Disclaimer: I don't own anything in this story. Don't worry, you'll get over it. I did.

Chapter 20

Kenshin had left Kyoto behind, and been walking for four hours. It bothered him that he couldn't remember the old man's name, and he hadn't allowed his mind to dwell on anything else. Focusing so intently on that had allowed several other memories to resurface, such as finding Arai Seiku and fighting Chou. However, the old man's name had continued to elude Kenshin's grasp.

Becoming frustrated, Kenshin turned his thoughts to Misao. He was able to pull up a few more memories with her, remembering how and why they met, and most of their journey to Kyoto. She was quite an emotional young lady, and he had to laugh at one or two of the memories that came up. He went through putting everything into chronological order, and trying to remember other events along their journey that he might have missed. Turning his thoughts towards Kyoto, his mind willingly showed him what had happened when they reached the Aoiya.

Misao stopped in front of a building with a sign that read "Aoiya." The old man was sweeping off the front porch. Cupping her hands around her mouth, Misao called to him, "Hey! I'm home, gramps!"

The old man looked up, before running over and, picking up Misao, spinning around with her in his arms. Kenshin watched silently as the rest of the staff came outside, all greeting Misao enthusiastically.

"I guess I should be on my way," Kenshin said, quietly, turning and starting to leave. He didn't want to intrude, and he didn't think anyone had even heard him. He stopped, slightly surprised, when the old man spoke to him.

"Hold it right there! We haven't been able to thank you yet. Please, make yourself at home here. Be our guest Mr. Himura the Battousai."

Kenshin's eyes narrowed slightly.

"Even if you hide your cross-shaped scar, people who know you, will know you," the old man continued.

"But sir--" Kenshin started, only to be cut off.

"I'll listen to the details inside. For now, why don't you come in?" he said, walking inside. After a brief hesitation, Kenshin followed.

Misao skipped off, saying she was going to change and take a bath, and the old man led Kenshin to an empty room. Kenshin entered first, all traces of his rurouni mask gone as he turned and watched the old man behind him.

Closing the shoji, behind them, the old man looked at Kenshin, his expression serious. "Well, now. During your travels with her, didn't Misao mention her involvement with the Oniwabanshu at any point?" he asked.

Kenshin looked a little surprised. "Are you trying to say--" Kenshin started, only to be interrupted again.

"It's precisely as you suspect. When I was in my younger days I, Kashiwazaki Nenji, was also a member. My code name, when I was in charge of this area, was--"

"Okina!" Kenshin shouted, triumphantly, startling some birds out of a nearby tree. He glanced around, a little self-consciously. The road he was traveling on was deserted.

Turning back around, he realized that the sun was starting to sink below the horizon. He had been so lost in his memories that he hadn't noticed the passage of time. He walked along the path a little further until he spotted a good place to camp for the night. After eating dinner, he leaned against a tree that faced the road while the bushes kept him concealed from view. Casting out his senses, he searched the surrounding area for any ki, friendly or otherwise. Finding none, he relaxed against the rough bark and soon drifted off into a light sleep.

. . .

Kenshin awoke early the next morning. He had a quick breakfast and was on the road just as the sun was peeking over the mountains in the distance. Being able to recall so many memories under his own power the previous day had put him in a good mood, and he hoped to be able to remember more throughout the rest of his trip. Seeing as he had been able to remember so much about Misao and Okina, Kenshin decided to start the day by focusing on the only other member of the Oniwabanshu he was currently familiar with-- Shinomori Aoshi.

. . .

Kenshin arrived at Tsurugo in late afternoon, and began searching for an inn. Finding one without too much difficulty, he purchased a room for the night. He ate a quick dinner and indulged in a long bath.

After soaping up, Kenshin relaxed in the furo, thinking about what he had accomplished today. He had been able to retrieve his memories of fighting Aoshi and the other members of the Oniwabanshu at the Kanryu estate, and those events had been linked to Megumi. Thinking about the doctor had allowed Kenshin to remember their first meeting, which led him to remembering about Sano, as well. And his memories of Sano had also been linked to Yahiko and Kaoru.

