It was dawn when the friends were able to sit down and take a breath. Saitou was leaning against a post, smoking his umpteenth cigarette. Kenshin, his sakabatou against his shoulder, was sitting with his back to the wall. Sanosuke dangled his feet and chewed on his fishbone. Yahiko and Tsubame sat next to Kenshin. Kaoru and Karen sat beside each other, facing the others.

 "I suppose I should tell you now," Karen sighed.

 "You don't have to, Karen-dono," Kenshin started to say, but Karen shook her head.

 "No, I want to." She took a breath. I want to. I want to trust someone... I want someone to trust me...

 "I am from Kyoto. My father is - was - a kenkaku, and my mother was a geisha, an oiran. My father met her when he was maybe 18 or so. Their destiny together was for but one night, but I was the result of their meeting. Until I was 15, I didn't know who my father was. I worked at the oiran house where my mother was. It was then I met Yumi."

 "Yumi?!" Kaoru interrupted. "Yumi, as in the Yumi that was with Shishio?"

 "Yes," Karen nodded. "We were close friends. But anyway, my mother died when I was 15. At her funeral my father suddenly appeared. He took me away to his home, and for several years he taught me his kenjitsu."

 "Who is your father?" Kenshin asked.

 Karen smiled a little. "His name is Hiko Seijuurou."

 "Whaaaat?!" everyone shouted. Kenshin's eyes bulged. "Shishou ...?!"

 "He never told you, did he?" Karen sighed. "I thought I was his only pupil as well. Later he told me about you, Kenshin-san... about his baka deshi." She grinned, then resumed her story. "I returned to the geisha house and worked there with Yumi, until she met Shishio-san. After she left, I took my mother's place. That's how I met him." She glared at Saitou.

 "You ..." Kaoru was shocked. "You met him as an ...?!"

 "Unfortunately. I became somewhat of a concubine."

 Kaoru's mouth dropped. Sanosuke stared. Yahiko was red. Kenshin looked at Saitou, who ignored his glance.

 "So anyway, that is how I became what I am now. I do not work for the Meiji government -" here she shot a glance at Saitou, who shrugged a little. "- although I move as one of the Secret Police. I move to help the people who need my help. The Meiji government is rotten to the core." Karen raised her head. "But it is needed for the peace. Violence begets violence, but I know no other way than my sword." She smiled at Kenshin. "We hitokiri don't really belong in the Meiji Era..."

 "So what exactly is going on here?" Sanosuke interrupted. "Why are we being attacked?"

 Saitou removed a gloved hand from in front of his face and blew out yet another cloud of smoke. "The foreigners want Japanese land."

 "So they're trying to force us to sell it," Kaoru guessed.

 "They what?" Yahiko burst out.

 "On the surface, it's very simple." Karen pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "The land around here has become very expensive. From a developer's point of view, it's going to serious waste because it happens to belong to the Kamia family. So the foreigners want to buy it up. However they've heard about the inhabitants of the dojo, and they know Kaoru-san's not going to sell. So they hire the yakuza to chase you off."

 "More like to find a way to chase us off," Kenshin finished. "They never meant to move in so suddenly. They've been watching us for about a week."

 "They have?" Kaoru exclaimed. Karen nodded as if she had expected such, and the way Sanosuke reacted Kaoru suspected he had also known. For a moment she felt annoyed at being left out - then sighed inwardly. What use would being annoyed do? That was just Kenshin's way.

 "But they weren't expecting Karen-dono to move in," Kenshin nodded. "Immediately they suspected her to be a spy from the government, so they watched her - or tried to. They weren't counting on Karen-dono catching on to them so quickly."

 "Still, the smartest thing for them to do at that point would be to stay low for awhile," Saitou said coolly. "But for some reason, the idiots panicked. They decided to finish the thing in one night."

 "Why?" Karen mused. "Did they figure out who I was?"

 "Maybe they thought you had figured out who they were," Yahiko suggested. Kenshin shook his head. "Foreigners would not go so far as to burn a Japanese home."

 Karen nodded. "Then that means..."

 "..." Saitou blew out a breath of smoke.

 "Means ..?" Sanosuke prompted them.

 "It means that someone from the government is helping them." Karen ran a hand through her hair. That would explain why those louts were so easily fooled tonight. "Someone who has enough power to avoid arrest even if he was suspected of arson."

 "Yamagata-san asked me to tell you to visit him in Kyoto." Saitou stood up and started to saunter his way outside. "He said he has some information about this case. Have a nice day."

 "Yeah, you too," Sanosuke said sarcastically.

 Karen followed him outside. He turned as soon as they were on the empty street. "...What?"

 "Who is it?" she demanded.

 "Who is what?" he looked down.

 "You know what I mean, you old wolf!" she hissed.

 "...I'm not that old," he commented. "I just look old. Look at Battousai - he's almost thirty and still looks like a girl."

 "That's because he's clean at heart. Unlike you." Karen crossed her arms. "Spit it out, Hajime, who is it?"

 "I don't know," he blew a cloud of smoke in her face. She coughed. "But someone's threatening Yamagata-san."


 "The foreigners have been trying to bribe the Meiji government to sell the land to them. Some of the pigs are saying, 'Definitely, as long as you bribe me enough.' But Yamagata-sama says the government can't sell privately owned land."

 "Ah ~" Karen nodded. "So that's it." She turned to go back in.

 Saitou grabbed her wrist and pulled her back close to him. His lean face was still the same - emotionless. Karen grimaced. "You reek of cigarettes."

 "And not of blood?" His hair was touching her cheek.

 "I've become too used to the smell of blood to notice it," she smiled humorlessly. Then she leaned closer to Saitou, her red lips barely touching his chin. "We blood-drenched hitokiri deserve each other, I'm afraid."

 "Speak for yourself," Saitou muttered as her lips found his. The first rays of the sun touched them as they stood in the street. Karen slightly pulled away. Her lips went to his ear as they softly whispered.


 With a ringing laugh, she jumped back and was gone. Saitou didn't seem surprised or angry. He simply shrugged and lit another cigarette as he turned and walked away.