Misao threw herself onto Kaoru and hugged her tightly. "Long time no see! I missed you!"

 "Me too, Misao," Kaoru laughed, returning the embrace. "I'm so glad to see you again."

 "I'm not - it hasn't been long enough," Yahiko said bluntly.

 "Why, you..." Misao snarled, snapping out her knives as Yahiko grabbed his shinai defensively.

 "Now, now, let's calm down," Kenshin smiled as he greeted Okina. "Thank you for inviting us again."

 "No need to thank us. Misao's been singing it in my ears all the time. I'm just glad you were able to come." Okina winked at Kenshin and turned to Aoshi. "Aoshi, will you not greet our guests?"

 Aoshi was standing a little behind the rest of the group, silent as usual, but looking better than Kenshin has ever seen him before. He nodded gravely to Kenshin. "Long time."

 "Hasn't it?" Kenshin said warmly. "How have you been spending your time?"

 "Meditating..." Aoshi answered. "And listening to Misao talk."

 Kenshin laughed nervously. "I can imagine..."

 "Little kids be quiet," Sanosuke drawled as he chewed on a blade of grass. Both Yahiko and Misao paused from their heated arguing. "Who's little!!"

 "Oh, be quiet, Sano," Megumi snapped. "Stop teasing them. It's not like you're any better."

 The yard was filled with laughter and the sounds of voices all chattering at once. Kenshin smiled - it felt good to be reunited after almost a year. But a faint shadow touched his face. Not all memories about Kyoto were quite so joyful. He recalled their last visit here... and its purpose.  It has been a year since...

 Aoshi was looking at Kenshin with a thoughtful expression, as if reading his thoughts. Sanosuke, holding back Yahiko and Misao with both hands, also did not fail to notice Kenshin's face.

 Just then Kenshin felt another presence in the yard. He half turned to see a tall, lean man dressed as a policeman sauntering into the yard. A long ninhontou dangled from his waist, and from his mouth rose a thin line of smoke. "Saitou."

 "Battousai," he replied. "Here for an anniversary?"

 Kaoru slightly paled and glanced at Kenshin, who moved not an inch. "If it comes to that, why are you here?"

 "..." Saitou blew a cloud of smoke into the air. "Have you heard from Karen lately?"

 "Karen?" Kenshin started at the name. "No, not at all."

 "Karen-oneechan?" Kaoru said at the same time, coming forward. "Why? Has something happened to her?"

 "I don't know," Saitou shrugged, raising his eyebrows slightly at the oneeshan. "That's why I'm asking."

 Kaoru's mouth dropped. "You don't know?!"

 "Never mind. She's not dead, at least. Tell her to report if you hear from her." Saitou turned on his heel and started to leave the yard. Then he paused and turned around.

 "I would watch my back if I were you," he gave then a grin. "The yakuza have caught on to her. They might come around with questions." With that, he walked out to the main road.

 "Karen... isn't she the young woman that was here last time? The daughter of Hiko Seijuuro?" Megumi asked.

 "The yakuza?" Kaoru echoed. "After Oneechan?"

 "You mean that woman who was here last time with you guys?" Misao demanded. "She's Hiko-san's daughter?"

 "I wouldn't worry too much if I were you," Sanosuke yawned. "That girl can take care of herself..."

 "..." Kenshin was wearing a concerned expression, but replaced it with a smile. "Sano's right. But I think we may see Karen very soon."

 "What makes you say that?" Kaoru asked curiously.

 "I don't know... just a thought," Kenshin shook his head. Since it has been a year... she may visit Yumi-san's grave...


 Karen leapt lightly into the air and slashed downward with her blade, straight at Sojirou. Sojirou quickly stepped sideways and missed the blade by a hairbreadth.

 "Um, Karen-san, I thought we were just practicing..."

 "We are!" Karen gave not an inch as she moved like lightening to slash for his legs. He jumped just in time.

 "Isn't this a little too dangerous for practicing?" he panted.

 Karen paused and wiped the sweat off her face, smiling sweetly. "But neither of us are dead. What do you mean by dangerous?"

 She pointed at him with her sword. "You have good reflexes, but no practice has made you a sorry mess. How will you be able to live up to the name 'Tenken'?"

 Sojirou stared at her, and she laughed at his expression. "All right, we'll stop for today."

 Sojirou let out a huge breath and flopped on the grass, breathing deeply. Karen sheathed her sword and glanced at the sun. It was low in the sky, and her shadow was twice her size. In the distance she could make out the faint outlines of Kyoto, and much closer was the silhouette of a small village.

 "Stay here, Sojirou-kun. I'll go and buy some food. I'm afraid staying in a village is too dangerous for us at this point." With that, she made off for the village.

 Sojirou lay flat with his arms spread, his large eyes staring at the sky streaked with red and purple. He took a deep breath. The air was a little cooler, now that it was evening, and he could smell the grass, the dirt, his own sweat, and the faint scent of sakura blossoms in the wind. In his right hand he still gripped his new blade. Lifting his hand, he took a long look at it.

 It was simply made, and certainly not as good as the one Shishio had given him long ago. But Karen had said it would serve its purpose, and Sojirou, although he had never been all that knowledgeable about blades, also deemed it fair enough. Just a long, curved piece of metal, sharpened and beautiful and deadly. He suddenly recalled Kenshin's sakabatou. With a sigh he closed his eyes.

 I don't have the courage to carry such a blade...

 Suddenly he sensed a presence very close to him. It was not Karen. He was not used to sensing ki, and so he couldn't tell anything about the person except that he or she was there. Cautiously he decided to open his eyes.

 A small boy, maybe about eight, was standing over him, staring at his face with round brown eyes. Sojirou quickly sat up in his surprise and ended up seeing stars as he banged his head with the boy.

 "&*@%!!!" he groaned, falling back to earth with a thud. The boy let out a cry of surprise and fell backwards on his bottom.