Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin is copyrighted by its respective owners, of which I am not one.

Warnings: AU. Unbeta-ed. Lousy attempt at a fight scene.

In the Far Past

Yahiko jerked awake at a shrill scream that reverberated throughout the house walls. He sat up, clutching the blanket tightly as his heart lurched from the cry before settling into an erratic beat. Disturbing memories skimmed to the surface, reminding him of what happened months ago in his old home.

The terrified shriek died down and an unnatural silence fell over the house. Yahiko hesitated for a long moment before gathering his courage to slide out of the futon. He padded over to the window and stood on his tiptoes to peer outside, clutching the ledge to keep his balance. Thundering hooves pounded away from the house and he glimpsed of two riders. One of them was a tall, lean man with a fluttering white shirt boldly proclaiming the character 'aku' on his back. The other was a short, flame-haired man who carried a bundle on his lap. A blanket covering the bulky item fell away to partially reveal dark hair pulled into pigtails.

"Onee-san," Yahiko whispered, staring as they carried her away.

Heavy footsteps barged towards his room and the shouji slammed open violently, rattling the frames of the paper door so hard it shook the entire wall. Yahiko swung his head to the door and saw Kamiya Koshijirou standing in its threshold, panting heavily. Relief sufficed the man's face as he called behind him, "He's all right! Yahiko's all right!" Koshijirou approached the little boy and fell to his knees, grasping him in a tight hug. "You're all right," he repeated hoarsely.

"Where did onee-san go?" Yahiko asked, struggling to break free from the stifling embrace to look out the window again. Why did those two men have her in the first place?

Despite the wriggling, the older man only tightened his grip on him. "To be with someone else right now," Koshijirou said finally.

Yahiko frowned, not understanding his words. "But why? Doesn't she want to stay here with us?"

"I'm sure she does," his guardian said soothingly. "But for now, she can't."

"I want to see onee-san," Yahiko said stubbornly. "Tell them to bring her back!"

He was only hugged more fiercely. "Perhaps you can bring her back yourself some day," the older man whispered.

The Present

The drafty castle made Sagara Sanosuke wonder for the millionth time why Kenshin had decided to move their base here in the first place. The weather was quickly turning cooler and the days shorter, reminding them that winter was not far off. Every breeze that blew by the castle was felt through the crevices and cracks within the walls. The hewn stone and wood, while providing excellent defense against invaders, did little to keep the place warm. Soon, they would have to keep the fires going all night.

Still, it was slowly becoming home to the small muster of troops gathered within its walls. After years of wandering, it felt nice to have a permanent place to call their own. There was plenty of space to train or sleep with a roof over their heads – better than what they used to deal with. Really, it wasn't too bad if one didn't mind the freezing cold.

Resolutely ignoring the chill, Sano rounded the corner and frowned as he was confronted by a closed door. It was rare that Kenshin was in bed later than past dawn. If he was up, the door would be open to invite Sano in for their daily meeting.

Sano had, when they first moved into the castle, made the mistake of barging in Kenshin's private quarters as he had always done before they had a permanent base – only to manfully stifle a scream of horror and backpedaled out as quickly as possible. Later, Kenshin had sought him out and they both agreed to the closed door/no entry method.

Kenshin was his best friend but Sano did not need to know what he did privately with Jou-chan. There was no way he could look at Kenshin in the eyes if Sano continually pictured him getting his hair combed with the red-head enjoying it so thoroughly.

Sighing, Sano slumped against the wall, lingering nearby for the door to open. He didn't have to wait long; moments later, the shoji slid open and Kenshin stepped out, shutting the door behind him.

Sano tried not to look at his friend's hair as he straightened up. "The territory scouts have reported a lone swordsman from the southwest is headed in this direction," he said without preamble. "He'll arrive late afternoon, possible early evening."

"And Gohei's army?"

"Still keeping a steady pace from the north. They should be here tomorrow, possibly by morning."

Kenshin nodded, a rare look of satisfaction flitting across his features. "Keep me updated on both their positions. How do the men look?"

"Ready as always," Sano said. He fell in step next to Kenshin as they strode down the hallway. "So your plans seem to be working out so far."

"It's still too early to tell how it's going to end. We need to stay on guard in case things go awry." Kenshin flashed Sano a quick, unexpected grin. "But I'm quite pleased at how the timing is turning out. If this works, we'll be in a near unstoppable position."

Sano sighed in relief. "Well, it's about time. I'm getting too old to wander around the countryside and sleeping on rocks."

"As I recall, you always had nice bedding with you," Kenshin said dryly.

"Yes, but there were also very sharp rocks on the ground the bedding couldn't protect me from!" Sano protested, hiding a smile. Kenshin appeared to be getting excited in anticipation of the events in the next few days and it was a little odd to see him so animated. Still, they had waited for a long time and their patience was finally going to pay off.

"We'll hold morning and afternoon drills today in the main courtyard," Kenshin said as they entered the large mess room. Most of the tables seated soldiers breaking their fast. The red-haired leader nodded to the few who offered a quick salute in their direction. "The men who are off-duty can continue to do as they please until their shift. But tell them they need to be alert to anything and they shouldn't go farther than two miles from the castle. We may need to muster them with little warning and I want to be ready for anything."

Sano nodded, flopping down onto a free seat. "Done. What about the women?" The women servants, in charge of the cooking and cleaning which impacted the men's morale, were considered an important part of their group.

"Armed escorts everywhere. They should be restricted from leaving the castle if they don't have to, even in their free time."

The fighter raised a brow at the command. "Even Jou-chan?"

"Especially her."

Sano coughed. "Um, does she know?"

Kenshin slanted him a measuring look. "Does she need to?"

"You know, Kenshin, if you want me to die, there are far less painful ways than having me be your messenger of doom," Sano said with a sigh. "She's not going to enjoy this restriction on her freedom and I don't want to be the one to tell her about it."

"She knows that this is for her safety."

"Yeah, but she's a woman. Women don't think like us. If you want to go ahead and have one angry mistress on your hands, by all means, but don't put me in the middle of it."

Despite himself, Kenshin shot his friend an amused glance. "Afraid of one female, Sanosuke?"

"A female who hits harder than most of our men," he shot back. He accepted the plate of food one of the kitchen servants offered and murmured a quick word of thanks before digging in. "You're training her, remember? She doesn't cut her strength back for anyone, and most especially not for me."

Kenshin ducked his head to hide the tug of a smile on his lips. "Very well, then, I'll speak with her myself. Although these restrictions won't be in place for long; once the guest of honor arrives and our little friends ride in demanding blood, it should only be days at the most before everything comes to an end."

Sano swallowed a hunk of bread, watching his friend curiously. "An end. That sounds a little morbid, don't you think?"

"You know as well as I that depending on what happens, we'll either be victorious or I will be dead. But I'm betting on the former."

"I guess we all are," Sano quipped, reminding Kenshin that the fate of their master would be their own fate.

Kenshin nodded. "You are right. Once you've finished breakfast, Sano, round the men up and start on drills. Tell them I will personally inspect their fighting abilities and expect improvement."

Sano lifted a brow at the uncommon command. "Preparing for battle?"

Kenshin met his gaze, the golden hue of his eyes glowing with anticipation. "Always."

The castle gate, under Kenshin's orders, remained open, allowing them to watch the west side for any sign of visitors – and to allow anyone to wander in. Gathering one group of men in the courtyard, Sano started them on drills, walking up and down the rows to check on their movements, making the occasional correction. Only when a lookout called a warning that someone approached did he break away from them.

"Keep up the pace for each kata!" Sano shouted as he turned and climbed the stairs to the turret. He stepped up and noticed a small figure in the distance striding in their direction. Squinting in the bright sunlight, he tried to glimpse of the stranger's face but failed. Sighing, he patted the sentry on the shoulder. "Keep an eye on him. I want reports on his position every hour."

"Yes, sir!"

Climbing down the winding staircase, Sano sent a man to deliver the message to Kenshin before resuming barking orders at the men. "Let's see some life in those limbs!" he bellowed. "Are you dead or are you alive? Move your joints!"

By the third hour, the sentry reported the young man's position as than a mile away the castle and would arrive shortly. Excitement coursed through Sano's veins as he realized Kenshin's plan finally beginning to unfold. After waiting so long, Sano found himself just as eager to see their plan come to fruition. He supposed the wait made the anticipation all that much sweeter.

Kenshin predicted their 'guest' would stride right through the lowered front gate, which he did. Sano pretended not to notice at first, though he could feel a burning fighting spirit emanating from the youth. The back row of the training men, with their backs to the open gate and thus the closest to newcomer, stopped first and stared, puzzled at the boldness of the stranger. The whispers and attention wandered down the ranks until Sano could no longer dismiss his presence.

