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Sugar is Sweet, and Sometimes You Can Be an Unbelievable Dingbat!

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     The notice stuck to Kaoru-dono's door had yet another threat of extortion and personal violence scrawled on it, Kenshin noticed. He tucked the bouquet of violets he'd brought home for his wife into his sleeve and pulled the paper down from the lintel. Such a waste of good paper. The person who had most likely delivered it was waiting in the shadow just around the corner, no doubt certain he was hidden -- tall and padded with the kind of overbuilt muscle that served better to intimidate the unwary than to fight. The stranger gripped his sword like he might grip a stick, without a trace of life. He'd probably never had a formal lesson in all his years, and the occasional shake of his arm to relieve the weight of the blade told Kenshin this man hadn't bothered with informal practice either.

     There seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of land speculators in the world who thought a young lady running a struggling kenjutsu dojo was an easy target for intimidation, and they always managed to send their thugs to challenge her when she was away giving guest lessons at other schools. Not one ever seemed to hear from his fellows that Kaoru-dono had more than enough skill with a bokken to defend her home from hired ruffians. One would think a hint of research would turn up the list of unsuccessful attempts in the past, or at the very least, that the community of local hired ruffians ought to have known better by now. Maybe they brought their own thugs from out of town? The man in the shadows didn't look familiar.

     Well, either this lot would learn their errors if they caught her at home, or within the week word around town would reach them that "Hitokiri Battousai" lived here as well. It didn't matter that he was only a poor, retired wanderer now, or that he'd given Yahiko his sword and would never wield another. The name was usually enough. Those who didn't run when they heard it usually did something stupid instead, and almost immediately got caught by the police.

     Kenshin ripped the page in half and twisted it up into a coil. Perhaps it'd make good kindling to start the fire under the bathhouse for when Kaoru got home.

     "You've got a lot of nerve, ripping up a letter that isn't for you."

     Smiling at the thug as he stepped out into the light, Kenshin answered, "Kaoru-dono would be happy to turn down your employer to his face if he stops by tomorrow afternoon, but she has no use for threats, so she says. I'll see that she knows he's coming."

     "So you must be that man she keeps. I heard about you..." Smacking his sheathed sword against his palm, the stranger advanced until he was towering over Kenshin. The first time someone with training and a bit of a temper decided to jab this man in the solar plexus, he'd learn better than to get so close. "The man who cooks and cleans while his woman goes out to earn his food and liquor. There's a word for men like you."

     "Lucky, perhaps?" Kenshin managed not to laugh, as it wasn't polite, but the thug's near stumble gave him some trouble.

     With a snarl, the brute grabbed the neck of his kimono. "I'm thinking bait is more like it! Let's see if she's so stubborn when we've got a knife at her man's throat! I bet she'll cry like a little baby when she hears what we're gonna do to you." He leaned in to whisper, a hint of sake on his breath. "But if you keep nice and quiet on our way back to the boss, I might just let you live out the night, sissy boy."

     It seemed certain, then: this person hadn't actually heard much about him at all.

     "You... mean to take this one as your hostage?" Kenshin asked, and the thug sneered with all the pride of someone who was quite as certain that he'd just had a brilliant idea as he'd been certain that Kenshin hadn't seen him while reading the threat tacked on the door.

     There really was a first time for everything.

~//~

     The earth underfoot on her own front walk felt so good after a long day's work, Kaoru thought as she wiped the sweat off of her neck. A nice, hot bath would feel even better. Today had been a perfect day, too. Although it was odd to see a thin trail of shredded violets littering the ground. Who would bring flowers all this way just to tear them up? And the air had a certain... Well. A lack of Kenshin chasing Kenji around the compound, with their little boy dragging a sheet behind him and her husband yelling out, "You really shouldn't do that, you shouldn't!" and completely failing to sound upset in the least for having his laundry washing interrupted. Something wasn't right here.

     "There you are!"

     "Eh?!"

     Megumi-san was at the gate behind her, a red-haired child asleep on her shoulder and her lips in a tight line. "Ken-san left Kenji with me before he went to town to mail your package, and he's almost an hour late coming back. Did something happen? Is he all right?"

     She barely heard the thud of her training pack hitting the ground. "I haven't seen him. You don't think... Something happened to Kenshin?" Another second and her hands were knotted in the doctor's sleeves. "What could've happened to Kenshin?! When things happen to him, they're bad things! Horrible things! Even without his sword, he-- he-- And he said he'd already fought everyone he'd ever known who had it out for him! He said there wasn't anybody else! He told me, Megumi-san! He--"

     A solid rap on the head from her neighbor's free hand, and she shut her mouth tight. Six inches from her face, her son was winking awake and rubbing at his eyes. The sunset made his hair look like fire, just like his father's. His father, who wouldn't have been taken so readily that there wasn't at least a little property damage to show for it. Kenshin had to be safe, wherever he was. She was just overreacting, and the wrinkle in Kenji's little nose that was so much like her own father's nose was ready to take her to task for it. "Mommy?" the sleepy child murmured. "'S Daddy home yet?"

