Many things happened during the passage of time. The four brothers... the seasons... came and went, each taking their turn in the continuous cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The youngest one, Spring, oversaw the birth of a new day and a new life. Summer then entered the picture, sprinkling happiness and joviality everywhere. From there came Autumn, unbidden, serving as a test of courage and fortitude. The eldest of them all, Winter, was the final step. He was the one who saw through issues by way of memory and regret... of a life fulfilled or not at all. Death subsequently entered to avoid stagnancy. It did away with the old as life blossomed anew come Spring.

After endless springs and summers, autumn and winter finally arrived at the Kamiya Dojo; not in a form of literal doom and gloom, but more on the note of sudden changes arriving with a resounding finality. And there were indeed a lot of changes for all the people in Kenshin Himura's life.

First there was Megumi Takani's eventual transfer to the Aizu province. Then there came Hajime Saito's relocation to another police precinct. Currently, there was Sanosuke Sagara's arrest and sudden flight... something about roughhousing an Ishin Shishi politician by the name of Jusanro Tani in Shinshu. They heard it all from Chief Uramura, the bespectacled and slanted-eyed police officer that frequented their abode.

The autumn gale blew harder and harder as the inevitable cold winds of winter quickly approached.

They later learned that Sanosuke had decided on taking a long trip away from Japan, but not without having their good-byes said first.

An image of Sanosuke waiting for them, standing inside a little boat at the docks, served as a vision that would forever be etched in their minds, particularly in the memories of one Tokyo Samurai descendant.

"Yo. Been a while," Sanosuke greeted nonchalantly, still looking gaunt and rough, wearing his trademark garb while holding a duffel bag in his bandaged hand.

'He hasn't changed one bit. He's still the same Sanosuke we met at the Akabeko nearly a year ago. But of course he hasn't changed! It has only been a week. So many things around us are changing, though.'

Yahiko shook his head once to cast away the weird thoughts in his mind. "What the hell are you doing in a boat in the middle of the night?" he asked Sanosuke.

The thin man shrugged his shoulders. "It should be obvious. I'm taking a boat out of here."

"You're going out to sea?" Yahiko incredulously exclaimed.

"I thought this was a good chance to say good-bye to Japan and see the world." Sanosuke did his trademark smirk as he lazily stretched his arms wide.

"You're going to take that little boat to a foreign country?" Yahiko parroted in the same inflection as his earlier query.

"You're so stupid! You'll die! Forget it!" Kaoru "cheerfully" retorted, proclaiming everyone else's general unsaid sentiment.

Sanosuke looked at the motley crew with half-lidded eyes. "You're the fools. There's a ship waiting for me offshore."

The sound of police whistles reverberated all over the surrounding area of the harbor. Two of Sanosuke's friends raced up towards them with cries of "They found us! The cops are coming!" meshing with urgent shouts of "Find him! He's on the docks somewhere!"

Yahiko reflexively drew out his shinai. "All right, I got this..."

Kenshin held Yahiko at bay. "No, wait a minute."

They all suddenly saw a familiar friend and ally, Chief Uramura, traitorously calling the other policemen's attention towards their current position, pointing the way... in the wrong direction.

"There he is! This way! Charge!" Uramura yelled after his compatriots.

Yahiko blinked once. "Say what?"

"Oro?" Kenshin intoned, wearing his familiar silly face of wide-eyed confusion.

Uramura glanced their way as he put a finger to his lips before hurrying towards the direction he pointed at from before.

"What's wrong? They aren't here yet? Couldn't they see me?" Sanosuke concernedly asked.

"No, the chief made a 'mistake'." Kenshin shrugged once, an amused smile on his lips.

Sanosuke raised an eyebrow at that. "Mistake, huh? Well, I guess everyone makes mistakes. Then it's time for me to get going."

Kaoru's thoughts snapped back to reality as the gravity of the situation reasserted itself. "Hey, are you really leaving?"

"Yeah," Sanosuke confirmed. "But I'll make sure this isn't good-bye for life. Just be sure you'll get a couple of kids to show me when I get back."

Kaoru blushed furiously at Sanosuke's brash and unnecessary statement... the uncouth pig. "W-W-What are you saying?"

Sanosuke belly-laughed at Kaoru's reaction. "Don't act so innocent. Yahiko, you'd better give those two some privacy and get out of the dojo. I'll give you my longhouse," he further quipped despite Kaoru's alarmed exclamations.

Yahiko paused for a bit at Sanosuke's wisecrack. His voice didn't have a hint of amusement in it as he turned towards the older man heatedly, yelling, "What am I supposed to do?"

"What?" Sanosuke asked, puzzled at Yahiko's reaction.

"You're just going to run off with your tail between your legs and let them have their way? What if Tani hasn't learned his lesson? What if he tries something again? What is that 'evil' mark on your back for, anyway?" Yahiko ranted.

"If you think that, then you kinda got an 'evil' mark on your back too," Sanosuke remarked offhandedly.

"Huh?" Yahiko detailed.

"You don't get it? In other words," Sanosuke started, patting Yahiko on the head, "Kenshin isn't the only one I expect great things from."

Yahiko contemplatively mulled over that comment as Kenshin and Sanosuke slapped hands, exchanging brief but meaningful good-byes to each other like the close friends that they are. The youngster continued to brood even as Sanosuke had finally cast away, a tiny figure in the horizon of endless blue. Up until nighttime, he appeared meditative as he stayed at the abandoned longhouse.

He repeated the words in his disbelieving mind until he finally accepted their suggested meaning.

"Kenshin isn't the only one I expect great things from."

And so time passed.