Glowering at the lack of attention from his men, Sano shoved his way to the back row and studied the interloper. Young, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, though he was fairly tall. His face was round and deep, black eyes flashed with intelligence and determination, offsetting his slightly dark skin tone. His mouth, pressed into a thin line, accentuated the prominent clenched jaw. Dark hair, cropped close to his head, seemed to have been cut rather carelessly by a wakizashi, if the ragged edges were any indication. Still, it was serviceable enough to pass in social circles.

The youth was dressed in a patched hakama and gi that clashed badly and looked frayed around the edges, especially near the hilt of the sword girded at his waist. Dark eyes challenged Sano, flashing the confidence and cockiness of a teenager who thought himself invincible. "Who are you? What do you want?" Sano barked, inwardly amused at his attempt at bravado. The youth wasn't nervous, far from it; it just served to make the situation more interesting.

"I want to see Himura Kenshin."

Sano studied the youth intently for another long moment. The determined look in his eyes vaguely reminded Sano of himself when he had been at that reckless age. "You and just about every other king who wants a war won," he drawled, shoving his hands in his pockets. "And what makes you so special, kid?"

The youth glared at him. "I'm not a kid! I'm here to challenge Himura Kenshin to a duel!"

Although he suspected such a brazen demand, Sano raised his eyebrows at the audacity of their guest. Behind him, he heard the growing murmurs of the men and figured his friend had finally made his appearance. He didn't turn around to look but instead called out, "We've got a feisty one here, Kenshin. He's all ready to die, and so young, too."

"So I heard." Kenshin stopped next to Sano and critically studied the challenger. "And what reason do you have to fight me? You don't look familiar."

The youth unsheathed his sword in a smooth, practice motion and raised it until it was pointed at Kenshin's heart. "I am Myojin Yahiko. Ten years ago, you kidnapped Kamiya Kaoru. I'm here to kill you and take her back home where she belongs."

Frenzied whisper swept along the gathered men, some astonished at his words, some smirking at his foolishness, all amazed at his boldness. He was here to take the famous warlord Kenshin's betrothed away? This was even better than a kabuki show!

Kenshin remained calm though his lips flattened into a thin line. "Ten years is a long time to wait to take vengeance. What took you so long to find and challenge me? I haven't been hiding myself."

Titters of laughter rippled through the growing crowd, causing Yahiko to flush in anger. "I was only six when you took her away," he snapped. "Since then, I've spent every waking moment of my days training for this very opportunity. You've caused Kaoru's parents untold grief and they both died of a broken heart. I vowed upon their graves to avenge their deaths and bring their daughter home. Do you accept my challenge?"

The ring of utter conviction was hard to miss in Yahiko's voice. Kenshin ignored his demand and turned to Sano and said, "Have Tae bring Kaoru-dono here."

Sano hesitated for a moment before asking in a low tone, "Kenshin, you aren't serious about having Jou-chan witness this, right? I mean, that's her brother!"

The red-head fixed his friend a hard look. "You heard me, Sano."

Sano eyed him warily and realized he was serious. He sighed, wondering if all red-heads were this stubborn or if Kenshin was the only one. "Yeah, yeah, I'm going. No one listens to me anyway," he mumbled. Linking his hands at the back of his head, Sano sauntered off to find the women.

Yahiko slowly lowered his sword, tension and anticipation running through his shoulders. After all this time, he would be able to avenge his sensei and foster father while fighting a worthy opponent. And he would finally see his beloved nee-san again.

Uncomfortably aware of dozens of glares boring into him from the soldiers, Yahiko focused his total attention on Himura, the only person who mattered at the moment. The memory he had of the older man kidnapping Kaoru was only of his back and this would be Yahiko's first good look at his opponent. Himura Kenshin was surprisingly short and lean, though the slightly faded dark hakama and white gi he wore couldn't conceal the hard muscles honed from years of fighting. His infamous flame red hair, which people said heralded the presence of blood on the battlefield, was tied up in a high pony tail so that only his long bangs fell across his forehead and occasionally over his eyes. Puckered on his left cheek was a faint cross mark. If it weren't for the flat gold eyes or the scar, the man would have been too feminine, Yahiko decided. But any such delicateness was wasted on Himura; his near perfect number of victories and ruthlessness on the battlefield reputed him as one of the fiercest warriors in the world.

And Yahiko was going to kill him.

Whispers rose up among the crowd again as a few men parted. Sano reappeared, followed by a tall, dark haired woman and a shorter, veiled woman. "Here ya go, Kenshin," Sano drawled, stopping next to him. "Tae-san and Jou-chan, just as you ordered."

Yahiko's gaze brushed over the taller of the females briefly, categorizing the neatly dressed woman as little or no threat. He then moved on to look at the veiled figure. An intricate headpiece rested on her dark hair which was pinned up in twists and knots, gold tassels fluttering as she moved. She was garbed in an elaborate snow-white kimono with patterns of large red and gold dragons embroidered on it. The matching obi was tied around the waist in some sort of complicated knot he couldn't even fathom. White tabi shoes and socks completed the formal attire.

He swallowed. Was this his sister? She had grown up so much, and into a beautiful woman, if her appearance was any suggestion. Yahiko was actually hesitant to speak with her, fine lady that she was.

The veiled woman stopped a respectful distance from Kenshin and bowed from the waist. "You sent for me, Anata?"

Anata? Yahiko grimaced with disgust.

"Kaoru-dono, there is a visitor here for you." Kenshin deliberately turned his back on Yahiko to face the veiled woman. He was aware that it would irk the youth that Kenshin didn't consider him enough of a threat to guard his back. "He has a very astonishing claim that he wishes to share." He nodded to the hand maid. "Lift the veil."

Tae stepped forward and brought up the filmy gauze, draping it over the headpiece before she retreated back to her mistress' side. Kenshin looked into warm azure eyes as he lifted a delicate hand to place a kiss on her palm. "He is anxious to speak with you. If you wish, I will give you time alone."

Kaoru nodded, the gold tassels shimmering with the movement. "Whatever you think is best, Anata."

Kenshin glanced over his shoulder briefly at Yahiko. "If you wish to meet with Kaoru-dono, you will give me your word you will not harm her or force her to do anything at swordpoint. I trust you will behave like an honorable man." Gold eyes bore into him as if to impress that comment on him. "Do I have it?"

Yahiko paused. A part of him did want to talk with Kaoru, to make sure she was okay and to convince himself that this really was her and he was finally able to fulfill his sensei's wishes. But the other part of him, the fighter inside of him, wanted to best Himura right now, in front of his own men.

Still, Yahiko knew there would be plenty of time to fight. His first concern was his sister. After convincing himself she was none worse for wear after her long captivity, he would show Himura Kenshin the superiority of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu and rid the world of child kidnapping scum. "You do," he said brusquely.

Kenshin smiled grimly. "Then, by all means, Myojiin Yahiko, see what Kaoru-dono has to say to you."

Ushered into a dainty room decorated with feminine knick knacks, Yahiko paced around impatiently, waiting for his sister to finally appear. Although the room appeared to be Kaoru's, he wasn't interested in seeing what it held. Yahiko was actually more concerned with the fact that Kaoru hadn't shown any sign of recognizing him. And to call Himura Kenshin, the man who had taken her from her home, 'anata' as if she was already his wife? That was something he hadn't expected.

To Yahiko's relief, he didn't have to wait long; the door slid open and Kaoru entered the room before kneeling again and closing the door behind her. She then stood and moved over to sit on the tatami, looking up at him but saying nothing.

The minutes ticked by in silence. Yahiko fidgeted under Kaoru's steady andcalm gaze, wondering if he should speak. Finally unable to keep still any longer, he blurted out, "Do you know who you are?"

Kaoru tilted her head slightly, azure eyes studying him curiously. "I do. Do you know who you are?"

Taken aback, Yahiko stared at her. "Of course I do." What sort of question was that? He wasn't the one who had been kidnapped and brainwashed when he was a child, after all.

"Do you really? From what I was told, the Myojin clan was decimated almost twenty years ago."

Now he was confused. Who had told her that? Kaoru would have been far too young for her to understand what had happened to his family before her abduction. Even Yahiko hadn't remembered many details of his family's senseless slaughter, although he had had numerous nightmares, both before and after Kaoru was taken away. It was only when Yahiko began his training that he learned the truth. Kamiya Koushijirou often spoke about the near extinct clan and how the Myojins were once proud warriors prized for their skills and honor. "They were," he said cautiously, searching her face carefully. "I'm one of the handful of survivors left."

"Have you ever felt the urge to find your missing kinsmen?"

Yahiko shook his head; he had been far more concerned with finding his beloved onee-san and bringing her back home where she belonged. But perhaps he had waited too long. Although she apparently remembered him, Kaoru no longer seemed like the carefree, adventurous sister he loved. The refined, dignified woman in front of him was nothing like her. "I had other duties to attend to, first. Namely, taking you back home."

Kaoru smiled gently at him. "This is my home."

"No, it's not." Yahiko gave her a firm look. "You were kidnapped when you were only eight. You had a loving father and mother before Himura took you away from your real home. I've spent all these years training so I can finally kill him and take you back."

