Spring. Wonderful season. Cherry blossoms everywhere, floating prettily along the river. Stuck in his hair. Getting underfoot. Myojin Yahiko, first apprentice and the modestly self-proclaimed best practitioner of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, kicked them up into the air with a viciousness usually reserved for the idiot villains who seemed to turn up to the dojo on a weekly basis. He had better things to do. It was spring. But Kaoru had pounced on him with a manic gleam in her eye which told him that any chore she could possibly offload onto him, she would.
So here he was, caught in cleverly disguised slavery, stomping off to the markets on yet another errand. He was beginning to think his instructor had agreed to teach him just so she could have an excuse to slack off herself. If Kenshin wasn’t there, he’d probably find himself laden with the cooking and the laundry as well. Yahiko muttered darkly to himself along the path, wondering just when she’d give him a break.
“Clean the dojo, Yahiko.” Stomp. “Heat the furo, Yahiko.” Stomp. “Get the tofu, Yahiko.” His voice screeched higher, in what Yahiko thought was a passable impersonation of the slave driver in question. He paused on the roadway, hand on his hip as he flapped the empty tofu bucket about, batting his eyelashes.
“I work my feet off giving lessons to other dojos just so I can feed you freeloaders, Yahiko,” he mimicked. “Now hurry on off to town so I can spend some time alone with the clueless samurai washing laundry in my yard.” He gave the blossoms along the ground another kick, swirling them up in eddies around him. “Hag!”
A terrified squeak brought him back to earth with a jolt. Aside from being probably just a little unfair to his teacher, his over-exaggerated impersonation would make him look like a prize idiot. He turned with a guilty look as the sakura rained down around him, and came face to face with two small girls, one peering around the other as they stared at him wide-eyed.
“Ayame-chan, Suzume-chan.” Yahiko gulped, and gave them a smile, running a hand through his spiked hair to clear it of petals. He blinked in surprise. They were alone.
“Yahiko’s sick!” Ayame announced.
“Huh?” Yahiko gazed at her in puzzlement. “Why am I sick?”
“You're talking funny.”
“Taaalking funny!” came the expected echo from Suzume.
“…Yeah. Sick,” he muttered. “Ayame-chan, Suzume-chan, where is Genzai-sensei?” As one, they pointed further down the path. When his gaze followed, he saw the doctor, talking quietly to a woman he didn’t recognise. Well, as long as he wasn’t too far away. “I have to go,” he grinned at them. “I’ve gotta pick up some stuff for Kaoru.”
They grinned back, faces lighting up in a way which made him think his errand was about to get more complicated.
Oh, yeah. Complicated. They were bored. Genzai was following up the path to the Kamiya dojo while Yahiko was walking down, and when they met, the girls demanded to accompany him back to the markets. The old doctor took one look at the condemned look on Yahiko’s face and took pity on him, giving a small smile as he took the hands of his granddaughters. Wouldn’t they rather come and visit the dojo, and help Kenshin-san with the laundry?
No, as it turned out. They turned doleful looks on him, and Yahiko all of a sudden felt guilty. No point in taking his childish bad mood out on two little girls. And maybe they’d make the trip a little more interesting, right? So in the end, he smiled graciously and offered to take them along. It wouldn’t be a problem. It was hardly as if Ayame and Suzume would cause any trouble along the journey.
As it was, they didn’t. But if they hadn’t been there, the excursion for tofu would likely have run just a tad more smoothly.
It was the cat. Mangy little thing it was, clearly belonging to no-one, weaving deftly and secretly between the legs of the customers, sniffing at the ground; probably starving, in Yahiko’s estimate. He upgraded the ‘probably’ to a ‘definitely’ when it paused by the butcher to tilt its nose to the air, flick its tail, and jump up onto the meat stand. Interrupting the sale between the meat vendor and a portly woman, the cat snagged a lean piece of beef with needle sharp teeth and – before the astonished merchant could react – dragged it to the ground, intent on vanishing into the nearest alley with its prize.