Rurouni Yahiko

A Rurouni Kenshin Continuation fic
by Chester Castañeda

I've been meaning to do this for a long time.

Disclaimer: All characters used in this fanfic (save some others) are the rightful property of Nobuhiro Watsuki and Sony. Don't sue me please, I'm very poor.

Chapter 1: Roots

"Acting Master Myojin Yahiko coming through."

As Yahiko more-than-a-little-haughtily entered the rather prosperous-looking Kamiya Dojo, he saw a little boy... the spirit and image of Kenshin... sitting on the roof while bawling his eyes out.

"Not again, Kenji. You climbed up and got too scared to climb down?" Yahiko asked, his eyes half-lidded in disdain.

'He's like a little kitten,' Yahiko thought as he hooked his shinai onto the back of Kenji's robe and swung him down. The toddler went limp, relieved.

Yahiko sweated bullets. "You may look like a little Kenshin, but you're really just a little idiot. I don't know how you're going to carry on the dojo..." His sermon was cut short after a sandal hit him on the face.

"Hey! Quit picking on my son, or I'll really get mad!" an all-too-familiar voice admonished. Yahiko inwardly groaned.

"Who's picking on him? I saved him!" Yahiko retorted as he swung an excited and gurgling Kenji towards a very irate Kaoru Kamiya. Kenji held himself out in order to be picked up by his mother as he purred in delight. 'It's just as I've thought. The kid's half-cat.'

Kaoru Kamiya, self-proclaimed Kenjutsu Beauty and Master of the Kamiya Kasshin School, blinked at Yahiko. "Oh, so you did." To Kenji, she asked, "Were you scared? I'm so sorry," as she took the little five year old unto her arms.

"You should be apologizing to me," Yahiko intoned flatly.

An apology was offered to Yahiko, but from a different source and for a different reason. "Yahiko, I'm sorry to call you out here in this heat." It was just a few simple words, but the presence behind them was unmistakable. They came from the Meiji Patriot once known as the Legendary Hitokiri Battousai.

"Kenshin," Yahiko addressed. 'What is this all about?'

As they went inside the dojo, Yahiko did a once-over at the wall decorated with a large number of students' nameplates; Kaoru was listed as Master, Yahiko and Yutaro were Assistant Masters, and Kosaburo Shinichi and Outa Higashidani were top-ranking students. Yahiko quickly turned towards Kenshin again, his eyes quizzical.

"What is it? If you want to arrange for outside practice at a new dojo, I could..."

Kenshin suddenly went into stance, his hand at his sword's hilt. "Take your stance, Yahiko. A one-point match. All right?"

The young kendo master was startled beyond words, his face ashen with a look of pure, genuine shock. Kaoru stepped forward and shook him out of his trance.

"Yahiko, have you forgotten what day it is today? Today is your fifteenth birthday. Haven't you ever heard that warriors long ago were recognized as men when they became fifteen?"

Yahiko recalled a memory of long ago, of Sanosuke telling him something important.

"It's called genpuku. It's what you're aiming for as a swordsman. Remember that."

Yahiko furrowed his eyebrows. 'This is my... coming of age? So that's it. Kenshin is testing me to see if I've truly become a man. But those instincts! That presence! Even if he hardly ever uses the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu anymore, he's the greatest living swordsman there is; a true legend! How could I possibly measure up?' he mentally debated to himself.

Kenshin, as if sensing Yahiko's hesitation, suddenly turned to the young lad and then smiled reassuringly. "Don't be afraid. You've resolved to follow the path of the sword. Remember all the battles of your life. The battles you've seen with your eyes. The battles you've heard with your ears. The battles you've embraced with your own skill and all the battles you carry within you. If you concentrate all your strength behind that one blow, it will be enough."

'Remember the battles.' Yahiko suddenly envisioned a kaleidoscope of all the warriors... all fighting for their respective reasons... that he'd seen over the years. He afterwards prepared his own stance.

Kenshin nodded in approval. "It will be enough. Kaoru?"

While still holding Kenji, Kaoru swiftly stepped forward with one arm raised high. "Begin!" she announced as she let her arm drop. Within a split second, with their unbendable forces of will and determination behind their respective strikes, Kenshin and Yahiko charged at each other.

Kaoru's heart skipped a beat with the sheer intensity of the two swordsmen's strikes. She took pause at the motionless fighters as she surveyed the results of the match. "It's... a draw?"

Kenshin's sword had hit Yahiko on the side, but Yahiko's sword had caught Kenshin on the shoulder. Alas, the boy's sword ultimately fell on the floor as he dropped to his knees from the force of the sakabatou's blow.

Yahiko chuckled. "Heh. I guess I couldn't measure up."

"Hmmm. But it was a good blow. Can you stand?"

"I guess so," Yahiko replied as he politely refused Kenshin's hand while trying to get up on his own.

Kenshin and Kaoru briefly exchanged glances. Then, beyond all of Yahiko's expectations, he suddenly saw the sakabatou held out for him.

"Yahiko, this is a gift for your coming of age celebration. Take it!" Kenshin offered, a half-melancholic smile on his face as he held out his present for the Tokyo Samurai descendant.

"What? Wait! Wait a minute! I can't take that! First of all, I lost!" Yahiko protested.

"I wasn't concerned with who won or lost," Kenshin clarified. "I only wanted to see if your whole soul was behind your attack. When I saw that it was, I made up my mind. Take it."

Kenshin held out the sakabatou again, and this time Yahiko accepted it. 'It's heavy,' the teenager thought to himself in wonder.

