Karen sat up. Next to her, Kaoru stirred in her sleep. Karen quietly slid out from under the covers and snuck outside, with a shawl to cover her shoulders. As an afterthought she reached for her katana and took it with her.

 The summer night was unusually cold. She sat on the wooden floor and leaned against a post, her eyes lifted to the stars. It was a clear night, with no clouds, and a gentle breeze ruffled her blue-black hair as she closed her eyes. A creak on the wood startled her. Her hand gripped the hilt of her sword.


 Karen let out a breath. "Kenshin-san. You scared me."

 "Sorry. I just heard a noise outside and wondered what it was. . ."

 "Just wondered? I see you had the wits to bring your blade with you though." Karen let go of her own blade. "You are a hitokiri, after all. . ."

 Kenshin fell silent and sat down beside Karen. Karen unsheathed her sword and examined the blade.

 "How many have fallen beneath this graceful silver crescent of metal," she almost whispered. Her lips curved in a queer smile. "Such a thing of beauty. . .how deceiving it is. . .deadly, always thirsting for blood. . ."

 "Do you?" Kenshin's face was hidden by a shadow. Karen laughed a little, her beautiful face taking on a mysterious luminance under the faint light of the stars.

 "I don't know. . .do I?" she mused. "I am cursed, Kenshin-san, by my blood. My mother's blood, that of an geisha, a woman forever destined to be a plaything of men, forbidden to ever truly love someone. . . and my father's blood of a kenkaku, a hitokiri, never able to rest, never knowing true peace."

 "Didn't your mother love shishou?" Don't you love Saitou?

 "She would have if she could have, but such love is deadly to a geisha. Yumi-san knew that. Yumi-san was brave enough to leave. But my mother wasn't." Karen let out a sigh, and her eyes held the answer to his unasked question. I did leave... like Yumi... but neither Yumi nor I found much happiness there. "I sometimes think things would have been better if she had just followed my father, but she said she didn't want to be a burden on a kenkaku, that she didn't want to be a weak spot of a person she loved. . ."

 "Is that why you learned Hiten Mitsurugi ryuu?"

 ". . ." Karen cocked her head to one side, as if thinking it over. "Possibly. At the time I simply wanted to be able to fight, to thrash out against the world. The first lesson my father taught me was, 'Ken is a weapon. . .' "

 " '. . .and Kenjitsu is the art of killing,' " Kenshin finished. " 'No noble cause can change that truth.' "

 "Yes," Karen nodded. Her blue eyes reflected the night sky. "People say that this is the new Meiji Era, but the rotten roots of the past one still exist. I am cursed anyway, so a little more blood on my hands will not do much harm. If by the blood I spill a new Era can continue its first steps, then gladly do I wield my blade."

 "Hm. . .quite a familiar phrase," Kenshin commented, laughing a little at himself. "But Karen-san, the blood I spilled as Battousai... the blood spilled by so many people before the Meiji... is enough for the birth of one Era."

 "For the birth, but not for the continuance," Karen shook her head. She grasped the hilt of Kenshin's sakabatou and pulled it out of its sheath. "This blade . . .it holds the hope and dreams of the Meiji Era I wish for. One where all people can live equally, peacefully, without hurting and killing one another for their own greed." She looked at Kenshin. "You symbolize that Era, Kenshin-san. You are the light that this Era must have. And I. . ." She shrugged wearily. "I am the darkness which always exists behind the light. By the time my own blood is spilled, there will be no need for a hitokiri anymore, I hope."

 "How about living in the Era you wish for, instead of being its shadow?" Kenshin suggested quietly.

 Karen laughed, but there was a note of bitterness in her laughter that made Kenshin flinch. "That is my destiny, Kenshin-san.  Daughter of an geisha and a kenkaku . . .destined to forever wander and shed blood when needed." She leaned back and closed her eyes, her melodious voice suddenly tired. "I hope to be born in a better era in my next life. . ."

 "Karen-dono. . ."

 "Don't call me -dono," she shook her head. "And from now on I will not call you -san. I will call you senpai. Senpai in all things, not just Hiten Mitsurugi-ryuu..."

 Karen suddenly leaned sideways and put her head on Kenshin's shoulder. Kenshin flinched in surprise. "Oro. . ." He flushed a little.

 "Just for a moment. . ." Karen whispered. "Your shoulder is like my father's ..."

 Kenshin looked surprised, then nodded. Karen smelled faintly of wild cherry blossoms, which reminded him of another fragrance. Tomoe . . . He closed his eyes. When will an Era without tears come?

 Suddenly both of them froze and stiffened. Without moving her head, Karen's hand slowly reached for her katana. Kenshin likewise gripped his sakabatou.

 As if they had been given a signal, the two of them silently stood up and stole across the yard to the wall. Several small voices could barely be heard.

 "Lower your voice, you idiot! Do you want to be heard?"

 "They're all asleep, anyway."

 "Didn't you see how they were yesterday night?" the voice hissed.

 "Isn't that why we have to kill them?"

 "Before the assassination takes place. . .they will be nothing but trouble if they're alive."

 "But how?"

 "This." Kenshin and Karen heard a soft splashing sound, like a glass of water being shook. "Poison."

 "Down the well?" the voice was skeptical.

 "It doesn't have any smell or taste. No matter how skilled a kenkaku they are, they can't avoid this one." The other voice was smirking. "Let's go over. And shut up if you don't want to die!"

 The two men quietly came over the wall. The Kamia dojo was as still as death. A few leaves danced in the night breeze, and not a soul was to be seen. They stealthily crept over to the well. One of them opened a flask. With an evil grin he started to tilt it.

 A strong hand gripped his wrist and held it in mid air. The man drew in a quick breath. "Hik. . .!!"

 "It's not a very good habit to steal into people's houses and pour poison down their wells." Kenshin said calmly.

 The other man tried to run away, but found his way barred by Karen. "Going so soon?" she said sweetly with a wink, casually twirling her sword.

 "Kenshin? Karen-san!" Kaoru stumbled outside, Sanosuke and Yahiko behind her. "What's going on?"

 "We have a visitor," Karen looked over her shoulder and smiled. "Shall we make him feel welcome?"

 As everyone crowded around the two intruders, Kaoru stood frozen for a moment. They were together.. at night... no, I will not even think of that! What is wrong with me?! With a fierce shake of her head she joined the others.