I do not own Rurouni Kenshin. If I did, why on earth would I waste my time writing this? I'd be rubbing it in all the fan's faces! Heh...um...anyway.

This is my first Kenshin fic. I have only seen 22 eps of RK, so please realize that this is why I only have Kenshin, Kaoru, Sanosuke, Megumi, Tsubame, and Yahiko in this fic.

Okay, I'll shut up and let you read now.

Chapter One: Stranger

A wind kicked up and whipped his hair back from his face. His eyes narrowed in the harsh sunlight, and he practically had to squint to keep the dust from blocking his vision. His sandals made little noise on the packed earth; even after all this time he still walked a quietly as a stalking cat. The sword stuck through his obi thunked against his leg as he strode down the crowded street.

How long had it been since he had abandoned the life of a wanderer? Ten years? Eleven? And still the townspeople gaped at the fire-haired man in their midst, openly defying the law by carrying his sword. True, it was a sakabatou, a reverse-blade, but few still living and willing to fight him knew that.

Himura Kenshin smiled at a man about his own age leading a young boy, about nine or so, gently by the shoulder. The boy glared stubbornly and shuffled his feet as slowly as possible, kicking up a cloud of dust.

The boy slowed to almost a crawl and the man grabbed him by the muscle in the side of the neck, squeezing it painfully until tears sprang to the boy's eyes. The man growled something at him. Kenshin's smile dropped.

"D'you understand me?"

The boy nodded, on his knees, gritting his teeth and fighting tears. "H ... hai ... " (Y ... yes ... ")

Kenshin put a hand on the man's arm. "Excuse me, but this one thinks you should release this boy, that you should."

The man snarled. "This is none of your business. Go stickin' your nose into other folk's matters, and you're likely to get it cut off."

Before the man even realized that Kenshin's sword was out of its sheath, he was down, knocked unconscious.

The boy gaped at Kenshin, tears forgotten. Kenshin knelt down and offered a hand to the boy. "Daijoubou desu ka?" (Are you alright?)

The boy's startled look was replaced by a flash of anger. "Daijoubou! (I'm fine!) What do you mean, butting into other people's business? I didn't need your help! I'm not a kid, you know!"

It was Kenshin's turn to gape at the boy. He sounded so familiar...someone had said that to him before, years ago.

A face flashed in his mind, a tanned, black-haired, brown-eyed boy's face, laughing. Ah ... that's who this boy reminded him of. Yahiko. Even thinking about him was painful ...

"Hey, what's the matter with you?" the boy asked rudely.

"What's your name, boy?"

"Don't call me that! My name's Daisuke, and you'd better remember it, because I'll make you pay for insulting me like that! I'll-"

Kenshin stood up. "You have this one's deepest apologies, Daisuke. Don't-" he choked on his words. "Don't ever lose that pride you have."

The boy glared and ran off.

Kenshin watched him go. A wetness on his scarred cheek surprised him; he put his hand to his face. Tears?

"That seems to be your famous line, Himura."

Kenshin whirled. A man in a dark gray cloak, hood pulled up to cover his face, leaned against the wall.

"Who are you? How do you know this one's name?"

"Ah, now, your memory isn't what it used to be. Growing old so quickly, Kenshin?"

With that, the man whirled and stalked away. Kenshin stared after him. Who—could it have been—

"Kenshin!"

"Kaoru-dono, Sanosuke," he greeted his friends absentmindedly.

Kaoru tilted her head in that odd birdlike manner she had. "Kenshin, what's the matter? Are you alright?"

In spite of the lone tear that still streaked his face, Kenshin grinned. "Oh, hai, this one is fine, Kaoru-dono, that he is."

Sanosuke raised an eyebrow. Actually, one eyebrow disappeared in the spiky mass he liked to call his hair. "Kenshin, you were crying."

"Crying? No, Sano, this one simply had something in his eye."

But Sano wasn't listening. He was watching the back of the retreating stranger. "Do you know him?"

"That this one does not, but he seemed to recognize this one. Odd, that."

Kaoru too was watching the cloaked man. "Sure is. Ah, well, let's get something to eat." She noticed the unconscious man for the first time. "Kenshin! Can't we go anywhere without you causing trouble?" She grabbed Kenshin by the ear and he yelped.

"Ow! Kaoru-dono, that hurts! Kaoru-dono!"

She dragged him into Akabeko. Sanosuke stood alone, watching the horizon where the man had disappeared.

/ Are you back so soon? Frightened out there, all alone? Or did you just come to cause more trouble? You should have stayed gone, boy, you should've stayed gone./

"Sano!"

"Coming," he called. "I'm coming."

Kenshin closed his eyes, savoring the warmth of the bitter tea he drank. He reached for a bit of fish in the center of the pan with his chopsticks, and noticed that Sano wasn't eating.

"Sano," Kenshin said, touching the tall man's arm lightly. "What's the matter? Are you ill?"

"No," Sano muttered, jumping at the touch. "I feel fine, just...that man seemed oddly familiar."

