A/N: This story takes place during the course of Maternal Expectation, but I'm publishing it separately because it would deviate too far from the main subject if I’d kept it in the pregnancy story.


May, 1880

Akabeko

A rotten, debilitating head cold had kept 13-year-old Myojin Yahiko homebound for the past week. He hadn't been able to get any training in at the Kamiya Dojo because he had felt so shitty. Kenshin had stopped by a few days ago and dropped off some food for him, for which he was grateful, but he was desperate to be rid of this malady so he could resume his work and training.

As soon as he was able to breathe again, Yahiko headed into town to the Akabeko. His week of bedrest had given him a lot of time to think about his relationship with Sanjo Tsubame. He really, really liked her, but was still too shy to tell her so. He wanted to take the next step with her. They were both still too young to get engaged or even to formally court, but there was no harm in asking her on an outing with him.

Yahiko entered the Akabeko and scanned the restaurant for Tsubame. There she was! She was standing at a table talking with some guy with blond hair, probably a customer whose order she was taking. Wait just a damn minute! She looked a little too amused and interested for it to just be a customer. Then the blond turned his head revealing one of his eyes. Yahiko knew those eyes! Those were cat eyes!

Yahiko strode over to the table for a better look and sure enough: Tsukayama Yutaro was back. Not only was he back, but he was putting the moves on Tsubame, who seemed to be enjoying the attention. Yahiko strode into Yutaro's field of vision and cleared his throat loudly.

"Ahem!" he said.

Tsubame and Yutaro turned their heads to see a rather irate Yahiko standing in their midst.

"Hello, Yahiko-kun," said Tsubame, blushing profusely as always.

"Tsubame-chan," nodded Yahiko, turning his glare full blast on Yutaro.

"Yahiko. Long time no see. Do you need a doctor for that sore throat?" asked Yutaro, a rather malicious twinkle in his eye.

"No, but you're going to need a doctor if I catch you talking to Tsubame again," said Yahiko, interposing himself between Yutaro and Tsubame.

"Oh, really. That's funny. I thought Japan was a free country now," said Yutaro.

"Not when I catch you putting the moves on Tsubame," retorted Yahiko.

"Is she your girlfriend?" asked Yutaro, feigning innocence.

"Well, uh... I, that is..." Yahiko stammered for the words.

In truth, she wasn't exactly his girlfriend. All he knew was, his blood boiled whenever other guys got too friendly with Tsubame.

Tsubame giggled. Yahiko was so cute when he was blushing and flustered like this. Yutaro got up to leave.

"See you later, Tsubame-chan. I have a kendo lesson to get to," he said.

"Well that's just great, Yutaro. Good to see you're getting back into the swing of things around here," said Yahiko with a forced grin.

"Sure enough. See ya later, Porcupine," said Yutaro, heading out of the restaurant.

"Porcupine?!" cried Yahiko.

Tsubame giggled again.

"What the hell's so funny?" snarled Yahiko.

"You two," answered Tsubame, turning and heading into the kitchen.

Yahiko banged his head against the wall a few times, drawing stares from the other customers. With a sigh of frustration, he finally retreated into the kitchen for his shift.


Kamiya Dojo

At six months along, Himura Kaoru was bloated like a balloon. She could no longer see her feet when she looked down. Everyone was being super nice to her, including Yahiko. There hadn't been one mention of the words "ugly broad", "crone" or "hag" since last February when they had found out she was carrying. Kaoru couldn't believe what had come over her prized pupil.

Right now, Kaoru was limited to instructing her classes from the sidelines by a very protective red-headed husband who hovered over her, tending her every need almost to the point of annoyance. Kaoru had already yelled at Kenshin for not wanting her to go out by herself and insisted that she could do most things herself. However, as time wore on and her belly became heavier, she found herself less able to do strenuous things and was forced to grudgingly accept her husband and Yahiko's help.

To this end, Kaoru sat on the bench with Kenshin by her side as they watched Yutaro work on his kata. The two years in Prussia had worked wonders on Yutaro's right arm. It was almost fully functional again. He was able to write and hold chopsticks and was fully able to wield a shinai, though he now led with his left hand.