She leaned over and patted his hand gently. "This is the only home I've ever known. Kenshin is my betrothed. I have no other family."

"You have me!" Yahiko stared into her eyes, willing her to remember her past. How was it that Kaoru forgot everything when he still recalled every moment spent agonizing over his lost sister? Could Himura have brainwashed her so thoroughly that she had forgotten her parents and him? She didn't even seem at all distraught that her parents had died!

The very thought caused Yahiko's heart to clench in fear and pain. He knew it was foolish to assume that things would go back to the way they were a decade ago, but he was determined to hang on to the last family member he had left. His clan and name no longer mattered; all he wanted was to be with Kaoru again.

"This is my life now, Yahiko-chan. I'm sorry if it causes you pain."

"Don't call me –chan," he automatically snapped. Raking a hand through his hair, Yahiko stood and paced around furiously, frustrated that nothing was going according to what he envisioned would happen. He should be driving his sword into Himura's heart by now, not trying to convince his sister that her entire life as she knew it was a lie!

Kaoru watched him prowl around, folding her hands in her lap demurely. "You think I've forgotten about you?" she asked quietly, bowing her head.

He shot her a grim look. "I don't want to think so but it seems as though you have."

"I have not. I remember clearly the first day you came to live with us." The warmth in her voice couldn't be feigned and caused Yahiko's heart to lurch. He stopped his pacing and looked at her. A small smile danced on Kaoru's lips as she continued. "You were such a scrawny child who didn't stop crying. Okaa-san kept trying to feed you and I had never seen Otou-san look so helpless before." A full, genuine smile bloomed and she lifted her eyes to meet his. "I hated you so much that day because you stole the attention of my parents."

Yahiko blinked twice, her words dredging up old memories he had long forgotten. He had clung more onto his memories of Kaoru rather than his first appearance at the Kamiya home; it was amazing she remembered it at all. "Er, I'm sorry," he said lamely, not knowing what else to say.

Kaoru shook her head, the tassels fluttering with the movement. "It's all right. I just didn't understand what the commotion was about. But later, I began to see why my parents fussed over you. And it was nice to finally have a playmate, if only for a short while."

That comment caused Yahiko to stiffen up again. "So you remember when you were kidnapped," he accused her.

"A little. I remember being very sad for a long time." Kaoru lapsed into silence for a long moment before she suddenly locked eyes with Yahiko. "Did you ever wonder why my father never came to look for me?"

Caught off guard yet again – what was it about her that made him so off balance? – Yahiko stared at her in bewilderment. "What do you mean?"

"You obviously knew Himura Kenshin took me. Who told you that he had kidnapped me?"

Still not following her train of thought, he said slowly, "Kamiya-sensei did."

"If my father knew who had taken his daughter, did you never ask why he himself never came to take me back?"

The intense spark in her azure eyes unnerved Yahiko slightly as they completely focused on him. The youth cleared his throat and frowned, considering her question. "Perhaps he didn't have the skills to defeat him?" he suggested tentatively. "Even ten years ago, Himura wasn't considered a pushover. In fact, that was probably the beginning of his coldblooded reputation."

"Presumably my father trained you in the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu. If Otou-san didn't think he was skilled enough, why would he send you in his stead?"

"I'm a good swordsman," Yahiko said stiffly, offended by the indirect remark of his skills.

"I know," Kaoru said softly. "As a Myojin, you have near unlimited potential." A shadow passed across her face but it cleared just as quickly as it had come and she shook her head slightly as if to clear it. She offered him a gentle smile. "Forgive me, it's just fanciful musings on my part. But I do want to make it clear to you that this is my home now. Nothing can ever change that."

"I don't know what Himura told you or did to you the past ten years but it's going to stop now," Yahiko said flatly. "I'm going to kill him and take you back home where you belong. I made that promise to your father and mother right before they died and I'd rather kill myself than dishonor them."

"There is nothing I can do to deter you from challenging him, then?" At the negative shake of Yahiko's head, Kaoru sighed softly and rose fluidly from the tatami. "I shall inform Kenshin of your intention, then," she said. Moving to the door, she knelt to open it. Once through, she was about the close the shoji when he spoke again, voice hard.

"I understand you are pledged to marry him. Your betrothal to Himura is void. He never sought permission from your father on this. And because Kamiya-san is deceased, as your brother, it is now my responsibility and decision as to whom you will marry. I will never agree to this marriage."

Kaoru's hands stilled on the door as she quietly absorbed the news. "Then you are renouncing your family and taking the Kamiya name?" For some inexplicable reason, a thread of amusement colored her words.

Slightly puzzled and but irritated all the same, Yahiko shot her a glare. "I didn't say that. But your father appointed me as your guardian and executor of will. Has he defiled you?"

She looked down in pretense of docility to hide the smile that threatened to appear. "Defiled me? If you're asking if he's taken me to his bed, you may be assured I am still pure."

Yahiko colored slightly at her matter-of-fact tone and coughed to cover his discomfort. "Um, good. One of our neighbors has expressed interest in a contract with his son which I am considering. But we can discuss that when we get home." He paused and cleared his throat. "Er, that is all."

"Very well. Please wait here." Kaoru slid the door shut and stood up, turning around in time to almost run into Sano. He grabbed her arms and steadied her.

"Whoa there, Jou-chan. You two were in there for so long I was just about to check on you two to make sure you guys didn't kill each other." He grinned at her as he released his grip. "Sooooo, how did it go? Has he changed in the past ten years?"

"I had forgotten what a serious little boy he was," she said thoughtfully. Slipping her arms within the huge fold of her sleeves, Kaoru started down the hallway, trailed by Sano. "But I could still see that bratty side of him, too. It was … nostalgic."

Sano sighed and his intent to joke the awkwardness away faded upon hearing the wistfulness in her voice. "You uh … you still okay about all this? I know you were looking forward to seeing him again."

Kaoru blinked twice and glanced back. "Hmm? Yes. Now even more so than ever. In any case, it's too late to back out now."

"He will if you tell him to."

The somber tone made Kaoru smile. "Yes, I know. But I want what he wants. So in the end, we can do nothing to do but go forward." She paused and asked, "Weren't you supposed to keep an eye out on Yahiko-chan?"

"What? Oh, no, see yah, Jou-chan!" Without waiting for an answer, Sano turned and sprinted back down where they came from to make sure the younger man didn't wander off on his own.

Still smiling, Kaoru shook her head and went on to find Kenshin and share the conversation with him.

Kenshin closed his eyes, enjoying the gentle pull of the brush in his thick hair and the small hand smoothing it down afterwards. It was one of the few rare things he indulged in and wouldn't willingly give up. He was grateful only Sano had discovered his illicit secret so far; if his men caught even an inkling of this, he would never be able to lead anyone again.

"You seem unusually tense tonight," Kaoru said as she tugged the brush down. "You aren't nervous, are you?"

Kenshin cracked one eye open and frowned. "Nervous about what?"

She didn't answer, merely continuing to groom his hair. Finally, she said more quietly, "He is very angry with you."

There was silence before Kenshin sighed deeply. "I know. And I do not blame him really. But even that may eventually work in my favor."

"You are not worried he will fight against you to the very end?"

Kenshin chuckled. "The Myojins are famous for their loyalty and stubbornness. I have no doubt it won't be easy. However, they are also honorable in their word like true warriors. There is no doubt Yahiko will do as he promises." He shrugged and stared at the door absently. He enjoyed feeling Kaoru's fingers run through his hair, skimming across his scalp so tingles of pleasure ran down his spine. "I am expecting him to fight me for a good long while. But he will eventually give in." Kenshin grinned suddenly, the boyish look foreign to his usually cold features. "They always do, don't they, Kaoru-dono?" he added suggestively.

He yelped as he received a sharp tug on his hair for his teasing about their tumultuous courtship. Kenshin winced then murmured appreciatively as Kaoru soothed the hurt by running the brush through his hair again. "I hope you're right," she said quietly. "He's not the same little boy he used to be."

Kenshin suddenly turned around again to face her, hair sliding out of her loose grasp as gold eyes studied her intently. "And neither are you the same little girl."

She paused and tilted her head slightly, trying to read the expression on his face. "You're right, I'm not," Kaoru said at last. "Just promise me you'll be very careful. No one knows how this is going to end. There are just too many factors to predict an outcome one way or another."

Turning around to present his hair back to Kaoru, Kenshin spoke warily. "I am always careful. This is the result of more than ten years of planning; very little can happen that I haven't thought of."

Kaoru had to smile at the confidence in his voice. "Very well, Anata. I trust you know what you are doing." She ran the brush through his silky hair again, smoothing the stands lovingly. "So the duel happens tomorrow?"


Remaining silent for a long moment, she finally asked more quietly, "You will not hurt him?"

Kenshin exhaled slowly as if expecting her question. "I will do everything in my power not to hurt him more than necessary."

Kaoru nodded slowly as she tugged the brush through the red locks again. "And where will I be in the midst of all this?"