While it was wonderful that he was regaining so much of what he had lost, the sudden influx of memories from the past few days had his mind reeling. So, after his bath, he retired to his room, using the time until he went to bed to meditate and file all of the memories away in chronological order. It seemed as though there wasn't much left that he couldn't remember, although the location of the dojo seemed to be among those few memories. Kenshin wasn't particularly worried about finding the dojo-- he still had four to six days of traveling before he reached Tokyo, and he was sure that he'd remember before then.

. . .

Kenshin woke early the next morning, feeling refreshed. Not in any particular hurry, he took his time eating breakfast before leaving to find a store to purchase supplies for his trip to Ontako.

After walking around for a bit, he finally found one to suit his needs. Entering the shop, Kenshin found it was empty, save for the clerk and an old woman who was looking at the selection. Never having been one to waste time shopping, Kenshin quickly gathered what he needed, and purchased his items.

"Oh, doing a bit of traveling, are ye?" the shopkeeper asked, making conversation. "Where are ye headed to, if ye don't min' me asking?"

Kenshin returned the clerk's friendly smile. "I'm on my way to Tokyo."

At hearing this, the old woman looked at Kenshin, noticing the sword at his side. "You'll be going through Ontako, then?" she asked, joining the conversation.

Kenshin turned towards her. "Yes, I--"

"Good," she interrupted. "I'm moving to Ontako to live with my sister. You'll travel with me, and protect my treasures," she said, her tone brooking no argument.

"Oro?" Kenshin was taken off-guard by the directness of the old woman, but he was not one to withhold his assistance when it was needed. He started to reply when she cut him off again.

"Well, what are you standing around for? I want to get on the road as soon as possible! Move it!"

Kenshin smiled at her, obligingly gathering up his purchases as she paid for her own. Waiting for the old woman outside, he followed her over to a cart and helped her load her supplies.

"So, you need company for your trip to Ontako?" Kenshin asked, trying to make small talk.

The old woman looked at him as if he were stupid. "I need someone to protect my treasures," she said, gesturing to the items in the back of the cart. "You're going to make sure no one steals any of it."

Kenshin eyed the items in the cart. I don't think you could pay someone to take most of this junk, he thought, but he wisely kept it to himself. There was a high-pitched growl and Kenshin reflexively jerked away, canine teeth closing on the spot his fingers had been a split second before.

The old woman looked up. "Youji! There you are! I was wondering where you were hiding," she said, picking up the little dog. Youji gave her a canine grin, his tongue lolling out of his mouth as she hugged him. She put the dog back on the cart while she climbed up.

Immediately, the dog went over to where Kenshin was loading the rest of the old woman's purchases. Youji tried to bite Kenshin anytime he came within range. Kenshin thought the dog was just being protective of the cart, and managed to finish putting the supplies on the cart while avoiding Youji's teeth. Perhaps the dog just needed some time to get used to the swordsman.

Finally having gotten herself situated, the old woman glared at Kenshin like he'd been holding them up. "If you're quite finished fooling around with Youji, then we can leave," she said.

Kenshin just smiled at her. "I'm ready."

The old woman picked up the reins and directed the horse to start walking down the road. Kenshin followed at the side of the cart. The little dog stayed in the back of the cart, barking at every person they passed.

. . .

Around noon, they stopped for lunch by a stream. They weren't making very good time, in Kenshin's opinion. The old lady had set a slow pace so as to not tire the horse. In addition, she wanted to stop every two hours and walk around to ease the stiffness in her joints. Kenshin didn't mind that much, but it was extending the amount of time they spent on the road. Normally this delay wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that Kenshin had decided that he did not like small dogs. The beast had not quit barking since their departure from Tsurugo, running back and forth in the cart and barking at things that weren't there, or perhaps barking at the trees and bushes themselves. The constant cacophony was wearing on the swordsman's nerves, and he prayed that the little dog would become hoarse for the remainder of the trip. The old woman seemed oblivious to the awful racket produced by the small canine, much to Kenshin's chagrin.

