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Calger459's Fanfiction

Clearing Skies, chapter 3

Calger459's Fanfiction

kung fu dragon

Clearing Skies, chapter 3

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griffin
And Kenji's teenage crisis continues...



Clearing Skies
by Calger459
Chapter 3: Gathering Storm

Disclaimer: The usual. We know this part by now, right? RK is owned by Watsuki-sensei, Sony, and Media Blasters, blah blah.

Notes: Who needs ‘em? On with the fic!

~*~

Yahiko stared at the dojo gate for several moments after Sano had vanished through them. His thoughts were oddly blank. The absolute last thing he’d expected today was to come to work and find Sagara Sanosuke sitting on the dojo porch. Sano, whom he'd last seen when he was still a young boy. Sano, who'd just taken off without really telling them why, other than that there were some cops after him and he felt like leaving Japan for a little while. His jaw clenched, his blank shock at again seeing a man whom he'd once thought of as a friend, or even an older brother, turning to resentment. He just shows up out of the blue, and Kenshin isn't even here to see him. Unbelievable. "And so very Sano," he whispered to himself. He looked over to where Kenji was standing. The boy was leaning listlessly against the outer wall of the dojo, apparently waiting for Yahiko. He sighed and walked toward the boy. Wordlessly, Kenji pushed off the wall and headed for the dojo’s entrance.

Yahiko noted that Kenji had apparently not come away from his talk with Sano unaffected either; he walked as if his feet were made of lead. Inwardly, Yahiko sighed. He was concerned for the boy who was, for all intents and purposes, his younger brother. Kenji had been acting strange for several months now. The change in his behavior hadn't started at any particular moment that Yahiko could recall, but lately it had been growing worse. From the happy and smiling—if dangerously mischievous—boy he'd been, Kenji had changed, becoming sullen, withdrawn and filled with frustration. Yahiko thought that maybe the boy would have worked out whatever his issues were during his impromptu trip to Kyoto, but the boy was now worse than ever. He sighed. Please tell me he isn't turning into his dad.

Kenji slid open the door to the dojo and waited politely for Yahiko to enter first. Once inside, they prepared for the kendo class in silence. Kenji had been helping out as an assistant master for nearly two years now, and Yahiko didn't need to tell him what had to be done. With an efficiency particular to him, Kenji took the sets of kendo armor out of their cabinets and laid them neatly in a row, one for each student who would arrive that day.

Yahiko glanced over at him. Part of him wanted to push the issue of Kenji's recent attitude, but the last thing either of them needed was to get into a difficult argument right before a class. Even so, he knew what he had to say next was going to invite trouble. "I ran into Ryo-kun's father earlier, Kenji. He's sick today, so he won't need armor."

Kenji paused in the middle of laying the last set of armor down. After a moment he nodded once and straightened up again, turning on his heel and putting the armor back in its space. He slid the cabinet doors shut with what to Yahiko seemed slightly more force than necessary.

"Kenji, is something wrong?"

"No." The boy turned away and began counting out bokken from the storage rack.

"Are you sure?"

"What are we going over with this group today?"

Just as I thought. Yahiko decided reluctantly to accept the other's stubbornness for the moment. That was certainly easier than trying to worm an answer out of the boy, who could be as close-mouthed as his father when he wanted to be. Putting his misgivings aside, he briefly outlined the sword forms they'd be covering. "Oh, and Akira's in this class, remember."

Kenji visibly stiffened. "You mean it's his turn to spar today."

"…yeah."

Kenji shot him an irritated glare. "Why don't you fight him for once?"

"Because that's your job. I thought we agreed on this."

Kenji opened his mouth to argue, but the first student chose that moment to arrive, effectively ending the argument before it could really begin. Turning away from Kenji, Yahiko masked his frustration and did his best to act as if nothing was amiss; in public, there was no reasonable way he could deal with Kenji's disrespectful behavior. However, Yahiko had had enough, and there was no way he was going to let this continue. Kenji would get his confrontation eventually, and at that time Yahiko had every intention of literally knocking some sense into his younger brother.