It was a question he dreaded answering. For a moment, Kenshin struggled in deciding an answer; eventually, common sense won over his instinctual demand he knew was futile anyway. "Safe in your room under lock and key if I had my way," he sighed.

A small grin tugged at her lips at his grudging admission and Kaoru impulsively leaned over to press a kiss on the side of his neck. Under her lips, she felt his pulse jump at the unexpected gesture which made her smile widen against the soft skin. "Aishiteru, Anata," she whispered.

Kenshin turned again, golden eyes softening to a gleaming, burnished hue. "Aishiteru."

In the dying light, Sano stood at the northernmost turret, shading his eyes to see in the distance. He thought he saw a smudge of shadows far off, but he wasn't sure - yet. He would just have to wait for a scout to return with news of the advancing troops.

"Anything?" Kenshin asked, stepping up next to Sano to look in the same direction.

"No, but Ryosuke should be returning soon with news. From last report, they should be only hours away." Sano dropped his hand from his eyes and turned to his friend. "My guess is, they'll probably make camp somewhere tonight, get a few hours of sleep, and resume march before daybreak. We'll probably be surrounded by tomorrow morning."

Humming in agreement, the swordsman kept looking out. "Good. Gohei is eager enough to employ any type of siege tactics so we should prepare the entire castle for possible invasion." Kenshin surveyed the darkening landscape around them and nodded once, as if satisfied by his perusal. "And how is our honored guest doing?"

Sano shrugged. "I told him the duel would take place tomorrow morning and he seemed content with that. But he was a little upset after his talk with Jou-chan and refused to eat with the rest of us so I had Sae-san send dinner to his room. Last I heard, he was practicing katas in there and mumbling epithets in your name."

Smiling at the mental image, the red-haired man turned and clapped a companionable hand on Sano's shoulder. "And what did you think of him?"

Thinking back to his brief interaction with Yahiko after leaving Kaoru in the hallway, Sano considered his words carefully. He had been impressed with the younger man's single-minded determination and fire, though it had yet to be tamed into true warrior strength by the right person. "He still has a lot to learn, but he's confident in his skills. I like that." He grinned. "Yahiko-chan reminds me of me when I was his age."

"Don't tell that to Kaoru-dono. She might get upset," Kenshin advised him with a straight face.

"Hey!" the fighter protested. "I wasn't that bad! And I turned out more than all right, you know!"

Kenshin chuckled and turned to leave. "Go to bed. We have a long day ahead and anything can happen. We just have to see what fate has for us tomorrow."

Yahiko didn't anticipate getting much sleep but he did manage to doze off for a few hours to keep his strength up. Even so, by the time the sun's rays touched the sky, he was already pacing the floor of 'guest room' he was shown to for the night. His nerves hummed with anticipation and nervousness, impatient for the promised fight to occur. The constant walk back and forth did little to relieve the extra energy but Yahiko tried to restrain himself; it wouldn't do for him to burn all this vigor and have nothing left to face Himura with.

"Yahiko-chan, are you awake?" Without waiting for an answer, the shouji slid open to reveal Sano's grinning face. "I guess you are. Did you get any sleep?"

"Does it matter?" he asked snappishly. "And don't call me –chan!"

"I'll take that as a no," the fighter said cheerfully, ignoring the curt tone. "Come on, let's go have breakfast and then you can have some time to stretch before your big duel."

Hesitating a moment, Yahiko debated eating. He was eager to get the duel started, but Kamiya-sensei had constantly reminded him the importance of keeping healthy with regular sleep and a good meal. On the day when he would avenge his teacher, he couldn't ignore the sound advice given.

Grumbling, Yahiko made sure his katana was knotted at the waist securely before following Sano out into the hallway. Cool air brushed past his face as the two men strode down the corridor until Sano ushered him inside a large room that served as their mess. Soldiers were already scattered across the room, seated and eating and talking amiably. Good heat emanated from the lit fires to warm the room, suddenly reminding Yahiko that winter was drawing closer. He would have to make it home before snow fell. But the thought vanished in another moment as the scent of fresh baked bread and meat drifted to him. His stomach gurgled and Sano smirked at him.

"Sit down and eat, kid. Sae-san's food is the best, as you probably know from last night's dinner." Without waiting for an answer, the fighter slouched into the closest seat.

"I told you not to call me kid," Yahiko retorted, reluctantly sitting across from the older man.

Sano only chuckled. "I guess if you have enough guts to challenge Himura Kenshin to a one-on-one duel, I can't call you that, huh? I have to tell you, not many people would be brave enough to even think about it."

Yahiko peered at Sano suspiciously, wondering if he was trying to talk him out of the fight. Or worse yet, break his determination. But the dark-haired man only seemed to be making a comment and just blinked at Yahiko. "It's to avenge the dishonor he did to Kamiya-sensei," he said at last.

"Still, honor these days seems to be just a word. When faced with honor or losing their life, most people would choose their life." Sano shrugged. "It's rare to find someone as young as you are willing to risk it all for the sake of an out-moded concept."

Suddenly uncomfortable at the philosophical comment, Yahiko shifted in his seat uneasily. "Honor was very important to Kamiya-sensei. He often told me that he was glad I was there to carry on the tradition and sanctity of the Kamiya Kasshin ryu."

"Oh, I'll bet he was glad," Sano said acerbically.

Yahiko narrowed his eyes at the sardonic tone. "Why do you say that?"

Sano waved off his question with a wave of his hand. "Ignore me, I babble without my first cup of tea in the morning. Ah, here's the food. Eat up, Yahiko-chan! It's going to be a very busy day."

After breakfast, Sano showed him to the courtyard to wait for Kenshin. The tall man then left, saying he was going to check on something. As he disappeared, Yahiko felt an unusual frisson of tension from the guards around him. At first, he thought it was his presence, but then Yahiko realized it wasn't directed towards him at all. In fact, most of the soldiers ignored him in favor of keeping an eye out on the closed front gate and the lowered portcullis. Frowning, he looked around to see if anything was out of the ordinary, but before he could pinpoint anything, the inner door to the castle opened and Kaoru came out.

He turned around and opened his mouth to greet her when his mouth dropped open. Shocked, Yahiko stared at Kaoru until he remembered how to work his jaw. "Onee-san! What the hell are you wearing?"

The scandalized tone as well as the unexpected profanity from the teenager almost made Kaoru giggle. Instead, she just looked down at her yukata and training gi and blinked. "It's what I wear to practice."

"You mean you show yourself to people like that every day?"

Yahiko's horrified voice raised a notch and Kaoru fought another urge to laugh. "It's much easier training in this than a kimono."

"Your Otou-san would have whipped you until you couldn't sit down anymore," Yahiko sputtered, debating whether or not to shield his eyes from the immodest sight. "Go back and change into some respectable women clothes immediately."

Abruptly, Kaoru's good humor vanished and she straightened up coolly. "Forgive me, Yahiko-chan, but I don't take kindly to orders, especially ones as ridiculous as this. In any case, don't you have something else to worry about?"

Gritting his teeth in fury, Yahiko made a mental note to hurt Himura even more than he had planned; how dare that bastard allow her to wear such undignified clothing that could show her chest? It was true that the yukata was tightly bound and he glimpsed of the bandage that kept her chest from being revealed, but she was a female and her curves were definitely noticeable. Yahiko couldn't reconcile the picture of the fine lady yesterday from the woman warrior today. He was sure Kaoru's mother would have fainted from the sight of her daughter parading around in men's clothes.

"So, are you ready, then?" Kenshin asked from behind.

Yahiko spun around to face him, tightening his grip on his sword hilt. "You're going to die very slowly and painfully," he snapped. "I will never forgive you for corrupting my sister. Why would you let her walk around in such disgraceful clothing?"

Kenshin looked Kaoru over thoughtfully who cast her eyes down in a show of modesty. Yahiko was beginning to suspect that it was a move his sister had perfected over the years to lend an air of innocence. It bothered him she practiced such guile with ease, reminding him again that he did not know her anymore.

"You're right," Kenshin said at last. "Someone needs to create women's clothing that will let her move freely. She's borrowing my old clothes and it just dampens her beauty." He smirked at Yahiko. "Thank you for pointing that out to me."

Yahiko seethed as his fingers flexed in anticipation of drawing his blade and running it through that smirk. "That's not what I meant," he bit out through his gritted teeth.

"I know what you were trying to say." Kenshin shook his head in pity. "But if you honestly think I can exert that much control over Kaoru-dono, you don't know your sister as well as you think you do."

The snickers from the men gathered disconcerted Yahiko briefly. He glanced around uncertainly, trying to regain his composure even while he wondered what they knew that he didn't. Fixing a glare at everyone, Yahiko raised his sword. "Let's do this," he snarled.

Kenshin cocked his head and was about to speak when Sano jogged up, pounding bandaged fists together. "They're here and we're ready," he reported with a big smile.

A strange look of anticipation crossed Kenshin's face and he straightened up. "Very good."

