On the outskirts of the village, several men were talking together in low voices.

 "I think they've figured us out," one of them muttered.

 "Pah!" the man next to him spat on the ground. "Like hell they have. The police around here are slower than snails. All we have to do is get rid of
them, and everything will be fine."

 "Any other movements noticed around there?" another one asked.

 "Someone new moved in yesterday ... a girl. All we've found out about her so far is that she's a rurouni."

 "Are you sure she's not some spy?"

 "She busted some butts yesterday ... but the Meiji government doesn't use girls to do their dirty work."

 "Well, keep an eye on her. And be careful not to get caught."



 "Whew! That was a good workout." Kaoru took a deep breath and lightly bounced her shinai on her shoulder. "Karen-san, I've never met a fellow female kenkaku like you before. Where did you learn such skill?"

 "My father was a samurai ... although now he spends his days fooling around. A self-proclaimed artist." Karen rolled her eyes as Kaoru giggled. "He taught me his kenjitsu."

 "What is the name of it?"

 "There is no name ... or to put it more specifically, I developed my own sort of kenjitsu from what my father taught me. Since I am a girl, I had to make a few adjustments in the technique."

 Kaoru looked at her sideways. Even now she still thought that a silk kimono and a few servants would suit this girl better than a sword. Looks were very deceiving. "You don't have to answer this question, Karen-san ... but why did you leave your father to wander?"

 "...I didn't live with him from the beginning," Karen was choosing her words carefully. "I never knew who he was until after my mother died. He came to her funeral and took me to his home, and kept me there for a few years. I left of my own accord."

 "Don't ... don't you ever wish you hadn't?" Kaoru ventured.

 "To every person there is his or her path. I suppose I was destined to be a rurouni," Karen said calmly. Kaoru fell silent. Somehow she felt uneasy. Is Kenshin's destiny that of a rurouni's?

 Suddenly Karen stopped and froze. Kaoru looked at her in surprise. "Karen-san?"

 Karen unsheathed her blade. "Come out, you cowards, and stop hiding in the bushes."

 "...!" Kaoru took on a fighting stance. The two girls stood back to back as several men sprang out of the bushes.

 "Not bad, for a girl," one of them leered. "You think you can take all of us on?"

 "I do not wish to dirty my blade with such blood, but it seems I have no choice." Karen's voice was cool and detached. "Shall I attack first?"

 "No thanks!" Five of the men headed straight for Karen, blades gleaming in the sunlight. Kaoru found herself against the other three. Knowing that it would be foolish to fight with a shinai against real blades, she aimed for their legs and arms. With one lucky hit she knocked a sword out of the attacker's hands. Before he had time to recover Kaoru hit him solidly in his midsection. He keeled over.

 "Not so lucky anymore!" one of the other two left standing swiftly moved behind her. Although she managed to twist and avoid his thrust, she lost her balance and fell back. In a flash she was on her feet, but already the other one had his blade against her throat.

 Meanwhile, Karen was finishing off her last opponent.
Not your normal yakuza ...hmph. Who is the bastard and where is he getting these skilled kenkaku? With a single, deadly stroke she sliced the man's chest. Then she turned to see Kaoru being held at knifepoint. Damn...  

 "You're a government dog, aren't you?" the first man sneered. "Or should I say bitch?"

 "I wouldn't work for the Meiji government if my life depended on it." Kaoru was surprised to hear the bitterness in Karen's voice. "Let Kaoru-san go."

 "You know about us," the second accused.

 "I know more about you than you do about me. Are you going to let her go or not? Shall I kill you swiftly or make you beg and grovel for death?"

 Karen's eyes glowed in the setting sun with a smoldering light. Kaoru felt goosebumps on her spines. I've seen those eyes before ...

 Obviously the men were intimidated. The blade at Kaoru's throat dropped a millimeter.

  Kaoru instantly turned and kicked the man right where it would hurt the most. With another swift movement she picked up her shinai and brought it down full force on his head.

 "Ggaa!!!" Kaoru grimaced as Karen did away with the remaining man. Karen heaved a sigh and wiped her blade on the grass. "Well, we've certainly had our share of exercise today."

 "Are ... are they dead?" Kaoru looked at the bodies in the road.

 "Mine are, I'm afraid. I usually hit them with the flat or the dull part of the blade, but there wasn't any time to think about it." Karen didn't seem particularly sorry. "Too bad. I meant to get a few answers out of them. These men obviously weren't trained for fighting - they were trained to follow."

 "Why ... why would anyone want to trail us?"

 Karen shrugged. "Something's going on. Someone's after you, maybe."

 "Me?" Kaoru blinked. "But why? How can you be so sure?"

 "They're certainly not after me," Karen gave a short laugh.

 Kaoru bit her lip, a worried expression creasing her face. Karen put a reassuring hand on her arm. "Don't worry. Kenshin-san and Sanosuke-san are both strong. So is Yahiko-kun. So are you. And so am I. Nothing will happen, because I will not leave until I know for sure your dojo is safe."

 "Karen-san ... we can't ask you to do such a thing ..."

 "Nonsense, Kaoru-san. You welcomed me into your home when you didn't know a thing about me, or my past." Karen's blue eyes were unusually soft, and Kaoru thought they held pain ... pain and loneliness. "Karen-san ..." Kaoru trailed off, not knowing what to say.

A rurouni ... a person who wonders, never staying, never tarrying in one place for long ... a free but lonely life ... Does Karen-san, like Kenshin, have such a painful past? She is so strong, but her eyes are so sad ...

 "Come, Kaoru-san. I think we should hurry to the dojo." Karen quickly smiled. But her eyes were urgent. Kaoru nodded.