Kaoru blinked. She was staring at a white ceiling. Sunlight danced on the walls, telling her it was morning. I wonder what time it is . . . Karen-san must already be up and making breakfast . . . Karen . . .!

 With a start she sat up - then gasped as pain shot up her back. Wincing, she tried to catch her breath.

 "Kaoru-dono?" Kenshin quickly slid the door open and entered. "Don't get up yet. Megumi-dono said you needed to stay in bed for awhile. . ."

 "Ken. . .shin . . ." Kaoru murmured as Kenshin helped her lie back down. She noticed his head was bandaged and he moved his right arm stiffly. "Are you all right?"

 Kenshin smiled. "I'm fine. Just a little bruised." His hand lingered in hers, and she grasped it tightly. ". . .Thank you."

 ". . .!" Kenshin looked surprised, then his face relaxed into a grin. "No need to be."

 "What happened?" Kaoru asked after a pause. "Where are we?"

 "At the Aoiya," Kenshin replied. "They heard about the explosion and Aoshi somehow figured out we were here. Then they sent for Megumi-dono. It's been two days since the explosion, and an investigation is underway. Smith is alive, but barely."

 "Karen-san!!" Kaoru suddenly remembered and tried to sit up. Kenshin shook his head and pushed her down. "Kaoru-dono. . ."

 Kaoru looked up at him, her eyes wide. "Kenshin, what happened to Karen-san? And Saitou-san?"

 "Saitou's fine. His ribs are a bit broken, but he's not seriously hurt or anything. And Karen. . . isn't dead. But. . ."

 Kaoru studied his face. "She isn't dead. What's after that?"

 "She's still unconscious. They took the bullet out of her, but Megumi-dono says she's lost too much blood, and that her body is weak to begin with. Perhaps . . . she will live, but. . ."

 Kaoru felt hot tears burning in her eyes. "Karen. . .Karen. . ."

 Kenshin watched Kaoru put her hands over her face. Softly he stood up and left the room. Misao was outside. She was still mad.

 "Why didn't you tell us, Himura?! You were going to leave Kyoto without visiting us, weren't you?" she barked. Kenshin felt his ears ring.

 "Oro. . ." he stumbled. "Sorry, Misao-dono, but we were busy." He walked down the hall to the room where Karen was and quietly entered.
 Karen was still sleeping. Next to her Megumi was placing a cloth on her forehead. She turned at Kenshin's step. "Ken-san, who is this girl?"

 "A friend," Kenshin replied carefully.

 "What sort of girl is she? This is not the healthy body that a girl her age should have!" Megumi hissed. "Is she a hitokiri or what?"

 Kenshin nodded, and Megumi looked startled. "Are you serious, Ken-san?"

 "Will she live, Megumi-dono?" Kenshin said heavily.

 "I told you, I don't know." Megumi turned worried eyes to Karen. "All we can do is wait and pray." She stood up and left the room.

 Kenshin sat down beside Karen and looked at her pale face. "She loved you, Saitou," he said to the shadow sitting in the corner.

 "She's an idiot," Saitou seemed disturbed not. But Kenshin noticed he wasn't smoking his usual cigarette.

 "She gave her life for you," he said quietly.

 "She's not dead yet," Saitou said with a hint of weariness.

 The morning sunlight shone on Karen's face. Her long hair was loose and covered the pillow that she lay on, and her red lips were slightly parted as she breathed shallowly. Kenshin watched her still face. I can see how Shishou fell in love with Karen's mother. . .and how Saitou fell in love with her.

 Suddenly Karen stirred a little bit. Both Kenshin and Saitou started as her eyelids fluttered. "Mm. . . Hajime . . .?"

 "I'm right here, you idiot," Saitou answered her. Kenshin stared at him. "Oro. . ."

 "Am I . . .alive?" Karen murmured, her eyes still closed.

 "Definitely," Saitou snorted. Kenshin shook his head and silently left the room.

 Karen turned her head slightly towards Saitou. "Aren't you. . . supposed to be dead?"

 "You got in the way, remember?" he took out a cigarette.

 ". . . I did, didn't . . .I? . . .Too bad . . ." Karen managed a smile. Her eyes weakly opened. "It would. . . have been . . .a fine chance . . . to see your pride . . . humbled. . ."

 "Then why didn't you leave it alone?" Saitou snapped, his cigarette in his mouth.

 "I'm . . .watching you . . . losing your . . calm, so I guess that's . . . good enough." Karen paused for breath in-between words, her eyes closed again. "You. . . live as if. . . you don't feel . . . anything . . . but now . . . you're going to . . . have a feeling of . . . debt. . ." Karen slightly laughed, then coughed. "I'll haunt . . . you to make . . . sure you don't . . . forget . ."

 "You're alive, you can't haunt me." Saitou lit his cigarette.

 "I'm not . . .alive, I just . . . came back for. . . a moment. . . to make sure . . you weren't . . . totally ignorant . . . of your debt . ." Karen's voice grew faint. "Maybe. . . I should . . . go . . . now. ."

 "Shut up!" Saitou snarled, suddenly leaning over her. "If you really want to see me humbled, live, damn it! Show me you're stronger than me!"

 Karen laughed again, her breath coming unevenly, "I'm not . . .strong."

 "Then how did you come this far?" Saitou demanded. "Hiko Karen, you who are the daughter of one of the masters of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryuu?"

 Karen looked faintly surprised. "Does that mean . . . I'm strong, Saitou Hajime?"