Frowning at the sudden turn in topic, Yahiko looked between the two men. "Who's here?" he asked suspiciously. Kenshin should have been preparing for their fight but he seemed to be waiting for something else instead. Or someone else?

"Why, more guests," Kenshin said casually. He turned to Kaoru. "You will be careful?" It sounded like a demand but it was tempered by the hint of concern in his voice.

Kaoru smiled at him. "As I always am." The swordsman nodded and strode towards the front gate.

Sano was about to following him when Yahiko stopped the fighter. "What guests?" he repeated testily. He had a sinking feeling his duel was about to be postponed.

"The armed kind," Sano quipped. "Don't give me that look, I'm serious. We've got an entire regiment camped outside the castle walls. See for yourself." He stuck his hands in his pockets and ambled after Kenshin, whistling some tune off-key.

"Come on, Yahiko-chan, let's take a look," Kaoru said, grabbing his hand and pulling him forward. "If we go to the turret, we can see how many people there are," she explained.

The eager note in Kaoru's voice didn't make Yahiko feel any better as he dumbly let himself be led up. Warlords often fought one another for land or for power, but somehow it didn't occur to him that Himura Kenshin would have the same enemies. After all, who would attack the man reputed to be the best swordsman in history?

Kaoru jostled archers aside who had the enemies sighted below. Looking over the walls and seeing scores of green-armored soldiers surrounding the castle only caused further apprehension. Some were horsed, but most others were foot soldiers, armed with various wicked weapons glinting in the morning sunlight. Banners fluttered gently in the wind and Yahiko glimpsed the characters 'Hiruma Gohei'. "I'm surprised they didn't bring catapults or ladders with them," he muttered under his breath.

"No need," Kaoru said breezily. "We'll be fighting out there anyway. Gohei has clashed with Kenshin long enough to know he doesn't hide behind castle walls and fights his battles face-to-face."

Yahiko looked at her, amazed at her matter-of-fact tone. And what was this 'we' business anyway? Surely Himura didn't allow women to fight in his battles, did he? It didn't matter if Kaoru was the daughter of a master swordsman, there were rules about these things!

An unnatural stillness swept over the castle, carried over by the wind. Banners fluttered in the breeze but nothing else moved. Finally, a jingle of metal shattered the silence as a horseman moved up the ranks until he was in front of the closed gate.

"Himura! Surrender and we will spare your people!"

Tension, thick in the air, increased when the gate opened and a red-headed figure ventured out on foot. Flanking him was a taller, dark-haired man whom Yahiko recognized as Sano.

"Kenshin," Kaoru breathed. The wealth of emotion in the whispered name almost felt like a fist socked Yahiko in the stomach; Kaoru really did love Himura, he realized. Or she had at least tricked herself into believing so.

From the distance, they appeared unmatched, two against an army, but Yahiko saw Kenshin had a sword slung at his side. Sano appeared to be weaponless, though Yahiko remembered he had seen the older man's arms and hands bandaged. A hand-to-hand fighter?

When Kenshin finally spoke, his voice carried back to Yahiko so he heard every word clearly as if he was standing right next to him. "By bringing this ridiculous so-called army with you, I can only interpret this as a declaration of war," he said coolly. "However, I will give you one change to turn back alive to your master. If you do not leave, I will not be responsible for the bloodshed today."

The commander laughed scornfully. "Do you see us, Himura? We outnumber your men at least eight to one and you say that you will defeat us? Even your legendary skills are no match for sheer number! If you do not surrender, we will plunder your castle and take your women and gold as spoils."

Kenshin shrugged, seemingly unconcerned by the threat. "You had your chance." He unsheathed his sword in a smooth, practiced motion. "Come and meet your death."

As if by some unspoken command, Kenshin's men suddenly poured out from the gate with war cries, engaging the enemy soldiers as soon as they broke free from the castle. Yahiko watched in amazement as they pushed back the enemy wide enough to allow more men to exit the castle and join the fray. When it appeared as though the enemy would surge forward and block the gate, either Kenshin or Sano somehow managed to clear a wide enough space so their men could press forward again.

Light footsteps echoed on the turret. "Kaoru-dono, you are needed downstairs."

Yahiko tore his gaze from the scene in time to see Kaoru nod to her maid. "Of course, Tae." She turned to Yahiko. "As much as I want to be out there, I need to defend the inner castle walls from being breeched. There are soldiers in the rear entrance without the guidance of Sano or Kenshin and I have to direct them." She hesitated a moment. "Will you … will you help them? Please?" Her wide blue eyes pleaded with him unconsciously. "I trust them and their skill but in the end they are still human. Please help us, Yahiko."

He hated how he was so vulnerable to her pleas when he no longer knew her, but she was still his sister and he still had to kill Himura himself. "How do I get myself into these messes?" he muttered, glancing at the battlefield. Yahiko met her gaze again and knew he was lost. Exasperated with himself, he said shortly, "All right, I'll help them out. But I still plan on killing Himura after this is over."

Kaoru hugged him. It was brief and a little awkward given his last sentence, but for a moment Yahiko was six again and nothing had changed between them. "Thank you," she whispered in his ear before she left swiftly with Tae.

Sighing, Yahiko rubbed his head to ward off the headache forming between his temples, wondering how things got so twisted. A short trip to extract revenge and take his sister back was somehow turning into a fight between warlords and his actually helping his enemy. "Forgive me, Kamiya-sensei," he mumbled as he took the steps down from the turret to the courtyard. Some of the fighting had already spilled inside the main gates, as evidenced by the bodies scattered on the ground. The sound of weapons clanging and the shift of armor filled the air as he approached the gate.

A flash of green caught his eye and Yahiko drew his sword to block a thrust at his side. He tested the soldier for a few moments to gauge his abilities, exchanging quick blows. Satisfied he was the better warrior, he engaged him with several thrusts and caught him off-guard and open. Using the butt of his sword, Yahiko drove the hilt into his neck. Gohei's man dropped to his knees, gasping for breath. Yahiko then knocked him out with a blow to his head.

The closer he got to the gate, the more enemies attacked him. He noted that the entrance was still relatively busy with fighting, but Kenshin's men appeared to hold the enemy soldiers back well enough. Only a few green-clad soldiers managed to run past, but the courtyard sentries took up the battle to guard the inner doors.

Another fighter engaged him and this time Yahiko spared the barest of moments to knock him out. He looked around, trying to figure out the best way to help. With most of the fighting outside the castle walls and the men inside standing their ground, he ventured closer to the gates to see what was going on.

Yahiko caught a flash of red from the corner of his eye and he turned even as he was confronted with and finished off another opponent. His jaw dropped open in amazement, watching Kenshin cut through his enemies like a swath of cloth. The graceful movements and quick, lightning strokes and thrusts were deadly, accurate, and strangely hypnotic to watch. Yahiko stared as Kenshin left behind death and destruction in his wake. And the red-haired swordsman wasn't even sweating yet.

Someone jostled him aside, breaking the pull of watching Kenshin. Yahiko glanced over just as Sano smashed his fist into a helmeted soldier. A spurt of blood arced through the air and the soldier fell to his knees, screaming in pain and clutching his nose. Almost lazily, Sano lifted his foot and shoved the enemy in the head where he tipped over and was trampled by his own ally desperately fighting off Kenshin's men.

"Don't go letting your guard down, now," Sano advised him with a twinkle in his eye. He winked and sauntered off, casually slamming his fist into the side of an enemy guard who almost thrust his spear into a black-suited solider. The man grunted and was finished off by the grateful soldier.

Yahiko blinked after the taller man before he realized two more enemy guards were bearing down him with killing intent. He lifted his sword again to fight, but his mind was distracted now. He had seen firsthand the skill of Himura Kenshin and he was beginning to doubt his ability to stand up to him one-on-one.

No, Yahiko told himself firmly. I can't think like that. Kamiya-sensei said that a battle is already half-won when the confidence of a warrior lays in trusting in his own ability. I cannot fail. I will bring Kaoru home!

He was also getting rather annoyed that he was duped into fighting a battle that wasn't his own. Yahiko wasn't a part of Himura's army so why was he even bothering? He should have gone inside and forced Kaoru to come along with him to avoid this entire stupid fight. But a side of him couldn't resist trying out his skills in actual combat. It wasn't the same as sparring with his former sensei, and even fighting raiding town bandits back home didn't test him, unskilled as they were. At the very least, this battle with the foreign warlord allowed him to test his true mettle and abilities. These soldiers were well trained … but not as well trained as he was.

As the screams of fallen soldiers died down, Yahiko dimly heard the call for a retreat. After ten minutes in battle, he knew that the invading soldiers were no match for Himura's men. A stream of enemy guards ran out of the courtyard for the outside, desperate to try to make it out. But outside the fortress gates, a shout of surprise erupted as more of Himura's men came around the castle walls to ambush the retreating men.