Again, it seemed that Kenshin was reading Yahiko's mind. "You may find it heavy and hard to use at first, but you'll learn to wield it with your own strength. And someday you'll surpass me with it."

Yahiko nodded, smiling. "Right!"

As he raced out the gates, memories started illuminating his psyche. He went past them like lanterns in a midnight passage of a New Year's festival. His vision eventually culminated into one memory that spurred him into making something out of himself... the memory that made him into a man.

It was the memory of him running after Kenshin and Sanosuke but somehow never catching up. This time, as his lungs burned with a passion that flared into his very soul, he finally caught up with them.

This time, in his mind's eye, he was now running alongside them, keeping up with them as they went towards their unknown destinations together.

Curiously, in Yahiko's vision, as soon as he had already caught up with the two fighters, he suddenly went off in another direction when the first fork in the road appeared, treading his own path at last.

On the 17th year of the Meiji, in the year 1884, Yahiko, for lack of a better, descriptive word, was left awestruck. What could possibly give pause to Yahiko Myojin, Acting Master of the Kamiya Kasshin Dojo, Master of a Thousand Shirahadori?

'I'm holding it,' Yahiko grumpily reflected to himself, responding to his own mental debate. He gently fingered the leather coverings of the hilt of Kenshin's... no, his sakabatou. It was now his reverse-edged sword. He proceeded to wrap a cloth around it for posterity's sake.

He sighed sullenly. Yutaro Tsukayama, his lifelong rival and childhood friend, had already poked fun at his unwillingness to practice with the sword, saying that he was too "dumbstruck with awe" to perform strikes with Kenshin's sword, having it wrapped up in a bundle like a newborn baby.

'Yeah, well Cat Eyes says a lot of things. He's just a loudmouth jerk who's jealous he didn't get an awesome sword like I did. I've practiced with the sakabatou. I'm even getting used to the weight and stuff. I just need to get the feel of the sword more. Yeah, that's it.'

He proceeded to tie up the cloth-wrapped package as even more ideas concerning the gravity of the situation and the great burden of responsibility that was now thrust upon his shoulders invaded the privacy of his mind. Endless questions composed mostly of "whys" aggravated him to no end. All this, he wouldn't even admit to himself; no, not Yahiko the Strong, Yahiko the Acting Master of the Kamiya Kasshin School. This was beyond him. He wasn't ten years old anymore, after all.

However, even when his most ardent of reasoning failed him... when his own gutsy, angst-filled front was for naught... another voice in his head guided him. It had always calmed him down and let him contemplate. It permeated within his awareness like no other.

It was Kenshin's voice and words that broke down the barrier within his mind; the very voice that cut through his muddled, confused, and chaotic maelstrom of thoughts; the very words that he etched within his own heart as his mantra of existence.

"The Kamiya Kasshin School is a school of the sword that protects life. It is the sword wielded for people, to protect. One sword can protect you, or make two destinies. If you fight and lose with such a sword, you have not fulfilled your destiny to protect yourself. The practitioner of the sword that protects life cannot allow failure. Let only this be engraved on your mind."

"With my sword, I'll make it my destiny to protect. I will not allow failure," was Yahiko's answer then, as it still was now.

"Unbelievable. Has it already been a year since Kenshin gave me the sakabatou for my fifteenth birthday? For my genpuku, the swordsman's coming of age?" Yahiko muttered to himself, hefting the precarious load with both hands. "It seems like it was only yesterday."

He looked at his precious bundle one more time before he took off, memories again flooding through the figurative canals of his mind.

"This is going to be a bit difficult." Yahiko sighed. It took him a long time... a year's time, in fact... to finally make up his mind on his decision. It was very atypical of him, being a man who acted on the spur of the moment, his choices always determined in an impulsive and impassioned manner. However, this was the sort of resolution that demanded a conscientious assessment of circumstances.

'Come to think of it, I really haven't thought things through, have I?' Yahiko pondered morosely as Kaoru greeted him at the gates of the Kamiya Dojo.

"Yahiko? Wow. It's been... what? Three months? Come right in, you dummy. You look out of sorts. It's probably from all that training you're doing. Are you still insisting on that silly notion of fusing Kamiya Kasshin Ryu and Hiten Misturugi Ryu together as one technique? It's ludicrous, I tell you. Say, what's with you bundling up the sakabatou in cloth? You look like a street peddler."

Yahiko blinked several times before he was able to finally follow Kaoru's desultory diatribe. He coughed once before responding to her last query. "That's what I wanted to talk about. And I don't look like a street peddler. Is Kenshin in?"

Kaoru nodded. "He's out back doing the laundry."

"Typical. Even as husband and wife, Kenshin is still the housekeeper," Yahiko mumbled.

Kaoru pinched Yahiko's left ear for that comment. "Hey! I heard that! I'll have you know that I'm a perfectly good housewife, thank you very much!"

"Oops, did I say that aloud?" Yahiko idly wondered to himself, then to Kaoru, he droned, "Really? You're a good housewife?" with a bored expression on his face.

In response to that, Kaoru merely remarked, "Come eat the delicious rice balls I made for lunch to find out! And cut it out with this supposed 'badass' attitude of yours. It doesn't suit you."

Yahiko made a face. "The rice balls that stick to the roof of your mouth and your hands? No thanks. I'd rather have diarrheaAAAHOWW! YOU OLD HAG! YOU RACCOON-WOMAN! STOP THAT!"

Kaoru relinquished her hold of Yahiko's ear. "Hah! How'd you like that, eh? Now the true Yahiko comes out!"

"Whatever. Get off my case," Yahiko flippantly commented as he hid his embarrassed blush. "Let's just get this over with. Is Cat Eyes around?" he asked as he surveyed the inside of the dojo.