     "Not yet, Kenji," she said. Her smile twitched even though she tried to look like she wasn't worried. Even if she could be as sure he was safe as she was sure of anything, Kenshin still wouldn't have vanished without a reason. "He'll be a little longer. Why don't you stay with Aunt Megumi while Mommy goes to see what's keeping him, okay?"

     "Okay."

     "There's a good boy."

     Megumi-san looked out at the sun dipping closer to the horizon. "If I see that freeloader coming for dinner, I'll tell him to find you in a hurry." Having Sano along for backup wouldn't be a bad idea at that. And if only Yahiko were home! Her friend turned with one last smile before she walked out the gate. "Don't do anything rash. And I expect all of you to come back in one piece. I won't treat your wounds for free, you know!"

     "Thank you, Megumi-san."

     Kaoru grabbed her pack as she ran for the dojo to look for any sign of where Kenshin might have gone, hoping she'd find some innocuous explanation, but all the flashbacks running through her head of all the reasons he'd been late for something over the years, or disappeared suddenly, kept her on the edge of a panic. "Reasons". Reasons like that goon he'd told her Saitou had set up to attack him that time, to keep him out of the house when she would have needed him if the worst had happened. Reasons that wanted him dead. But Kenshin hadn't been late coming home from errands or stepped out suddenly in years. Those days were supposed to be over.

     Sure enough, there was a paper wedged into the space between the front door and the doorpost. She couldn't stop her hands from shaking as she read it.

     "If you want to see your man alive again, be prepared to deal. If you're not, you'll be seeing him in pieces. Don't try to find us. We'll find you."

     The people who were after her dojo? Those two-bit ruffians who'd just rolled into town last week? They were using Kenshin as a hostage to threaten her?

     "I don't believe someone could kidnap Kenshin," Kaoru muttered.

     "Definitely not without more of a struggle. There'd be some kind of trace up in this joint. I don't care how much he says he won't fight anymore, he wouldn't go down easy." How not surprising to see Sano leaning against a porch column. He must have been right around the corner.

     Just in time, too. All she needed now was her bokken from her bag. "No, he wouldn't go down easily. And that's why I said I don't believe someone could kidnap Kenshin. But I do think he wants us to follow them." She pointed to the line of violet petals strewn in a thin but definite path, one or two every few steps. Anyone who'd let Kenshin get away with dropping those definitely wasn't good enough to have taken her husband in a fight. "That's his trail. Let's go."

     "Don't have to ask me twice."

     They raced along the dirt lanes toward an abandoned warehouse not too far from the river. The petals stayed spaced out just the same the whole way, never changing or stopping. You'd think even a thug would notice someone leaving a trail that clear to follow! Honestly. Hired muscle was just getting worse and worse!

     Then, all of a sudden, a thundering thwack seemed to make the old warehouse shiver to its beams, and all the birds resting on top of it flew away. And of course, the screams started.

     "Y-y-you're a monster!" was the most coherent one, ringing in some man's falsetto all the way down the hill.

     Sano scratched at his head with a sigh. "Well. I guess he ain't in any trouble. That's good."

     "Oh, he's in trouble," Kaoru answered. "I don't care what he thinks."

     She stomped up the stairs and threw open the front door with a bang against the frame, just in time to see Kenshin smilingly slide a sheath back onto a sword that a tied-up, terrified heap of a man was holding toward the ceiling. "Thank you kindly for the loan of your sheath, sir. You'll want to see a doctor about those bruises. Ah, Kaoru-dono! You came!" All of the goons scooted madly on the floor to get out of her path. "These gentlemen offered an audience of sorts with their employer," he said, pointing to the old geezer sprawled in a dead panic on some cushions in the back. "This one explained to them that the Kamiya dojo is not for sale, and there's been an understanding on the point, one might say. They've agreed to leave without any more trouble."

     "H-he..." one of the men on the floor stammered. "He got behind me before I could even finish drawing my sword... How can a man be that fast?!"

     "Ken... shin..." Tramping up to him with a scowl simmering on her face, Kaoru bonked him one on the forehead, neverminding his flinching grin.

     "Oro~o..."

     "You didn't need to let them 'kidnap' you! I could have handled this! And if you ever worry me like that again, I'll-- !"

     One last violet, not a petal torn or a leaf creased anywhere, appeared before her eyes and stole the rest of his scolding from her mouth. "I saved you one," he said, and she took it with a brush of his hand.

     "Honestly. You idiot."