Suddenly there were no more enemies to fight and Yahiko glanced around the courtyard, panting slightly. Bodies littered the area, stained a deep crimson that almost matched the color of Himura's hair. A few black-clad soldiers picked their way through the bodies, occasionally stabbing any green-colored bodies who so much as twitched until they stopped moving. Yahiko's stomach heaved once but he forced the queasiness aside and looked away.

Kenshin, Yahiko noticed, was holding a standard bearer by the velvet tunic stained with blood. The bearer was no more than a boy and he still gripped the tattered banner of the invading army until his knuckles turned white. Kenshin's eyes, a steely gold, stared down at the boy.

"Do you know who I am?" he asked his prisoner quietly.

Trembling, the boy nodded jerkily. He squeaked out, "Himura Kenshin, the warlord of death."

A pleased smile curved the corners of Himura's lips, causing a stab of unease in Yahiko. The smile wasn't a pleasant one and the standard bearer seemed to agree because his quaking suddenly increased. "That's right, I am Himura Kneshin. And do you know who he is?" Kenshin jerked his head over to Yahiko, who blinked in surprise.

Automatically, the boy's head turned to look at Yahiko before stammering, "N-no, my lord."

"He is Myojin Yahiko." As Kenshin spoke, the boy's head snapped back to stare at his captor, lips trembling. "Now, I have a message for your master. Tell Hiruma Gohei that he should watch where he steps next." Kenshin smiled that unpleasant smile again. "Or perhaps it will be too late by the time you reach him." Unceremoniously, Kenshin released his grip on the standard bearer, dropping him to his knees. "Go, and don't ever return here again unless you have a death wish."

Yahiko watched as the boy scrambled away as fast as he could, finally dropping the banner in his haste. "Why did you tell him my name?" he demanded to Kenshin. "I didn't want to get involved in this stupid fight in the first place."

"Didn't you?" Kenshin's all too knowing gaze swept over Yahiko, looking approvingly at what he saw. I rather thought you would have relished the chance to try out your skills on someone more worthy than some unskilled bandits attacking your home. Was I wrong?"

Yahiko gritted his teeth; another unexpected reason to hate Himura – he was always right. "I'm not involved in this ridiculous conflict for power or land."

Kenshin shrugged, seeming unconcerned by Yahiko's annoyance. "Like it or not, you are now. Hiruma Gohei will hear of your name and you'll be hunted for fighting by my side." He flicked his blade free of blood and sheathed it. "In any case, I'm not fighting for land. And I didn't start this conflict. But I won't shy away from a fight, either."

Before Yahiko could respond, Sano came up whistling, stepping over a body to get to them. "So part one is done," he said cheerfully. "I've got the men cleaning up and tending to the wounded."

"And Kaoru-dono?"

"She's fine. She's helping Tae-san with the injured. Not a scratch on her."

Yahiko shot a glance at Kenshin who relaxed at those words. Swirls of violet meshed with the gold eyes and the red-haired man suddenly seemed less threatening. The violent killing aura was gone, replaced with a mild-mannered man. "Good. Take out a few men and see what damage was done to the walls. I wouldn't put it past Hiruma's men to somehow weaken the foundation if they could."

"Got it." Sano nodded and strolled away.

Kenshin turned to go but Yahiko stopped him. "What about our fight?" he demanded.

Eyebrows raised, the warlord turned to Yahiko and surveyed him for a long moment. "You still wish to test your skills against mine?" he asked.

"I wish to kill you," he informed the older man coldly. "I didn't fight on your side because I decided to give up my goal. I did it so I would make sure I'm the man who ends your life and avenges my sensei."

"Hmm. Very well, the Myojin Yahiko. You'll have your fight, after lunch. Does that suit you?"

The indifference on Kenshin's part stirred slight unease in Yahiko's stomach. From what he had seen of Himura, the man perhaps did not have anything to worry about. But he didn't show it and instead nodded curtly. "Very well. But no more delays, Himura. This is going to end today."

"Yes," Kenshin answered, an odd look on his face that Yahiko couldn't quite read. He smiled at the younger man and the unease turned into a distinct form of dread. "It will all end today."

As promised, Kenshin met him in the courtyard a few hours later. All the men who were uninjured gathered to watch the fight, forming a loose circle around the two men. Kaoru, now dressed more appropriately in a kimono, stood nearby with Sano next to her, nibbling on her lower lip nervously.

"So it seems today is a big day, Myojin Yahiko."

Yahiko stared at him suspiciously in the midst of warming up. After the last 'surprise' he was wary of anything Himura Kenshin had to say. "Why is that?"

"You'll find absolution from your promise you made to Kamiya-san and I'll finally marry my bride." Kenshin smiled his slow, confident smile that caused a shiver of unease down Yahiko's spine. "What better way to celebrate success from your enemies than to have a marriage feast and a welcome party to my new brother-in-law?"

Staring at the red-head, Yahiko marveled at the blatant disregard Kenshin seemed to have for tradition and everything else. He had expressively forbid Kaoru to marry Himura but now they were to be married. Today, of all days. How many more outrageous things would this man say before they parted ways?

But they weren't outrageous lies, Yahiko realized after another moment of reflection. Everything Himura said would happen did. And despite his promise to Kamiya-sensei, Yahiko was beginning to admire the way the swordsman ignored convention and made his own fate.

Still, marrying Kaoru was unacceptable. Not when he had a promise to fulfill. "You can't marry her if you're dead," he said flatly.

Kenshin smirked at him. "Is that a condition? That if I survive this duel I can marry her?"

"Of course not!"

He laughed at the vehement denial. "So, then, what are we fighting for?"

Yahiko paused a moment. "What do you mean?"

Kenshin shrugged. "Well, it seems to me that if I lose, you're going to kill me and you're going to spirit Kaoru-dono away from here. But what happens if I win?"

"That won't happen," Yahiko snarled.

"Let's just say it did. Then what?"

The younger man frowned fiercely, studying the calm Kenshin warily. "What do you want?"

His expression turned thoughtful as Kenshin tapped his chin thoughtfully with a finger. He began a slow, lazy circle around Yahiko who turned with him to keep him in view. "I suppose if you're so determined to take my life, I should have the same leeway," he said at last. "My life if you win and your life if I do. Fair enough?"

Yahiko nodded shortly. That would work. If he, for some reason, did lose, he deserved to die. "Fine. I hope you're prepared for death, Himura!"

Kenshin smiled a slow, full smile. "I'm looking forward to this, Yahiko-chan. You have no idea how long I've waited for an actual challenge." He unsheathed his sword and looked at the gleaming metal for a long moment before his eyes flicked up to meet his. "Although I do wonder …"

"What?" Yahiko asked impatiently when it appeared as though a response was required.

"You were trained under the Kamiya Koshijirou, who maintained a philosophy of peace. In fact, if I recall correctly, the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu was created not to kill but to 'give life'. How can you justify your actions if you wish to kill me with a ryu that is meant to protect?"

Yahiko had long considered the same thing. Kamiya-sensei never encouraged him to kill Himura in revenge for abducting his daughter, but he frequently told Yahiko that sometimes protecting someone meant killing one who was a danger to society. Clearly, Himura Kenshin and his bloodthirsty ways fit the situation. So he said curtly, "Let's consider it protecting Kaoru from a scoundrel like you."

A smile widened Kenshin's face at his words. "Is that so?" he mused. "Funny, I didn't think Kamiya-san was the kind of man to twist his words so they could suit his purpose."

A bubbling rage started at the pit of Yahiko's stomach. Now Himura Kenshin had to gall to insult his master? That would not be tolerated. "He didn't twist anything," Yahiko said through clenched teeth.

Studying the younger man's face intently, Kenshin finally inclined his head. "Perhaps you're right. In any case, shall we get started?"

Yahiko drew his katana, absently wiping sweaty palms against his gi. There was no nervousness, only the sense that he was finally accomplishing his goal. "Yes. Let's begin."

And the air suddenly changed, hushing even tiniest of sounds. Tension fell in thick waves as the two fighters faced each other, motionless. Nerves thrumming with awareness, Yahiko watched Kenshin's feet for the first sign of movement. He knew his best chance at winning was to make sure Kenshin didn't utilize the full effect of his preternatural speed.

But when Kenshin finally attacked, it was with a basic frontal swing that Yahiko blocked automatically. He scowled at the older man as they broke away and began circling around each other. "You're deliberating holding back," he snapped.

"It's important to gauge your enemies before attacking," was the mild answer before Kenshin stepped forward and swung his sword into a side slash.

Deflecting that blow as well, Yahiko launched an assault of his own, thrusting and slicing in all directions. Seemingly unfazed, Kenshin blocked each attack until they broke apart again. The clang of blades rang loudly but faded fast as it was swallowed up in the quiet. "You move well," the red-haired man commented. "Good form, it shows you've practiced your katas over and over again. Your speed is acceptable. The power behind each attack is reasonable, but lacks a killing intent that doesn't match your intent. If I didn't know any better, Myojin Yahiko, I would think you're holding back on me."

