Yahiko sank into the steaming water, grateful for the feeling it gave his body. The warmth soaked into his skin and seemed to take the weariness and fatigue from his limbs. He closed his eyes for a moment, but found it impossible to clear his mind any. And he scowled when he realized that Kenshin stood just outside the bath house.
"You should go rest, Kenshin. You've had a long day too." Yahiko glared at the shadow beyond the door.
"I thought I'd stay out here and enjoy the night air." Kenshin called back in a rurouni voice. Yahiko groaned.
"Yea, right. You came out to make sure I don't roam off without anyone knowing." he stated back acidly.
Kenshin suddenly opened the door and stepped into the bath house, catching Yahiko slightly off guard. The younger man quickly turned around, leaning his back against the tub and towards his mentor. Kenshin sat down and picked up his old reverse blade sword, which was laying behind Yahiko on a ledge.
"This sword..." Kenshin murmured softly, "It's never touched a drop of blood, Yahiko - that it hasn't."
"I know that. What's your point?"
Kenshin slid it from the sheath, watching his reflection in the steel. It had been the first time he'd held his old sword since he'd given it to Yahiko almost two years earlier. "Nothing..." He said quietly. "I just haven't thought much about it, since I gave it to you." Yahiko picked up a rag and gingerly rubbed his ankle. He found he had no words to speak. Nothing to ask, nothing to say. Kenshin remained silent behind him as well for another moment.
"Yahiko, remember this. You must be completely focused from this point on in your battle."
Yahiko froze; the strange tone in Kenshin's voice was something he rarely heard.
"You must also allow us to help you. Your ankle is still hurt, and it will be hard for you to fight with it like that. Aoshi and Saitoh are both ready to assist in the matter. Though I'm not fond of Saitoh, I can admit he is easily one of the best swordsmen in this country, and Aoshi isn't very far behind him. Trust in your allies, Yahiko. Have I ever told you anything other then the truth?"
"No." Yahiko's head dropped at the lecture. "But Kenshin -"
"There isn't a 'but' in this matter, Yahiko." Kenshin's eyes darkened into swirling pools of deep violet. "Trust me this once. You aren't in top condition for a battle, if one breaks out." He sat the sword back on the floor and stood up, ducking out of the bath house. But Yahiko noticed that even though Kenshin had shut the door again, he remained just outside.
His dark eyes glared at Kenshin's shadow again. *Kenshin, I've always trusted you - with my life. but this isn't your battle. It isn't yours, or Aoshi's, or Saitoh's... it's MINE.*
The door opened to Gasuke's private quarters, and the self-proclaimed manslayer stepped inside. His wicked smile turned to Tsubame, who was sitting quietly on her futon. Her long hair fell over her shoulders and hid her eyes from him, but he could still sense her fear.
"So, Tsubame... do you think that stupid brat will come for you?"
She clenched her fists angrily. Gasuke had hardly spoken to her after the first day she'd arrived. And now, there was a tone in his voice she didn't like.
"Yahiko was supposed to work off a debt, but our old boss just let him walk out of here."
"He was allowed to leave." she argued softly. "Kenshin-San spoke with that boss of yours and -"
"Himura Kenshin. The red-headed man Yahiko was saved by." Gasuke smirked. "I should take revenge on him as well, for beating me that day. But, I have no real quarrel with that man aside from the fact that he beat me. It's Yahiko I'm after."
"Why?" she continued staring at the floor, avoiding looking at him.
"He's a brat. He should have been forced to stay here." Gasuke glared. "And your old boss wasn't happy that he was beaten by Yahiko either. So we've paired up, and by kidnapping you - we'll eventually get him here and he'll be forced to either save you... or die."
Tsubame's eyes widened and she gave a small gasp.
Gasuke only grinned at her reaction. "I'm assuming he'll die. He can't possibly beat me, Gasuke the Manslayer."
"You aren't a manslayer." she hissed, finally lifting her face. "You have no idea what that means. You don't know the meaning of a man-"
His hand came down against her cheek, sending her to the futon. "Shut up. What would YOU know of being a manslayer?"
*Kenshin-San... he was a manslayer... and he's nothing like you...*
"In any case," Gasuke shrugged and walked to his own seat across the room, "you're still our hostage, and I'd prefer you not to speak out like that again."
She closed her eyes tightly and gripped the blankets underneath her.
