Meanwhile, the Kyoto yakuza were gathered in an empty building, all grumbling about the task at hand.

 "Why the hell do we have to kill her?"

 "She's part of the secret police, obviously. That's why."

 "There are tons of secret police, and we're sitting here worried about one?"

 "She's the one that gets all our stuff. And besides, she's a woman."

 "You don't say. What difference does that make?"

 "You idiot! Do you like being defeated by a woman all the time?"

 "Shut up!" the leader snarled, glaring at the two about to go at each other's throats. "We're being paid for this, you dimwits. And she's a pain in the ass anyway."

 "That's what I don't get, boss," one of the men drawled. "Who hired us for this?"

 "Don't look at me," he spat. "She's not the only one, but she's first on our list. We have a long way to go..."

 "Yahiko, what took you so long?" Kaoru scolded, taking the bucket from her pupil. "Did you make the tofu?"

 "I met Karen," he said abruptly.

 Kenshin whirled around from talking to Aoshi, while Kaoru stared. ˇ°You what? Where? When?"

 Yahiko related his adventure to Kenshin and Kaoru, ending with Karen's message. Kenshin furrowed his brows. "Tonight...?"

 Aoshi glanced at the red-haired kenkaku, catching his eye. The two of them gazed at each other for a moment, then looked away.

 "Kenshin?" Kaoru prodded. "Is something wrong?"

 "..? No, no..." Kenshin shook his head. "Nothing."


 Karen and Sojirou silently entered the gaping entrance of the cave. Their shoes lightly clattered against the stone floor, making an irregular rhythm with the sound of water dripping somewhere within. All around them were piles of fallen stone and iron, covered with dust. Here and there a wall still partially stood, sometimes with a crooked, half-burnt painting still hanging forlornly.

 "It is interesting," Karen remarked, "how the entire history of Japan was changed within this place... and how no one in the future generations will ever know about it."

 "Karen-san... why did Shishio-sama lose? Because he was weak?" Sojirou's soft voice echoed within the emptiness. "Because he was wrong?"

 Karen laughed a little. "He was not weak, whatever else he was." She fell silent for a moment, remembering the first time she had seen the man who her friend had loved. "As to whether he was wrong... I would say it is more like he was someone who couldn't change."


 "That is what the Meiji Era is all about, Sojirou-kun," Karen smiled a little. "Change. An era where those who are weak have the right to live a free and happy life... instead of an era where the weak are ruled by the strong. An era where bloodshed is no longer needed..."

 "An era where neither you nor I could survive, then," a familiar voice drawled from the shadows. Karen's sword was half out of its sheath before she realized who it was. "Hajime..."

 Sojirou tensed as the lean policeman sauntered out of the shadows, but Saitou gave him little more than a disinterested glance. "So, you're still alive. I expected as much."

 "What are you doing here?" Karen arched a brow at her fellow policeman. "I would think you'd be busy."

 "I am - looking out for your back." Saitou lit a cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke in her face. "But today is a special day."

 "..." Sojirou carefully sat down on a chunk of rock and bowed his head in thought. Karen rolled her eyes. "Perhaps it is, at that..."

 The sound of footsteps made all three of them look up, as three figures emerged from the darkness. "Kenshin-senpai."

 "I thought you'd be here," Kenshin nodded. Sanosuke bobbed his head as greeting, while Aoshi gravely inclined his head. Karen returned the greetings, then smiled at Kenshin. "Here is an old friend, senpai."

 "...?" Kenshin glanced around - and spotted Sojirou sitting with his head bowed. The boy looked up as Kenshin approached. "Ko..Konichiwa, Kenshin-san."

 "Long time no see, Sojirou," Kenshin stood in front of him and met his eyes steadily. "How have you been?"

 "Still alive!" Sanosuke gaped. His loud voice echoed in the empty cave. "And got yourself a new sword, I see."

 "Actually, I bought it for him," Karen cut in.

 "It's a shame though. His skill was once second only to mine."

 Everyone froze at the voice that suddenly interrupted their conversation. Sanosuke shivered. "Damn, it's cold. Someone tell me I'm hearing things."

 "Funny, I was going to request the same," Karen said tightly, standing back to back with Saitou.

 "Shishio...?" Kenshin said in disbelief. Aoshi tensed, his hands resting on his short swords. "It can't be."