"Those Prussian doctors did a great job with Yutaro's hand. I'm really impressed," said Kenshin softly.

"So am I," replied Kaoru. "I didn't expect him to be at this level when he came back."

"Yutaro also studied European fencing and this has helped him to maintain his familiarity with swords. Even now, I can see the Western influence in his movements," observed Kenshin.

Yutaro finished his kata and turned and bowed to his sensei. With Kenshin's help, Kaoru got to her feet.

"Alright, Yutaro. That's enough for today. We'll see you tomorrow," she said.

"Thank you, Kaoru-sensei," said Yutaro, as he shouldered his shinai.


The next morning, Yutaro was at the dojo bright and early for practice. Kaoru and Kenshin greeted him in the training hall. They sat and watched him start to go through the first level kata, leading with his left hand.

"Shouldn't Yahiko be here too?" asked Kenshin.

"Late as usual. I know he's getting over a cold, but he can't keep slacking off the way he's been. Yutaro's going to surpass him if he doesn't start showing up on time," said Kaoru.


The tardy Yahiko ran into the dojo, stopping only to ditch his sandals. His heart sank when he heard Yutaro's voice calling out the kendo calls. Yahiko slunk in, hoping against hope that Kaoru wouldn't say anything about his tardiness. Yutaro finished his kata and faced Kaoru.

"Good. Now do 100 swings," instructed Kaoru.

"Yes, sensei!" said Yutaro, beginning at once.

"Good morning, Yahiko-chan. So nice of you to grace us with your presence," said Kaoru, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

Yahiko stopped dead when Kaoru said his name and turned slowly to face her.

"Start with the kata and then 1,000 swings," said Sensei mercilessly.

Yahiko glared at Kaoru, feeling an "ugly" name rising to his lips. One look at Kenshin sitting on the bench looking on passively stopped it cold. Yahiko took his shinai off his shoulder and began the kata, trying to ignore Yutaro and failing miserably.

Yutaro began a different kata. Yahiko watched out of the corner of his eye as Yutaro executed his moves flawlessly. Due to not being able to practice for a week, Yahiko's moves were slow and uncertain. How could Yutaro, who had been gone for two years, be so damn good? It just made Yahiko's blood boil. Kaoru had nothing but praise for the blond pupil. When she spoke to Yahiko, it was simply to tell him to do more stuff and work the kinks out of his moves.

As Kaoru and Kenshin sat watching the two youngsters train, they noted their similarities and differences. In Yahiko, they saw a pure genius, the young man who was able to learn some of Kenshin's Hiten moves by watching. In Yutaro, they saw pride and determination. He wanted to make a full comeback to swordsmanship and was well on his way.


For the rest of the morning, Kaoru put the young men through their paces. She had them do some informal sparring, but had to break them up when they seemed to get a bit too intense for her liking. Kenshin, who had left the training hall a bit earlier, came back with some rice balls he had just made.

"Break!" called Kaoru.

Yahiko and Yutaro glared daggers at each other as they ate. Yahiko was impressed by how well Yutaro was doing, but also resented him for being so perfect on only his second day back at the dojo. It didn't seem right that all this seemed to come so naturally to Yutaro while Yahiko himself was struggling having only been away from the dojo for a few days.

Throughout the rest of the session, Yahiko continued to struggle while Yutaro went from strength to strength. Yahiko's frustration continued to pull him down. By the time the morning lessons concluded, Yahiko was worn out and sick of everything, while Yutaro looked like he hadn't even broken a sweat. Kaoru praised him warmly while admonishing Yahiko that he needed to work harder, adding to his frustration.

Yahiko tore away from the dojo, mentally vowing to show up and start working harder if only to best Yutaro. No way was Cat Eyes going to steal his place as the number one Kamiya Kasshin student and no way in Hell was he getting Tsubame!


The next day, Yahiko showed up at the dojo bright and early, ready for the morning practice. Poor Kaoru was so startled, she almost passed out, but was steadied by Kenshin.