"You're very pretty."
Her eyes opened in fear.
"Did you know that?"
"Shut up." Tsubame glanced at him angrily. "I wish I weren't pretty; then you wouldn't say so."
"Don't worry, girl. I won't hurt you." Gasuke pulled his sword out and began polishing the steel. Tsubame only shrank against the wall, desperate to put more distance between them.
*Yahiko, please hurry and find me...* Her mind screamed.
"In fact, I might even let you go after I kill that brat." he mused. "Unless I think you'd make a good pet. Something I could play with on occasion."
"Bastard." she whispered. "I hate you." Her voice sounded weak, but it was full of anger.
"Strong words for a shy young girl." he replied, sliding the sword away again. "I'll break you of that habit once Yahiko's out of the way." He walked over and grinned towards her, then reached out and brought his fingers along her cheek. She flinched and snatched away, like a small kitten afraid of a dog.
He only laughed at her. "Pleasant dreams." he sneered. "After a few days, you'll be mine to do with as I please. And don't think I haven't thought about taking advantage of you before I kill Yahiko. It's crossed my mind several times, pet."
The door slammed. Tsubame began shaking. When she heard the outer door slam as well, and realized Gasuke had left, she crumpled onto the futon and began sobbing. "Yahiko... Oh gods... Yahiko... I'm so scared..."
Kaoru had finished making Yahiko's futon as comfortable as possible. Deep inside, she felt sorry for him. She could almost feel the pain he felt, and wondered how much longer he would be able to keep going if Kenshin and Aoshi weren't able to find the syndicate the next day. She glanced up as he came into his room at that exact moment. His ankle had been freshly wrapped, and she was glad for that. Kenshin must have seen to it.
"Did you eat?" she asked.
"Yea, Misao made me." he replied gruffly, trying to ignore her.
"And took a bath?"
"Kenshin stood right outside the entire time." he snapped. He fell down on the futon and placed the sword beside him where he could grab it in a second if he had to. "Are you all going to sleep in my room to make sure I stay?" he asked sarcastically.
"Yahiko, I know this entire thing is taking a toll on you." Kaoru regarded him quietly for a moment before continuing. "We're not trying to make you stay - but we do know it's for the best tonight. Trust us, alright?"
"That's what Kenshin said." Yahiko rolled over, turning his back on Kaoru. "I'll stay - but I'm not happy about it."
She nodded. "Arigrato... good night." Blowing the candle out, she then left, leaving her old student in the darkness.
It took a few minutes before his eyes adjusted to the blackness around him. He could hear Kaoru and Kenshin in the next room over, getting ready for bed. Aoshi and Misao were across the hall. He slowly curled up under the blankets, his eyes watering with tears again.
Slowly, they started slipping across his face onto the futon. He made sure he stayed perfectly quiet - knowing he'd never be able to face his friends again if they saw him crying. One hand covered his face as he gritted his teeth together, his mind flashing images of Tsubame over and over. *Please just let me go to sleep so I won't cry.*
The door slid open again, and Yahiko's eyes widened. He was glad his back was facing the door, and he decided not to speak in case his voice cracked. He heard the door shut again, and figured it had only been Kenshin peeking inside. Then he felt a small hand gently touch his shoulder.
"Yahiko...?" Kenji's voice sounded like wind - it was so quiet but so gentle and considerate for a five-year-old. "Are you okay?"
He nodded, not trusting his voice.
"I knew you were crying..." the boy whispered, sitting down on the futon next to his older 'brother'.
"Nani...??" Yahiko turned and stared at him. "How...? Your mom and dad didn't hear -"
Kenji shook his head. "No... I just could feel it... Mommy's taking a bath right now... I thought I'd come make you feel better." The boy's eyes were a wide crystalline pale violet, glittering in the darkness with innocence.
"You can't." Yahiko choked, sitting up a little. "No one can, Kenji. But thanks for trying." He closed his eyes. "I'd just like to get some sleep."
There was a long pause as Kenji stood up. Yahiko waited in silence for him to leave, but instead Kenji wrapped his arms around Yahiko's neck, leaning his small cheek against the older boy's bare shoulder. "Yahiko, I don't want you to be sad..." he whispered, biting his lip. "I don't like seeing you sad. You're hurting, Yahiko..." His eyes shut tightly, as if he really could feel the pain in his brother's heart.
