Fifteen minutes till twelve . . .
 Karen restlessly paced the hall. Kaoru was sitting in a chair and looking over some
papers. She looked up.
 "Why are you so restless, Karen-san?"
 ". . .Something, something's not right. . ." Karen scowled , then looked at the clock.
"We're missing something."
 "Well, I can't find anything unusual in here. No signs of illegal sales or otherwise.
Although. . ." Kaoru frowned at the papers. ". . . I don't know much about
government finances, but . . . let's see . . . it seems that Lord Malberry some sort
of purchase, some piece of land, and paid for it, but the money he paid is rather
small. Compared to other purchases, I mean. Maybe he bought less valuable land, I
don't know."
 Karen was half listening to Kaoru's murmurs as she walked back and forth.
Suddenly she stopped. "Did you say he paid less?"
 "Yes. . ."
 Karen looked at the paper. "This land is in Tokyo! There's no way it could be so
low. . ." She flipped through the papers and found a rough map. Comparing the two
locations, she paled.
 "What? What is it, Karen-san?" Kaoru demanded.
 "Good God. . ." Karen whispered. "That's . . . that's the land your dojo is on!"
 "What?!" Kaoru exclaimed.
 "Kaoru-san, stay here!" Karen raced down the hall.
 Suddenly a tremor shook the building. Kaoru stumbled and fell on her knees, while
Karen nearly tumbled down the stairs. "What the. . .?"
 "Earthquake!" someone yelled.
 "Damn . . .!! At a time like this!" Karen leapt to the first floor to find Kenshin and
 A small gray ball rolled in front of her and stopped. Karen looked down. ". . .!!"
 "What the hell. . .?" Sanosuke cursed as he stumbled down the hall to where the
explosion had taken place.
 "They're here!" came Karen's voice. "Guard the entrances and the staircases!"
 Amid the earthquake, several more explosions occurred. The walls visibly shook.
 "I knew this building needed to be repaired. . ." Karen muttered to herself as
about five ninjas faced her in the hallway. She immodestly kicked off her high
sandals and unsheathed her sword. "Ha ~att!!!"
 Nearby, Kenshin was locked in combat with some more ninjas. Strange, he
thought to himself as he fought. This is an awfully open attack, not to mention
dangerous . . .
 "And where the hell is that damn wolf!" Sanosuke yelled as he knocked several of
the ninjas out.
 Yahiko was fighting behind him. "We don't need him!" he said through clenched
teeth as he swung his shinai.
 Kaoru was gathering the scattered papers when suddenly two ninjas were
confronting her. "Hand them over, miss, and no one will get hurt." In his hand he
held a bomb.
 "Over my dead body!" Kaoru turned around and started to run for her life. With
the ninjas in hot pursuit, she raced down the stairs to the ground floor. "Kenshin!
Kenshin ~!"
 "Kaoru-dono!" Kenshin broke off from his fight and turned towards the sound.
 "Kaoru, catch!!" Yahiko threw her his shinai.
 "Thanks!" Kaoru caught it in midair and turned to face the ninjas. "All right you
guys! Karen-san's not the only girl who can fight in a kimono!"
 With a few well-placed hits, the men were down. The earthquake died down as
Karen reached them, breathing hard.
 "It's past noon by five minutes, and nothing has gone near Yamagata-sama's
office," she informed them, her hair hanging down her back. "Where's Hajime?"
 "Who knows," Sanosuke shrugged.
 Kaoru filled them in on what Karen and she had been talking about. Kenshin
studied the papers. "So Lord Malberry . . .?"
 Lord Malberry . . . Suddenly something clicked in Karen's head. Without a word
she turned and sped up the stairs. She burst into Yamagata's office.
 Saitou was standing in front of the desk, easily holding his own against four other
men with swords. Two were already lying on the ground. Karen unsheathed her own
blade and wordlessly attacked from behind. They're assassins, so it doesn't matter
anyway. She let out a sigh as the last man fell.
 "Where's Yamagata-sama?" she asked.
 "Safe. I've been sitting in here all afternoon." He fished out a cigarette. Karen
shook her head and watched him light it.
 "Why didn't you say anything?" she glared.
 "Like you guys would have been any help." He took a deep breath as if he had
been deprived of smoking for a month. Karen walked up to him and smacked the
cigarette out of his hand. He frowned and glared at her. "What the hell are you
 "You're going to kill yourself with all that damn smoke," she retorted.
 "I don't need your concern," he said in a bored tone, gripping her wrist. She
smiled seductively.
 "You are but a man, Hajime." She lightly touched her lips to his. He forcefully
kissed her, like a vampire hungering for blood. Her eyes widened in surprise.
 "Kaoru-dono!" Kenshin's voice could be heard in the hall. Karen and Saitou parted
their lips and casually stood apart as Kenshin and the others burst in.
 "Aw, the fun's all over?" Sanosuke sounded disappointed.
 Kenshin's eyes riveted to the wardrobe. The doors were hanging open and broken.
He nodded shortly. "That's what I thought."
 "It took awhile, didn't it? You're growing soft, Battousai," Saitou took out yet
another cigarette and shot a glance at Karen as if daring her to slap it away again.
Karen shrugged. "Everything's over, at least, and now we have proof of who's
behind this."
 Just then a soldier walked in. He gaped at the mess and the bodies. "What is it?"
Saitou said lazily.
 "Uh, sir, that is, uh, Lord Malberry is here to see Officer Yamagata. . ."
 "Show him in," he nodded.
 "Uh, sir . . ."
 Saitou tossed a glance at the soldier. "Any questions, soldier?"
 "No sir!" the young man saluted and quickly went out.
 "What are you thinking of?" Karen hissed. "You want him to see all this?"