"Someone's replaced our Yahiko with a double," she exclaimed, teasing the young man standing before her.

"Nobody replaced me, you ug... Are we gonna practice, or are we gonna stand here yacking?" growled Yahiko.

Kaoru motioned to the dojo.

"Right this way, Yahiko-chan," she said.

"Don't call me Chan," said Yahiko through gritted teeth as he headed into the practice hall.

Yahiko got started on his morning kata and soon lost himself in the rhythm while Kenshin and Kaoru looked on. Not long after, Yutaro showed up. His eyes almost popped out of his head when he saw Yahiko already there and practicing.

After the training was over, Yahiko headed off to work at the Akabeko. He met Tsubame there and exchanged smiles with her before heading into the back to get to work hauling stuff around. Tsubame was dusting a table, when in came Yutaro.

"Hello, Tsubame-chan. You're looking nice as always," complimented Yutaro.

"Hello, Yuta-kun. It's good to see you again. Would you like a table?" asked Tsubame, blushing slightly.

"Yep," said Yutaro. "Say, after you get off work, how would you like to take a stroll through Ueno Park with me?"

Tsubame never got a chance to answer because they found themselves being stared down by a decidedly irate Yahiko, who had been hauling a bag of coal into the kitchen and caught a sideways glimpse of the unmistakable blond hair and catlike eyes of Yutaro.

"You like to live dangerously, don't you?" said Yahiko, chestnut eyes fairly dancing with rage.

"What?" asked Yutaro innocently. "I just asked her to go to the park with me. Nothing unseemly, I assure you."

"Well, she can't," ejaculated Yahiko.

"And why not?" asked Yutaro.

"Why not? Because... because... she's going to walk with me after work," said Yahiko quickly.

"Oh, really?" said Yutaro. "Tsubame-chan?"

Before Tsubame could answer, Yahiko stepped between them.

"Never mind talking to her. She's walking with me and that's final," he said.

"I don't think you own her," said Yutaro, eyes narrowing.

"I don't own her, but I'll own you if I catch you even looking at her," snarled Yahiko with all the ferocity of a lion protecting his harem from encroachers.

"Are you challenging me?" asked Yutaro.

"Come to think of it... yeah. We still have our old score to settle, or have you forgotten?" said Yahiko.

"I never forgot. I was just waiting to see how long it'd take you to remember," replied Yutaro. "So how about this: the winner gets to take a walk with Tsubame and the loser has to stay away from her for a month."

"Sounds good to me," agreed Yahiko.

"Um... guys you don't have to..." started Tsubame.

"Stay out of this," said Yahiko and Yutaro in unison.

"Don't you talk to her," they said again.

"I'll clobber you," they said.

"Stop saying everything I say!"

"No! You stop!"

"Tomorrow at 8 o'clock sharp suit you?"

"I'll be there!"

All of this was said by the two of them in unison as they tried to argue with each other. Frustrated, they broke away and stalked off in opposite directions, Yahiko back to the kitchen and Yutaro out of the Akabeko, having lost his appetite.


After he finished his shift, Yahiko headed back to the dojo to see about setting up the duel. Kaoru came to the gate and unlatched it, surprised to see Yahiko standing there, wearing a very troubled countenance.

"Yahiko? Is something wrong?" she asked.

"I need to use the training hall for a duel tomorrow," Yahiko answered.

"Have you and Yutaro decided to settle things from before?" asked Kaoru.

"Yes," said Yahiko.

"OK. Tomorrow at 8 o'clock is the best I can give you, but I'm sure you already settled on that," said Kaoru, knowing her headstrong pupil all too well.

"Heh. You must be psychic," smiled Yahiko.

"No. I just know how little boys' minds work," said Kaoru, giving Yahiko a pat on the head.

"Little?" yelped Yahiko, but Kaoru had already closed the gate and gone back to the dojo.


After Tsubame got off her shift, Yahiko met her at the Akabeko and they started walking. For quite a while, neither said a thing to the other. Tsubame didn't like the idea of Yahiko and Yutaro having a duel because of her.

