Yahiko's sandals made a satisfying amount of noise as he dragged his feet, wending his way through the market. Kaoru had sent him to buy tofu... she was always sending him to buy tofu.
"I don't know why I always have to be the one to run her errands," he muttered to himself, emphasizing the "I" with a defiant scuff-slap! of his shoe. "'Yahiko! Go buy some tofu!' she tells me. 'Yahiko! Run this over to Tae-san,' she tells me. 'Yahiko! Go tell Maekawa-sensei I can't make it to practice today.' Ugly old hag... what does she think I am?!" Scuff-slap! Scuff-slap! Scuff-slap! Each time he mimicked Kaoru he punctuated his words with another scrape of his sandals. "I'm a Tokyo Samurai! Not an errand boy! Kaoru no baka!"
Soft laughter sounded at this loud proclamation, bringing a slight flush to his cheeks. He followed the sound to a wizened old woman who watched him with sparkling eyes as she tended her vegetable stall.
"Konnichiwa, Obaachan," he mumbled.
"Konnichiwa," she returned, laughter still trickling through her voice. "It sounds like your sister is giving you some trouble."
"Who?" he asked, surprised.
"This Kaoru you were complaining about. The one you say is an idiot. Isn't she your sister?"
"Kaoru? My sister?! Heck, no!" Yahiko laughed aloud at the thought.
"Hmmmmm? Who is she then?" The voice and eyes were curious.
"She's just someone who bosses me around all the time. Yahiko do this! Yahiko do that!" He gestured wildly with the tofu tub as he talked, shaking it commandingly first to the right, then to the left.
"That certainly sounds like a sister," the old woman commented, laughter once again apparent in her voice.
"Iiiiiiiiie!" Yahiko's voice was strident. "She's not my sister! She's an ugly, bossy, know-it-all!"
"All right, all right," the old woman soothed, "she's not your sister. So why do you have to do what she says?"
Yahiko paused at that. Not do what Kaoru says? "It's just easier to go along with her, than to argue with her about it." His voice was faintly defensive. "Even Kenshin and Sano do what she says... mostly."
"Hmmmmm?" The old woman's gaze was clear, making him uncomfortable. What did it matter why he did what Kaoru said? She was still bossy.
"Ano... I better get going. Kaoru will come looking if I don't get back soon." He waited for the old woman to nod and smile in acceptance, and then resumed his trip to the tofu vendor.
Kaoru will come looking... for some reason the words seemed to stick in his head, although he'd long since become accustomed to Kaoru fussing over him. When he first came to the Kamiya dojo, it'd seemed strange for people to pay attention to and worry about him. Not since his mother died had anyone seemed to care. He was a loner... why were they sticking their noses into his business? Why should he do what they said? Slowly, though, he had come to expect it, to like it... and to resent it when someone else took that attention away.
Sulking, still damp from the rain, he sat on the steps leading up to the temple. In the background he could hear Yutarou's voice as he grunted with exertion, and Kaoru's giving instructions. He didn't like it, not one bit. Until Yutarou had come along, Yahiko had been the only student at the Kamiya dojo; he'd had all of Kaoru's attention. He'd been the best. Now he wasn't so sure. Kaoru was spending a lot of time with Yutarou, and he was improving really fast. As he'd watched the other boy practice earlier, Yahiko'd begun to worry that maybe he wasn't so good, after all. Maybe Yutarou was better... maybe Kaoru liked him more.
It didn't help that Kenshin seemed to be paying a lot of attention to Yutarou, too. Yahiko sighed.
"Oi, Yahiko, what are you doin' sitting out here?" He felt Sano's hand on his shoulder, and then the big man joined him on the step.
"Nothing." Yahiko's voice was sullen as he shrugged Sano's hand off. Sano didn't seem to mind, simply leaning back, resting his elbows a few steps up from the one on which they sat.
"Are you sure? You seem kind of upset about something."
Yahiko was silent, but Sano was willing to wait. He had a good idea what was bothering the boy, he just needed to get him to talk about it. They sat silently for several minutes, watching the lingering clouds overhead.
That didn't take long at all, Sano thought. "Aa."
"What do you think of Yutarou?"
Yep. I thought so. "I don't know... he's all right I guess. A little spoiled."
"No... I mean..." Yahiko let his voice trail off, hesitant and embarrassed about what he needed to know, but needing to know just the same.
"You want to know if I think he's better at this sword stuff than you?" Yahiko nodded. "I don't know. Does it matter?"
"Of course it matters!" Yahiko sat up a little straighter and glared at Sano for implying it didn't. His anger was just as suddenly defused when Sano simply quirked an eyebrow at him and said one word.
"Because... because..." Because Kaoru doesn't pay any attention to me anymore. What if she won't put up with me now that she's got another student, one that's better than me? His throat tightened. Maybe she won't let me stay.
"Baka!" Yahiko started at the harsh sound of Sano's voice. "You little blockhead. You don't really think it matters to Jou-chan which of you is better, do you?! Even if you could barely hold a sword she wouldn't care." Sano's voice softened a little. "You're part of the Kenshin-gumi, aren't you? You're our Yahiko. That's not going to change, and certainly not because some little rich kid can swing a shinai."
"No buts! Just because Jou-chan or Kenshin pays attention to someone else, doesn't mean they've forgotten about you." Sano's voice suddenly held a note of laughter in it. "I think our little Yahiko-chan has gotten a bit spoiled, always being the center of attention."
It took Yahiko a minute to realize what Sano had said, another still to find the energy to respond. "Why you! Don't call me chan!"
Sano stood, looking down at the fuming boy. "Oh? Why not? You're acting like a little kid... why shouldn't I treat you like one?"
"Saaaaanoooo!!!" Forgetting his depression, Yahiko attacked, latching onto Sanosuke's shoulders, pulling and biting at his hair.
Sano laughed as Yahiko clung to his head, his voice joined by Kaoru's as she came down the stairs.
"Yahiko, you'll never get the best of Sanosuke that way," Kaoru said. "His head is hard as rock. You'll break your teeth before you damage him."
"Oi, Jou-chan, that's harsh," Sano protested, turning to follow Kaoru down the stairs.
"Oh really?" She looked up at Yahiko. "What do you think, Yahiko?"
Yahiko looked down at her and smiled. "Aa, Kaoru. He'll always be a big, dumb gangster." As he said it his hands tightened on Sano's shoulders ever so slightly. Almost a hug. Arigato.
"I don't have to take that from you, Yahiko-chan!" Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Sano shook Yahiko off into Kaoru's arms. Laughing she set him back on his feet, the three of them continuing to tease each other as they walked back to their temporary home with Doctor Genzai's sister. Kenshin met them in the yard, joining in the laughter as he welcomed them back.
"Are you going to buy something or not?" The voice shook Yahiko out of his daze and he hastily proffered the tofu tub. A moment later the filled tub was returned, and he started back home, once again losing himself in his thoughts.
That day at the shrine had been good, even if it had started out poorly. Sano had been right... it didn't make any difference to Kaoru or Kenshin how good he was with the sword. They seemed to like him just for him. Almost like... Almost like he was family.
He walked past the vegetable stall, now closed, and the old woman's words echoed in his head. That sounds like a sister to me.
If I had a sister, I'd want her to be like Kaoru, he thought.
He entered the dojo yard, carefully closing the gate behind him, still thinking. You're our Yahiko. Sano had said. Our Yahiko.
"Yahiko! We were beginning to worry." He looked up at Kenshin's voice to find the three of them sitting on the dojo porch, waiting for him.
He smiled at his family. "Tadaima!"
Completed August 18, 1998
Title changed January 1, 2000