The woman screamed. Yahiko paused to watch, the girls on either side, as the merchant finally let out a roar of fury and leapt his own counter to chase down the mangy cat as it tried to dart between legs, hampered by the size of the meat caught in its teeth. Frankly, Yahiko admired the audacity of the little thief. In the end, the cat was forced to drop its meal in an attempt to evade the angry vendor, which was a shame.
Dragged through the dirt, the beef was spoiled beyond any hope of sale. Unheeding of the proximity of small children, the merchant swore colourfully and lifted one foot back to kick the poor creature solidly in the ribs. Yahiko winced as the cat went flying, hitting the side of a stall with a yowl. It shook itself, tail in the air, staggered a little, and then darted off between stalls before the merchant could hit it again.
Poor cat. Yahiko stared after it, smiling ruefully. Suzume burst into tears, hiding her face in the kimono of her older sister. Ayame looked at him with wide eyes, a solemn look of expectancy on her face.
He considered the empty tofu bucket for a moment, sighed, and leaned down to scoop the forgotten meat into it. Then he gave the bucket to Ayame and took both of them by the hand, tugging them in the direction the cat had vanished.
By luck, they found the feline in question licking the dust from its coat, curled in the corner of an alleyway. Still spooked by the merchant’s brutal retaliation, the cat jerked its head up as Suzume gave a squeal of discovery, and took off at a sprint before Yahiko could offer it dinner.
“Oie!” Yahiko cursed. “Baka neko.” Still, he couldn’t blame it for bolting. How was the cat to know that two yelling, trampling girls weren’t trying to land their feet in its ribs? So he followed, running lightly behind the fleeing cat, figuring he’d catch it at the next corner …
… Okay, maybe the next …
… Maybe the alleyway …
… Damn cat.
He lost track of time, of course, stubbornly hunting the cat down in an attempt to be charitable and feed it. When he saw the pink and orange glow of sunset, Yahiko stopped short and cursed softly under his breath. Kaoru would have expected him back half an hour ago. Their mad chase had taken them all the way down to the riverbank, and he still hadn’t bought the tofu. If he didn’t hurry home soon, he could expect to have an instructor on the warpath, heading into the streets of Tokyo to stalk an errant student. He gave a nervous look over one shoulder, half expecting to see her streak out of a side street with bokken in hand, shrieking about his irresponsibility.
Particularly as he still had Genzai’s grandchildren with him. Suzume was scratching one foot with the other, looking asleep on her feet. “We should go back. The cat doesn’t wanna be fed.”
“Does!” corrected Ayame almost cheerfully, pointing ahead. He refrained from giving her a glare – couldn’t she just forget about the cat? – when he turned to see what she was pointing at and saw a tail vanish, between the gaps left by warped timber of a dilapidated hut further up the riverbank. Yahiko eyed it dubiously – he doubted anyone lived there, considering the amount of rotted away holes in the planking there were. Abandoned to the elements, maybe. It was true that the cat had cornered itself, sneaking into such a place – but there was no way he’d let Ayame or Suzume anywhere near it.
“I think we should leave the cat alone,” he said hopefully. “And go home before your granddad misses us.” If he got the tofu and headed home now, he’d be forgiven, right?
Two pairs of reproachful eyes stared at him.
Yahiko sighed. “Alright, alright. Stay here and don’t move. Got it?”
He took the tofu bucket and its cargo away from Ayame and walked down to the hut, peering dubiously at the door. Out of a sense of propriety he knocked once, keeping an eye out for a panicked cat fleeing through the gaps by his feet. When there was no response, he tried the door, and found that it opened easily.
It was dark inside, bar the light that made its way through various holes. An abandoned building, large enough for two small rooms. Water dripped occasionally from the ceiling, which was impressive as the sky had been clear for some time. There had to be water trapped above him somewhere. No prizes to guess as to why this place was abandoned – he was no carpenter, and even he could see the shoddy workmanship involved in its creation. He moved gingerly across the floor. The timber beneath his feet was rotted. There were signs that people had been here recently – probably, the place was used as a squat at night – and that gave him the hope that it was safe enough to investigate. It also caused him to hurry. Two small children just down the riverbank shouldn’t be in such a place.