"Yahiko-kun, you don't have to do this. Yuta-kun was only being friendly," said the young waitress softly.

"So I noticed," snorted Yahiko, looking straight ahead. "But I do have to do it. He and I have a score to settle and it'll be settled by tomorrow."


The day of the duel was a cloudy and rainy one. Yahiko hurried through the driving rain, not caring about the wetness or slight chill in the late May air. The only thing on his mind was his duel with Yutaro in the training hall today. It was time to put Cat Eyes in his place and make him understand that there was only one number one student of Kamiya Kasshin: Myojin Yahiko.

As Yahiko ran through the downpour, he saw another figure heading for the dojo, Yutaro! Yahiko sped up his steps. Apparently, Yutaro had seen him too, for he did the same. Both young men ran their fastest to the compound gate, ran through at the same time and ended up in a dead heat by the time they reached the training hall.

"You're dripping water all over my clean floor!" scolded Kaoru, upon seeing the two youngsters. "Get changed into your gear and haul ass back here on the double."

"Yes, Sensei!" said the young bucks in unison.

While the boys were getting changed, Kenshin and Kaoru heard soft footsteps over the training hall's wooden floor. When they looked, they saw Tsubame, rain water dripping from her kimono and brown eyes wide with excitement, or fear.

Kenshin left to fetch a towel.

"Tsubame-chan?" asked Kaoru.

"Kaoru-san, may I watch Yahiko and Yuta-kun duel? They're fighting partly because of me," asked Tsubame.

"What do you mean?" inquired Kaoru.

"Yahiko-kun was rather unhappy both times he saw Yuta-kun talking with me. There was nothing improper going on. Yuta-kun was just being friendly, but Yahiko-kun doesn't see it that way," explained Tsubame.

Kaoru shook her head.

"Those two," she muttered. "Of course you can watch the duel, dear. Sit down. But I'd like you to do me a favor."

"What is it?" asked Tsubame.

"Don't allow Yahiko and Yutaro to treat you like some prize to be won in a duel. Women and girls deserve better than that," said Kaoru solemnly.

"I won't," said Tsubame.

"Good," smiled Kaoru.

Kenshin returned with the towel and handed it to Tsubame, who quickly scrubbed it over her face and hair to stop the dripping water. Just then, Yahiko and Yutaro returned, clad in their padding.

"Tsubame?" asked Yahiko when he saw the girl.

"Hi, Yahiko-kun. I came to watch you and Yuta-kun," explained Tsubame.

Yahiko blushed and gulped, which caused Yutaro to snicker at him.

"What are you laughing at?" Yahiko growled.

"At you, you lovesick puppy," teased Yutaro.

"Just remember that dogs usually chase cats up trees," flashed Yahiko.

"Well, that's true," admitted Yutaro. "But let's see if your bite can live up to your bark during our duel."

"Bring it on!" growled Yahiko.

At that moment, Kaoru interposed herself between the two hot-blooded young men.

"Alright, you two. It's time for you to settle your score like true swordsmen. Go and pick your bokken from the rack," she instructed firmly.

Yahiko and Yutaro each selected a bokken from the rack, then stood in the middle of the floor, facing each other.

"This will be a three-round match. You will fight to incapacitation," announced Kaoru.

"Yes, Sensei," said the youngsters in unison.

Kenshin steered Kaoru to the bench and helped her to sit down with him and Tsubame. Once she was seated, she started them with a drop of her hand and a cry of:

"BEGIN!"

Yahiko and Yutaro charged at each other and hit full force, their bokken connecting. They swung and blocked each other. As they sparred, Yahiko thought about all the times in the past week that Yutaro had shown him up by being extra respectful to Kaoru, showing up early, etc. all just to get under his skin. His frustration flared and he hit extra hard on Yutaro's left wrist, causing his left hand to lose the grip of the bokken's hilt.

"LEFT WRIST!"

"Valid hit! Round one to Yahiko!" called Kaoru.