Yahiko couldn't help but to start crying again. His strong arms wrapped protectively around Kenji, hugging the small boy to his chest. "Kenji..." he finally managed to speak. "Arigrato Kenji..." He had no idea how the boy could be so compassionate for his age.
Kenji straightened up, his face scrunched in aggravation. "But I haven't made you feel better, Yahiko."
"You have." Yahiko forced a smile, and ruffled the boy's flame red hair a bit. "Really."
"Really?" Kenji smiled a little. "I'm glad... good night..." He waved and darted back out the door. Yahiko fell back on the futon, unsure whether to laugh or cry at the encounter. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe regularly, and the tears slowly stopped. Before he knew it, he was asleep.
The sunlight was bright. Yahiko shielded his eyes as he walked along a familiar worn path on the outskirts of Tokyo, glancing around as if he were looking for someone. He could see a Sakura orchard ahead of him; and pink petals drifting on the wind without care, as if they danced to music only they heard. He smiled as he started walking towards it, intrigued with the sight.
Tsubame slowly ambled through a beautiful Sakura orchard, raising her eyes towards the canopy above her. Only patches of blue sky sparkled through in certain places - the flowers were so thick they covered the space between her and the clouds. The thick cover only allowed so much sunlight to the ground beneath her, creating lacey patterns. She wished she weren't alone; it was so beautiful she wanted others to see it as well.
Yahiko brushed a branch heavy with flowers aside, watching as petals broke off and caught the wind. It was breath-taking inside the orchard; with sunlight and shadows mixed to create a fantasy of sorts. He could sense someone else in the maze of trees, and he wondered who else could possibly be wandering in the orchard with him.
Tsubame suddenly stopped as a gust of breeze sent a curtain of petals across her path, swirling them in pink glory around her. She brushed her hair behind one ear, smiling at the sight. Then her eyes caught something else. Someone watching her some ten feet away.
Yahiko stared in awe. Tsubame stood in the midst of the trees and a swirl of flowers, her hair blowing softly around her face as she giggled and let the wind play around her. Her light silver kimono caught the few beams of sunlight around her and reflected them like crystal. She suddenly stopped her quiet laughter and looked towards him, her mouth parting slightly in surprise.
"Tsubame..." he whispered. He could feel his feet moving, bringing him closer to her. She smiled back at him shyly, her hands clasping behind her back in anticipation.
"Yahiko..." She couldn't help but stare at him. The dark green gi he wore contrasted with the light petals floating around him. She could see the muscles of his chest rippling as he walked, his skin darker and more tan than hers. She shivered, part of her wishing to reach out and touch his chest, to run her hands over his skin, his muscles, his arms, his back...
He stopped in front of her, dark brown eyes watching her intently. She felt herself drowning in their depth, and she gently held her hand out towards him. He leaned into her, bringing one hand across her cheek, and she smiled, letting her extended hand rest against his chest. He felt himself leaning down towards her, desperate to kiss her and hold her, but he wasn't sure why.
"Aishiteru." he whispered, letting his lips brush hers.
Then, without warning, everything around him fell dark. Tsubame cried out and clutched his gi, holding him close. "Yahiko... don't leave me! Please!" she begged.
His eyes looked up as his arms locked around her. The branches above him were stripping bare of their beautiful petals, and breaking apart. Darkness was filling the sky, extinguishing the sunlight. He grabbed her hand and sprinted forward. "Come on!" he shouted. "We have to get out of here!"
She nodded and tried to follow, but her long kimono seemed to get in the way. He twisted and went to pick her up in his arms, but a sudden pain shot through his leg and he collasped to the ground, gripping his ankle.
He watched in horror as the darkness seemed to lock around her, closing in on her body. She was screaming, and he couldn't make himself move. His entire body seemed paralized. It took all his willpower to force his legs to move, and when they final did, they felt like lead. The wind tore around his body, ripping his clothes. He could barely see her. The pain was almost unbearable, but somehow he managed to lunge at the dark mass around her. Just as she disappeared, he caught her fingers.
"Tsubame!!!!! Hold on!!!" He screamed, but the wind was drowning his words out. He reached with his other hand and took hold of her wrist. The darkness began engulfing him as well, and he struggled to keep his footing on the ground.
*Please, don't let go of me, Yahiko!*
He started to pull her arm, and he felt her other fingers wrap around his wrist. It was taking all his strength to stay upright. He could feel everything around him moving, with the wind and the blackness.