There was a faint meow from the other room. Aha! Yahiko peered round the doorway and found the ball of fur with its foot stuck inelegantly in the air, cleaning its underbelly. He had no great desire to chase it madly around the room. Instead, he put the tofu bucket down gently, lifted the meat in his fingers and dangled it around the corner with a low whistle.
Oh, yes. Definitely a starving animal. Yahiko grinned as the cat’s ears twitched up. A moment later, the mangy animal padded hungrily forward, tentatively reaching out to lick the meat once, and then tug at it with a delicate grip. Yahiko reached with his other hand, and swept the cat off the floor, intent on taking it outside so the girls could see he’d fulfilled his mission. Maybe then they’d tell Kaoru what a charitable thing he’d done, and being a girl herself she’d go all mushy and let him off the hook—
The cat had other ideas, of course. He yelped as ungrateful claws caught him across the nose, and suddenly it wasn’t so much trying to keep hold of the animal as it was trying to detach a roiling, homicidal ball of teeth and claws from the front of his gi. He staggered in a circle, meat forgotten as it fell from his hand and concentrated fully on saving his clothes – not to mention himself – from further damage.
At least, he did so until he was distracted by the quite considerable shock of his foot going straight through the floorboards. He yelled at his foot turned, painfully, falling to the side to hit the dividing wall. The wood gave readily under his weight, and he leaned against the splintered edges for a moment as he tried to work his foot free from the damp, unidentifiable muck below. The cat clung to his gi for a moment more, and then dropped to the ground.
And attacked the meat near his feet, as if nothing had happened.
“Baka neko,” he hissed. A thin stream of water cascaded down onto his head, startling him into looking up. The timber of the wall had broken away at the top, and without the extra support, the ceiling had splintered in turn under the weight of its contents, dropping tiny chips of wood to bounce off his shoulders. Yahiko’s eyes widened and he yanked at the foot caught in the floorboards.
He managed to pull it halfway from the hole before the ceiling collapsed inward, raining wood and collected water down on his head.
At least, in some suicidal form of gallantry, he remembered to curl his arms around the cat and its meal, sheltering it as the roof came down on them both.
He came awake again at the sound of chewing, and blinked eyes open in the dim light to catch sight of the cat, calmly finishing its meal in the protective circle of his arms. There was light, which was a blessing, he supposed. The sun was still in the process of setting, and he was obviously very much alive. He listened for the sound of the girls, and wondered if they were screaming out there thinking he might be dead, but there was silence. Hopefully that meant they’d gone for help.
He tried to shift, and then realised why he hurt. There was something he couldn’t quite catch sight of pinning him quite mercilessly to the ground beneath him. He felt the wet dirt soaking through his gi, and realised he’d half collapsed through the rotten floor as well. The weight across his chest was bruising, but it didn’t come anywhere near to the crushing pain in his foot. He could still hear the faint trickle of water as it made its slow way to the ground, and tried futilely not to imagine slowly drowning, pinned almost face first in the muck.
The damn cat was, of course, fine. Not pinned at all, stretching between his arms as if collapsing buildings were a regular occurrence in its life. He almost panicked when it leaned forward to sniff at his fingers and then nip at the ends, half convinced that the cat was starved enough to try human flesh, and then realised it was just chasing the left over juice from the meat he’d held.
Something shifted and slid, pushing down on him just that little bit more.
Well, this can’t be good.
The cat shook itself clear of dust, giving him the burning desire to cough. Then it wormed its way out from debris through a gap near his hand and vanished from sight. He could hear the scratch of its claws as it traveled across the weight above him. He was cursing it unfairly for its abandonment of him when he heard the faint, almost uninterested meow above.
Yahiko tried to push against the weight, and gave up shortly afterward; not only did the effort cause his foot to flare in agony, but his struggle had caused something else to shift and move, and he froze.
S’alright. The girls have gone for help. If I just sit still, someone will come and dig me out eventually.
And if Kaoru was still mad at him for being late, at least he had a damn good excuse.
“I could use it all the time,” he explained faintly. “Just think. Next time she wants me to wash the floor … I could … collapse the roof and she’d …freak …”
Not that anyone was listening to his babbling. At least, nobody human. A faint meow sounded from above him. He grinned, and tried not to worry about the increasing, ice cold dampness spreading through his gi. The water was collecting around him. What a stupid way to go.