Getting down off the cart, the old woman stretched before reaching back and grabbing the bag that contained her food. She walked over and plopped down on a rock, looking expectantly at Kenshin. "Well? What are you waiting for? Take care of the horse!" she snapped, picking up Youji, who had jumped out of the cart to follow her. The dog barked at Kenshin, as if punctuating her order.

Kenshin's smile was polite, if not somewhat strained. At least that dog is quiet when she's holding him, he thought, unhitching the horse from the cart, leading the gelding over to the stream. After the animal had drank enough, Kenshin checked his hooves for any lodged stones. Not finding any, Kenshin led him over to a grassy area to graze.

The old woman put Youji on the ground, and the dog took it upon himself to annoy Kenshin. Racing over to the red head, he stopped just out of reach, growling and snapping. Kenshin darted a glance at the old woman, but she was just smiling as if the dog had just performed a trick. Sighing, Kenshin ate his lunch, trying to ignore the threatening sounds coming from the dog, and jerking out of the way when the animal's teeth came too close to him.

About an hour later, they were back on the road. The dog went back in the cart once more, and barked only at things on the side Kenshin was walking on.

The journey continued, with the old woman taking a break every two hours, until sunset. They stopped near a stream a little ways off the road, to avoid anyone who was traveling through the night. At the old woman's demand, Kenshin removed the harness before giving the horse a good brush down. He checked his hooves, and let the gelding drink from the stream. After getting his fill, the horse followed Kenshin to a grassy area and began to graze. The swordsman hobbled the animal before walking back to where the old woman was sitting.

"Give this to him, too," she said, handing Kenshin a bucket with some grain in it.

Wondering why she felt incapable of doing so herself, Kenshin took the bucket over to the horse. Perhaps she's tired. I don't believe she's used to traveling, he thought. However, she has hardly walked at all. Oh well, it doesn't matter. I don't mind taking care of the horse.

Kenshin sat down and was eating his dinner when he noticed his tabi were very dirty. Deciding to take advantage of the stream, Kenshin walked over to the water and took off his zori, setting them aside. Removing his tabi, he submerged them in the stream, trying to work out as much of the dirt as he could without soap.

As soon as Kenshin kneeled by the stream, the little dog ran over to him, barking and growling just out of Kenshin's reach. The red head ignored him, trying to block out the constant noise from the small beast. Kenshin looked up at an odd bark, sounding as though the dog were trying to bark around something in his mouth. Turning towards Youji, the swordsman saw the canine in question running away from him carrying something in his mouth. Looking closer, Kenshin realized it was one of his zori.

Dropping the partially washed tabi on the bank, Kenshin leaped to his feet, racing after the dog barefoot. The sharp sticks and rocks under his tender feet hampered Kenshin's speed, and the dog had a head start. The old woman watched in amusement as Kenshin chased Youji around their camp, trying to retrieve his sandal. Finally, Kenshin managed to pick up the dog with one hand, while he grabbed his zori with the other one. Youji, however, refused to let go, so Kenshin pulled harder. The strain was too much for the worn strap, and it broke. Youji's now empty mouth sought to fill itself with Kenshin's hand. The red head quickly put the dog back on the ground, avoiding the snapping teeth, and looked mournfully at his now ruined sandal.

The old woman was laughing. "Oh, look, he was playing with you. He likes you," she said, picking up the dog in her arms.

Kenshin refrained from comment. Gingerly picking his way across the camp on sore feet, Kenshin retrieved his partially clean tabi and finished rinsing them. Youji stayed in the old woman's lap the entire time. Despite the unseasonably warm weather, Kenshin built a fire and laid his tabi on stones near it to help them dry. Pulling his ruined green gi from his bag, Kenshin tore off a few strips and replaced the broken strap on his zori. Kenshin looked at the dog while he worked, his hair hiding his eyes. Youji was watching him, and seemed to be pleased with himself. This is going to be a long trip, Kenshin thought, glaring at the dog through his bangs.

. . .