Kaoru smacked her fist unto her open palm. "Oh, that's right! I haven't told you yet. Yuta-kun wanted to have a little sabbatical of sorts. His birthday is coming up and he wanted to be with his father in Germany to celebrate. You just missed him. He already took a boat out two days ago."

"Hmmm. It's okay, I guess," Yahiko considered, shrugging. "I'm thinking you could tell him whenever he comes back."

"Tell Yutaro what, Yahiko?" Kenshin queried as he serenely walked into the yard. "It has been a long time. How are your Revisal Techniques coming?"

"They're coming along real great," Yahiko proudly informed as he puffed up his chest in apparent triumph. "All I really need to do now is develop a basic maneuver that I could use as a foundation to form the rest of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu Revisal Techniques, just as you've suggested, Kenshin," the young man excitedly related.

"That's big talk from a guy who used to be a pickpocket street punk," Kaoru insisted, raising an eyebrow. "I think it's just your arrogance talking. Besides, both Yuta-kun and I agree that the development of your dubious techniques is basically an exercise in futility."

Yahiko audibly growled at the assessment. "It is not! Besides, Yutaro is behind me by one year! I've already mastered Kamiya Kasshin Ryu and the Kamiya Kasshin Succession Techniques when I was just ten! I even heard that I have hold of the entirety of Eastern Japan! What does he know?" In the background, Kenshin sweatdropped.

"As a matter of fact, Yuta-kun is doing quite well with his kata and the various forms of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, Mister 'I'm so good that I've mastered this form on the first try, so I can skip this and go to the next one,'" Kaoru shot back in Yutaro's defense. "I admit, you have a talent in learning and understanding techniques so fast that you could develop them in various ways. But as your master, it's my job to guide you, advise you, and tell you off whenever you get out of line."

"I don't get you, Kaoru! Why are you so opposed to me trying to improve our school's techniques?" Yahiko demanded in an infuriated tone. "Kenshin seems to approve! I don't see the problem with trying to fuse those two styles together! I know I can do it and I can prove it! Cat Eyes knows that, even though he's not willing to admit it! He doesn't know what he's talking about!"

"Don't you talk like that! Even though Yuta-kun has a noticeable limp on his injured arm, he at the very least has great fortitude and perseverance! He probably practices at least ten times harder whenever he couldn't get a technique right. He repeats a technique over and over until he perfects it, and I can tell you right now that his determination is far better than a year's worth of technique advancement!"

"Quit harping on me! That's beside the point! The Revisal Techniques aren't about that! Go ahead with your favoritism of Yutaro for all I care!" Yahiko tactlessly spouted, giving Kaoru pause.

"Now, now; why can't we all get along?" Kenshin cooed at the argumentative duo. "You're saying things you don't really mean."

"After six years, you still act like an immature child. You're still behaving like a ten-year-old brat! Unbelievable! Is this the important thing you wanted to talk about?" Kaoru questioned as she went on with her tirade, recovering from her initial shock.

It was now Yahiko's turn to hesitate. "I was just about to get to that!" he said as his eyes darted from left to right, avoiding eye contact from either Kaoru or Kenshin.

The wind chime hanging on the wooden ceiling tinkled as wayward leaves started falling to the ground, accentuating the color of the late morning sky.

"Oh my goodness! I almost forgot! The groceries! We don't have anything to eat for dinner! The market is about to close soon, and if I don't hurry, I won't make it!" Kaoru cried out after she finally realized the time. "I have to go! Kenshin, take care of Kenji so he won't wake up! When he finds out I'm already gone, he'll be sure to start wandering around again, looking for me!"

"Of course, dear," Kenshin blissfully nodded, though there was a crease between his eyebrows as he sweatdropped at his wife's rather animated state.

Kaoru turned towards Yahiko. The youth immediately tensed his body, his eyes staring in askance and defiance... in other words, Yahiko's typical fearless gaze.

"I have no problems with whatever techniques you're trying to develop. It's just that, as my father had lectured to me many times before, in improving kenjutsu techniques, you have to realize that you're also developing ideals and beliefs... extensions of your personality, even. With that said, I'll have to be blunt: I don't think you'll be creating any worthwhile skills worthy of the name 'Kamiya Kasshin' if they're made through arrogance and pride. Your resolve has to be deeper than that."

Yahiko just stood there, his eyes still defiant, but not a word slipped out of his mouth. He merely responded with a nod.

Kaoru sighed. "I guess that's good enough a response from a 'tough guy' like you, Yahiko. I'll be going now, Kenshin... Yahiko. Remember to not wake Kenji up, okay?" And so off she went, already making her way out of the gates, a basket and a wad of cash in hand.

Only after this did Yahiko realize that something was amiss. "Dammit, I wasn't able to tell the old hag about it!"

"Please, Yahiko. Stop calling Kaoru that. She's my wife and the mother of my child," Kenshin reprimanded slightly. "Now, what was it that you wanted to talk about?"

Yahiko shuffled his foot a bit as he gathered up his courage to reply. 'Why the heck am I being so wishy-washy about this? I've already decided, haven't I?' But beyond the voice in his head, a deeper, intuitive voice suggested that perhaps he wasn't so certain after all; that he really didn't want to...

Again, Yahiko quelled his subconscious doubts as he worked up the nerve to finally reveal his pensive intentions. "Kenshin, after you gave me the sakabatou and that speech about how I've realized my coming of age and all, I've been thinking, asking myself, 'What now?'" He looked up to see Kenshin deeply pondering his points, an unsaid atmosphere of graveness in the air because the elder swordsman probably had an idea of where this conversation was heading.

