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October 17, 1878

Kamiya Dojo

Today was the day. Everything had been a whirl of events recently with Enishi's Revenge, the battle on the island, the time spent recovering from their wounds and then the departures of Aoshi and Misao, Megumi, and Sanosuke. Upon leaving to see the world, Sanosuke had told Yahiko to leave the dojo and gave him his Ruffian Row flat.

Yahiko looked around the room that had been his for almost a year. He felt oddly like crying as he looked at the walls that had once had pictures of great swordsmen hanging on them as well as other things he'd collected and added to make the room his, which were now stripped bare. Yahiko quickly swallowed his tears. He was a man now! He had fought Hennya of the Juppongatana, Otowa and Kujiranami of the Six Comrades and Genbu of the Sushin and had mastered Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, all before he would turn 12 years old on New Years. Was it not shameful to cry over something as stupid as moving out?

Taking one last look around the room to be certain he hadn't forgotten anything, Yahiko headed out to embark on his greatest journey since Kyoto and the Island, the journey toward adulthood.

Upon entering the main living area, Yahiko came face to face with Kenshin and Kaoru, the people who had been his surrogate parents for almost a year. He winced inwardly when he saw the tears shining in Kaoru's eyes.

"Now don't think leaving the dojo means you can slack off in your training. I expect you to show up on time every day and work hard. Show up late tomorrow and you'll do 2,000 strokes," admonished Kaoru.

"Hey, no problem, hag," said Yahiko.

"If you didn't need to be awake to move out, I'd clobber you for that crack," said Kaoru, her eyes flashing.

Yahiko decided not to push a fight with his teacher since he'd still be exhausted from moving out tomorrow. Yahiko turned his gaze to Kenshin who was smiling gently at him, violet eyes shimmering with amusement at his and Kaoru's antics, but also with sadness at this parting.

"Do you have everything you need?" the rurouni asked softly.

"Yeah, I got everything," said Yahiko.

"Take care of yourself and don't hesitate to come to us if you need anything," said Kenshin.

"I know. I know," said Yahiko, feeling more and more awkward by the moment.

Just then he heard the sounds of the carriage he'd hired stopping outside the gate. He raised his eyes to his foster parents once more and smiled at them.

"Well, see ya!" he said.

"Good luck," Kenshin and Kaoru said together.

With a smile and a nod, Yahiko picked up his huge load and walked toward the gate. Taking a second to pause and look once more at the sprawling yard of his first home since his parents had died, Yahiko turned and left, shutting the gate behind him. He never saw Kaoru's tears finally spill from her eyes.

As Kaoru and Kenshin sat down for their first meal alone together since Yahiko, Megumi and Sano had come into their lives, Kaoru was aware of a queer feeling of loss. Her gaze kept wandering to the three unoccupied spots at the low table. Finally, they settled on Yahiko's spot, the spot where she'd cold-cocked and strangled him many a meal for criticizing her cooking and calling her unbecoming names. Now at the tender age of 11, he'd thrown himself to the wolves!

Kaoru mentally shook herself. She knew she was being silly. It wasn't like Yahiko had completely disappeared from their lives. He'd be over for training in the morning anyway and would probably eat with them more often than not. Kaoru tried to convince herself it was the same, but it just wasn't. She let out a small sigh, hoping Kenshin wouldn't notice.

Kenshin of course, did notice. Kaoru hadn't taken a single bite of her food and he hadn't either, always being one to wait till the others started eating before tucking in to his own food. He knew how sad Kaoru was with Yahiko having just taken a carriage out to Ruffian Row to live. He felt the same way, but was calmer about it because he knew Yahiko could take care of himself. But Kaoru was so very young and had a great fear of losing those close to her.

"He'll be here tomorrow," Kenshin said softly, hoping to buoy Kaoru's spirits.

"I know that!" snapped Kaoru, immediately checking herself, as she was trying very hard to overcome her old personality faults.

More quietly, she continued.