The next morning, the old woman awoke to the smell of cooking meat. Looking over, she saw two sticks with several pieces of meat on each of them cooking over the fire. Kenshin sat a few feet away, cleaning his sword. The meat looked like it was about done, so the old woman walked over and helped herself. She picked up one of the sticks, blowing on it to cool it, and sat down to eat. She made a face. "You know, it tastes a lot better if you season it with something," she groused, taking another bite.

Kenshin muttered something under his breath at her remark. Youji had barked in his sleep sporadically all night, continually waking Kenshin. As a result, he was a little grumpy this morning. "I'm sorry, but I don't have anything to season it with." This isn't a restaurant, you old hag, he added, mentally. He picked up the other stick and started eating. He was surprised by the taste. The old woman made it sound as if it was horrible, but it tasted pretty good to him. Kenshin smiled, thinking it might be an acquired taste.

She grunted at his response, and continued eating. Saving the last piece for Youji, the old lady looked around for him, calling his name. He was nowhere to be seen. She looked back at Kenshin, noticing him smiling, as if he were pleased with himself. She dropped the stick, a horrified look on her face.

"You monster."

Kenshin looked up, surprised at her tone and the glare she was giving him. What had he done wrong now?

"You villain! How could you do that to my poor Youji?! He was only playing with you last night!" she practically screamed at him, tears coming to her eyes. She leaped forward with agility surprising for her age and snatched the stick out of Kenshin's hand.

"Oro?"

"Just because he broke your stupid zori, you-- you--" she broke off, cradling the pieces of meat in her hands. "My poor baby..."

A bark sounded from the edge of the clearing, and the old woman looked up to see Youji trotting towards her.

Kenshin watched in dismay as she dropped the meat to the ground in surprise, and Youji happily cleaned it up for her. He sighed. So much for breakfast. I can set a few more snares when we stop tonight, I suppose, he thought, looking longingly at the ground where the sticks lay. But I haven't had rabbit that good in such a long time... He shook himself out of his thoughts, and started getting ready to leave. The sooner they were on the road, the sooner he was rid of his companions.

The old woman didn't offer as much as a single word of apology to Kenshin. She watched him put out the fire and harness the horse before hitching him to the cart. She was about to berate Kenshin for not feeding the horse first, when she saw her bucket on the ground. She had replaced it in the cart last night. The old woman was startled to realize that not only had Kenshin taken care of the gelding's needs before she woke up, but he had retrieved both the bucket and the grain from the cart in the dark without waking her up. He had also replaced the hobbles without her knowledge. She eyed him a little suspiciously as she climbed back into her cart, glancing over her treasures to see if anything was missing before heading out.

They continued in the same fashion they had the previous day, the old woman taking a break every two hours and stopping for lunch around noon. Kenshin's mood had improved, as Youji had not been interested in bothering him today. Kenshin had even found himself starting to enjoy the trip.

Halfway through the afternoon, Youji decided he was tired of riding in the cart. Jumping out, he made a beeline for the bushes, disappearing before the old woman even realized he was gone.

The old woman stopped the cart. "Youji! Youji, come back here!" she called. When the dog didn't reappear, she turned to Kenshin. "Well? What are you waiting for? We're not going anywhere without Youji, so go get him!"

You may not want to leave without him, but I most certainly can, Kenshin thought. The hag's attitude was starting to grate on his nerves, but he couldn't leave her here, so he did as she bid him and went after the dog.

Following Youji's trail, Kenshin found the dog sniffing around the base of a tree about twenty yards from the road. Thinking the dog might like him a bit more since he had given him the leftover parts from the rabbits that morning, Kenshin reached down to pick him up. He promptly snatched his hand back to avoid Youji's teeth.

Kenshin tried to pick the dog up a few more times, but Youji was watching him now, and tried to bite the rurouni anytime he got too close. Sighing in frustration, Kenshin took his sword out of his obi. Using the sheath to distract Youji, he quickly grabbed the dog by the scruff of his neck.

Putting his sheath back through his obi, Kenshin made his way back to the road. He placed his free hand under Youji's legs, to make it look like he was carrying him properly. Walking over to the cart, he placed the dog into the old woman's open arms.

