It was a lazy summer afternoon in Tokyo, and the Akabeko was as busy as ever.
People talked loudly as they ate and shouted for more. Tsubame and Yahiko were
out of breath running to and fro, taking orders and serving tables and listening to
impatient customers yell complaints.
 "Come in!" Dae cheerfully greeted her next customers. "Konichiwa, everyone!"
 Kaoru, Kenshin and Sanosuke greeted her. "Konichiwa, Dae-san! You sure do look
busy today," Kaoru commented as they took their seats.
 "As you can see," Dae smiled. "Wait a few minutes, and I'll get Tsubame to wait on
 "Take your time, Dae-san," Kenshin reassured her. "We can wait."
 "We can?" Sanosuke talked around the piece of grass he was chewing on. "I
 "Keep your mouth shut, Sano, especially if you're not paying for this," Kaoru said
 "¡¦^^; All right, all right," Sanosuke waved his hands in defeat. Kenshin smiled.
 "Have you heard?" Dae's voice took on a lower tone as she served them water.
"Someone is trying to buy up half of the land around here."
 Kaoru nearly spit out the water she was drinking. "Who?"
 "I don't know. It's just a rumor." Dae shook her head. "A college professor who
comes here every now and then told me that land rates have rose around here, and
foreigners especially are eager to buy a piece of it."
 "They're not getting one bit from me!" Kaoru scowled fiercely.
 "Is the government protecting the rights of the citizens?" Kenshin asked.
 Dae shrugged. "Some people say they're encouraging the foreigners."
 "Dirty dogs," was Sanosuke's comment.
 "Welcome!" Dae called out as another person entered. Kaoru glanced up, then
blinked. "Kenshin, look!"
 "Mm?" Kenshin turned. So did Sanosuke. So did everyone in the room. For a split
second there was a lull as a girl who looked a little older than Kaoru walked in. Her
black hair was pinned up, framing her oval face that was slightly tanned but
nevertheless quite attractive. Her sapphire eyes were lowered as if to hide
something. She wore a dark red kimono, and carried herself gracefully as she sat
down at an empty table.
 The noise started up again, but it was now a murmur. Kaoru cast a glance over her
shoulder. "Who is she?"
 "I don't know, but she sure is pretty," Sanosuke drawled. "Now that's what I call
a girl. Unlike some people around here..."
 "What is that supposed to mean, Sano?" Kaoru demanded.
 Kenshin, oblivious to Kaoru's and Sano's bickering, was observing the girl through
thoughtfully narrowed eyes. "..."
 "Just some sake, please," the girl requested.
 "Whew ~" Sano whistled. "Sake ¡¦ in the middle of the day. What a woman."
 "Will you cut it out!" Kaoru snapped.
 "Hey lady!" a gruff voice made them turn. "Wanna join us?"
 Standing over the girl was a burly man, leering at her, as she calmly looked him
over. When she spoke, her voice was low and melodious.
 "I am not an oiran, but if you ask politely, I will condescend to pour you and your
friends' drinks."
 "¡¦!" Kaoru was holding her breath as she watched. The burly man laughed in the
girl's face.
 "You should be honored that a man has asked you to join him!" he bellowed. The
girl's eyes flashed dangerously.
 "If you please, I would like to be left alone," she said quietly.
 "You bitch!!!" The man raised his hand to slap her. Kaoru tensed, and Kenshin and
Sanosuke half stood. But the girl was fast. She jerked back as the meaty hand
came crashing down on the table, shattering a vase.
 "This is a public place," she stood up. "Please do not disturb the meals of others."
 " ..!!!" The man pulled out a sword. "I'm going to teach you some manners!!"
 "Outside, then." The girl smiled sweetly and vanished through the door. The man
lunged after her.
 "Let's go!" Kaoru was on her feet, Kenshin and Sanosuke right behind her. Behind
them followed a group of curious customers who had lost their appetite.
 The girl was standing underneath a tree, where she had left a small bag ¡¦ and a
ninhontou. Everyone gasped as she unsheathed it and took a fighting stance.
 "Ha! You think you can fight me? ME?!" the man snarled, surrounded by his gang.
"Get her!"
 "You cheats!!" Kaoru shouted as they attacked. "Ten against one..!!"
 Kenshin was already in the air, and so was Sanosuke. But Kaoru hardly saw them.
Her eyes were fixed on the girl. One moment she was there, the next she couldn't
be seen as she whipped through the men like lightening. The girl calmly sheathed
her sword as Kenshin and Sanosuke made short work of the rest. Which, to be
sure, wasn't much.
 "Arigato Kazaimas," she bowed to them. Then she walked over to Dae.
 "I apologize for the disturbance." She pressed some money into her hand.
 "Wait, there's no need for -" Dae started to protest, but the girl smiled and
bowed and started to walk away.
