"Ow... Are you all right?" Sojirou said as he rubbed his forehead, rolling on his stomach and sitting halfway up. The boy looked at Sojirou solemnly and nodded.

 "Ba~ka," he commented.

"...?!" Sojirou was speechless for a moment, feeling slightly annoyed and even somewhat angry with the small child in front of him. He was not used to dealing with emotions, but in another moment he was able to remind himself that the boy was just a child.

 "Are you hungry?" the child asked.

 Do I look like a beggar? was what Sojirou almost retorted, but he caught himself. "Not really. Are you?"

 The boy shook his head. "Mommy said to be nice to poor people, cause they don't have enough food."

 "- -;" Sojirou laughed at the serious child. "Well, thank you, but I'm not that poor."

 The boy cocked his head and looked Sojirou over. His large eyes rested on the sword. "Is that yours?"

 "...Yes," Sojirou carefully picked it up and slid it back in its sheath, a shadow covering his face. The boy stared at the sword curiously.

 "My mommy said that we're not allowed to carry around swords," he informed Sojirou.

 "Well... she's right. I'm a bad guy," Sojirou somewhat incoherently explained. He suddenly remembered the night he had met Shishio, and a sad smile crossed his face.

 The boy looked at him with a measuring gaze once more, and frowned. "No, you're not. Bad guys look scary, not sad. You're the saddest person I've ever seen."

 "Who, me?" Sojirou quickly smiled his usual cheerful smile. "But I always go around smiling."

 "But you still look sad..." the boy came a little closer as Sojirou stared at him in turn. The boy put out his small hand and gently touched Sojirou's face. Sojirou flinched at the soft paw on his cheek, but the child kept his hand there.

 "This is how my mommy makes me feel better when I'm sad," the child explained.

 Sojirou made no move to brush the hand off. He looked at the small boy, and for a moment he saw another child standing beside him, a weak, warm-hearted child, starving for the love he was never able to know.

 Was I like this child when I was little, Sojirou wondered.

 I can't remember that far back...

 A rough sound in the bushes broke the silence, and with a start Sojirou stood up, expecting to see Karen with her bundles. But it turned out to be several dirty-looking men, all armed and wearing ugly expressions on their faces. They looked oddly familiar.

 "You that bitch's boyfriend?" one of them spat.

 It took Sojirou a moment to realize who they were talking about. "I don't know what you mean," he said cautiously.

 "Don't play with us!" he shouted. "You were with her last night at the inn!"

 "Why do you ask if you know?" Sojirou retorted with his usual bright smile.

 The men were slightly confused at his smile. "What the hell are you smiling at?!"

 "He must have a few screws loose..." another remarked with a sneer. The rest guffawed. Sojirou showed no sign that he had heard, but the phrase oddly rang in his ears, disturbing some deep memories he didn't like to remember.

 "Tie him and the kid up," the first one growled. "We'll need them. Hurry up before she gets back."

 "Excuse me, misters," Sojirou interrupted politely. "But this boy here has nothing to do with us. Karen-san doesn't even know him. Why don't you just tie me up and let him go?"

 "You really are a nutcase, aren't you?" the man shook his head in disbelief. "Let him run off and tell her what's happening here so she can sneak up on us?"

 Another man spat in the dust. "Ha! Most likely the boy's worth more. Why else would this idiot tell us to let him go?"

 "You have a point!" the first one said approvingly. He clapped his huge hands together. "Get the small one!"

 The boy looked at the yakuza with fear in his eyes, and Sojirou laid his hand on his sword. But his heart was beating so hard that his head rang with the sound of it. Once, I would have been able to make these men grovel in their blood... but I'm no match for them now...

 Suddenly a thought occurred to him. Is protecting this child my truth?

 The men started to advance towards the two, but Sojirou stood stock-still as he wrestled with his thoughts. His head was in a whirl.

