Everyone in the room jerked out of whatever private reveries they has been lost in and stared at me with varying expressions of confusion and annoyance. Hikaru alone didn't jump, but rather just gave me a mildly reproving look. Ever since Sir Okina had been brought home after being badly injured by the Oniwaban's previous leader, Aoshi Shinomori, an air of tension had hung over everyone at the Aoiya. We all were just waiting. Waiting for news from the mountain, waiting for Okina to regain consciousness, waiting for something to break and doing nothing. I couldn't stand it any longer.
"I'm going to go find out what is going on up there."
I saw a few looks exchanged. Hikaru delicately folded her graceful hands in to her lap and said placidly, "Yukiyo, I do not pretend to know anything about swordsmanship, but if it is anything like other skills, re-training takes time."
Misao nodded in agreement with the older woman, her braid swinging behind her, "Yeah, and Master Hiko said he didn't want us interfering!"
"And I sure wouldn't want to cross that guy!" Yahiko chimed in emphatically. Misao and Kaoru were both quick to echo his sentiment.
"Kenshin does not need to be 're-trained'," I said, standing up and brushing out my dark blue kendo pants, "He is already one of the best swordsmen in all of Japan. He only needed to complete his training." Unless that self-absorbed, arrogant bastard decided to make an issue out of it and make Kenshin regret leaving fifteen years ago, I thought darkly as I turned and pulled open the door leading to the hallway and stairs.
Before leaving, I glanced furtively over my shoulder back at the small gathering of my friends. None of them were watching me, instead they were trying too hard to be interested in something else. At least they were all wise enough to know they wouldn't be able to stop me.
As I passed by Okina's room, I paused to lean in the open door to find Ochika there, silently watching the old man.
"Is he any better?" I whispered.
She shook her head sadly, "No."
I stood in awkward silence for a few moments before asking, "I'm sorry, Ochika-san, but may I borrow your cloak? I need to run an… errand and would rather if my katana was not visible to draw attention to me." Especially considering where this errand might lead me. I thought wryly.
Ochika gave me a strange look before nodding and telling me where to find the garment in question. I thanked her and bowed my head slightly in respect and appreciation before quickly exiting and climbing the stairs to the guest room that I had been sharing with Kenshin.
Minutes later I was striding swiftly down the crowded streets of Kyoto towards the mountains, my katana carefully concealed beneath the folds of Ochika's Oniwaban cloak. I received no more than a few casual glances in my direction and soon the crowd began to thin out, city giving way to countryside. Before long, I found myself on the trail up into the mountains leading to Hiko's little homestead. As I drew closer, I saw smoke curling up above the tree line - the master's kiln. So, the almighty potter was at least at home - but, a thought occurred to me - not training with Kenshin. I felt a nervous twitch in my stomach at this and quickened my step.
I came out from beneath the cool canopy of the trees to find Seijuro Hiko's wide back half turned to me. He was holding a kiln paddle with several pieces of pottery on it as if the thing was feather light. Without his arm muscles so much as quivering, he slid the delicate pieces into the kiln before setting the paddle carefully down, turning with a great sweeping of his snow white cape, and glaring at me, "I thought I told you to stay off my mountain, girl."
I snorted, "It isn't your mountain." My eyes swept the scene - no sign of Kenshin anywhere. The feeling in my stomach grew worse and I swallowed to ease my dry throat, "Where is Kenshin?"
The giant man turned full towards me and my next words died in my throat in a gasp, forgotten. Above the open neckline of the master's blue shirt, a wicked scar of the like I had never seen before was visible. It disappeared underneath his shirt, but I had seen enough of injury to know that it likely ran the length of his broad torso. Unable to keep my expression neutral, I gaped at him before managing to find my voice again.
"Master Hiko, what in the hell happened to give you a wound like that?!"
He grunted and took a long drink from the sake jug he always carried, "My stupid apprentice happened. The idiot learned the succession technique and then was so selfish as to refuse the title of Seijuro Hiko the 14th." He snorted in contempt.