 "His timing is perfect," Kenshin remarked. "Right at the time Yamagata-san
should be lying in his office, dead."
 Kaoru shivered. "I thought he was a man with no greed for our land."
 "He didn't drool over it, but looks are deceiving." Karen fell silent as a stout man
escorted by Smith walked in. His eyes widened at the mess. Behind him, Smith also
 "What is the meaning of this! Where's Officer Yamagata?" Malberry demanded in
 "Safe, unfortunately," Saitou took a drag.
 "We know all about it, Lord Malberry," Karen replied in the same language. "You
may as well give up and return to your own country before the police find out.
Especially about this." She waved a hand at the wardrobe.
 "What are you talking about, young lady! I -"
 He suddenly stopped in mid-sentence. His eyes bulged, and his mouth opened once
or twice. Then he fell forward.
 ". . .!!!!!" Everyone stared at the body lying in a pool of blood.
 And at Smith holding a blood-covered dagger behind him.
 ". . .You?!" Karen found her voice. "You were the one who. . .?"
 Smith sighed and looked at Malberry sadly. "Such an idiot. I didn't know it would
come to this." With ease he pulled out a gun and aimed it at the group.
 "You can't kill us all, Smith." Saitou was still puffing away at his cigarette. "And
even if you do, everyone will know."
 "Will they?" Smith grinned. "Believe me, I'm not stupid."
 "No, you're a moron," Karen retorted. "There are three people in here with
swords, and all three are fast enough to stop you."
 "Ah, but I know something you don't know," Smith shook his head. "And I only
need to kill one of you. I don't have any bullets to waste. But you'll all die anyhow."
 Smith very smoothly moved the gun towards Saitou, aimed it, and fired. The
movements were so smooth and so fast that no one could move until it was too late.
 The sickening sound of metal ripping into flesh reached Kaoru's ears, and she
widened her eyes in horror as she looked Saitou's way. Kenshin stared, his face
white, while Sanosuke passed his hand over his eyes as if he couldn't believe what
he was seeing. Yahiko stood, his mouth half open in shock. Karen looked into
Saitou's eyes and smiled. "You dropped your cigarette, you fool."
 Saitou caught her as she fell.
 Karen's long blue-black hair tumbled and fell past her waist, and behind the silky
curtain her pale kimono was dyed a dark red, slowly spreading over her back,
seeping through Saitou's hands and dripping silently onto the carpet. Her eyes
fluttered, then closed.
 Smith seemed annoyed. "I said you're all going to die anyway, so why mess up a
perfect plan?" He shot several shots into the wardrobe.
 Kaoru found herself thrown against the opposite wall by the explosion. Sanosuke
and Kenshin were both dazed on the ground, while Yahiko had been knocked
senseless. Saitou was kneeling, his body shielding Karen from the wardrobe, which
had burst into flame.
 "So long, and have a nice day," Smith said genially as he started to shut the door.
 In a heartbeat Kenshin had drawn his sakabatou and stood up. With a cry he
leapt and thrust his blade so the door wouldn't close. He hacked the door in two,
and without a pause turned to Smith and slammed his sheath into his face. Smith
barely had time to look surprised before he was on the ground, his face covered in
blood. Kenshin's eyes were burning as he sheathed his blade.
 "We have to get out of here now!" he shouted. Sanosuke slung Yahiko over his
shoulder and ran out, followed by Kaoru and Kenshin. Saitou scooped Karen in his
arms and followed behind them. The walls of the room crumbled behind them.
 The building was full of screaming people trying to get out of building. Many were
jumping out the windows. The small group fought their way through panicking
people and falling pieces of plaster and made their way down the stairs.
 The next explosion threw them down the stairs, knocking into everyone in front
of them and leaving them a tangle of bodies at the foot.
 "Damn you all!" Sanosuke shouted at the top of his lungs as he stumbled up with
Yahiko under his arm. A stream of blood trickled down his face. "Kenshin! Saitou!"
 "Shut up," Saitou said shortly, holding Karen tightly as he kicked an unfortunate
person blocking his way.
 "Go! Go!" Kenshin was helping Kaoru up. "Come on!"
 Again the friends started to race towards the entrance. Kaoru grit her teeth as
tears jerked out of her eyes. Karen-san, Karen-san . . . did you love him so much?
Why? Why?!
 "Shit!" Sanosuke cursed as the ground started to shake. He staggered for a
minute as another violent tremor shook the ground.
 "Kyaaa!!!" Kaoru screamed as the ceiling started to crumble. One large piece
grazed her shoulder, and she looked up in fear as the entire second floor started
to cave in.
 "Kaoru!!" Kenshin knocked her to the floor and covered her with his body.
 "Kenshin!" Kaoru choked. Kenshin's hair was covering her face, and his rough
breathing was hot on her ear. She grabbed his sleeve as she felt something hit
her hard. Then all was nothingness . . .

 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
 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
 "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-dono. . . 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 Sensei 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
 "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 great 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 . . cool, 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 no Mitsurugi?"
 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
 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.
 "Kaoru-dono?" Kenshin spoke. "Are you thinking of Karen-dono?"
 " . . ." 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 had died . . ."
 "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 developement."
 "Why did he try to kill 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 specialy protection." She
stopped, and there was a moment of silence.
 "Take care, Lady Samurai." Sanosuke waved his hand.
 "Good-bye, Sanosuke," Karen grinned. "I wanted to have a chance to entertain
you oiran-style, but too bad." Sanosuke chuckled.
 "We'll miss your cooking," Yahiko whispered, glancing at Kaoru fearfully. Karen
 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."
 Karen looked at Kenshin last. "Farewell - Rurouni who wields the sakabatou."
 Kenshin's eyes reflected her own. "Farewell - Beautiful shadow of Hiten no
 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.