 I have never fought to protect anyone else in my life... and to tell the truth, why should I protect this child? I never knew him until a few minutes ago, and if the yakuza take him off thinking that Karen-san will rescue him, at least they will be off our tail for awhile. What would Karen-san do? What must I do?

 "All kenkaku wield their blades for themselves..."

 What do I believe in? What do I wield my sword for?

 Suddenly he saw a small, abused boy, weeping in the rain. No one had come - no one had cared whether a small child lived or died, whether he killed or was killed. No one was there the moment his innocent youth had ended...

 Was he going to let that happen again?

 "If you don't have a sword at hand when you figure your ideals out, it will be too late by the time you do get your hands on one."

 I have a sword... and I do not want to regret anything anymore...

 The sound of crying brought him to his senses. The men had already grabbed the child and were making off with him into the woods. Sojirou drew his sword. "Stop!"

 The men paused and turned around. "Shut up and stay put if you value your life."

 "Let the boy go. I told you he has nothing to do with us."

 "Will you make us?"

 All the men save one who was holding the boy drew their swords. Sojirou gripped the hilt of his blade and swallowed as they advanced menacingly. His eyes narrowed. Lightly, he bounced his foot on the ground, and as his foot touched the dirt and left it, the feel of kenjitsu ran through his body. He smiled.

 "What the hell are you smiling at?!" the men shouted, charging toward him.

 A flash was all that could be seen, and then Sojirou was gone. For a split second everyone froze. Then blood spouted into the air, and the screams of the men echoed as Sojirou calmly landed on the grass.

 "Karen-san would be pleased..." he murmured, glancing at the wounded pile of men. The one remaining was shaking with fear, while the boy clapped his hands and smiled for the first time since Sojirou had met him. "You sure are strong!"

 "D-don't come any closer!" the man stammered as he started to back off, his arm around the child. With his other hand he groped for his sword, found it, and held it to the child's neck as Sojirou advanced. "I'm going to slice him open!"

 Sojirou stopped. For a moment his face was filled with anger and helplessness - but then he suddenly smiled mischievously. "Try it if you will."

 "Stop grinning, you idiot!" the man shrieked.

 The next moment he froze. Once more, the air was sprinkled with drops of ruby. With a thud the boy fell to the ground as the man slumped forward. Karen wiped her sword on the grass and looked at the yakuza with a frown. "Damn scum..." She looked over at Sojirou, standing with bloody sword in hand.

 "It seems you have found an answer, or at least the beginnings of one," she nodded approvingly. The boy looked at both of them in awe. Karen lifted him and tossed him into the air with a laugh, "Aren't we a brave one?"

 "I didn't even scream once!" he said proudly. Then he pointed at Sojirou. "He saved me too."

 "Yes, I know," Karen winked. "And now he's going to take you home while I stay here and get rid of these bad guys."

 She put the boy down, and he looked expectantly at Sojirou, who nodded. "Uh, yeah. Let's go."

 Karen watched the two walk toward the village, her eyes somewhat softer than usual. As they grew smaller and smaller, she heard the boy say, "But you lied to me! You said you were a bad guy."

 With a sigh she turned to the bloody corpses... no, not corpses yet. One of the men stirred and groaned in pain. With a wicked smile on her face, Karen approached the man and bent down. "Hello."

 "Bitch..." he muttered.

 "I don't think you're in a position to be calling me that," Karen said softly, planting a foot on his chest. Her hair brushed against his face, and her eyes, now shining with a frosty light, were centimeters from his. "What are you after?"

 "Your... death..." he hissed, blood trickling out of his mouth. "You... and your boyfriend."

 "My boyfriend?" Karen said in surprise. Then she giggled. "You're not talking about Saitou Hajime, are you?"

 She straightened up, a look of amusement on her face. "Wait till he hears what's the latest news on the yakuza grapevine."

 With one graceful movement she pulled out her sword and neatly sliced the man's throat. Then she sighed as she looked at the bodies. "It will take me forever and then some to get rid of these..."