Yahiko looked at the ground, coughing a bit before continuing, "I was thinking that maybe I have to find my own answer. I mean, the way you and Aoshi did. To do that..."

The pitter-patter of little feet made their way into the yard, a tiny shadow mischievously hiding amongst the bushes upon seeing two familiar people whom he could play with later. He giggled in anticipation.

Kenshin smiled faintly as he noticed the little figure hiding nearby, but that smile suddenly turned into an outright scowl as pain shot through the very core of his being, his surroundings abruptly bearing irrelevance to him.

The tiny figure was curious as to what game the redhead was playing. He kind of disliked the tall redhead, always cutting in on his mama's attention, but his larger counterpart's sudden nap also piqued his inquisitiveness. Was the game any fun? It didn't look like the redhead was having any fun, though.

Yahiko exhaled a calming breath yet again, oblivious to the current state of affairs. "So in order for me to find myself, I've decided to go away and travel for a bit... and not just for a training trip. I'll always be thankful for the lessons you've taught me, and I'll remember them as I go on to my designated path. However, I feel that I must leave in order for me to find my own answer." Yahiko subsequently looked at Kenshin. "Do you understand...? Dammit, what's happening to you, Kenshin? Hey, Kenshin! KENSHIN!"

In Yahiko's panic, he wasn't able to take note of the frantic scampering of tiny sandals as a small silhouette made his way out of the Kamiya Dojo, trying to search for motherly solace that was not readily present.

"So you've finally woken up. You really scared the hell out of me. Can you tell me what's going on?" Yahiko 'greeted' the half-awake Kenshin.

"How long have I been out of it?" Kenshin inquired as he rubbed his temples. He noticed that he was now resting on a spare futon. It had probably been a while since he passed out, he reckoned.

"Not long, about an hour or so. Do you have any idea what's going on? Mind filling me in? Maybe I should call the local doctor or something. Kaoru should know about this. Maybe you should contact Megumi if this goes on in the long run," Yahiko started to ramble.

Kenshin waved him off. "No, no. It's quite all right. Kaoru already knows. They were mostly just dizzy spells before, though. We already planned on contacting Megumi this coming New Year's celebration and reunion. I guess I really should have slept instead of keeping patrol of the house all night long."

Yahiko quirked an eyebrow at that. "So it was your fault that you got a major dizzy spell? But still, that was some dizzy spell."

Kenshin chuckled lightly. "I guess. But you have to understand, as a former hitokiri, I used to have sleepless nights for weeks on end. My death matches with both Shishio and Enishi had probably taken a lot out of me."

"That sounds about right, although it's probably best to have Megumi examine you before that sickness of yours becomes worse," Yahiko considered before his eyebrows shot up as a question surfaced in his mind. "Why were you patrolling the dojo in the middle of the night?"

Kenshin shrugged. "Call it a swordsman's intuition or just plain and simple paranoia, but I get the feeling that someone's been spying on us for the past few weeks."

Yahiko pondered over that tidbit of information. "I don't doubt your intuition. Tell you what: I'll be keeping an eye out too." He did a mental double-take. 'What the hell am I saying? I'm supposed to tell them that I'm planning to leave! Instead, I've been going around in circles, avoiding the main issue. I really, really have to do this.'

To Kenshin, he asked, "So are you sure you're all right? If you need anything, I'll be staying here." Afterwards, he metaphorically whacked himself upside the head. 'You idiot! 'I'll be staying here,' you say. You're supposed to leave as soon as possible!' he mentally berated himself.

"I am a bit worried about Kenji. I sensed him a while back in the yard. He was already awake," Kenshin mentioned in a concerned tone. "Is he okay? Where is he now?"

As the words finally registered in Yahiko's brain, his body reacted immediately. He frantically ran all over the dojo, scouring every nook and cranny, every hole and crevice, for a certain legendary swordsman's son. "Kenji! Where are you? I can't believe I forgot about Kenji!"

"Oro? He's not in here?" Kenshin queried, his voice's pitch slightly higher than normal. "Yahiko, where could he be? Kaoru's not going to like this."

Yahiko panted heavily as he looked at Kenshin's prone figure. He began to apologize profusely. "I'm sorry, Kenshin. Don't worry, I'll find Kenji. I have no doubts; he went outside this time. He has done this before. Just hang on tight and rest for a bit. I'll get him back before Kaoru gets home."

Kenshin looked at his present condition and sighed. "I'm putting my life into your hands, Yahiko," he half-joked. "I'm so sorry that you have to be involved in all of this. I mean, you're just a guest and Kenji is my responsibility."

Yahiko waved Kenshin off. "There's no need to fret. You're in no shape to go out and about in town right now. Besides, it seems that it's my lot in life to save that little stray from harm." Having said that, the young samurai grabbed the cloth-wrapped sakabatou and went off into the lazy orange afternoon.

"So what have you found out for us?" a middle-aged man of medium stature yet strong build addressed the rugged man wearing traditional ninjutsu garments.

"It seems that the man known as Battousai is beginning to water down as he aged. He has been a bit lax lately, letting his guard down for hours on end. It's certainly a lot worse than the state he was in just a year ago," the practitioner of the dark arts confirmed in a menacingly smooth baritone voice. His eyes were hidden from plain view under the shadow of his flat, woven hat as he concentrated on cleaning his two blades. "What are your plans now?"