Yahiko and Yutaro stood down to catch their breath before picking up again. After 30 seconds, they faced off again.

"ROUND TWO! BEGIN!" called Kaoru, dropping her arm.

Yahiko and Yutaro leapt at each other again. Yutaro thought of everything he had been through with the sword; wanting to show his father how true samurai were supposed to live, his time under Raijuta, the horrible betrayal at his master's hands and then the last two years in Prussia, rehabilitating his right arm and studying fencing under the European masters with his left hand. After everything he had been through, the hell he would let the Porcupine beat him!

"CHEST!"

Yutaro thrust his bokken into Yahiko's chest plate and sent Yahiko sprawling backwards, landing on his ass. Yahiko looked up at Yutaro, surprise in his chestnut eyes.

"Valid hit! Round two to Yutaro!" called Kaoru.

Yahiko pulled himself back to his feet and took deep breaths, trying to clear the ache from his chest. Yutaro was definitely an opponent to take seriously. Being away from kendo for two years and leading with his left hand made him no less a fighter. Yahiko decided to redouble his efforts. Again, the two young men faced off.

"ROUND THREE! BEGIN!" called Kaoru, dropping her arm.

Yahiko and Yutaro each gave their all, swinging and blocking each others' swings. They were evenly matched in skill. Though Yahiko didn't dare take his eyes off his opponent, he could feel Kenshin and Kaoru's gaze on them. From day one, Yahiko had seen Kenshin's battles and later on had fought to help the swordsman during his most difficult battles against the Juppongatana and Six Comrades. In all of those battles, Yahiko had been at great risk of losing his life. At 11 years old, he had found the strength and pride of the samurai that he had inherited from his father and had used it to propel himself forward and over his enemies.

As skilled as Yutaro was, he had never been in a true battle, had never had to call on the deepest part of him for strength as Yahiko had. The memory of those great battles caused adrenaline to surge through Yahiko's body. His eyes blazed as he suddenly pushed his bokken past Yutaro's defenses and landed a heavy hit on his rival's shoulder.

"HEAD!"

Yutaro collapsed to the floor, dropping his bokken and clutching his shoulder. It didn't feel broken, but would definitely be stiff and sore for a while. Yutaro looked up at Yahiko in awe. Yahiko had definitely improved in the last two years. Yutaro dragged himself to his feet and bowed in unison with Yahiko.

"You must have been in some grueling fights over the last two years," Yutaro guessed.

"You could say that. You're no soft touch though," admitted Yahiko.

"We'll have to do this again some time," said Yutaro.

"I'm ready any time you are," returned Yahiko with a grin.

The rivals bowed to each other, then turned and strode in opposite directions to get cleaned up and changed.

Tsubame left the bench to wait outside while Yahiko changed.


Yahiko stepped out into the damp air and was pleasantly surprised to see Tsubame standing waiting for him.

"You fought well, Yahiko-kun. You deserved to win," she said sweetly.

"I know," said Yahiko nonchalantly.

"But," said Tsubame, suddenly pinching Yahiko's right earlobe hard.

"Ow!"

"Don't you ever treat me like a prize to be won in a fight again, or I'll ask Tae-san to have you wait all my tables in addition to your duties for a month, wearing an apron with frills. Understand?" said Tsubame.

"Ow! Yes! Ow!"

Tsubame let go of Yahiko's earlobe and smiled sweetly.

"Walk me home?" she asked.

"It would be my pleasure," winced Yahiko, rubbing his throbbing earlobe.

Nothing more said, the two youngsters exited the yard and began the journey to Tsubame's house.


After the kids left, Kenshin and Kaoru were alone at their low table, enjoying a snack. They each thought about the events of the day.

"Yahiko and Yutaro both have a lot of power and will make fine swordsmen very soon," Kenshin commented at length.

"Yes, indeed. Yutaro has his determination to come back from his injuries and Yahiko has the experience of all the battles he's been through. The next match could favor either of them," agreed Kaoru.

"It will doubtlessly be very interesting to watch," said Kenshin with a smile.

~Owari~

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