The next several minutes were strictly the business of running the class as the students arrived one by one. Kenji spent a while glaring sullenly at Yahiko when he thought the older man wasn't looking, but eventually he remembered his job and concentrated on running exercises with the more experienced students, while Yahiko reviewed the day's forms with the newer ones.

There were twelve students in this group, all around Kenji's age. None of them could hold a candle to the boy's ability though; he was a natural with a sword, and had shown from an early age that he had inherited his father's skill, power, and near inhuman speed. In truth, he was almost too good for Kamiya Kasshin; the only technique he didn't know now was the ougi, and he had only just turned fifteen.

Yahiko had learned the technique early of course, but so far he had hesitated in showing it to Kenji. It concerned him that the boy showed little interest in becoming a full master of the school. All Kenji talked about now was Hiten Mitsurugi. He seemed to desire the style even more than Yahiko had, and the obsession was worrisome. Kenshin had already refused his son's request, and Yahiko knew that Hiko had also. He frowned slightly as he watched Kenji work with the students. He was demonstrating a technique for them, his sword strokes sure and powerful. He was doing his job well, but Yahiko could see the boredom in his brother’s eyes. Unfortunately, Kenji generally was not one to take "no" for an answer, and he knew he was good enough to learn the Mitsurugi style. It was no wonder he’d ignored Yahiko's warning and taken off for Kyoto on his own.

Reckless fool. Yahiko set his students to a long series of drills. Stepping back from them, he kept a careful eye on Kenji’s half of the dojo, where he’d also set his students to drills. The boy walked around and checked on each one, correcting them individually. Several times he had to come back to everyone’s least favorite student, Akira. He was one of the worst students in the class, but by far the most egotistical and arrogant. He refused to accept that he was not yet at the teachers' level, which Yahiko knew irritated Kenji to no end. He well understood why Kenji didn't want to fight him; the boy would be forced to seriously hold back when he sparred with Akira, so that he wouldn't actually hurt the fool. After all, this is only kendo…the old days where dojos like this trained real warriors are long gone.

Yahiko turned back to his own students, sighing internally. He hated putting up with Akira as much as Kenji did, but times were tough, and they needed students. When Harada Akira, the son of an influential Tokyo politician and businessman, had come to the dojo nearly a year ago, he'd brought his two younger brothers and eight of his friends with him. Kaoru had leapt at the chance to sign up so many students at once, especially since all of them were the either the sons of, or closely related to, well-known Tokyo elite. "Even if a few of them quit," she had said, "at least one or two will be long-term students, and their parents might spread the word about our style. This is an important opportunity!"

Yahiko remembered the conversation well, because he had gone to Kaoru with his misgivings about Akira. "Look, Kaoru, I don't mind his friends so much, but Akira refuses to listen to either of us. He thinks he knows everything about kenjutsu, but he's only had three lessons so far! He's going to be a problem."

Kaoru had given him a reproving look. "I'm sure he'll come around, Yahiko. You just need to have some patience with him. After all, you weren't much better when you first started."

Yahiko had scoffed at that, offended at being compared with a brat like Akira. "Right, because you were just SO patient with me, Busu." That comment had earned him a sound smack on the head, as well as an amused look from a silently observing Kenshin.

"I leave things to you, Yahiko-sensei," she'd responded sweetly.

Yahiko stared into space, bothered by the memory. You may say that, Busu, but you haven't actually tried to teach this guy. He's going to be dangerous, whether or not he learns to swing a sword correctly.

"Sensei!" Akira suddenly appeared in front of him, a scowl on his face.

Yahiko quickly recovered from his surprise, irritation taking over. Breathe. Just breathe. "Yes, Akira-san?"

"I don't appreciate Himura-sensei's attitude. He's hardly paid any attention to me this class!"