I twitched at his insults to Kenshin - I had known he had no intention of becoming the reigning master and Hiko's attitude towards him always annoyed me - but continued to stare at the scar. If the final technique of Hiten Mitsurugi had the kind of power to leave a mark like that, even if the swordsman was using a reverse blade sword, it must truly be an attack beyond words. However, since Hiko seemed to be in no way suffering from his injury, I continued pressing the matter at hand.
"He is not an idiot and you didn't answer my question. Where is he?" I repeated.
Hiko shrugged and sat down on the bench beside the kiln, "How should I know where that fool has gone? To make a mockery of what he just learned, I suppose."
"You promised me you wouldn't let him go off to fight on his own." I said in a chilly tone through clenched teeth. "When did he go?"
Hiko somehow accomplished the feat of staring down his nose at me while sitting down, "He left this morning after having the nerve to ask me to do more for him. Why are you so worried, girl? He may be an idiot, but now he is a virtually unbeatable one. Just believe in him." He said, completely contradicting his own voiced opinions of Kenshin.
I regarded him with a steely gaze, "My name isn't 'girl', it's Yuki. And I don't worry just for him, I worry for me because I could not bear it if I were to lose him again!" I said, regretting it the moment the words were out of my mouth.
I felt the heat rising in my cheeks at the expression on Hiko's face - amusement. In an effort to keep what little was left of my dignity, I whirled in a flurry of fabric and walked straight shouldered swiftly away from the homestead.
"Damn the man!" I swore once I was out of his hearing. How did he always manage to get me in a temper - something few could do - and make me say things I kept so carefully concealed from everyone else. Things I scarcely admitted to myself like my last outburst.
I continued walking and added darkly, "Damn you too, Kenshin Himura." He had done this deliberately, I was sure. He always went to lengths to make sure that his was the only life risked. Some would call it selflessness, I called it martyrdom and it had always been one of the very few sore points between us.
I knew where my next destination had to be, but I loathed the thought of going there. The Kyoto Prefecture Police Department, into the den of the wolf - to see Hajime Saitoh.
I came to a stop in front of the large building and took a deep breath, making sure for about the fifth time that my katana was carefully hidden. Of all the places an ex-Ishin member and criminal didn't want to be. There was no help for it, I had to find Kenshin as soon as possible. Had to. Desperation was beginning to set in - nothing else in this world would drive me to meet with this man. I pushed the door open and entered the shadowy front room.
The plump officer who blinked at me in surprise from behind the desk looked like had not been up off his rear end since the Revolution ended. Easy to deal with. I strode purposely up to the desk and drew myself up as I had been long ago taught to give the illusion that I was someone of standing, despite the stains on my kendo pants and dust on my feet.
"I wish to see Inspector H.. er, Goro Fujita immediately, please." I said, remembering just in time to use the wretched man's fake name.
The fat chief, for that is what he was, continued to blink stupidly at me for a moment before inclining his head just enough and mumbling, "Inspector Fujita is not here, Miss. Come back later." He turned his chair away from me.
I narrowed my eyes at this blatant dismissal, but kept my calm tone, "Can you tell me where he has gone?"
"Confidential police business, Miss." The chief said in a bored tone from behind his papers.
I did not have time for this. I brought my knuckles down sharply on the desk, making the man jump - something that would have been a funny sight in other circumstances, "Please tell me where Inspector Fujita is, now." I said with more calm than I felt.
Before the fat man could get over his surprise and answer, a voice behind me drawled, "Weeellll, if it ain't Battousai's protective little woman."
I whirled around to see Chou the Swordhunter being escorted in chains by two large cops. In the madness of the days past, I had completely forgotten that this is where the man had been brought after being thoroughly beaten by Kenshin at the temple. He smirked at me and continued, "I thought you might be a'showing up with yer old mother-hen tendencies."
Ignoring this jibe, I strode up to the captured Juppongatana member and glared up at him, "What do you know, swordhunter?" I demanded without preamble, oblivious to the protests of the guards trying to keep me away from this "very dangerous prisoner."