"What were you doing, running off like that?! Bad dog, you know better!" she scolded.

Youji whined, looking at her with puppy-dog eyes.

She smiled at him. "I know, you're tired of riding in the cart, aren't you?" she asked, cuddling him, her anger all but gone. She slapped the reins against the gelding's back, urging the horse to continue walking.

Youji glared at Kenshin over the old woman's arm. To the swordsman, the dog seemed to be planning revenge.

They walked past sunset, stopping when they found a stream. After tending to the horse, Kenshin ate a quick dinner and made himself comfortable against a rock. Hoping he would be able to find more rest this night than the previous one, he quickly fell asleep.

Kenshin woke up, senses on full alert, trying to find out what woke him. For some reason, he looked down. Youji was standing next to him, raising his hind leg. Reflexes took over and the red head found himself standing several feet away as the dog's urine hit the place Kenshin had been sleeping.

Youji looked at him, clearly displeased that the rurouni had evaded. The dog finished and trotted back to the hag, and settled down. He continued to watch Kenshin, as if waiting for another opportunity to strike.

Not intending to give him one, Kenshin eyed the trees around him. Picking out a likely candidate, the swordsman jumped into the lower branches. Kenshin sat down on one of the thicker branches, leaning back against the trunk. I can't believe this. The infamous Hitokiri Battousai, treed by a miniature canine. What would Saito say? And I don't even want to THINK about Shishou's comments! Kenshin thought, shaking his head. Glaring at the dog one more time, the red head was pleased to note that Youji didn't look very happy that Kenshin had thwarted his plan. Smiling at the mutt's look of disappointment, the rurouni tried to go to sleep.

Kenshin got up with the sun, feeling as tired as he had the night before. Several times during the night, Kenshin had let his body relax too much and almost lost his precarious perch because of it. He had jerked awake and caught himself each time, but his body had not been allowed to get the rest it needed. "And so, the dog still has the last laugh," he grumbled quietly to himself. Jumping out of the tree, he walked over to the stream. Splashing cold water on his face made him more alert, if not refreshed, and he retrieved his bag. He kneeled on the ground, setting his sword beside him, and began fishing through his sack for his breakfast.

Hearing the audible click as a sword was loosened in its sheath, Kenshin reflexively reached for his weapon. He jerked his hand back as a mouth full of sharp teeth closed around it. Looking down, Kenshin saw Youji chewing on the hilt of his sword. Grabbing the sheath, Kenshin pulled sharply, intending to rip the hilt from the dog's mouth. The sheath slid off smoothly, causing Kenshin to overbalance and fall on his side. He looked up to see Youji trying to run away with his prize, the sakabato greatly hampering his escape. Kenshin jumped up and grabbed the blade, inadvertently cutting his hand as he pulled the hilt from the dog's mouth.

Youji could tell it was a losing battle, so he let go and scampered back over to where the old woman was still sleeping.

Kenshin looked at his saliva-covered hilt in dismay. Glaring at the little beast, Kenshin trudged back over to the stream, and rinsed it off. Noticing his hand was bleeding for the first time, he rinsed it off as well, binding the cut with a strip from his torn green gi.

The old woman woke up, and saw Kenshin rinsing off his blade in the stream. Her eyes traveled to his now wrapped hand, and she snorted, muttering about incompetent swordsmen who are clumsy enough to cut themselves on their own blades.

Kenshin's sharp hearing caught the comments, and he paused in what he was doing, taking deep, calming breaths. She was asleep, and would probably not believe me if I told her, anyway. She'll just say the dog was only being playful. She's probably right. As much as he tried, Kenshin couldn't convince himself of the last part of his thoughts. Playful. Right. At the rate he's going, that mutt will be lucky if he makes it to Ontako alive, he thought, darkly.

Youji had resumed barking at Kenshin from the safety of the cart almost as soon as they had continued traveling. For some reason, Kenshin couldn't seem to tune it out, and it was starting to grate on his nerves. After what seemed like an eternity, they found a stream to stop at for lunch, and Kenshin was granted a brief reprieve from the noise while Youji ate. The rurouni used this time to try and regain his peace of mind-- he knew he was going to need it once they were on the road again.