"I'm just worried about him. He's so young to be on his own and that Ruffian Row is filled with no-good thugs and gamblers. Who knows what bad habits he'll pick up from them?" she said.

"Well, he didn't pick up too many bad habits from Sano," said Kenshin with a smile.

"That's because we were always around to make sure Sano didn't corrupt him too deeply," said Kaoru, trying to repress her own smile.

Kenshin grinned at that.

"As Yahiko always says: Have faith in your pupil. He'll be fine on his own. He's very mature for his age," said Kenshin.

"Alright, but if he comes here tomorrow covered with tattoos and reeking of sake, I'm holding you responsible," warned Kaoru.

"Alright," agreed Kenshin with a smile.

After the food was gone, Kaoru held up her saucer while Kenshin poured for her, then Kaoru poured into Kenshin's upraised saucer. They drank deeply and periodically glanced up from their saucers into each others' eyes. Kaoru enjoyed sending little surreptitious glances at the handsome redhead before her who made her heart leap in her chest.

Kaoru knew that Kenshin was right; Yahiko would be fine on his own. The lad had already been in three life-or-death battles and had won all of them. Yes, Ruffian Row was full of thugs, drunks and gamblers, but Yahiko had already been around their king and was turning out pretty well anyway.

Kaoru decided this time alone with Kenshin in which he and she could speak to each other from their hearts and be openly affectionate without having to worry about Yahiko's annoying jibes and taunts was a blessing. Deep violet eyes stared openly into hers. The privacy they finally had combined with the sake to remove the rigid borders that so permeated their lives as Japanese.

Nearer and nearer to each other they crept as their lips met first gingerly, then more passionately. The sake in her system emboldening her, Kaoru threw propriety to the wind and enjoyed the feeling of Kenshin's tongue entering her mouth. Yes, Yahiko's moving out was a good thing after all.

Ruffian Row

Yahiko slid the door to Sano's longhouse open and stepped in... to some leftover sushi rolls on the floor. Yahiko looked down at his tabi-clad foot, which now had rotten, nasty sushi on the sole. Chestnut eyes surveyed the horror that was Sano's flat. The place was a dump, to put it politely.

There was junk strewn everywhere, wrappers, cups, plates, things of that nature all over the floor. In the left corner was a pile of discarded fishbones, which stood nearly as tall as Yahiko. Feasting on all the rotten leftovers were various kinds of insects whose species Yahiko could only guess at. There were empty sake jugs all over the place. Sano drank more sake than anyone Yahiko knew, aside from Hiko Seijuro XIII. There were at least 43 holes in the wall, sunlight shining in through them. The fireplace was a mess, as if the chimney hadn't been cleaned out in ages. Sano's old futon was tossed carelessly into the corner. Moving carefully to keep from stepping on anything sharp or dirty, Yahiko went over and inspected the futon. Surprisingly, it was still usable.

Yahiko went over to a large pile of old clothes to see if anything in that was usable. He lifted up an old pair of pants and jumped back when a rat nearly the size of a cat ran out from underneath it.

'This isn't a flat; it's a battle field,' the boy thought as he looked around.

The only things Yahiko saw that looked agreeable were the girly pictures Sano had pinned up on the wall.

'I think I'll leave those up,' thought Yahiko.

The rest of the stuff though, had to go. Yahiko decided he'd do it after training tomorrow. Right now, he was exhausted and just wanted to sleep. He had been hungry, but the smell of the rotten fish had killed his appetite.

'I can't sleep in this pig sty,' he thought. 'Should I spend the night at the dojo? No! Not after just moving out today! How dumb would that look?'

After setting down his stuff, Yahiko grabbed the futon and carried it outside, praying it wouldn't rain that night.

Yahiko's prayers went unanswered. He ended up sleeping under a maple tree as the rain poured down to the ground, the reddening leaves offering only scant protection. Yahiko snuggled into the futon, hoping he wouldn't catch a cold.