The brawnier man chuckled, playing with the slowly dripping candle wax with the tips of his calloused fingers, not at all minding or feeling the supposed burning sensation from the hot liquid because of his hand's deadened sense of touch. He craned his neck towards the light, revealing old scars around the appendage: scars from the past. He pointed at them, almost as if they were war trophies of some sort.

"These were scars I got when I fought with Battousai all those years ago," the man stated, an insane grin on his lips akin to the wild sneer of a rabid dog. "I have never forgiven him for that. He calls himself the Hitokiri Battousai. Well, I'm the Hitokiri Gasuke, the Premiere Assassin of the Yakuza! After six years, I can finally serve my divine retribution upon that pathetic swordsman and his family!"

The ninja's lips curved at Gasuke's declaration. "Six years? I didn't know that the yakuza acted so slow whenever they exacted revenge. I'm under the impression that you worked faster than that."

"It wasn't because we were slow or anything! It was more the boss's fault," Gasuke scoffed, banging the table before him and rattling the candleholders a bit. "It was Tanishi's fault; the fat, old coot got scared of a stupid manslayer. A 'true' hitokiri, he says. Ha. What is it to you anyway, Takae?"

"I think your boss had a lot of practical sense in him," Takae appraised offhandedly, adding, "Even though it would seem that the Battousai's skills have become rusty because of his age, his kenki... his swordsman's spirit and presence... remains strong. I couldn't even begin to imagine what sort of demon he was five years ago, or even ten or fifteen years ago, when he was still the famed, cold-blooded hitokiri."

"I think both you and the old man give him way too much credit," Gasuke sneered contemptuously. "Besides, come next midnight, he'll be fish food, just like our good old friend, Tanishi."

There was a fanatical glint in the yakuza's eyes as he spoke to the prone, bloodied figure of his former superior. "Isn't that right, boss?" His maddened laugh reverberated inside the enclosed space.

Takae casually went back to his sordid task of cleaning his bloodied daggers. "The fat old man spurted dirty blood. It'll rust my kunai faster than salt water if I don't completely clean it off," the aged assassin complained with a disgusted tone.

"Heh. Just shut up and do as I say, and you'll be compensated well." Gasuke furrowed his brow in concern. "We yakuza had to look elsewhere to continue our activities, trafficking opium to far off places just to get away from that Battousai. He's so tightly knit to this community of his that if anyone here gets hurt, there'll be hell to pay. But now that he's so decrepit that he's already getting dizzy spells at such a relatively young age, it's now a prime opportunity for us to strike!"

Takae looked at Gasuke before speaking. "What about that boy that was once in employment with you? The one named Myojin Yahiko? Many street gangs are afraid of him. Some even say he has control of the entirety of Eastern Japan."

Gasuke laughed long and hard. "That little runt, Yahiko? I knew him ever since he was just a little waste of sperm living off the shit of the 'New Age of Enlightenment' of the Meiji Government. I even got a taste of his old lady." He made a face in remembrance. "The old, sickly whore! I knew it was a waste of money."

Takae coolly ignored the squalid words coming off of Gasuke's mouth as he carefully regarded the situation further. "The Battousai trusted the boy enough to give him his sword."

"The Battousai gave the boy the sword because the declining old fool couldn't use it anymore!" Gasuke bellowed. "Street gangs are nothing compared to an organized criminal group! Besides," he paused briefly as he fingered a pistol underneath his hakama, "nothing could possibly stop hot lead from ripping through human flesh! Not a weakened, fragile Battousai, and definitely not a street urchin pretending to be some sort of great samurai warrior! Haha... Takae, where are you going?"

"Somewhere else," the shinobi tersely replied, suddenly disappearing into the shadows as he waved his cloak around himself with a flourish. "I felt a strong spirit in my bones. The essence of battle awaits me!" His baritone voice resonated inside the room long after he disappeared.

"Feh. Stupid ninjas and their philosophical mumbo-jumbo," the self-proclaimed yakuza boss scoffed. "Ah, but it doesn't matter. By the stroke of midnight next evening, I will have my vengeance. I'll rape the woman, mutilate the child, make Battousai eat hot lead, and then send the street urchin to hell with his whorish mother and loser father!" he enumerated, slurring the rest of his words as he went to a state of drunken stupor.

Yahiko waited patiently outside the Akabeko as Tsubame Sanjo, a girl about his age sporting shoulder-length raven hair and a generally cheerful disposition, was just finishing her shift in the restaurant. She smiled as she warmly greeted the spike-haired boy. "Yahiko-kun, what a pleasant surprise! I thought you'd be out practicing for that special technique of yours, as usual."

Yahiko embarrassedly scratched the back of his head. "It's coming along nicely so far. At least, I think so."

Tsubame beamed at Yahiko. "That's good. I'm so happy for you, Yahiko-kun." She paused for a bit. "What's wrong? You don't look so good." Yahiko bowed his head down as though he were begging Tsubame for something. "I was irresponsible. I neglected to look after Kenji while Kaoru went to the market, and... he ran away, looking for his mama. Have you seen him? Did he somehow find his way here at the Akabeko? I have got to find him soon before Kaoru gets back, or else there'll be trouble. I don't think that he had gotten very far."

"I'll ask Tae-san if she has seen him. You can go look around at the houses near Kenshin-san's residence in the meantime. Where can we meet afterwards?" Tsubame suggested, the gravity of the situation readily apparent to her.

"We should wait for each other here, in front of the Akabeko. I'm sure Kenji could be anywhere in the marketplace, but since he can easily stick out like a sore thumb with that hair of his, I don't think we'll have a problem spotting him. Just remember to look for a little Kenshin, and we'll be fine. See you," Yahiko instructed as he went off to one of the nearby stalls.

