"Karen-san! Karen-san!!"

 "Huh?" Karen looked up as Kaoru called her urgently.

 "Karen-san. ." Kaoru hesitated. "I'm not sure about cooking, and I'm sure you know more than I do . . . but are you burning that fish on purpose?"

 "?!" Karen looked down. She let out a shriek. "Kyaaa!!" With a swift hand she flipped them over with the chopsticks. "Whew. Sorry about that, Kaoru-san. I was-"

 "Trying to figure out who is selling us out?" Kaoru smiled.

 Karen was absorbed in checking how burned the fish were, so she simply nodded her head. When she was sure no serious damage was done, she looked up. "Someone who knows about me and who I am . . . which is rather vague. Almost all the officials know of me at least. Someone. . ."

 "Someone who works with foreigners," Kenshin finished as he walked in with a bucket of a few things Karen had asked him to buy.

 Karen let out a sigh. "The Meiji government is rotten to the core. Is this what you fought for, Kenshin-san?" She looked up at Kenshin, her sapphire eyes meeting his amethyst ones.

 "It is why I became a rurouni, Karen-dono," he replied.

 The two kenkaku locked gazes for so long that Kaoru felt uncomfortable. For the first time she acutely felt the difference of Karen and herself. Karen was a female kenkaku, just like herself, but while Kaoru was tomboyish and outspoken, horrible at household chores, Karen was graceful and skilled at everything from kenjitsu to cooking. Stray ebony strands clung to her oval face, and her blue eyes seemed to sparkle with the sunlight. Kaoru swallowed and tried to tell herself to stop being silly, Why, they were like brother and sister, Kenshin and Karen. The thought of them... Kaoru quickly stopped her train of thought.

 Finally Karen smiled and returned to the fish. "Hajime was right . . . you have quite a way with words."

 "Did he say that?" Kenshin smiled.

 "Oh yes. It wasn't exactly intended as a compliment, considering what he said before and after," Karen said impishly. "But then again, he never compliments anyone."

 "I wonder if he's even human," Kaoru said impatiently.

 "He is, and more importantly, he's a man, no more," Karen shrugged. "Though he tries to seem like a cold-blooded lizard at times, believe me, I know that better than anyone else."

 Kaoru turned rather red and looked uncomfortable - Never mind! The thought of Karen-san with Kenshin when she had such a ... relationship.. with Saitou-san is ridiculous! - while Kenshin hid a somewhat embarrassed smile and went to check on Yahiko, who was practicing in the dojo. Sanosuke was lounging around while Yahiko was practicing strokes in the middle of the room. He stopped and wiped his sweat as Kenshin entered.

 "Working hard, Yahiko," Kenshin commented with his usual smile.

 "Kenshin." Yahiko caught his breath and paused. Kenshin sat down besides Sanosuke.

 "Kenshin, can I ask you something?" Yahiko said suddenly.

 "Hai, what is it?"

 "Is Karen stronger than you?"

 Kenshin looked surprised. "Karen-dono? Why do you ask?"

 ". . .she knows Hiten Mitsurugi-ryuu, too, right?"

 "But she hasn't learned all of it. I have."

 "So are you stronger than her?"

 ". . ." Kenshin thought for a moment. "I don't know. It's true that Karen-dono has pretty much mastered Hiten Mitsurugi-ryuu, and that's not easy for a girl to do. But I really don't know about stronger. What do you mean by strength? Strength of body? Mind? Skill?"

 "All three."

 "Oro ..." Kenshin stared, then smiled a little. "Karen-dono is a girl. She can't do anything about the physical differences between her and a male kenkaku. But she has learned Hiten Mitsurugi-ryuu well, and changed it to fit her." Kenshin tapped a finger on the wooden floor. "Strength is not exactly something you can measure, Yahiko. Karen-dono, besides her skill as a kenkaku, has been through much and has spilled much blood. Whether she is stronger than me I don't know, but she certainly is very strong in both skill and spirit."

 Sanosuke sniffed the air. "And in cooking, so it seems. Let's shut up and go and eat, I'm hungry."

 "^^;" Yahiko rolled his eyes as he followed Sanosuke and Kenshin outside.

 Strength isn't something you can measure . . . I always thought that strength meant just . . . strength. The ability to win. But perhaps that isn't so . . .

 "Do you have something against the fish, Yahiko-kun?" Karen demanded as they sat down to eat.

 ". . .? No! No, Karen-san, not at all." Yahiko immediately began eating his food. "It's a lot better than someone else's cooking around here. . ."

 "Yahiko!!!" Kaoru yelled.