"Yes, this one felt that too. You don't think it's—"

Sano shrugged and tilted his head at Kaoru, to indicate that they shouldn't discuss this around her. She had gone into hysterics when Yahiko had left ten years ago. Any mention of the boy brought tears to her eyes and caused her to sit in silence for hours on end.

Kaoru sighed. "I'm not deaf, you know. I can hear you—"she choked, "—and I think you might be right ... "

Her huge eyes were clouded with tears; Kenshin took her by the shoulders and hugged her to his chest. "It's alright, Kaoru-dono. We'll find him if it takes us years."

Kaoru collapsed against him. "I should never have yelled at him like that—this is all my fault."

"No, Kaoru-dono. He chose to leave. You did nothing."

"That's the point! I should have stopped him! I should have—"

Kenshin put a finger to her lips, his voice oddly harsh. "Stop that, Kaoru- dono. You'll worry yourself into an early grave, that you will. I'm sure Yahiko doesn't blame you." /How could he blame you when it's my fault?/

"Kaoru," Sano said. She looked up at him. "You can't blame yourself for this. It was Yahiko's decision, not yours. It's over and done with, so don't keep worrying."

Kaoru sniffled. "I guess you're right, but...I miss him."

"So do we all, Kaoru-dono."

Ten years earlier ...

"Yahiko! You lazy little brat, where are you?" Kaoru brandished a broom at Kenshin. "Where is he? He's supposed to be sweeping the dojo."

Kenshin looked up from the pot he was stirring and smiled. "He'll show up, that he will, don't worry. He always does his chores in due time."

Kaoru huffed and sat down by Kenshin. "Do you ever worry about anything?"

Kenshin turned his attention back to the pot. "This one tries not to. It just makes things worse."

"I suppose you're right."

Sanosuke opened the dojo door and stepped outside. "Hey, have you seen Yahiko? He's supposed to be practicing hand-to-hand combat with me, and I can't find him anywhere. Little runt snuck out on me again."

"Kaoru-dono is looking for him as well. Do you think he's alright?"

"I'm sure he's fine. Probably sitting near a river somewhere or something."

But Kenshin's mind wasn't eased by Sano's confident words. Yahiko had been coming home later and later, with new cuts and bruises often as not. Sure, the boy had tried to hide them, but Kenshin was in charge of heating the bathwater, and had seen Yahiko's battered back through the bathhouse window.

Kaoru jumped up and stabbed a victorious finger at the hunched shape at the gate. "There you are, Yahiko! Sneaking out on us again, are you?"

Yahiko stepped back into shadows, eyes downcast. "I...I'm sorry, I didn't mean to ... "

Kenshin half-stood to stop Kaoru; something about the boy's voice wasn't quite right. But Kaoru was just getting started on her tirade.

"You know, you live and eat here for free, and you do NO work! I train you and take care of you, and you're still the same ungrateful little lout who crawled in here a year ago! You haven't changed a bit! Maybe we should have just left you with that yakuza syndicate! You'd think them beating you would have left some sort of impression on you! You obey when I tell you to! I say jump, you say 'how high?'!"

Yahiko gritted his teeth. His eyes flashed in the shadows, creating an eerie effect. "I'm sorry, Kaoru-sensei," he said, his words coming out as more of a sob.

He turned and dashed into the dojo. Kaoru stared after him. "What...what's wrong? He didn't even argue...and he called me sensei?"

"I think you should stay here Kaoru-dono, that you should," Kenshin said. "I'll see to Yahiko."

Kaoru glanced at Sano in shock. "Something's wrong," she said. "He just called himself 'I.'"

Kenshin padded down the wooden hall with silent feet. "Yahiko?" he asked gently, sliding the door open. Yahiko was curled up in a corner of the room, arms wrapped around his knees, head buried in his arms. Upon hearing Kenshin's voice, he looked up, tear-streaked face fierce.

"You come to yell at me too? Tell you what, Kenshin, hit me, kick me, do whatever you want, just don't yell. I'm getting a headache."

Kenshin knelt by Yahiko, and Yahiko shied away from him. "Why would I hit you?" If Yahiko had noticed the samurai referring to himself in the first person, he didn't comment.

Yahiko gave a mirthless smile. "No one else needed a reason."

Kenshin's eyes were soft. "Who has been hurting you, Yahiko?"

"Hurting me ... ?" Yahiko mumbled, as if the thought had never occurred to him. "No one."

"Yahiko ... You can't lie to me, I know you've been hurt."

Yahiko sat in stubborn silence.

"I'm going to go get the doctor," Kenshin said after a moment. "Your wounds must be tended to."

"No," Yahiko said pleadingly, grabbing Kenshin's sleeve. "No one else has to know, do they? I can take care of it myself."

"Can you?" Yahiko nodded. "Well, at least let me clean them."

He went to fetch a washcloth and water. Yahiko waited, still curled up in the corner until Kenshin returned. The red-haired man knelt by the boy and brushed his hair away from his face, pulling his hand back when it came away red with blood. He parted Yahiko's hair to reveal a large, still- bleeding gash at the hairline. Kenshin bathed it, not missing the boy's sharp intake of breath.