Kenshin kneeled by the stream, splashing water on his face. The cool liquid helped clear his thoughts, and allow him to focus better. He was starting to feel a little better when two small paws hit him between his shoulder blades.

Distracted by his thoughts, Kenshin hadn't even noticed Youji running up behind him, and the dog's momentum pushed Kenshin head-first into the water. The red head came up, sputtering, and saw the dog grinning back at him on the bank.

That's it! Old hag or no, I'm going to KILL that dog! Reflexively, Kenshin released a strong wave of ki, directed solely at Youji. The rurouni stared, dumbfounded, as Youji yelped and ran as fast as he could back to where the old woman was sitting. He hid behind her, shaking uncontrollably.

The hag glared at Kenshin, accusingly. "What did you do to my poor Youji?! I've never seen him this scared! What gives you the right to frighten my baby?! You're a monster!"

Kenshin just stared at her, blankly. He was still a little shocked by this new revelation. That was IT?! THAT was all I needed to do?! Just intimidate him with my ki?! I DON'T BELIEVE THIS! he thought, incredulously, pulling himself out of the stream.

Not long after that, they were back on the road. Youji had taken to hiding in the cart and staring at Kenshin when the red head wasn't looking. He had stopped barking, and would hide if the red head glanced in his direction. The old hag was muttering and throwing dark glances at the swordsman, although she could not figure out what he had done to frighten Youji so badly.

Fortunately for Kenshin, the day was warm, and his clothes dried relatively quickly. Now that there was silence, he could focus more on his thoughts. He supposed he really should feel bad for what he did to Youji, but he couldn't bring himself to feel anything other than satisfaction. He didn't worry about it too much-- after all, it was just an intimidation technique.

The rest of the day seemed to go pretty quickly, and they reached Ontako as the first stars appeared in the night sky. Eager to be rid of the hag and her dog, Kenshin didn't pay much attention to where they were going, thinking about what he was going to do. The moon was half full, so he was planning on walking for another hour or so and making camp on the road when a familiar voice interrupted his thoughts.

"Nariko! I was beginning to wonder when you'd get here. I thought you'd be here yesterday?"

Kenshin looked up to see Tsuya hugging the old hag. Kenshin realized, for the first time, that he didn't know the old woman's name. Nariko? Gentle child? Someone named her poorly. Hold on, given the way she's acting, that would mean-- Tsuya's her sister?! How can those two even be related?! They're complete opposites!

"Well, I would have been here sooner, but my guard was slowing me down," Nariko said. "You can go now," she continued, dismissing him with a negligent wave of her hand.

Kenshin turned, intending to do just that, when Tsuya's voice stopped him.

"Wait, you've had a long journey, and you must be tired-- Kenshin? Is that you?" she asked. It was dark, but she saw the light spilling out of the door reflect off his red hair as he turned to go. He turned back at her question, allowing the light to fall on his features. She smiled. "So it is. And were you just planning on leaving without so much as a hello?"

Kenshin bowed. "Gomen, Tsuya-san, but I didn't want to intrude, that I did not," he apologized.

"I see you haven't changed since I last saw you. Kenshin, how many times do I have to tell you? You're not intruding, I invited you back. Now, come inside, both of you-- I'm sure you must both be tired," she said, gesturing into the inn.

Nariko glared at the boy who came to take her horse to the stables, but Tsuya assured her that her belongings would be safe. Picking up Youji, Nariko followed Tsuya inside, a somewhat reluctant Kenshin trailing behind.

After speaking to a few of the staff members, Tsuya led them to the family quarters, away from all the rooms used for the guests. Much to Kenshin's dismay, he was put in a room right next to Nariko.

Nariko inspected her room before turning back to Tsuya. "Obviously, your staff members are overpaid. This room is filthy!" Tsuya just smiled at her sister. "The staff keep the guest rooms clean. We clean our own rooms. Remember, Nariko, this is my inn. You may live here, but you have to abide by my rules. You don't have to work, but my staff is not here to cater to your needs. They've got their own jobs to do, and you aren't going to add to their workload, understood?"