'Yahiko-kun, you're really worried about Kenji-chan. Even though you say that finding him isn't that much of a problem, you look frantic,' Tsubame supposed, wistfully smiling. 'You always did wear your heart on your sleeve, Yahiko-chan.'

As Tsubame made her way back to the Akabeko, Yahiko berated himself once again. 'I guess I really couldn't tell her about my planned 'untimely' departure just now. I can't just casually say, 'Oh, and I'm going away for a long time and I'm not quite sure when I'm coming back because I'm just trying to find myself and stuff,' now can I? But dammit, she's the last person I want to say good-bye to. Should I really go? Am I really prepared to go?'

A crying noise; a very recognizable weeping sound that was similar to a cross between a bird chirping and a cat being strangled... at least, that was the way Yahiko heard it... was heard just a few yards away, right across a familiar wooden bridge.

Yahiko narrowed his eyes as realization struck him. 'Kenji.'

Sitting on one side of a wooden bridge overlooking a river caressed by a quickly descending sun was Kenji, who was slowly edging away from a crowd of curious onlookers as they gathered around him.

"Mama. Whe's mama?" Kenji half-pleaded to the faceless throng. Their appeals of comfort and calm fell upon deaf ears because they said words that held no meaning to him. Only the familiar voice of his mother could calm him down as he suddenly wailed even louder.

He needed the comfort of his mama's voice and his mama's words to deal with the words that had hurt him so bad. He didn't fully understand everything the tall, spike-haired boy had said, but he did recognize at least two of the words. It had a simple meaning that he just recently learned from his mother and from the redhead who was incidentally his father.

"Mama, whe'd the wedhead go?" he asked one night since he couldn't go to sleep because his mother seemed so sad and distracted.

His mother grinned and laughed. He was glad that he was able to make her smile again even as that bad redheaded man made her look funny once more by giving her slight creases in between her eyebrows. "You shouldn't talk about your father like that. Besides, you're a little redhead too!" she chirped as she tickled the diminutive child.

"But whe'd he go? You look sad," Kenji pouted a bit. The redheaded man was always making his mama miserable.

Kaoru's expression turned melancholic, which gave the youngster pause. He never liked that expression on her face. She spoke softly, carefully choosing her words.

"He had to... go away for a bit because of some very important stuff. I'm sad because I really miss him, but I'll be happy again after he gets back. We should both greet him once he does come back."

Kenji made a face as he pondered his mother's words. "Mama, what does 'go away' mean?"

His mama stroked his red bangs affectionately as she explained, "It's when someone's not here anymore because they're somewhere else."

Kenji fell broodingly silent for a second time. He posed another question to his mama. "What do you say when they not 'go away' anymoh?"

It was now his mother's turn to mull over his words for a bit. Finally, she answered, "That's when people 'come back', Kenji."

Kenji snuggled up to his mother's bosom. "I wish wedhead come back so you not sad anymoh."

Kenji wanted very much to cuddle onto that very bosom right now as the strange and scary people closed in on him. He cried in the same way he did whenever he got stuck on the Kamiya Dojo's roof on numerous occasions. It was a whimper that summoned a recognizable presence every time.

"How'd you get all the way here? Uh, excuse me, ma'am. That tyke's mine. Sorry about this."

Kenji's face brightened. He knew that voice. And as the spike-haired shadow descended upon him in the dim luminescence of the afternoon sun, his guess was confirmed. He clamped onto one of the figure's legs tightly.

"Now don't give me that, brat! Kenshin and I were worried sick about you! You shouldn't go running off like that every time Kaoru goes away. You're a big boy now!"

"Why'd spike-hai'd Yahiko go away? You not like us anymoh?" was Kenji's innocent reply.

Yahiko was at a brief loss of words upon hearing the statement. "Kenji. You..."

Kenji shifted to a more cheerful disposition. "But it's okay! Yahiko now come back. Evewything all wight."

Yahiko sighed lengthily as he hefted two cumbersome bundles onto his shoulders... one was the sakabatou, and the other was Kenji. They were both heavy burdens of responsibility that originated from Kenshin one way or the other.

"Is everything okay? I hope Kaoru-san doesn't find out." Tsubame fretted for a bit as she smoothened her kimono. "It's getting dark."

"Yeah, I know," Yahiko agreed as he slung Kenji over one shoulder like a duffel bag. The young lad, exhausted from crying, was softly snoring. The sky was pitch-black already.

"You probably shouldn't hold Kenji like that. He's not your pet cat, y'know," Tsubame chided.

"He's okay. He's used to it. Anyway, thanks again for your help. I'm sorry for making you stay up so late, though," Yahiko said as he started to make his way back to the Kamiya Dojo. "Good-bye, Tsubame."

"Don't worry, I don't mind. Bye, Yahiko-kun!" Tsubame cheerfully waved at the retreating figure.

Still facing away, Yahiko addressed the girl. "Tsubame."

"Yes?" the girl responded as she gave Yahiko a sidelong glance, her eyes apprehensive as her intuition screamed for her to brace herself.

Yahiko gulped audibly before speaking again. "Uh, nothing. Just be careful, okay?"

Tsubame regarded the young boy earnestly. "You too, Yahiko-kun."

The silence of the night reigned supreme as the two teenagers parted ways, the reticence marred only by the twittering of various insects and the gentle snore of a worn-out toddler.

"Boy, Kenji! You've gotten heavy," Yahiko muttered to himself as he continued to heft the little boy on his shoulder. "You must have been eating out at the Akabeko more often. I mean, you couldn't have gained weight by eating Kaoru's cooking, right?"