"Itai ... " Yahiko gasped, breathing heavily, on the verge of tears. "Itai..." (It hurts ... it hurts ... )

"Hmm," Kenshin half-laughed sadly. "It's supposed to. Pain is your body's way of telling you that you've done something foolish."

Kenshin wrung out the white washcloth into the bucket. "Yahiko, please take your shirt off for me, alright?"

Yahiko stiffened, baring his teeth unconsciously.

"Yahiko? I won't hurt you, I'm only trying to help. Please, it will be easier if you cooperate, that it will."

Yahiko lowered his eyes and untied his kimono, letting it gather around his waist. He removed the white cotton shirt he wore underneath and set it aside, folding it neatly--/where did he learn that?/ Kenshin wondered.

Kenshin bit his lip. Poor boy ... what had happened to him? Yahiko glanced up at him with pained eyes and smiled wryly. "Yahiko ... who ... who did this to you?"

Yahiko averted his gaze to his feet once again. "No one."

Kenshin tentatively touched a deep purple bruise. "No one has a pretty good arm, then."

The boy's back was a mass of bruises and scabs. Welts, too ... had he been whipped? His chest was a mirror of his back, and his arms were bruised and battered as well.

Kenshin scrubbed roughly at a dirt-packed cut. Yahiko whimpered. "Ken ... shin ... that ... hurts ... "

Kenshin continued his work. By the time he had finished bathing his wounds, Yahiko was pale, shaking, and in pain. Several slashes had reopened and were seeping crimson waterfalls onto the floor.

Kenshin bound the boy from torso to wrist in clean bandages. "Now you be careful to not let no one get you again, alright?"

Yahiko snarled. "You think this is funny, Kenshin? You—"

Kenshin took Yahiko's arm. "I'm here if you ever need to talk, alright? You don't forget that. I would never strike you."

"Hai," Yahiko said, startled out of his tirade. "Hai, Kenshin. Domo arigatou." (Yes. Yes, Kenshin. Thank you very much.) One week later ... Kenshin rubbed his temples, gritting his teeth. His head was pounding, and his stomach was rumbling. He collapsed to his knees, dropping the soapy pot he was washing, dry-heaving as his stomach tried to eject what it didn't have.

What was the matter with him? He'd been weak as a newborn kitten for three days now ...

He opened his kimono and probed gently at the inflamed mass of infection his side had become. Common street rats. Battosai the Manslayer had been wounded by street rats. It was embarrassing.

Maybe that was why he'd refused to let Megumi tend to it.

He'd only wanted to help Yahiko ...

Yahiko had gotten mixed up with a small street gang somehow. He had a debt to them, or something, Kenshin didn't really know the details. But the gang had caught Yahiko off-guard and undefended as the boy was walking back to the dojo with that night's dinner.

They'd had short swords; glorified knives, really, pitted and rusted with age. Kenshin had been waiting for Yahiko, thankfully, and had decided to walk up the path a ways to meet him. Kenshin had taken them down easily, and although none were mortally wounded, they certainly weren't going to be pestering Yahiko for some time.

Perhaps it had been shock, fear, spite even, but Yahiko hadn't warned Kenshin about the boy behind him. By the time Kenshin had whirled and struck the boy a painful blow to the midsection, he'd managed to rake his rusty blade across Kenshin's ribs.

Yahiko was standing behind him as he got to his feet shakily. "You should eat something," the boy said. "And get Megumi to fix that scratch."

Kenshin's eyes narrowed. Scratch? Damn thing was making him ill. "I will eat when I feel like it, Yahiko," he near-growled, the hot-tempered Manslayer in him again rearing its ugly head. "And I'll thank you to not run to Megumi and tell her I'm injured."

Yes, Yahiko definitely noticed the "I" this time. One would think it would alert him that all was not well with Kenshin, but the young are often foolish, and he chose to brush it off and try to keep light-hearted.

"Well, you're too damn stubborn to tell her yourself—ow!" Yahiko fell back into the sliding screen door, clutching the side of his head where Kenshin had swung the pan with all his might and it had connected with a sickening thud. "You hit me," Yahiko said, sounding surprised as he drew his hand away and examined the blood covering his palm. He stood, unsteady and dizzy from the harsh blow.

"Yahiko-kun, I'm ... I'm sorry!" Kenshin rushed to the boy, violet eyes terse with worry. "I lost my temper ... I haven't been feeling well, and you just set me off, that's all. Are you alright?"

Yahiko snarled and pulled back, the look of a cornered animal flashing in his eyes. "You bastard. You said I could trust you. Said you were there if I needed help. Well screw you, Kenshin, I don't need your help!"

He turned and ran. Kenshin hadn't seen him since.

He walked as if in a daze, lost in memories as they made their way back to the Kamiya dojo.

The cloaked man was waiting at the gate. "Himura Kenshin," he laughed. "It's been so long."

Kenshin shifted his sandaled feet into a fighting position. "Please, sir, leave us. This one doesn't want to hurt you, that he doesn't."

The man straightened and threw back his hood. "Ah, Kenshin, you and your foolish 'this one.'" He laughed. "Don't you remember?"

Kenshin stared.

"Y—Yahiko-kun?"