 "You're right, it can't." The voice seemed amused. "But unfortunately it is."

 Footsteps sounded against the stone floor, and everyone turned to where they were coming from. The faint light should have reflected off the white bandages that covered this man, but instead they went right through. The man paused a few meters away from the group, his arms crossed insolently, his eyes taking them in. Silence hung heavy in the air.

 "Well, I'm glad to see that everyone's happy to meet me again," Shishio snickered. He looked back over his shoulder. "Hurry up."

 "You walk too fast, Shishio-sama!" a female voice complained. Karen turned white as Yumi hurried out of the darkness to stand at Shishio's side. "By all the gods...."

 "Hello, Karen-chan," Yumi smiled. "Did you miss me?"

 "....?! What the HELL is going on here!" Sanosuke finally found his voice. "I saw both of you croak. Holy shit, does that mean that WE'RE dead too?!"

 "Shishio-sama...?" Sojirou said in a shaky voice. "Yumi-san!"

 "Hello, Sojirou," Yumi walked over to the boy and reached out a transparent hand to touch his head. "Hope life hasn't been too hard for you."

 Of all the people present, Saitou seemed the least surprised. Even Aoshi was still staring at the couple. "So, Shishio, what the hell are you here for?"

 "Like you said, it's a special day," the hitokiri smirked. "The day the history of Japan was changed. For the better? That's what you believe."

 "The laws of nature no longer are true in this era," Kenshin said quietly. "Not in the Meiji Era. You were caught up in the current of time, Shishio - the era rejected your ideals."

 "Pah. It was just scared of me," Shishio waved a hand in the air. "In any Era, the strong rule the weak. Always. Even now. And it will be like that forever."

 "Be that as it may, you certainly weren't the best thing that ever happened to Japan." Saitou commented.

 "You would like it here, Saitou," Shishio's tone was amused. "I always said you were one of us."

 Karen was still staring at Yumi, who finally decided to sit next to her. "Karen, will you please shut your mouth? You look like a girl who's seeing her first man."

 Karen quickly shut her teeth and glared at Yumi. "I didn't stare like that. If I recall, YOU held your breath your first time - so long that you fainted before your customer was half-done."

 Yumi crossed her arms. "Well, I remember what you told me the morning after your first. 'I never thought it would be so big! How does that fit into you?'" She imitated a high-pitched girl's voice. "Like a little child with her breasts barely grown!"

 Kenshin had to turn away, his face burning hotly. Sanosuke was doubled up, his shoulders shaking with suppressed mirth. Sojirou stared at the two women, while Aoshi had his eyes closed in meditation. Saitou's cigarette smoke came out unevenly, but he and Shishio seemed the only ones unaffected by the talk of the two oiran.

 Karen glanced at the men and exchanged glances with Yumi. Then they both doubled up in laughter. Yumi threw her arms around Karen, and Karen hugged her friend tightly. "Oh, Yumi, it's so good to see you... I thought I would never be able to laugh with you again."

 "I hope this is the last time for a long time," Yumi said pertly, as they knocked heads against each other. "I don't want to see your face in hell for at least 50 years."

 Karen eyed Shishio. "And hello to you too, Shishio-san."

 "Perhaps you knew what you were doing when you turned down my offer last time we met," Shishio said genially. "Have you come here to kill me?"

 "Be glad you are already dead," Karen shrugged. "But what ARE you doing here? Are all of us dead?"

 "I wish," Shishio laughed, amid the cool stares of the others. "Like I said, it's a special day. Just here for a visit. And to see Sojirou." He glanced at the boy, who slightly flinched.  "I won't bite. Why are you afraid of me? It reminds me of the first time I saw you."

 "Shishio-sama..." Sojirou suddenly knelt in front of him. "I ...."

 "And why the hell are you on your knees?" Shishio snorted. "Get up, boy."

 Sojirou ignored his words. "Shishio-sama, I have lied to you."

 Kenshin shot a glance at Karen, who shook her head. Yumi, her arm linked through Karen's, furrowed her brow as she studied Shishio's face. Shishio was expressionless. "About what?"

 Sojirou took a deep breath. It all started then... didn't it? But do I regret it, even after everything that has happened? "On that day when it rained.... I was crying."

To be continued... soon. ^^;