"Spike-haid Yahiko..." Kenji mumbled in his sleep, slightly pouting. "Spiky hai's itchy on my face."

Yahiko cleared his throat. "I'd prefer it if you called me something else, like Yahiko-san or..."

"Big bwotha," Kenji muttered blissfully.

Yahiko exhaled and smiled. "I guess that'll do."

"What the hell are you doing here?" a deep voice slurred from the darkness. Yahiko slowly turned towards the source of the voice. It was from an unkempt-looking man dressed in ragged clothes, smelling of sake. "Get out of the street, punk! I'm walking here."

Yahiko discreetly ignored the drunkard, but was soon surrounded by other men who were in similar states of drunkenness. The boy also cautiously clutched the wrapped-up sakabatou's handle as the inebriated gang flaunted their sword canes. 'Yakuza. This could get really ugly.'

"What's going on?" Kenji drowsily whispered. "Who ah they?"

"Just a bunch of drunken fools whose collective butts are about to get kicked by your big brother. Go back to sleep, Kenji," Yahiko simply ordered.

"What the hell did you just say?" one of the aforementioned thugs demanded as he charged at Yahiko, flinging his sword cane wildly at the teenager's face.

Yahiko didn't even move or react until the gangster's blade was at his face by mere inches. He subsequently struck with the base of his sakabatou's hilt, snapping the man's wrist. Afterwards, he thrust the bundle into the man's armpits, dislocating the limb a bit. "You guys better sober up quickly or else you'll all get a nasty headache come morning."

The hooligans slowly backed away as one of their compatriots howled in pain. Then shouts of "You can't do that to us! We're yakuza!" and "Let's see if he can take us on all at once!" were heard as each of them commenced brandishing their weapons, advancing ominously towards the teenager.

Yahiko hopped away slightly towards a narrower part of the clearing as he hastily dropped Kenji to the ground. "Looks like your little nap's been cut short, Kenji. Go hide behind a tree or something while I play with these yakuza scumbags."

"Okay. Have fun, big bwotha!" Kenji merrily remarked as he hid behind a nearby bush, giggling.

"Come on," Yahiko taunted at the charging hoodlums.

"Wow! Big bwotha was gweat!" Kenji cheered from his precarious perch on a tree branch.

'How the heck did he climb up so high?' Yahiko deliberated to himself as he retied the cloth bundle of the reverse-edged sword, surveying all the prone figures around him. Half of his attackers had already fled in panic while the remaining half were either too groggy, too injured, or just too drunk to be of any threat.

'Having to beat up a bunch of drunkards? This is a new low for me.' Yahiko made a clucking sound with his tongue. 'Kaoru's obviously back from the market by now, and it's already late. Sorry, Kenshin; it looks like Kaoru's going to give you hell whether you like it or not.'

Yahiko saw from the corner of his eye one of the older yakuza crawling behind him. It seemed that he was the most mature of Yahiko's aggressors, now that the kenjutsu master thought about it. The old hooligan wore a ragged cloak that set him apart from the other ruffians.

"My compatriots... were rather weak." He picked up two sword canes laying on the ground and wielded them like daggers.

'This guy wasn't really drunk!' Yahiko thought in alarm. "Who the hell are you?"

"My name is of no consequence to you. It's impressive how you've taken down several people without drawing your sword once, even though your opponents were dead drunk at the time."

The man smiled coldly, putting chills in Yahiko's spine. It reminded him of one of Saito's manic grins.

"Just what is the true measure of your strength?"

Yahiko swiftly turned towards the forty-something hoodlum's direction, gripping his bundled-up sword tightly, prepared for anything as the man suddenly... disappeared? 'What in the world?'

"Big bwotha, watch out behind you!" Kenji screeched at Yahiko, his arms flailing.

Yahiko reflexively turned, his reaction time too slow as flashes of blue suddenly came upon his back.

"Big bwotha!" Kenji screamed.

Relying on pure instinct and will, Yahiko thrust the tip of the cloth-wrapped sakabatou towards his side, intending to gut his opponent as he used the recoil to put some breathing space between him and his attacker. But as soon as he executed the maneuver, said adversary had already vanished again.

He bounded a good distance away, carefully regarding the shadowed areas of the paved road near the surrounding woodlands. He put his back on the tree trunk near the branch where the crying Kenji was hanging. "Hey, it's all right. I'm not hurt. You can stop crying now."

Kenji sniffled for a bit. "Weally?"

Yahiko gave Kenji a token nod.

"What are you doing?" a voice sinisterly mocked, the branch where Kenji was suspended suddenly cut.

Kenji didn't even have time to scream out as he rapidly fell onto the ground below.

With no time left to think, Yahiko acted on impulse, swinging his bundle half-blindly at the brief glint of light that cut through the tree branch. His strike hit true as he heard the resonant thud of a blade on his cloth-wrapped sword.

"Kenji, run away!" Yahiko commanded at the very startled toddler as he finally unleashed his offensive upon his unknown enemy, not able to spare any time to check if whether or not the child obeyed.

"Your kenjutsu is of decent caliber, but I really couldn't tell with your sword still sheathed. Perhaps we should raise the ante of the fight a little?" the old man proclaimed threateningly as he blocked each and every one of Yahiko's strikes, neutralizing the adolescent's counteroffensive.

To be Continued...

Next: Resolutions and departures.

Wow. I was really meaning to write this for a long time; I even had an entire mockup and all prepared for it. I'm kind of glad I wrote it too. And even though this is going to be more of an action-oriented fic, there will be a bit of space for romance, drama, and the occasional comedic moment.

Ja ne!