The tall blonde man regarded me with one eye before shrugging, "You cain't catch them up, Hen. Your precious Battousai, Willow Head, and that stupid Rooster Head left for Osaka to fight Lord Shishio hours ago."
I froze as this information sank in, a horrible feeling of déjà vu creeping through my body unwelcomed. The sneering jerk obviously found whatever my expression was to be very funny because he laughed cruelly and crooned, "What's wrong, Hen, cain't go chasing after him this time?"
"Get off it, Broomhead." I said smoothly, recovering myself a bit and cutting off his laughter with an insult similar to the ones he obviously loved. "Where have the - " I was abruptly cut off as the fat chief unexpectedly latched onto my arm and began dragging me backwards away from Chou.
"Miss, I really must insist that you stay away from this dangerous man!"
"Let me go." I demanded in annoyance, fighting against his weight advantage. "This man knows the information I came here for."
"No Miss, he is a madman. What he says is nonsense. Come away from him!" He said, jerking me hard enough to bruise my upper arm.
That did it. Twisting, I wrenched my arm out of his grasp using one of my more simple martial arts maneuvers. Simple, but effective.
I heard the man swear behind me as I turned back to the swordhunter just in time to hear him say, "Sayonara, Hen.", as the door to the cell block slammed behind him and his escorts. In my brief struggle with the chief, the officers had taken advantage of my distraction to get Chou back behind closed doors. I swore colorfully and the chief gaped. I didn't care. My only source of information was gone. I could not follow them. My shoulders slumped as this realization sank in and the feeling of déjà vu turned into panic.
I felt the chief put his hand back on my shoulder and say in a strange tone, "Miss…"
"Take your hand off me." I muttered in a tone that could have cut glass. The man jerked his hand back as if it had been bitten. I knew it wasn't his fault, he was just doing what he thought was his job, but he had still made me miss my only chance. Ignoring his babbling in response to all my actions, I made quickly for the door to the street. I badly needed air.
Out in front of the building, the panic nearly consumed me. It was so like last time. He had left me to "save me", with no way for me to follow. Why? Why did he always have to be such a damned martyr!? If anything should happen to him…
"Oh, calm down, Sasaki." I told myself, shaking my head firmly and causing several passerby to stare. I took several deep breaths and my reason began to take over. Chou had said Willow Head and Rooster Head. Certainly Willow Head had to be a reference to Saitoh's ridiculous spider-like bangs. And, I hoped beyond hope that Rooster Head might be Sanosuke.
There had been no sign or word of him since we had all arrived in Kyoto well over a week ago. Yahiko had told me how furious he had been about Kenshin's leaving. I had winced at the time - Sano had taken it as a personal insult. Yahiko had also filled me in on his second match with Saitoh and his desire to be stronger.
"The last time I saw him, he was running off into the woods to catch up with you and Kenshin." Yahiko had said, "I hope that idiot didn't get in some trouble with that attitude. I mean, he was taking out trees." He had finished, his umber eyes wide.
"Me too." I had agreed, "Or gotten himself thoroughly lost. We know our Sano can be a bit of a blunt chopstick!"
The two of us had laughed at the time, but we all had really begun to worry about our hot-tempered friend as the week went on. If he was indeed with Kenshin now, that was some relief.
"And if both Saitoh and Sanosuke are with Kenshin, then he hasn't gone off to be the only sacrifice." I whispered to myself, closing my eyes momentarily in silent thanks. Perhaps, whatever the matter was, it had been too urgent for him to have time to return to the Aoiya. If Chou spoke the truth - he had no reason to lie - and it was indeed something to do with Shishio's horrible plotting, this was surely the case. The police station was much closer to the mountains after all.
Feeling the anger and panic of the afternoon lifting, I squared my shoulders and waded back into the crowded streets to return to the Aoiya with my news, unaware that in just a few hours all hell was going to break loose in the city of Kyoto.