Growling, Yahiko didn't answer but surged forward to attack again, running through each technique he learned without pause. Kenshin responded by blocking each one successfully and setting up an offensive of his own. The onslaught of blows caught Yahiko off-guard and he stepped back to recover from the flurry of attacks. Some of the slashes found its target and shallow cuts appeared, blossoming into droplets of red.

Sweat beaded on his brow and dripped down his face as Yahiko leapt back to regain his balance and composure, eying Kenshin warily. The cuts stung but none of them were major wounds. He wasn't naïve enough to think it was because of his doing, but because Kenshin was still holding back.

The hot sun beat down on him mercilessly and the earlier morning wind had died away by that point. Yahiko was hardly aware of the tense hush surrounding the courtyard and concentrated solely on his opponent. He knew now that he was no match for Kenshin, but that didn't mean he would stop trying. Kamiya-sensei and his wife deserved that much.

Something akin to regret flashed across Yahiko's face and Kenshin seemed to have caught it because he said, "You should surrender."

Yahiko shook his head, feeling his hair stick to the back of his neck. More sweat rolled down and wiped his sweaty palm again. The familiar, reassuring hilt filled him with a peace he hadn't felt in a long time. "I can't," he said, as if explaining himself.

Kenshin cocked his head slightly and looked him over. A small smile curved the corner of his mouth. "You're right," he said at last, as if he understood. "You can't."

And then he attacked. Yahiko saw his feet move and suddenly Kenshin was in front of him, slashing with the fury and speed that he was known for and it was all Yahiko could do to raise his sword and block him. It seemed as though Kenshin blinked out of his line of vision and reappeared behind him to attack again. Feeling the rush of air at his back, Yahiko bent low and spun on his heels with his blade out to catch Kenshin. But the red-haired man disappeared again and materialized to his right.

Before Yahiko could switch direction to attack, a hand caught his right wrist and twisted viciously. Gasping at the sudden blossom of pain, Yahiko dropped his sword but caught it with his left hand and thrust forward to Kenshin's stomach. But the pressure on his wrist dropped and Kenshin disappeared again.

Panting to catch his breath, Yahiko glanced around for him and found his opponent a few feet away. Wiping his brow, he stood and shook his wrist out. Bruised and sore, it was going to hurt if he had to hold his sword for a long period of time. But he probably didn't have to worry about that.

"Impressive move," Kenshin said and Yahiko glanced at him as he slowly transferred the sword back to his right hand. "Not many people can use a sword with both hands."

"It would have been more impressive if it worked," he muttered and Kenshin chuckled.

"It might've worked. But you need to work on your timing. I have to say, your eyes are quite sharp. Very few can even see my next attack."

Despite his extreme dislike of the man, the compliment from a master swordsman like Kenshin spread a blossom of pride in Yahiko's chest. Even if he was going to die, he had earned respect from the most skilled fighter in the world. Kamiya-sensei had always said Yahiko was a great swordsman and would surpass even him some day, but to hear it confirmed felt good.

If only he could survive this battle.

Kenshin shifted into a defensive position and Yahiko knew a challenge when he saw one. So he swung his sword around a few times experimentally, scanning the red-head for any weaknesses. Finding none but expecting that, Yahiko firmed his grip on the katana and ran straight for him with a feral yell.

Kenshin blinked out of existence again and Yahiko sensed more than saw him appearing to his left. Turning, he blindly slashed in that direction and heard the clang of metal hitting metal. They broke apart and then a flash of silver came for his torso and Yahiko back-pedaled, nearly losing his balance in the process. Kenshin pressed his advantage with another frontal thrust and caught the younger man's yukata. Yahiko had to suck in his breath so the blade didn't penetrate skin. But while Kenshin tried to untangle his sword away, he jerked to the left and winced as he felt the pull and tear of fabric with the move. At the same time, he lifted his sword and tried for a diagonal slash at Kenshin's torso.

Violet eyes widened in the briefest of surprises as Kenshin sidestepped the quick thrust and finally yanked his katana free. But instead of retreating as Yahiko expected, he planted his foot on the ground and pushed forward.

Yahiko lifted his sword up to deflect the straight blow but before they connected, Kenshin flickered out of his vision and reappeared again to his left. Bracing for impact, Yahiko felt, then realized the flat, broad side of the katana had hit him flat on his left arm. The move threw him off balance and he stumbled on his feet, propelled by the push, and Yahiko struggled to stay on his feet. The whirl of wind warned him that Kenshin was attacking again, whether he was ready or not, and this time it came from the right. Yahiko glimpsed of red and violet and steel before Kenshin lashed out with his sword, drawing a light but long score down his arm. Then he was gone again and Yahiko finally fell. He immediately rolled away from the last place he saw Kenshin, reflexively tightening his grip on the sword. When he deemed he was a safe enough distance away, Yahiko scrambled to his feet.

A split second later, he felt his sword knocked away and the tip of sharp metal pressing into the delicate fold of skin at his neck. Yahiko sucked in his breath, trying not to swallow as he felt the sharp point, and blinked the sweat from his eyes. Kenshin stood in front of him, the katana unwavering and a hint of a smile curving his mouth.

Yahiko waited but the red-haired man didn't move. The adrenaline slowly ebbed from his body and the realization that he lost suddenly hit him. He had failed Kamiya-sensei. "Well? Aren't you going to kill me?" he demanded. "You won." The words, so shameful to him, were spat out, anger directed more at himself than at Kenshin.

Kenshin watched him thoughtfully, expression shuttered from showing all emotion. "I never said I was going to kill you," he said finally, lowering his sword. He flicked his sword free of blood and examined it closely, taking out a cloth to wipe it down.

Yahiko stared at the red-haired man in disbelief. "We agreed you could kill me if you won. You won. So go ahead and do it already." The shame was almost too much to bear. He didn't know what he was going to say when he saw the Kamiyas in the afterlife but he wouldn't bring more dishonor on himself by running.

"I believe the agreement was that I could have your life if I won. There was never any mention of killing." Done with cleaning his sword, he sheathed the weapon in a smooth motion and tucked the rag into his hakama.

Still not understanding him, Yahiko said warily, "How else are going to take my life?"

Kenshin smiled indulgently at him, the expression foreign to the usually cold gaze. "Congratulations, Myojin Yahiko. You've sworn fealty to me and now have become one of my soldiers."

"What?" Yahiko stared at the red-haired man in shock. This was worse than facing Kamiya-san's wrath. He now had to serve his mortal enemy as a member of his army?

"Something you should learn about me, Yahiko-chan – I don't like to repeat myself. Sano!"

"Yeah?" came the lazy drawl.

"Show our newest member where everything is. Try to make him feel welcome since he's going to be with us for a very long time." This time, a satisfied smirk lingered on the older man's lips as he turned. "In the meantime, I do believe I have a wedding to attend to."

"It's about time, too!" Kaoru said indignantly, causing a few titters among the men.

"Wait a minute! I never agreed to a wedding!" Yahiko said sharply. "Fine, my life is yours as agreed, but that doesn't mean you can just take my sister!"

"Oh? And why not?" Amusement still lingered in his golden eyes but it was fast fading and replaced with tense displeasure. "As your new master, everything you have is now mine. That is the nature of our agreement, do you not agree?" Without waiting for an answer, Kenshin continued, "Then it's simply a matter of you knowing your place. Your allegiance binds your entire family to me. And as you claim Kaoru-dono as your sister, she is also mine. But in order to keep your remaining dignity intact, I thought it was best not to have said this out loud."

Yahiko said nothing though he was fuming inside. Not only was Kenshin right, but the swordsman would probably do whatever he wanted to do anyway. He was beginning to hate him more and more.

"So if there are no more protests, Yahiko-chan, do whatever Sano tells you to do like a good little soldier. Please don't shame your ancestors even more by continuing to be so petulant."

Petulant? He was being petulant? Oh, he'd show that smug bastard all right! Yahiko clenched his fists as his new master turned and strode towards the waiting Kaoru without looking back. His sister gazed at him for a moment before turning her attention to her betrothed. Bowing before him, she accepted his arm and they strode off.

Yahiko thought he was going to be sick. But he couldn't protest anymore. Himura had him at every angle.

Sano sympathized with the youth's brimming fury all the while admiring his spirit. He would definitely be an interesting addition to the group. Retrieving the younger man's sword, he offered it to Yahiko who all but snatched it from Sano's grasp and jammed it back into his sheath. "Come on, Yahiko-chan, let's show you around," he said jovially, ignoring the rude gesture.

"Stop calling me –chan," came the irritated response. He stomped away, leaving his chaperone in his wake. To Yahiko's further displeasure, the taller man caught up easily with his long stride.

"Personally, I don't mind the attitude so long as it doesn't interfere with your job," Sano said conversationally. "But just as a warning to you, Kenshin hates any sign of rebellion so you had best learn to keep your temper in check. I know you're angry, but it was a fair fight."

"This whole day came out in Himura's favor," Yahiko snapped. "I wouldn't be surprised if that red-headed demon somehow fixed this whole situation. Where's the fairness in that?"