A liar and an attention hound. Great. Yahiko forced himself to sound reasonable. Ever since he'd started teaching, he'd done his best to emulate Kenshin's seemingly endless patience with difficult and stubborn people. It has always worked well for Kenshin, as Yahiko had had the opportunity to observe countless times since he'd met the swordsman. However, Yahiko wasn't nearly as good at it as his mentor. He measured his next words with difficulty. "Well, he has six of you to teach today. It would be best if you waited for your turn patiently." You snotty little brat. Yahiko hid his thoughts with a carefully controlled smile.

"But he just told me I wasn't worth his time!"

Well damn. "I see. Give me a moment and I'll ask him about it. Please practice your exercises with the others until then."

Akira huffed and stormed back over to the other end of the dojo. Yahiko sighed. It seems they're both in fine form today. Lucky me. He glanced around the class. "All right everyone, ten minute break! There's fresh water for you in its usual place. We'll spar with the armor on afterwards."

There were murmurs of assent about the room and the boys eagerly gathered around the water pitcher, talking and laughing amiably. Akira, after one last hateful glare at Kenji, joined his friends and they immediately formed a noisy group in one corner of the room. Yahiko watched them for a moment. The other boys hung around and looked up to Akira, but that wasn't necessarily because they liked him. He knew for a fact that four of the boys' fathers worked for the Harada family, and their "friendship" with the arrogant youngster was nothing more than a ploy for future favors from his father. It all made Yahiko rather sad, and he wished Kaoru had never let someone like him into their dojo. If there was something their tiny family avoided, it was politicians. If Kenshin had said anything to Kaoru about her decision, Yahiko wasn't aware of it. However, Kenshin never visited this particular class, and it wasn't a mystery to Yahiko why. Kenshin still did his best to keep a low profile within the city, and so it wasn't terribly well-known outside the local Asakusa area just who Kenji's father was. And it's best to keep it that way. He needs to grow up and come into his own without Kenshin's past holding him back. The irony of that thought was not lost on him; the older and more aware of Battousai's legacy Kenji had become, the harder it was to protect him from following a similar path. In fact Kenji himself seemed almost to *want* Kenshin's history to affect him, and that was something Yahiko knew Kenshin worried about every day. Frowning darkly, he turned away and headed over to where Kenji was making adjustments to one of the armor sets. He stood over the boy for a minute. "I need to talk with you."

"About what?"

"What are you doing to that armor?"

Kenji didn't look up. "These ties are loose."

"They look fine to me."

"You suggesting something?"

Yahiko crouched down swiftly and leaned in close to the other's face. "I don't think I should have to remind you that this is a paying class of students and that we're professionals. What did you say to Akira?"

"What did he say I said?"

Yahiko briefly closed his eyes in frustration. "Look, you need to teach him just like all the others. Despite his personality."

Kenji grunted. "I'm not in the mood for his crap today."

"Watch your mouth in here, and I don't care if you're in the mood or not. It's not appropriate, and I will tell your parents about this if it keeps up. If we lose students it hurts our reputation, and you know how hard things were when you were young. I know you remember."

Kenji flinched slightly, but he met Yahiko's gaze. "You are telling me to watch my mouth? You sure act weird when you're in this dojo. You should just be yourself."

Yahiko smiled grimly. "Yes, because you are such a fine example, and it would work so well for the boys over there. I see."

For a moment, Kenji couldn't seem to decide if he was going to be hurt or defiant. Yahiko watched his face settle on the latter. "You're not my father, Yahiko-san, and you aren't my babysitter either. You don't have to go running to my mom every time I do something you don't like."

Yahiko's eyes flashed. The urge to smack Kenji through the back wall of the dojo was almost overwhelming. When he spoke, his voice was low, and heavy with meaning. "Then I won't."

They stared at each other for a long, tense moment. Yahiko searched the other's eyes, and noted with satisfaction that Kenji seemed to have understood his meaning. He'd helped raise this boy from infancy, and he was a father himself. He had no trouble applying his own style of discipline, if that's what it came to. Finally, Kenji broke eye contact. Yahiko stood.

"You will spar with Akira first and get it out of the way. Don't hurt him."