 "Wait!" Kaoru ran and caught her sleeve. "Where are you from? Do you live
around here?"
 " ... Kamia ..?" she said suddenly, studying her. "Kamia Kaoru?"
 "...!" Kaoru started. "Yes, that's me. How do you..?"
 "I've heard about you." She bowed. "My name is Karen. Fujita Karen."
 Kaoru returned the bow, then turned to Kenshin and Sanosuke. "Karen-san, this is
Himura -"
 " - Kenshin and Sagara Sanosuke." Karen greeted them. They bowed back.
 "That is quite some skill you have there," Sanosuke commented. Karen shrugged
and smiled. "Arigato."
 "Are you visiting Tokyo?" Kenshin asked.
 " ... I'm a rurouni, so I don't think you could call it a visit." Karen lifted her small
bag and laughed. "But I think I should move on ... tarrying any longer in this
neighborhood does not seem very wise after this afternoon..."
 "Would you ... would you like to stay at our dojo?" Kaoru said impulsively. "Just for
 "Yeah, and cook while you stay!" Sanosuke added. Kaoru glared at him.
 "Well ... If it wouldn't be too much trouble to you .." Karen, for some reason,
looked a little bit embarrassed. But Kaoru took her arm warmly.
 "Of course not!" she smiled. "Come, this way."

 The sun was setting, casting its blood red rays over the horizon. Karen, now
wearing a dojo outfit and wearing her hair tied over her shoulder, was kneeling and
washing the dishes in the yard. But her thoughts were elsewhere.
 This is too dangerous ... even if my original motive was to stay close to the Kamia
Dojo, I don't think it was supposed to be this close! What was I thinking? Should I
tell Himura the truth? She shook her head. Not yet... not when everything is so
unclear. At least guarding the people here has become easier ... although from
what I can tell these people don't need any guarding. She smiled to herself.
 "Karen-dono!" Kenshin's voice brought her back. "It's getting late ? what are you
 "Washing dishes," she answered. "Kaoru-san is with Yahiko-kun in the dojo." She
rinsed the last plate. "There, I'm done."
 "Where are you from, Karen-dono?" Kenshin asked as he helped her move the
dishes to the kitchen.
 "Kyoto," she answered promptly. "I used to be an oiran -- later I met someone
who took me as his concubine. Now I wander where I please. But I'm surprised at
you, Kenshin-san."
 " ...? Why so?"
 "I would think a fellow rurouni wouldn't ask questions about another rurouni's
past." Karen wore a mischievous smile.
 "Oro .." Kenshin blinked. "You sure know a lot about us, Karen-dono."
 "You'd be surprised at what you can learn as an oiran. I know about you because..."
she hesitated. "Yumi-san was my friend. She worked in the same place as I did
before she met Shishio."
 "Aa..." Kenshin was surprised. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed
it as Kaoru came out. "Whew! Kenshin, is the bath water ready?"
 "Yes," he pointed. "And Yahiko's, too."
 Karen suddenly felt a chill go down her back. Her eyes narrowed, and she slightly
turned her head towards the door.
 "Karen-san? What is it?" Kaoru asked.
 "...Nothing, nothing." Karen deliberately stretched and yawned. "I think I'll wash
up and go to sleep, if you don't mind."
 "Of course. You must be tired. My room is down that way," Kaoru pointed. "Do you
mind spreading out the blankets?"
 "No problem. Good night, Kenshin-san, Yahiko-kun." Karen bowed and walked off.
 As soon as she was out of sight, she quietly made her way next to the wall. With
one jump she leapt on it, then lightly landed on the other side.
 A figure was in the shadows, leaning against a tree. It was long and lean, and the
outline of a blade showed up faintly in the near-darkness.
 "So... you found your way inside," it said in a bland, cool tone. "Once again you
surprise me."
 "I don't believe you've ever been surprised in your life," Karen spoke in a low,
barely audible voice. "What are you doing here?"
 "My job." The figure shifted a bit. "Are you doing yours?"
 "Don't worry about me, you fool." Karen raised an eyebrow. "I'm capable of taking
care of myself."
 "You're the only human on this earth that gets away with calling me a fool." The
voice changed not an octave. "I'm warning you though, keep your distance. If you
become too close to them, there will be future problems."
 "I've never been close to anyone ever since I became an oiran. I don't intend to
start anytime soon. I'm as cold-blooded as you are, and you know it."
 "I have my doubts." A faint plume of blue smoke rose from the figure's mouth.
"But I suppose you can look out for yourself. Till next time, then." The figure
dropped its cigarette, squashed it with its boot, and sauntered into the darkness.
 "Chi ..." Karen made a movement of impatience and leapt back over the wall.