*Tsubame, I'm trying... I can't keep standing much longer!*
*You have to save me! Please, Yahiko! I'm so scared! YAHIKO!*
Her fingers began slipping from his hold, and he screamed as her hand released from his grip.
"YAHIKO! WAKE UP!" Kaoru all but screamed as she grabbed his wrists to hold him still. He had thrashed so much the blankets were scattered around him. Cold sweat covered his face and his body. Even though she was a master of Kamiya Kasshin, it took all of Kaoru's strength to hold him remotely in place.
"Yahiko!" She released one hand and quickly slapped him - not wanting to hurt him, but desperate to wake him.
His eyes suddenly shot open, wide and full of fear. His breathing was heavy and his chest rose and fell rapidly. Kaoru slowly released his other wrist. "Thank the gods..." she mumbled, sinking back on her legs and running a hand through her bangs.
"Kaoru... What... happened?"
"You were dreaming. I heard you call out a few minutes ago." she sighed, her voice tired. "Kenshin was so fast asleep he didn't even wake up. I thought it was a little strange - usually he doesn't sleep that heavily. I came in to make sure you were alright."
Yahiko focused on the ceiling, taking deep breaths as he tried to calm down. "It was a dream..." he mumbled. Kaoru remained silent, hoping he would keep talking about it.
"It... I was... walking... in an sakura orchard. It was beautiful. And I saw Tsubame standing there... and... all this darkness just appeared and I couldn't save her..."
Kaoru stared in surprise as tears began to stream down his face. He covered his eyes with one hand. "Gods, I couldn't save her! I tried! I did everything I could! But I couldn't even move, and she just slipped through my fingers... Kaoru... How can I be SO weak? I'm a master of Kamiya Kasshin, and I've even learned some of Kenshin's moves... so HOW can I be so weak?!"
Kaoru bit her lip to keep from crying herself, and gently pulled him up. "Shhh, it's alright. It was only a dream." Her arms wrapped around him, for she thought of him as her brother. "Tsubame will be fine... Kenshin and Aoshi will get her back tomorrow... You aren't weak Yahiko."
"I couldn't save her..." he buried his face against her shoulder, just as Kenji had done to him a few hours earlier. She rubbed his back soothingly, hoping to calm him down. "She slipped through my hands... I'm scared, Kaoru... I know I'm supposed to stay strong but I'm scared something's happened to her... I love her..."
Kaoru closed her eyes. "I know. We all know."
The door opened from the hall, and Kenshin blinked at what he saw. Kaoru was holding Yahiko and murmuring for him to calm down, while the 18-year-old was...crying?
"Oro?" Kenshin stared.
"Kenshin," Kaoru's voice was soft and concerned. "Go make some tea. For Yahiko."
He nodded and disappeared down the hall, shaking his head. "Must have been a bad dream... Guess I won't ask." he sighed.
Tsubame woke with a start. Her face was cold and sweaty, her palms felt clammy... she fought to remember the dream she'd had. An orchard full of beautiful blossoms... and Yahiko... Her eyes widened. He'd kissed her. Her hand slowly moved to her lips, straining to relive the feel of his mouth brushing hers. Then the rest of the dream came to her. Darkness had engulfed her. Everything was black - the wind had been horrible. And something had tried to drag her into the darkness. Yahiko was trying to save her... and she couldn't remember anymore.
She felt her body shivering at this point, cold and scared.
"What's the matter, Tsubame?" A voice sneered. "Have a bad dream?"
She cringed. Gasuke.
"About your precious Yahiko?" His voice turned to sarcasm.
"Leave me alone. It's not your business..." she whispered, curling into a ball. Her hand remained on her lips.
He only laughed and sat back on his side of the room, in the darkness. "Well, more sweet dreams for you, Tsubame-Chan." he snickered. She wrapped the blankets tightly around her body, hoping this too was only a bad dream. Her eyes flashed angrily. But this time, she decided, the wind wouldn't force her and Yahiko apart.
*He WILL find me. I know it.*
Yahiko managed to stop crying. He felt ashamed to let Kaoru see his tears, but he simply couldn't hold them in after the dream he'd had. He felt connected to Tsubame some how - and it gave him a little comfort to know she was alive, even if he'd seen her only in the dream.