Kenji's jaw clenched. It seemed he wasn't quite done arguing yet. "He's learning swordsmanship isn't he? How is he supposed to learn if we don't make it more real?"

Yahiko leaned down, still keeping his voice low. "You have no idea what real combat is, so don't presume you can teach him. We're teaching the art of kendo and combat within this setting. Do we understand each other?"

After a moment, the boy responded through gritted teeth. "Yes, Yahiko-san."

Yahiko turned away, not at all reassured. "Good. Let's get them ready to go."

~*~

"Huuuungry." Sano hung his head and scuffed his way through town, cursing his foolishness. Why the hell didn't I at least get a bite of rice before I left? I'm such an idiot! Had Kenji actually upset him so much he’d forgotten his hunger? Sano scowled at this thought. No way. I can handle a kid like that.

He wandered through the streets, his feet gradually remembering the route he'd once walked every day. He paused briefly in front of the Akabeko, which he was grateful to see was still in its original location. Customers thronged in an out, and he smiled at the sight. Good 'ol Tae-san. The master businesswoman. He stared at the restaurant longingly, then willed his feet to move on. He found he just didn't have the nerve to waltz in and demand yet another meal on a tab he would never be capable of paying. I can't believe I just thought that. I don’t know what’s with me today; I must be losing my mind.

He left the market and headed further north, not really thinking where he was going. It wasn't long before he found himself surrounded by rowhouses, the homes of the poor. Here filthy children in even filthier kimono ran about, playing with sticks and whatever makeshift toys they could find lying around. The stench of sewage rose from the stagnant drainage canals, and he tried to ignore a man, obviously drunk out of his mind even at this early hour, being sick into one of them. Nothing like home, I guess. I hope Yahiko didn't really take up that offer of moving into my apartment. That was just a joke.

He remembered the moment vividly: Sano standing in a small boat at the Tokyo bay docks, on the run from the police, his friends all gathered on shore: Kenshin and Kaoru, already a couple even if they didn’t yet acknowledge it, and Yahiko, looking at him with something like panicked betrayal. He could tell the boy didn’t understand why he was leaving; Sano himself hadn’t even understood all his reasons at the time. He supposed that offering his rowhouse room was the best thing he could think of to reassure the boy that he would be back eventually.

Well that “eventually” certainly took a while, didn’t it? Yahiko had hid it well back at the dojo, but Sano could sense anger in the younger man, and he was sure it had to do with him. He supposed that’s why he’d chosen to leave immediately, rather than stick around to mooch some much-needed food. Oh yeah, definitely losing my mind. He and I will just have to have a chat later I guess.

In any event, he was sure his original room, if not taken over by a ten-year-old Yahiko (which he highly doubted), had either been rented out to someone else or burned down long ago. So why then was he here? He wasn't entirely sure himself; even Katsu and his old gambling buddies had probably moved on to somewhere better by now.

There's really nothing left for me here, is there? He stopped and slumped wearily against the side of a building. He closed his eyes and felt himself drift mentally, finally giving in to his hunger and exhaustion. In this state it took several moments for his ears to register the loud scuffle of several pairs of feet making their way down the narrow street. This was normally nothing to be excited about; this wasn’t exactly the nicest part of town and this group was no doubt the usual rabble of drunken thugs, looking for someone to mug. No one Sano couldn’t handle; what got his attention though was their odd silence. Men like these were usually boisterous in their prowling, joking crudely about some woman they’d had the night before or listing the gambling dens they’d cleaned out recently. To Sano, these men's silence could mean only one thing. Up to no good in broad daylight? That's awfully foolish. Either that or they’re looking for someone. He opened one eye and leaned slightly to the left, peering around the corner. Well, well.