Almost wearily she entered Kaoru's room and spread the sleeping rolls. She untied
her ninhontou, glanced at it for a moment, then slid it under her blanket as she lay
down and closed her eyes.
 Sanosuke sauntered in soon after. "Sano, where've you been?" Kenshin asked,
locking the huge wooden doors.
 "Just around. How about the young lady?"
 "Karen-dono? She went to bed awhile ago. Why?" Kenshin looked at him
 "...nothing." Sanosuke walked around the corner and entered their room. He
thought about what he had just seen outside. ...I'll keep an eye on her myself.

 Karen took a deep breath of morning air. The day dawned crisp and clear,
promising to be fine. Dew still clung to the leaves as she wandered through the
bamboo forest, her ninhontou dangling at her side. She stopped in a clearing,
gripping the hilt of her blade.
 "Yah ~!" Karen suddenly, and with amazing speed, drew her sword from its sheath
and made a quick slash. Then she gathered her muscles and leapt as high as she
 "Yaht!" With another yell she did a half flip and slashed down as she landed. As
soon as her feet touched the ground she swiftly slid the blade back into its
sheath, then took on a stance as the bamboo stems started to slide off their
bases where she had cut them. With a single movement she took hold of the
sheath, pulled out her blade, and again sliced the stems. Following right behind the
blade came the sheath, hitting the wood full force. All of it shattered into pieces.
Breathing hard, Karen wiped her sweat and looked up at the blue sky.
 "Karen-dono." She heard Kenshin's voice behind her.
 "Konichiwa, Kenshin-san," She greeted him. "Do you always wake up this early?"
 "It's a habit," he shrugged and smiled. "Where did you learn kenjitsu, Karen-
 "From my sensei," she said insolently. Kenshin blinked. "^^; oro..."
 "Practice all you want, Kenshin-san, I'll be making breakfast." Karen pushed a
strand of hair out of her eyes and started to walk back.
 "Karen-dono," Kenshin couldn't help asking something he had been thinking in the
back of his head since yesterday. "Is ¡¦ Is your sensei, by any chance ¡¦ Hiko
 "I believe that's your sensei." Karen was not to be fooled. "I was taught kenjitsu
by my father."
 Kenshin watched her back until she disappeared. Her blade, her skill. ...I'm almost
sure it is mine ... but that's impossible. Sensei said he never had any other pupils ...
or did he? But I know for a fact he never married and had any children. Is there
another form of Hiten no Mitsurugi other than the one I learned?

 "Konichiwa, Kaoru-san." Karen looked up from the bread she was making. "I hope
you don't mind something different for breakfast. It's something I learned from a
cook from England."
 Kaoru sniffed the bread baking on the fire. "It smells fine to me. But you don't
have to do this ... you are our guest, Karen-san."
 "Don't worry, I like doing this." Karen paused from kneading the bread, and her
eyes had an unfocused look. "I rarely have the chance to do anything so simple for
anyone else..."
 Kaoru wore an expression of concern, then replaced it with a smile. "Karen-san,
will you teach me how to make what you're making?"
 Karen looked up, then seemed to recover herself. "Of course, Kaoru-san. Here,
like this..."
 Yahiko was busy in the dojo, practicing down-strokes. "¡¦499, 500! That's it for
this morning." He wiped the sweat off his face and sniffed the air. "Something
smells great."
 "Morning, people." Sanosuke leaned against the porch as Kaoru and Karen
prepared breakfast. He stared at the rolls Karen set on the table. "Whazzat?"
 "Food," she replied. "Try it - it won't kill you, I promise."
 "Which ones did you make, and which did the miss make?" he glanced at Kaoru,
who returned his glance with a murderous glare. Karen laughed. "^^; We made all
of them together. Eat."
 Sanosuke tore one in half and popped a piece into his mouth. "Say ... thif shuff
tashtes great!" he exclaimed a moment later.
 "Thank you, Sanosuke-san. Yahiko-kun, breakfast is ready." Karen wiped her
hands and looked up as both Yahiko and Kenshin approached the table. "Help
 Soon all was quite except the sound of contented chewing. Kaoru swallowed what
was in her mouth and turned to Karen. "Karen-san, would you like to visit a dojo in
the next village with me today? I was planning to visit anyway, and since Yahiko
has to work at the Akabeko today, I would love it if you would come with me."
 I would've followed you anyway if you had left the dojo by yourself. Karen smiled
to herself. Aloud she said, "Of course, I would be glad to."

 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 with
dirt." 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. "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
 "...!" 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. He had an ugly scar
that pulled his mouth up into a sneer. "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
 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. I'm a rurouni, no one remembers me as I pass
them by." Again her voice held a shred of bitterness. "But you and your friends
are not very popular amongst the villains of Japan."
 "..." Kaoru bit her lip. 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."