October 18

The next morning, Yahiko woke up soaked to the bone. He knew he looked like shit and felt infinitely worse.

"Achoo!" he sneezed.

'Oh, hell no. I can't get sick. I have training.'

Ignoring the ill feeling in his body, Yahiko picked up the soaked futon and blanket and took them back into Sano's flat, which smelled even worse in the damp air. Holding his breath, Yahiko quickly changed into dry clothes, shouldered his shinai and headed to the dojo, hoping to get breakfast off Kenshin.

Yahiko could feel his energy draining from him as he moved quickly toward the dojo. He had time to spare, but he wasn't even certain he'd make it in his condition. Only his will and kendo training steeled him to get there. Yahiko made it to the front gate and collapsed just as he opened it. Kenshin and Kaoru, who were sitting on the engawa enjoying the rain-soaked scent of the earth, jumped up as he entered.

"Yahiko!" cried Kaoru.

Not saying a word, Kenshin scooped the young man in his arms and carried him inside the house. After laying him down in a futon in the guest room, Kenshin turned to Kaoru.

"You stay here with him. I'll fetch Oguni-sensei," he said.

"Alright," said Kaoru.

Yahiko opened his eyes and saw Kaoru dipping a washcloth in a bowl of water, which she laid across his forehead a second later.

"Kaoru? What happened?" he asked.

"You collapsed in the gate with a raging fever. Couldn't even manage one night on your own without getting sick, huh?" said Kaoru.

"I'm not sick," insisted Yahiko. "C'mon! We have training."

Yahiko tried to sit up, which was a big mistake. The room spun and he quickly lay down again.

"Just stay down, you little idiot," said Kaoru, replacing the cloth on his head. "What happened to you?"

"I had to sleep outside," explained Yahiko.

"You slept out in the rain? Why'd you go and do a stupid thing like that?" asked Kaoru.

"Have you ever been to Sano's flat?" asked Yahiko.

"No. He never invited us," said Kaoru.

"There's a reason. That place isn't even fit for animals to live in," said Yahiko. "The stench was so bad, I HAD to sleep outside."

"Idiot. Why didn't you just come back here and spend the night?" asked Kaoru.

"I don't know. Maybe I should've," admitted Yahiko, feeling stupid for letting his pride override his judgement.

"What a dumb student I have," said Kaoru.

"Jeez Kaoru, quit acting like Hiko," chided Yahiko.

"Why shouldn't I? He and I apparently both have to put up with idiotic students," said Kaoru.

Yahiko was just about to sling a "hag" or "crone" at Kaoru when the door slid open revealing Kenshin and Oguni-sensei. Oguni-sensei knelt down at the side of the futon, checked Yahiko over and gave Kaoru some herbs for a tea for him.

After Kenshin took Oguni-sensei home, he came back and decided to spend some time with Yahiko. When he got back, Kaoru was in the training hall with Shinichi Kosuburo, giving him his beginning lessons in Kamiya Kasshin Ryu. Although not a natural with the sword, Shinichi was hard-working and eager to learn, which made him a good student. With a smile, Kenshin headed to the guest room to hang out with Yahiko for a while.

Kenshin tapped lightly on the door frame, not wanting to wake Yahiko if he was asleep. A muffled "come in" told him that the boy was not. Kenshin slid the door open and entered silently. He smiled gently at the boy and sat down next to the futon.

"Sorry you got sick your first night out. What exactly happened?" asked Kenshin.

"Sano's flat... it's beyond description. I wouldn't put a dog I liked in that place," said Yahiko, grimacing at the memory.

"We should have known..." said Kenshin.

"I was stupid. I should've just come back here and spent the night, but I didn't want you and Kaoru to think I was a dumb kid who couldn't handle being on his own, so I stayed outside and now look at me. Achoo!" said Yahiko.

"Well, we're all 'dumb kids' at one time or another. It's part of growing up. The important thing is to learn from your mistakes and try not to repeat them," said Kenshin.

"I definitely won't repeat this one," asseverated Yahiko.