The group of men coming down the street were what Sano liked to classify as Weird Scum. They were dressed in an outlandish mixture of Western clothes and garish kimono, and all of them were armed with swords. They weren’t flimsy cane swords but katana, which was enough to put Sano on edge. The man he presumed was their leader was in front, dressed messily in a faded blue kimono. His long, greasy hair hung about his face and his eyes gleamed madly, darting around rapidly, obviously looking for something. Sano tucked himself back behind the wall and relaxed with his eyes closed, looking as uninterested as possible. Whatever it was they were up to, it had nothing to do with him.

The scuffling feet went by him…and stopped. “Hey, you there.”

Sano pretended to be asleep, letting his head loll to one side. A sword hilt poked him sharply in the ribs.

“I know you aren’t asleep. Look at me!”

Sano opened one eye lazily. It was Greasy Hair who’d spoken. “What?”

“You are Sagara Sanosuke, are you not? Friend to Battousai?”

It took a great effort to cover his surprise. “Who?”

“We know you've been trying to lead us away from him. Where is Battousai?”

You’re kidding me, right? “Never heard of ‘im, just got into town today. You have the wrong guy, pal.”

“I don’t think so; you fit all the descriptions I’ve heard. You wear the headband of the Sekihoutai, and have ‘Aku’ on your back. You are him. While you've been wandering the streets all morning with us, there was no question in my mind that you leading us away from him.” There was a sharp snickt of a sword being loosened from its sheath, and in an instant one of Greasy’s men had stepped forward and pressed his sword against Sano’s neck. “You will tell me where he is.”

Sano straightened up, leveling an irritated glare at the smaller man. “I have NO idea what you’re talking about. I found this stuff on the side of the road a few months ago.” He tugged on his headband. “I thought it looked cool, and I needed new clothes. Maybe this Sanosuke guy got himself murdered or somethin’.”

Greasy’s eyes narrowed. His eyes were creeping Sano out; they were somewhat offset, and never seemed to be quite looking at him. He knew the guy wasn’t blind though; he moved around too well for that. The eyes themselves were blood-shot and unhealthy-looking, with the sort of dullness to them that usually spoke of a long illness. “I don’t believe you. Take us to Battousai, or this man will kill you.”

Yeah, whatever. “Hey man, I didn’t do anything okay? He can try to kill me if he wants, but wouldn’t it kinda suck if you offed an innocent guy?”

Greasy grinned, a mad sick expression that chilled Sano’s blood. “Sounds like fun to me. Kill him.”

The thug lunged forward, but Sano was no longer there. He dropped to the ground and rammed his shoulder into Greasy’s gut. The man crumpled like rice paper, but Sano didn’t let that stop him. Another thug swung his sword and Sano punched the blade in a Futae no Kiwami. The sword exploded, sending shards into the man’s face. Sano spun the minute he attacked, letting his cloak catch the shrapnel. He immediately laid out two more with a flurry of punches, shattering their weapons for good measure. That left two more goons, and both were standing protectively in front of their leader with swords drawn. “I’d rather not kill you,” Sano said evenly. “How about I just take off, eh? Like I said, you have the wrong guy.”

The men charged in answer.

~*~

Akira flew backwards and landed hard on his rump, his shinai tumbling to the floor. The other boys, who knelt in a line against one wall of the dojo, snickered quietly. He glared at the boy in armor across from him. Although his face was hidden by the kendo mask, he could feel Kenji grinning triumphantly at him.

“Point: Kenji-sensei.” Yahiko announced. “Please get up, Akira-san.”

The boy growled and got to his feet. He and Kenji squared off again. Yahiko's voice echoed around the dojo. "Begin!"

Akira charged and swung for all he was worth, trying desperately to get under Kenji's guard. Kenji however was far too fast and nimble; he moved nearly too quickly to see as he got around to Akira's side, scoring a hit on his breast armor. Akira snarled and spun to meet him, only to find his shinai easily blocked. They broke apart and moved back to their respective sides of the ring. Akira was breathing heavily; Kenji however strode back casually to his position, obviously not winded in the slightest, even though they'd been sparring for several minutes now. Damn him, damn him! How can we be the same age, yet so different? Akira bared his teeth behind his mask, not caring that it was a wasted gesture. "Kenji-sensei, how exactly am I supposed to be learning from this?"

