained my ankle when I got mad at that one student, I could have walked her home last night and she wouldn't be missing! None of this would have happened if I -"
"Just remember this." Kenshin looked up, catching the younger man's eyes. "You can't let your strength die. When I thought Kaoru was dead I completely forgot about everything except my own sorrow. You must not let that happen. Don't drown yourself in self-pity. Trust me, Yahiko. I speak from my own experiences."
"This is different from when Kaoru was kidnapped..." Yahiko insisted. "We all thought Kaoru was dead. I don't have ANY idea what happened to Tsubame! Hell, Kenshin! I don't even know where to start looking for her!"
"I don't think she's outside the city." Kenshin sat down. "If I had to guess, she either went to visit someone unexpectedly and didn't have time to let anyone know -"
"She doesn't have any relatives. Her parents died when she was young." Yahiko muttered.
"OR," Kenshin frowned, "she's been kidnapped by someone."
"Who would kidnap her? Why would they do something like that?"
Kenshin seemed to look past Yahiko as he debated the answer. "That... I don't know." he finally said wearily. "Somehow, we'll have to find out on our own. And it may take some time."
Yahiko shut his eyes tightly. He had to find her. Something inside of him was screaming for him to find her - and soon. He finally nodded to Kenshin to prove he understood his mentor's words. "What should I do?"
"We can go back out tomorrow. I'll go with you. Maybe, between the two of us, we can find something. Better yet, I'll get Sano to ask around too. He knows a lot of contacts on the rougher side of town... Maybe someone there has seen her. You can't rule out any possibilites, Yahiko."
Yahiko felt his stomach twist at the last sentence. Kenshin was right. He couldn't rule out ANY possibilies. "What about tonight? I don't want to let any time waste!"
"Tonight you can get some rest. Your ankle can't hold out for very long, you know. Finish the soup, then go lay down and rest." Kenshin answered. "Don't get illogical."
The young man quietly nodded and started to eat slowly. But even though he knew Kenshin was right - the soup still tasted bland, and he found he had to force it down his throat.
*I have to find her...I have to! No matter what... Tsubame... Hold on... I'm coming to find you... Very soon.*