Suddenly he sat up straight, pulling away from his old sensei. Kaoru blinked. "Are you alright now?" she asked hesitantly.
"K. S." His eyes darkened angrily. "I know what it means."
Kaoru frowned. "It could mean a number of things. We'll discuss that tomorrow."
"No. It means one thing." He growled. "Kanto Shuei."
Kenshin appeared in the doorway, holding a cup of tea. "Here, Yahiko. Drink this."
Yahiko took the cup and glared into the swirling tea, his eyes flashing with hate. "Bastards." he hissed. He wasn't sure how he'd remembered the Shuei, but in his heart he knew his hunch was correct.
"What?" Kenshin arched an eyebrow.
Kaoru stood up, bowing her head. "Kenshin and Aoshi will speak with Saitoh tomorrow, Yahiko. It's best that you drink that and go back to sleep for another hour. It's only five o'clock in the morning after all."
"The Shuei." His hand gripped the cup so tightly that his knuckles turned white. Kenshin's eyes narrowed.
"What did you say, Yahiko?"
"The initals in the letter. It means Kanto Shuei. I figured it out. It had to be that bastard Gasuke." Yahiko's hand shook just barely. "That BASTARD. When I see him..."
The cup shattered in his hands.
Kaoru shrank back. She'd never felt Yahiko's ki as it was now. His entire body seemed to seeth with anger. His bangs fell into his eyes, hiding the fury written in them. Kenshin wrapped an arm around his wife. He had never seen Yahiko so angry either.
"Yahiko. Calm down." he said quietly.
"BASTARD." he hissed again, ignoring the small cuts on his hand and the shattered peices and tea on the blanket.
Kenshin's eyes flickered gold for a split second. If he didn't force the boy to stay where he was, he wouldn't be able to stop Yahiko at all. "YAHIKO. I said, CALM. DOWN."
The sharpness in Kenshin's voice reached through the anger. Yahiko's eyes stopped flickering for a moment, and he looked up at his mentor. Kenshin could still feel the anger, but it wasn't quite as strong as it had been a moment earlier.
"Don't EVER allow yourself to become that angry again." Kenshin frowned. "If you do, you'll regret your actions later."
Yahiko looked away, ashamed. "Gomen nasai..." he whispered. "But... Kenshin, I'm so angry... I just want to -"
"Think before you act. You're correct - the Shuei Syndicate kidnapped Tsubame." Kenshin's eyes returned to their violet color. "Aoshi and Saitoh are going there as soon as daylight hits. It's too early yet. They'll bring her back." *No... Tsubame's expecting ME to find her... I felt that in my dream.*
"Kenshin?" Yahiko looked up. "Would you... bring me another cup of tea? I didn't mean to break the cup... Gomen."
Kenshin nodded and turned back for the kitchen. Kaoru stared at Yahiko for a moment.
"Yes?" she asked quietly.
"Um... if it's not too much trouble..." He smiled faintly at her. "Could I have a rice ball too?"
She smiled back and nodded. "I'll be back in just a minute... as soon as I can make one up. Stay right there."
The door slid shut, and Yahiko took a deep breath. Throwing the covers off his body, he jumped up and grabbed a fresh hakama and his dark green gi. His mind was racing.
*This time, I won't let you slip through my fingers...* he tied the obi on the hakama and hurriedly grabbed his sandels.
The voice was so quiet, but unexpected, that it made Yahiko nearly jump through the roof. He whirled around. "Kenji! Don't DO that!" he snapped.
"Where are you going?" Kenji ignored the aggravated look Yahiko was giving him. "Didn't mother and father tell you to stay here?"
Yahiko looked guiltly. He could see faint pink light on the rice paper indicating that the sun was going to rise within the next thirty minutes. He HAD to get to the Shuei Syndicate before the others. "Kenji, listen to me. I know you won't understand, but I've got to leave - right now." he knelt down beside the boy. "Can you please NOT tell your parents until I'm at least out of the gate?"
Kenji scrunched his face up for a moment, debating.
Yahiko groaned loudly. "Kenji, it's NOT that hard of a decision! Please - for me?"
The boy let out an exasperated sigh, but nodded. Yahiko stood up and strapped his sword on his back. "Arigrato, Kenji..." he ruffled the boy's hair again.
"Don't get hurt, Yahiko..." Kenji mumbled.
The door slid shut, leaving the little child alone in Yahiko's room.