He could feel the other regarding him from behind the mask. "What do you mean?"

"You're moving far too quickly! You aren't giving me a chance to attack!"

"So you expect me to baby you instead? You can't catch up to everyone else if you don't push yourself to become faster."

Akira didn't miss the warning look Yahiko gave Kenji. He'd noticed them talking rather forcefully together during the break earlier, obviously having some kind of argument. He grinned. "It must be frustrating for you Kenji-sensei, having to bring yourself down to my level. Maybe my speed is just right, and you're the one who's in the wrong sword style."

"Akira-san." Yahiko's look was dangerous. Behind him, the other students shifted nervously. Akira was treading on dangerous ground, but he was feeling particularly bold today.

"I know about Himura-san, my father told me," Akira said slyly, watching for Kenji's reaction. "What are you even doing in this dojo? Why aren't you learning your father's style? That must be pretty insulting. At least I assume it is, since your heart isn't in this style. It never is!"

Yahiko had taken a step forward, his eyes blazing. The other students watched the exchange in shock, whispering amongst themselves. "That's enough Akira-san. I will not allow this kind of disrespect. You will leave this dojo now. You are suspended for one month."

Akira merely sneered, taking pleasure in the visible tremble in Kenji's shinai. "Fine Sensei, whatever. But we have a fight to finish here, don't we?"

"Your lesson is over for today," Yahiko bit out.

"No, it isn't." Kenji's voice was low, with an odd note to it Akira had never heard before. "Akira, if my speed bothers you…get over it."

The attack came with the swiftness of lightning. Somewhere in the middle of it, Akira registered that Kenji's relatively fragile bamboo shinai had been replaced with a solid wood bokken. However, he had no time to wonder how on earth the other boy had gone over to the wall and traded weapons without him seeing. In the next instant, both the weapon and Kenji had vanished. Then Kenji's bokken hit his helmet hard from above, and Akira's mask shattered, as if it were no stronger than an eggshell. Kenji’s weapon continued on its downward path, striking his collarbone and driving against it with tremendous pressure. Akira felt himself fall to the floor, and then *through* it, the world going black around him.

He looked up into Kenji's face, somehow now without a mask on it. His consciousness gave out then, leaving him only with the memory of a pair of enraged golden eyes.

~*~

The next several seconds, only Kenji’s harsh breathing could be heard in the dojo. The students stood speechless, staring at their sensei with a mixture of awe and fear. Yahiko’s face was unreadable. Only his trembling fist, clenched at his side, betrayed his anger. Slowly, he turned to face the class. “I need one of you to run for the doctor immediately.” A nervous hand, one of Akira’s friends, went up in the back of the group. “Thank you, Takao-san. The rest of you are dismissed for the day.”

The students hurriedly gathered their things and headed for the door, shooting nervous glances over their shoulders at Kenji as they left. Yahiko knelt by Akira and pried the unconscious boy from the shallow crater in the dojo floor. Laying him down gently, he began untying his armor. “Kenji, please help me with this.”

He looked over at the boy, who was still standing in the same place, his bokken slack in his fingers, face white with shock.

“Kenji!”

The other boy blinked and started, his breathing rapid. He glanced at Akira, then away again. He couldn’t look Yahiko in the eye. “I…Yahiko-san…”

“We’ll discuss this later. He seems to be okay, it looks like you broke his collarbone though. Help me please.”

Kenji knelt down shakily. They worked in uneasy silence, a wide gulf between them.

~*~

Hours later, Yahiko resolutely poured himself a cup of sake. Kenji just stared at the table.

"You know, today started out as a good day."

Kenji winced.

"I woke up, had some of Tsubame's cooking. I even got her to watch the kids tonight so I could spend the evening with you. But a certain foolish little brother of mine had to go and ruin it. And as much as I'd like to blame the whole thing on Sanosuke, I know that's not it."

Kenji swallowed and looked out at the bustling night crowd of the Akabeko. "I'm sorry."