 "Not if you die, you idiot." Saitou's cigarette was on the floor, long forgotten. "You who dare to call a captain of the Shinsen Gumi fool. Are you going to let a bullet kill you?"

 Karen slowly raised her hand and traced the lean outlines of Saitou's face. Saitou bent down and kissed her fiercely.


 Megumi was walking down the hall with Kenshin. "She's awake, Ken-san?"

 "Yes, she woke up a few minutes ago . . ." Kenshin paused in front of the door. Suddenly his face turned red. "Megumi-dono? Why don't we . . . come back a little later?"

 Megumi stared at him. "Why? Karen-san needs to be treated. Now. She's not in stable condition, even if she did -"

 Megumi suddenly paused and cocked her head towards the door. Her hand flew to her mouth, and she blushed. "Oh dear . . ."

 "Let's go, Megumi-dono. Kaoru-dono's waiting." Kenshin smiled and led her away.

 Kaoru submitted herself to Megumi's treatment, half listening to her scolding. She thought of Karen and their first meeting at the Akabeko, the first time she had seen the carefree, strong-willed girl.
And now she lies, hanging between life and death... because she chose to stay with us. Karen-san no baka!

 "Kaoru-dono?" Kenshin spoke. "Are you thinking of Karen?"

 " . . ." Kaoru nodded her head.

 "She's awake now," Kenshin smiled. Kaoru started. "She is? Why didn't you tell me?" she started to stand up.

 "No, Kaoru," Megumi said sternly, pushing her down. "I told you not to move. You too, Ken-san. You both should be lying down."

 "Karen-san. Is Karen-san going to live?" Kaoru grabbed Megumi's sleeve.

 "Hm," Megumi coughed. "I'm not sure of her state since I wasn't able to see her after she woke up. But from what I can tell she has a will to live, so I suppose with good care she will."

 "?" Kaoru looked puzzled. "What are you talking about? Why weren't you able to see her?"

 "She wanted to um . . . be alone with Saitou," Kenshin explained. Kaoru raised an eyebrow. Megumi shook her head. "After she gets well, I think it would be best for both of you to convince her to stop doing her line of work. She is not fit for it."

 Kenshin looked down. "That will be hard . . ."

 "It will be impossible," said a calm voice from the door. Kaoru snapped her head. Karen stood in the doorway.

 "Karen-san?" Kaoru said shakily, standing up. She walked over unsteadily. Karen grasped her hands. "Kaoru . . ."

 Karen enfolded Kaoru in her arms as Kaoru started to weep. "Karen . . . Karen . . . I thought you . . ."

 "I'm not that easy to kill," Karen smiled. Suddenly she lurched forward.

 "Karen-san!" Kaoru cried as Saitou steadied her.

 "No, I'm all right." Karen let out a breath.

 "No, you're not," Megumi said sternly. "Karen-san, you must stop this."

 "It is my life," Karen shook her head. Saitou eased her so she could sit. Her face was white. But her eyes were determined. "I am a rurouni - that is my destiny. . . and my happiness."


 "Happiness is different for each person." Karen looked Kenshin squarely in the eye. "Sometimes happiness lies in living. But sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes happiness can lie in death. My own lies in wielding my blade for those who need it. It lies in wandering down roads that have no end."

 "Karen-san. . ." Kaoru wiped her tears.

 "Kaoru-san . . . no one has accepted me like you and your comrades have." Karen put her slender hand on Kaoru's cheek. "But I must go my path."

  It was a week after the explosion had occurred, and the friends were gathered to see Karen off.

 "Everything has been settled, and Smith is in jail - or will be once he gets out of the hospital," Karen told them. "It seems he bought the land from Raukoji-san for a song, and in exchange he promised to get rid of those against development.

 "Why did he try to shoot Saitou?" Sanosuke asked.

 "He planned to make it look as if Malberry had killed Hajime and Hajime had killed Malberry, and that the rest of us has been caught in the explosion. He wanted to kill Hajime for certain, since he was the only one among us that was officially working for the government. He was very cunning. And I'm afraid he won't be the last. But I assure you, Kaoru-san, no one will come near your land again. Hajime has seen to it that it has been put under special protection." She stopped, and for a moment there was silence.

 "Take care, Lady Samurai." Sanosuke waved his hand.

 "Good-bye, Sanosuke," Karen grinned. "I wanted to have a chance to entertain you geisha-style, but too bad." Sanosuke chuckled.

 "We'll miss your cooking," Yahiko whispered, glancing at Kaoru fearfully. Karen laughed.

 Kaoru bit her lip as Karen turned to her. They embraced.

 " . . . You will visit sometime?" Kaoru sniffled.

 Karen smiled a little. "I am a rurouni, Kaoru-san. I follow the wind and the stream. But I am sure one day they will blow this way again." She touched the younger woman's face. "And the next time we meet... you will not call me Karen-san. You will call me Karen-oneechan, and I will call you Kaoru. Hai?" Kaoru smiled through her tears and hugged Karen again. "Hai.. Karen-oneechan."

 Karen looked at Kenshin last, and her farewell was simple. "Sayonara - Rurouni who wields the sakabatou."

 Kenshin's eyes reflected her own. "Sayonara - Beautiful shadow of Hiten no Mitsurugi."

 Karen turned, a gentle breeze tousling her black tresses. The sunlight sparkled on the path she trod as she walked, and the wind that blew behind her held the first scent of autumn.