Kenshin looked at Tsuya, a bit surprised. It was obvious she wasn't going to let her sister boss her or her staff around. Nariko nodded and entered her room, Youji tucked under her arm.

Tsuya turned back to Kenshin. "I know what my sister is like, so I'm pretty sure you've had to do most of the work during your journey, didn't you? I'm sure you'd enjoy a nice hot bath to relax. Since you're not familiar with this section of the inn, I'll show you where it is," she said, walking back down the hallway. Kenshin followed in her wake.

"It's the same as before, towels and dry clothes on the shelves, and leave your dirty clothes in the basket. I noticed you're wearing a new gi. What happened to the green one that I gave you?" Tsuya asked, making conversation as they walked.

Kenshin bowed his head, apologetically, even though she was walking in front of him. "Gomen, Tsuya-san, but it was ruined."

"Well, I am a bit surprised to hear that. Given how threadbare your other one was, I thought you'd keep it for years! No matter, I think you look very nice in blue, as well. Ah, here we are," she said stopping in front of a door. "Take your time, dinner will be brought up to your room after you're finished."

"Arigato--" Kenshin began.

Tsuya held up her hand to stop him. "I don't want you to tell me that I don't have to do this. It's the least I can do for you, after having to travel with my sister for three days. Just relax and enjoy my hospitality!" she scolded, giving Kenshin a mock glare.

Kenshin laughed, raising his hands in defeat. A hot bath did sound appealing. "Alright, you win. I won't say anything, and I'll try to enjoy my stay." Despite the fact that I am in a room next to the hag and her loud and obnoxious mutt, he added, silently.

Smiling at her victory, Tsuya left Kenshin to his bath. The rurouni took his time soaping up before slipping into the steaming furo. He sighed as the hot water encompassed his body, helping his muscles to loosen up. Kenshin leaned back, pulling his hair in front of him and combing his fingers through it while there was still some soap to ease the knots out. The repetitive motion was relaxing, and he caught himself starting to drift off to sleep. Deciding that he'd bathed long enough, Kenshin got out, dried off and got dressed. Not wanting to take a towel to his room, he towel-dried his hair and stepped out of the bath room.

While walking back to his room, Kenshin saw Tsuya. She was coming out of the kitchen with a bowl, and she was pouring something over the contents of the bowl.

He followed her up to Nariko's room, turning to enter his. "Nariko, here's Youji's food," he heard Tsuya say through the closed shoji. Kenshin decided to forgo dinner, and go straight to bed. Two nights with virtually no sleep was catching up with him. Absently realizing that someone had set out his futon, he practically collapsed on it and fell asleep, not noticing Tsuya cracking open the shoji to check on him before silently sliding it shut.

. . .

Kenshin woke late the next morning, feeling better than he had in days. Looking out his window, he was startled to see the sun was already pretty high in the sky, and he was even more surprised to realize that he hadn't been woken up by Youji's barking once all night. He remembered seeing Tsuya put something on Youji's food, and laughed as he realized she had drugged the dog.

His clothes had been washed and placed just inside the shoji, so he got dressed. He opened the door as Tsuya came around the corner.

"Oh, good! You're awake! I was just coming to check up on you. So, have you reconsidered my offer for a job?" Tsuya asked. She laughed at the expression on Kenshin's face.

"Gomen, but I need to be getting back to Tokyo," Kenshin said.

"I was only teasing you, Kenshin. If you didn't want a job before, I'm sure you wouldn't want one now that Nariko's living here. She's not easy to get along with, but she knows better than to cross me. So, I don't suppose I could persuade you to stay for a few more days, at the least?" she asked, hopefully.

"I'm sorry, but I really need to be going as soon as I can. I'm already late as it is," Kenshin replied.

"Alright, Kenshin. Since you're in such a hurry to be off, I'll have Kuniko-chan make you something to eat on the road. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes."

"Thank you, Tsuya-san."