"Are you? I don't think I'm wrong in guessing that pummeling Akira into the floor felt pretty good. Goodness knows I've wanted to do the same thing more than once. But there's a difference between you and me. I'd like you to guess what it is."

"Yahiko-san…"

"Just humor me, Kenji. What's the difference?"

The boy sighed and picked at his pickled daikon. “You wouldn't have acted on the desire."

"That's right. Kenji, I understand your feelings toward Hiten Mitsurugi. But I had to accept a long time ago that it was Kenshin's right to pass on the style if he so wished. And I respect him enough—and I learned to understand the nature of his vow well enough—that I finally gave up on that dream. Akira had no right to say that to you today, but you shouldn't have risen to the bait either."

Now Kenji’s anger flared. "But Yahiko-san, he's right. I don't belong in this style. It's so obvious!"

"It doesn't matter. I know you understand the ramifications of what you did today. Until now, the other boys have looked up to you and respected your skill. But from now on they will fear you."

Kenji’s face was pained. "…I know."

"What’s worse, now word will spread. By the end of the week every one of our students will know what you did to Akira. I'll probably be hearing from his parents tomorrow, and the blame will be placed on me, because I am responsible for you while we are in that dojo. We’ll certainly lose Akira as a student, as well as his friends and younger brothers. Not to mention the trouble this could bring to Kenshin, since Harada-san obviously knows who he is. Oh yes, I’m sure Kaoru will just love to hear all this when she gets home.” He rubbed his temples, trying in vain to ward off a tension headache. “Kenji, you’re looking at a dead man, right here.”

The boy sighed. “You know, all this lecturing really isn’t helping that much.”

Yahiko glared at him. "What's happened to you recently? Last year I couldn’t even have imagined you attacking someone like that. You’ve changed, especially since you went to Kyoto, and I want to know why."

~*~

Sano sighed in relief when he stumbled into the Akabeko to find Yahiko and Kenji already waiting for him. Tae was nowhere in sight, another plus. He didn't need that tab coming back to haunt him any sooner than necessary.

He plopped down tiredly on the tatami flooring of the booth and pushed off his shoes. "Hey, how'd the lesson go?"

He didn't get a response. He looked up to find Yahiko and Kenji glaring resentfully at each other. Yahiko took a deliberate sip of sake; Kenji reached over for a piece of daikon, popping it into his mouth without ever removing his gaze from Yahiko.

Sano took this in with some surprise. "What's going on, guys?"

Yahiko wordlessly moved over for him and Sano settled into his spot gratefully. Yahiko finally broke eye contact with Kenji to look over at him. "Where the hell have you been? You're even more of a mess than earlier."

Sano frowned. "Hey, I was a little busy. I got here as quickly as I could, okay?"

Kenji looked amused. “Busy with what, a fight?”

Sano brushed road dust and what appeared to be thin shards of metal from his cloak. “Yeah, but I’m not talking about it on an empty stomach. I haven’t eaten in almost two days. It’s getting kind of ridiculous.” He waved down a waitress, who was dressed in a frilly Western-style outfit that reminded him strongly of England. Idly, Sano wondered when the uniform had changed from the traditional kimono he remembered. “Sake, and the meatiest dish you’ve got. Actually, make that two.”

“Uh…yes sir,” she said nervously before hurrying away.

Sano smiled at his companions. “I guess I do look pretty bad. She reminds me of Tsubame-chan. Hey, is she still in town?”

Yahiko managed a small, genuine smile. “She’s my wife.”

Sano blinked at him for a moment, before breaking in a wide grin. “Oh way to go, man!” He clapped Yahiko heartily on the back, nearly making him choke on his drink. “I always knew you’d get together. When did that happen?”

“A while ago,” Yahiko said quietly. He looked at Kenji and his smile faded. Sano could feel the tension between them. Something happened while I was out, something bad. Suddenly, the idea of hitting them with even more bad news about the men he’d run into seemed a bit cruel.