“You know …” His tone was conversational. “From one thief … to another … you really suck at stealing stuff. You’re meant to … do it when nobody’s watching.”
He shut up after that, tapping his hand against the ground. Eventually, he muttered, “Baka neko.” He was rewarded with another faint meow above him.
Yahiko smiled, and lay still. The cat curled above him somewhere in the gathering darkness, purring softly to itself.
He was going to strangle it when he got free
Eventually, he heard a yell from someone he vaguely recognised, and the sound of running footsteps. The sun had set not too long ago, and the flare of light from a carried lantern was gratifying. He heard the meow of the cat again, and the faint scratch of its claws. A moment later, it yowled, somewhere close by.
And then, with a vast sense of relief, he heard Sano’s voice. “Oie, Yahiko. You wanna yell in pain or something if you’re still alive under there?”
“Or something,” he muttered dourly.
“Just hang on a second.”
“Take the smaller pieces away first, Sano.” And that was Kenshin, a thread of worry in his soft voice. “Yahiko, are you all right?”
“I think my foot’s broken,” was his muffled response. “And you better hurry… I’m gonna drown otherwise. Did the girls run … all the way to the … dojo or something?”
“We ran into them not far from here. Kaoru-dono sent us to find you.” He sounded almost sheepish. “She was worried about you.”
The load was getting lighter, making it easier to breathe. Yahiko grinned in the darkness, confident of his pending freedom. And finally, the weight was removed altogether, and hands caught him gently and turned him over. He blinked in the lamplight at their worried faces.
Well, Kenshin’s worried face, at any rate. Sano looked like he was trying not to laugh. His hair and face were streaked with dust and water, and his clothes were utterly drenched, not to mention filthy. Suppose I do look funny. Yahiko glowered at him for a second, and then promptly forgot to be mad as Kenshin’s careful fingers took hold of his foot. Instead, he shrieked. “Ow!”
“Forgive me, Yahiko. Your foot was twisted and caught in the floorboards. I need to pull it all the way out.”
He tried to distract himself by staring around for the cat. He was going to strangle the cat. Near deaths via burial and drowning were not worth the gallantry of feeding a stray cat. He caught sight of it just at the edge of the lantern’s light, weaving around the legs of Suzume, purring with satisfaction. The two girls were silent, staring at him with solemn faces. He supposed they hadn’t had time to be escorted home. Yahiko smiled reassuringly at them. “I’m okay, Ayame-chan, Suzume-chan. I—ah! Kenshin, be careful!”
“The ankle is badly sprained, and you caught your toes on the edge of the timber, I think,” Kenshin murmured. He smiled apologetically. “Two of them are broken. Are you hurt anywhere else?”
“Just bruising, I think,” he muttered.
“I’ll take the girls home,” Sano said matter-of-factly over his head as he helped Yahiko to sit up. “You take the kid back to the dojo. I’ll send the fox your way, yeah?”
And a few minutes later, Yahiko found himself on Kenshin’s back, arms around his neck, trudging for home. It was humiliating to be carried like a child, but his demand to be allowed to walk home like a man had ended abruptly when he tried to put all his weight on his bad foot and howled like a baby. Embarrassing enough. He supposed he could live with the lift home.
“Forgot to kill the cat,” he muttered. The cat had wisely departed some time ago. He hoped he never saw it again.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” he said sulkily. His foot hurt. Kenshin’s back was too comfortably warm; damned if he was going to fall asleep before he got home. He wasn’t Suzume, after all.
After a while, Kenshin spoke again. “You’ll have to stay off your foot for a while, Yahiko. I’ll let Kaoru-dono know.”
“Hnn,” he agreed tiredly. “Guess that means I can’t clean the dojo.”
He took encouragement from that. “And I won’t be able to heat up the furo, or help with the cooking.”
”No,” Kenshin agreed solemnly.
“No tofu trips. Actually … I guess I better take it easy for a while.” Yahiko yawned, resting his cheek against the back of the faded, magenta gi.
“True … Yahiko? What happened to the tofu bucket?”
There was no response, bar the faint sound of a ten-year-old’s snore.