A few minutes later, Nariko and Tsuya were standing on the porch, the latter waving as Kenshin walked down the street, away from the inn. Well, Nariko, although I like your sister, I can honestly say I am sorry to have met you.

Youji, just having woken up from his drug-induced nap, saw Kenshin's retreating form, and barked.

And your little dog, too, Kenshin thought, focusing his ki and sending the dog yelping and scampering back inside. Kenshin allowed himself to smile. I love doing that.

. . .

After leaving the inn, Kenshin picked up some supplies and headed towards Kofu. It took him the better part of two days to arrive in town, but he only stopped long enough to get a few more supplies, and continued on to Tokyo. It took him two more days, but he stopped for the second night just outside of Tokyo. He built a fire, then sat and just stared into the flames, lost in thought.

Well, it's been about a month since I saw Kaoru and the others. I've probably made them worry about me. I pushed myself to get back here, but am I really ready? I'm pretty sure I now remember most, if not all, of my lost memories, but... Kenshin's thoughts trailed off. He shook his head. Ready or not, tomorrow I face my friends once again. I hope they'll forgive me for how I acted in Iakayama.

A sizzling sound made Kenshin start. It was soon followed by a few more, and the rurouni felt a few cool drops of water land on his skin. Great, just what I need, he thought, scampering away from the fire. He found a large tree with thick branches that looked like it would provide shelter from the storm, and made himself comfortable. It was going to be a long night.

. . .

The sun rose, obscured by the fog that clung to the city. Kenshin walked through the streets, a little annoyed by the weather. I still don't remember where the dojo is, and this fog is making it even more difficult to see anything that might help me remember! He was walking between the river and a white wall. The place seemed familiar, but he couldn't quite grasp why. Looking over to the side, he stopped. There was a break in the fog, allowing him to see the sunlight glistening on the water, a few misty tendrils clinging to the river's surface. The scene was lost on Kenshin, as he saw something completely different in his mind's eye.

It was dark, fireflies glowing as they flew around, their light reflecting off the water's surface. Kenshin held Kaoru tightly, trying to ease the pain of his leaving. "I'm a rurouni. It's time for me to wander again." He released her, turned and walked away. He heard her fall to her knees and heard her crying bitterly, but he did not look back. It was better this way.

Kenshin hesitated before continuing. He didn't think Kaoru would want to see him after he left her like that, but her words and actions in Iakayama suggested otherwise. She'd even followed him all the way to Kyoto. He was this close-- he had to go on. Kenshin unconsciously slowed his pace as he saw someone ahead of him through the fog.

. . .

Kaoru looked out over the river. She couldn't sleep, so she had gone to sit outside on the porch. The fog had drawn her away from the dojo and out to the water. It was so beautiful, that she just stood there, taking it all in and imprinting it in her memory. I wish Kenshin could see this, she thought, a pang of regret shooting through her heart. She blamed herself for having driven him away after they had found him. It had only been a month, but she wasn't sure if he would ever come back again.

Hearing a sandal scrape against the dirt, Kaoru looked up. She saw a figure emerging through the mists. It was just a faint outline at first, becoming clearer as the person came closer. He was wearing a gi and hakama and he carried a sword at his side. Kaoru's breath caught as she tried to see who it was.

Kenshin's steps slowed until he stopped a few feet away from Kaoru. He looked at her, not really sure what to say.

Kaoru couldn't believe her eyes. It's Kenshin! It's really him, he's really here! Kenshin's here! she thought, excited. Kenshin shuffled his feet, not sure what to do and Kaoru smiled. He looks so cute when he's unsure of himself. Taking a deep breath, Kaoru held out her hand to him. "Okaeri-nasai."

Kenshin returned the smile, taking her hand. "Tadaima."

. . .

The End

On a funny side note, I looked up synonyms for "dog" in my thesaurus, and this is what it said: afflict, plague, trouble, bother, beleaguer, harass and vex. All adequate describing words for Youji, to be sure!

Japanese terms:

okaeri-nasai - welcome home

tadaima - I'm home

The story is now complete. I'll be writing a sequel of sorts, entitled In His Shoes, in case your interested. Catch ya on the flipside!