Sano stretched lazily, trying to ignore the ominous popping sounds in his joints. “Hey guys, let’s just relax like we’d originally planned to, okay? Whatever problems are going on, they can wait until later.”

Yahiko smiled ironically. “You mean until after we’re good and drunk and no longer care, right?”

Sano laughed, and it fully hit him just how good it felt be back among friends again. “Sounds good to me!”

The food arrived and Sano dove into it immediately. Oh, I’m in Heaven. “Damn, this place is even better than I remembered!” On a whim, he shoved his sake across the table at Kenji. “Here, drink up kid, I’ll get myself another one.”

Kenji glanced uncertainly at Yahiko. “Uh…I’m not really allowed…“

Yahiko sighed. “No, you’re not, but if you want to have some I won’t stop you tonight. This is our secret, right?”

Kenji looked at him a long moment, before smiling in cautious relief. He knew the problems from earlier hadn’t gone away, but for the moment Yahiko seemed willing to forget about them. “Yeah, it is.”

“Sano,” Yahiko asked almost casually as he poured himself another cup. “Who’s paying for all the food and sake you just ordered?”

Sano grinned almost evilly. “I don’t have any money, not in Japanese currency anyway.”

Yahiko’s eyes widened in horror. “Sanosuke! I didn’t bring that much with me!”

The former streetfighter, amused almost beyond words, inhaled the last of his second bowl. “Put it on your tab, then.”

“I don’t have a tab!”

“Will there be anything else, sir?” The waitress had returned. She was looking down at the empty bowls in some surprise.

Sano winked at Yahiko. “You do now.” He turned back to the waitress. “Three more shou of sake, and a big bowl of rice.”

The waitress smiled and hurried off.

Yahiko scowled and tried to ignore the fact that Kenji was quietly laughing at him. “You are paying me back for this Sano, one way or another.”

Sano grabbed Yahiko’s sake bottle and liberally poured himself some. “Yeah, yeah.”

~*~

The gathering darkness did little to hide the hulking group of men hanging around the outside of the Akabeko. They looked like tough men, the kind that were seen less and less often as the Meiji era progressed, and the people on the street gave them a wide berth. This of course suited the gathered thugs just fine; they didn’t want to attract attention just yet. One of them, the lookout, was watching the entrance of the Akabako intently.

“Are you sure he went in there?” one of his companions whispered to him after nearly an hour.

“I saw him go in,” the watching man replied. “This is the place. Battousai is often spotted here, and the man with the headband came here right after the fight, so it’s likely that he really is a friend of the hitokiri.”

He could hear the doubtful frown in the other man’s voice. “Just going to a restaurant doesn’t prove anything.”

“Are you doubting Hayakawa-sama’s information?” one of the other men growled. “The connection’s already been proved. This just confirms it.”

The lookout man turned to the others. “Enough of this. We’re after Battousai, and when he eventually comes out, we'll secure him and bring him to Hayakawa-sama. Is that clear?”

The others murmured assent, hungry anticipation of a challenging fight gleaming in their eyes.

Falling back into disciplined silence, they settled down to wait.

TBC…

End notes: I've been a teacher, and I had a couple students that made me want to strangle them every time I saw them. Can you tell? ^^;; Hey, no one said writing couldn’t be therapeutic. Lots of Kenji-centered fighting next chapter, and more about his fateful journey to Kyoto; hopefully it won’t take me four months to finish. My sincere apologies for the ridiculous delay this time. It was from a combination of factors ranging from writer's block, to my own busy RL, to a busy beta-reader who juggles being a wife, a full-time employee and a full-time mom, to character development issues that took several rounds of beta-ing to resolve. Large amounts of the character depth in this chapter owe themselves to Ranma-chan's amazing beta skills. *hugs* You're the best! Okay, that's enough for now, see you next time, hopefully sooner rather than later!
  • Oooooh. Great chapter. I wish I could have really attacked some of the disrespectful students at my Taekwondo school like Kenji did! I'm looking forward to the next chapter! It looks like it's going to be good!!
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