"Well, the duel part was fair," Sano pointed out. "You could hardly call that fixed. As for everything else, well … consider it more like manipulation for the best possible outcome."

"How is this the best possible outcome?" Yahiko snarled. "My sister is still convinced she wants to marry that monster and now I'm stuck being Himura's little slave boy for his sadistic pleasure!"

"You still don't get it, do you?" Sano said. He gave Yahiko a pitying look which annoyed the younger man to no end.

"Understand what?" Yahiko snapped.

Sano regarded him gravely. "Jou-chan was never the target. You were."

It took a few minutes for his words to sink in. Yahiko abruptly halted and blinked and said, "What?" That didn't make any sense. After all, Kaoru was the one who had been kidnapped.

Sano nodded solemnly. "It's true. Kenshin wanted you from the very beginning and engineered this whole plan to get you in the end. He's wanted you from the moment he heard there was still a Myojin heir alive." Shrugging, the fighter added, "Though I don't think he realized he would have to wait ten years. I guess he assumed you would have been more impulsive in trying to rescue Jou-chan."

Yahiko stared hard at Sano, searching his expression for any kind of jesting. But the older man suddenly seemed quite serious, unlike his usual cocky self. "You mean to tell me," he said slowly, "that Kenshin put Kaoru's life in danger and broke my foster parents' heart … just to get me to join his army?"

Sano nodded again. "Exactly. Kenshin was right, you do catch on fast."

"I'm going to kill him!" Yahiko snarled, whirling around to follow Kenshin with his hand on his sword.

Sano calmly yanked him back by the back of his yukata, ignoring the grunt of pain from him. "No, you won't. He's your new master now, remember? And anyway, things worked out for the best. He has you and is now getting married to Jou-chan – never thought I'd see the day when he would actually settle down."

Yahiko glared at the lanky fighter, shaking off the grip on his clothes. "His selfish actions drove two people whom I loved and respected to the grave. And for years Kaoru's been manipulated into thinking that Kenshin is the best thing to happen to the world since miso soup! How is that 'for the best'?"

Sanos' voice was kind as he spoke. "Look, I know it isn't perfect but in the end, things couldn't have happened any better. You are serving a master whom you secretly admire – don't deny it, I can see it in your eyes – and whom you can look up to in terms of skill; Kenshin will teach you if you ask, he's not stingy. Plus you can be certain he has no desire to fight just for money or sport. He always has a good reason to engage in a fight. And Jou-chan is happy, married, and you two can now see each other all you want." He ruffled the youth's hair, causing Yahiko to duck from the offending hand with a scowl. "In this world, kid, 'good' is probably the best you can ever get. Anyway, what's done is done. Get over it."

Yahiko remained silent for a long while as he tried to digest the truth. Everything he thought was the truth suddenly seemed like a lie and vice versa. He finally sighed and released his grip on his sword, shaking his head. "I need to think on this for a while," he said quietly. Intellectually, he knew what Sano said made sense but it still seemed incomplete somehow.

"Think for as long as you like." Sano yawned and stretched his arms out. "You'll be all right, kid. You and Jou-chan. Kenshin'll take good care of you."

In the Near Future

The tentative knock on her door surprised Kaoru as she looked up from the embroidery hoop in her hands. "Come in," she said curiously. Very few people visited her, and those that did –namely Sano – usually barged in without warning. So she was only slightly surprised to see Yahiko slide the shouji open, hesitating at the door before stepping inside and closing it behind him.

"Can I talk to you for a moment?"

Now even more curious, Kaoru nodded. "Of course. Sit down. Would you like tea?"

"No, no, I'm good. I uh … just had a question." His face tense, Yahiko looked at everywhere but Kaoru. This was harder than he thought but he had to ask. He had to know the truth. "The first day we met a week ago … You asked me why Kamiya-san never looked for you when you first disappeared. I didn't know the answer. But you do, don't you?"

Kaoru bit her lower lip before threading the needle into the cloth and setting it aside. Folding her hands in her lap, she studied his pensive expression for a moment. "I remember when I was taken away I had cried for days. Kenshin, of course, didn't know how to deal with a six-year old and everything he said to me made things worse. I just wanted to sleep in my own bed and play with you and help Okaa-san with the housework. I wanted Otou-san to teach me more kendo. I wanted to go home and I was convinced my father would come at any moment, rescue me, and take me back and everything would be normal again." She paused. "But he didn't. And as I grew older, I began to get angry for him abandoning me."

Yahiko pressed his lips together. "So to get revenge, you agreed to help Himura with this little plot about me?"

Kaoru sighed and smoothed her kimono down absently. "So you know about that, do you? Not quite. I still didn't understand why my father didn't even attempt to rescue me or even contact Kenshin even though he knew I was with him. Kenshin had always been honest with me from the first day. He told me – quite bluntly, if I recall correctly – that I was only here because it was a part of his grander scheme to get one of the last remaining Myojin heirs. As I got older and my resentment grew, I was grateful that at least Kenshin was willing to tell me the truth no matter how much it hurt to hear."

"And what is the truth? Why didn't Kamiya-san try to rescue you?" Yahiko's dark eyes pinned her down, daring her to say what he already knew in his heart.

Kaoru took a deep breath. "It's because he knew Kenshin wanted you. It was easier to kidnap me and use me as leverage to get to you. But my father would have rather sacrificed his own daughter than give you up. He wanted to raise you himself and train a male heir into a swordsman who used the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu. It was doubly better that you were a Myojin, the family infamous for raising powerful warriors. And Otou-san's skills were nowhere near Kenshin's and he didn't want to challenge him and die. At least, not for me."

They stared at each other for a long moment, pain mirroring in both their eyes. For Kaoru, finally voicing the admission of a betrayal she had known even at the age of eight; for Yahiko, the shattering of an illusion of a man whom he had respected and loved like a father.

Finally Yahiko bowed deeply at her. "I'm sorry, Onee-san," he whispered. "I'm sorry Kamiya-san made such a decision to abandon you for me. I wish he hadn't."

Kaoru shook her head, dashing the tears from her eyes before they rolled onto her cheeks. "It's not your fault," she said softly. Her voice broke a moment and Kaoru cleared her throat before continuing. "I told you before that this is my home now. Kenshin has been very good to me all these years and Sano and Tae and the others are my family. I didn't have a bad life, Yahiko. I consider myself very lucky." She reached over and took a hold of his hand. "And besides, I finally have my brother again. What more could I ask for?"

Yahiko merely sighed deeply and dropped down to his knees in front of her, covering her hand one with of his. Her palm was warm and calloused from practicing with a sword, not soft like a woman's. "I don't understand why Kamiya-san would do such a thing. I don't even understand why Himura wants me so badly. Is it just because I'm a Myojin?"

Kaoru tightened her grip on his hand, causing him to look up at her. She smiled warmly at him, pride lacing through every word. "It's more than your family name, Yahiko. These past ten years, the world has watched you grow up into a fine young man with skills that boast unlimited potential and a heart that truly cares for people. In light of that, how can anyone not want you? You were the hope of my father to carry on his legacy. And you are the hope of Kenshin to help him find peace he's desperately looking for in this land. And you are my hope, that you will become the leader of a generation in search of that peace."

"Thanks for the pressure, Onee-san," Yahiko said dryly. Still, as he looked into her shining eyes filled with trust, he realized just how much he loved her, even if they were still virtually strangers. But they wouldn't be for much longer and he was content with that knowledge.

Kaoru laughed softly. "You can do it, Yahiko. I believe in you. I know you made my parents happy and proud in ways I couldn't. And I know you will serve Kenshin with honor."

He took a deep breath and released her hand to stand on his feet. "I will, Onee-san," he vowed. Yahiko wasn't sure if he could do all those things she wanted him to do, but he would try. He would do it all for her.

Leaving Kaoru's room a few minutes later, Yahiko wasn't surprised to see Kenshin leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and head bent. He studied the red-head for a long moment. "You heard?" he asked.

Kenshin looked up but didn't answer. Violet eyes met brown and each man gauged the other, searching for answers but neither knowing for what question. Finally, Kenshin pushed himself off the wall and straightened up, inclining his head. "Are you ready?"

Was he? Yahiko didn't know exactly what Kenshin was looking for, but Kaoru trusted him to help. And in return, perhaps Kenshin would help him find out who he truly was.

Yahiko glanced back at Kaoru's door before looking at Kenshin again. "Yes," he said at last, and followed him.

AN: This has been a 3 year work-in-progress which I finally finished while recovering from surgery. Because of the long length of time it took to complete it, some parts of it may be choppy or not fit in with the general theme. I've tried to catch them all but I'm sure more have escaped my attention. Obviously, any mistakes are my own as my beta probably believes I've fallen off the face of the earth from lack of contact.

Many apologizes for the lack of updates, especially for Regression which is done but still needs extensive editing; that will be posted by the end of this month. In the meantime, if you have any comments, questions, or criticisms, please feel free to PM me.