"Tell you what, if you're feeling up to it by tomorrow, I'll help you clean out Sano's place and make it fit for human habitation. Now, you look sleepy, so I'll let you rest," said Kenshin.

"Thanks," said Yahiko, closing his eyes as Kenshin left the room.

The next day...

"Oroooroooooo!" cried Kenshin as his acute senses were assaulted by the odor of the rotting food and accumulated mess of Sano's flat.

Kenshin coughed and had to step out and take deep breaths of fresh air, lest he lose his breakfast right then and there. A fully-recovered Yahiko suppressed his smile as he watched the redhead breathe deeply. When he finished, Kenshin turned around with a determined look on his face.

"The first thing we need to do is air this place out," he said, housekeeping instincts kicking in.

Setting up all the cleaning equipment he'd brought with him, Kenshin opened the door and windows wide to help get the stench out of the flat. He and Yahiko then went to work, picking up all the trash on the floor and tossing it outside. The flies and other scavengers, upset at having their treasures removed, scuttled outside to join them.

Kenshin and Yahiko each took an armful of fish bones and tossed them out with the other junk. Next went the old wrappers, sake saucers, etc. When the place was finally clear of debris, Kenshin and Yahiko got the scrub brushes, dipped them in the special soapy-water formula that Kenshin used at home and went to work. They scrubbed the floor, having to press in and scrub hard to get some of the noisome stains out.

Finished with the floor, they scrubbed and scrubbed the walls. Last came the ceiling, which they used sponges tied to sticks to reach. This done, they went outside and ate out of the bento box that Kenshin had brought while they let the place dry. After cleaning would come painting and fixing up.

"I don't see how anyone could live like that," said Kenshin with a shudder.

"That's probably why he always came over to the dojo, well that and the free food and laundry service," joked Yahiko.

"I hope he's alright on his own," said Kenshin, wondering where in the world Sano was now.

"Yeah, he's probably stealing or bumming food on the ship right now. I just hope they don't catch him and toss him overboard. Chickens can't swim," laughed Yahiko.

Kenshin smiled and nodded.

Somewhere in the hull of a faraway ship, a spiky-haired rooster had a sneezing fit.

After an hour, the flat was dried. Kenshin and Yahiko stepped back in and got to work cleaning out the fireplace and chimney. Yahiko stayed inside and cleaned out the fireplace while Kenshin went on the roof and cleared several dead birds and squirrels from the chimney.

Kenshin and Yahiko then worked on the walls, painting them a fetching shade of blue that looked much nicer than the dingy gray from before. With a shake of his head, Kenshin helped Yahiko to put the girly pictures back up after the paint dried.

"What will Tsubame-dono say?" he teased.

"She won't know cuz I'm gonna put something in front of them when she's over here," said Yahiko with a roguish grin.

With a sigh, Kenshin shook his head.

By 6 PM, they were done and Sano's flat was finally fit for human habitation. Yahiko felt very proud of being able to help clean this place up and make it feel like his home.

"Thanks for the help, Kenshin. See ya tomorrow at training," said Yahiko with a bow.

"Not a problem. I was glad to do it. Sano will be shocked if he sets foot in here again," said the redhead.

"Yeah, he'll learn that with a little work, people can actually live like human beings instead of pigs," said Yahiko.

"I think it was the work requirement that made it an impossibility for Sano. See you tomorrow," said Kenshin with a chuckle.

After Kenshin left, Yahiko was finally able to unpack his stuff and hang up all his swordsman pictures on the walls to further customize his new home. He put his few knick-knacks in different places. When he was finished, Yahiko felt very proud and happy. He looked out the window and saw that the sun was setting.

After making certain the door was locked, Yahiko readied his futon, changed into his yukata and crawled under the covers. The light from the fire gave the room a cheery glow, shadows dancing playfully on the walls. Yahiko stared out the window at the beautiful, star-filled sky until he fell asleep.

Tomorrow was training as usual.