"Kaoru-dono?"

Kaoru jumped slightly, fighting the guilty blush that was bathing her cheeks. "Hai?" She had thought to wait until Kenshin started dinner to slip out with a note explaining that she needed to talk to Tae about 'women's things', and that she would be home before dinner was ready. That would ensure that Kenshin wouldn't come after her, and that Yahiko wouldn't try to ask Subame about anything. The mere mention of 'women's things' was enough to send both males into seizures.

"Where are you walking to so late, Kaoru-dono?"

The young woman turned and swallowed. Kenshin sounded way too serious to allow her to slip away easily. "I wanted to talk to Tae about something," she said, surprised by how steady her voice sounded. She looked at the sky. "Besides, the sun hasn't even begun to set. I'll be home before it's completely dark."

Kenshin's eyes narrowed for the barest of instants. "I will accompany you, Kaoru-dono. It is much to late for you to go walking about the city on your own, that it is."

"That's.that's all right," Kaoru said. "We're going to talk about women's business, Kenshin. You wouldn't feel comfortable."

"Then I will wait in the restaurant."

Kaoru felt her temper slipping through her fingers. All she had to do was stay calm for a little while longer and he'd let her go. "I am a master of Kamiya Kashin Ryuu, Kenshin. I can take care of myself."

Kenshin cocked his head. "Yet you do not carry your bokken, that you do not, Kaoru-dono."

That was it. "Listen Himura Kenshin! If I want to go somewhere I don't need you following me around like some kind of-"

"I will accompany you if you wish, Kaoru-san."

The two turned to find Gin watching them, her expression neutral. "What?"

The woman walked between the two of them. "Kaoru, you wish to speak with Tae privately. Kenshin, you do not want her to go alone. I am a woman, so nothing you discuss will disturb me, and I am capable of protecting both of us."

She spoke with the calm of someone reciting what they needed to but from the market, Kaoru thought, but it would be better than nothing. All she needed to do was convince the other woman not to tell Kenshin where they were really going. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble," Kaoru said.

"None at all. I wanted to go into the city tonight. Will this work for you, Kenshin?"

He glanced between the two women before nodding. "Hai. How long will you be?"

Kaoru spoke first. "I planned on being home before dinner was ready. An hour, perhaps." She turned to Gin. "Will that be enough time for you?"

Gin nodded. "More than enough."

Relief flooded Kaoru. "Are you ready now?"

Gin nodded again.

"Then let's go!" She smiled. "I wanted to show you Tokyo soon anyway! Tae makes the best yakisoba in the whole city!"

Kaoru continued to chatter on about the different things that could be seen in Tokyo as they walked further away from the dojo. She knew Kenshin wouldn't be following them. He would have dinner prepared when they returned home, and that meant he had to stay home. Yahiko was already at the Akabeko, so all she needed to do was make an appearance, speak to Tae, and walk out the backdoor without anyone knowing what was going on. All she needed to do now was figure out what to say to Gin.

"Where are you really going, Kaoru-san?"

The question stopped Kaoru's train of thought, and her chattering, dead. "We're going to speak with a friend of mine, Gin-san."

The other woman stopped walking and turned to face her. "We are not going anywhere you would be comfortable having Himura follow, Kaoru-san," she said matter-of-factly. "I agreed to come with you to save the two of you arguing, but now I want to know where we're heading."

Kaoru wilted under the steady gaze of Kenshin's friend. She had the feeling that the other woman already knew where she was going, and was only waiting for Kaoru to say it out loud. "I'm going to the poor quarter to see a woman who's supposed to be able to heal people," Kaoru said finally, then rushed ahead. "I didn't want Kenshin to know because he would worry and wouldn't want me to go. Please don't tell him!"

Gin cocked her head. "Why would I tell Himura-san something that didn't concern him?"

Kaoru blinked. She hadn't expected that answer. "Because he's your friend?" she asked tentatively.

"But the business is not his own," Gin started forward. "Come, I believe I know the home of the woman you speak of."

Kaoru started after Gin as she began walking towards the city center. She couldn't believe that she was so lucky. Gin wouldn't tell Kenshin anything, so she didn't need to worry anymore. Swiftly, she caught up, cursing her kimono and wishing she'd worn her hakama instead. Her kimono was beautiful and made her feel the same when she wore it, but it severely hampered her movements. "Hey, how are you supposed to protect us if you're wearing a kimono?"

Gin pulled a kunai from seemingly nowhere. "I am more than prepared," she said before slipping the weapon back where she was hiding it. She threw something at Kaoru. "But if you don't feel comfortable."

Kaoru caught the object without thinking. It was slim and black. She pulled at one end and a sliver of steel caught her eye. It was a dagger. "I can't use this," she said.

"Then you should learn."

"That wasn't what I meant." Frowning, the younger woman tucked the weapon into the fold of her obi. "How come you can walk so fast in that?"

Gin stopped again and turned to her companion. "My kimono is altered to allow my arms and legs easy movement." She lifted one part of the skirt and Kaoru's eyes widened as it split, revealing more fabric. When Gin released the fabric it fell back into place, the split hidden in the intricate embroidery.

"Oh," Kaoru said, surprised. You couldn't tell anything was different about what Gin was wearing. "Who made it?"

"I did," Gin answered. "I apologize if my steps are too wide. I will slow down."

"Thanks," Kaoru said absently as Gin turned and began walking again, much slower this time. Kenshin's friend was confusing. And cold. She shivered unconsciously as she recalled every time she'd met the other woman's gaze. Her eyes were black, which made them look like two solid pools of darkness. Coupled with her paleness and cold manner the overall affect was disturbing. She spoke with no real emotion, as if nothing were more important than anything else. Kaoru shook herself. Gin was Kenshin's friend, something that was rare in her experience. There must have been something about the other woman that made her worthy of such a thing. _______________________________________________________________________

Gin's eyes swept the streets they walked down. They had stopped at the Akabeko only long enough for Kaoru to ask her friend to cover for her, then slipped into the alleyway, and it was only a few blocks before the buildings became shabbier, the people less well kept. The poor quarter in Tokyo was not a place Kaoru seemed familiar with. The young woman kept her gaze studiously straight, ignoring the whores plying their wares in the street and the shouts of men that echoed out of the gambling and drinking halls. Gin took it all in, mentally marking where she was on the map of the city she already had in her mind. They were perhaps no more than three miles away from Kaoru's home, yet they might as well have been worlds away. Here was nothing of the gentle river, the quiet homes neatly aligned. The poor quarter was a jumble of buildings that seemed to lean against one another for support, their facades cracked and fading.

"This way," Gin said, turning down one of the dark alleyways.

"Hey! Pretty ladies! Looking for company?" A drunken man leaning against the doorframe of one of the gambling halls leered at them, grabbing his crotch. His friends laughed.

"Ignore them," Gin said, and continued walking. She could sense Kaoru falter, but do as she was told.

The man didn't like being brushed off. "Fuck you then," he roared. "Otoko onna!"

Kaoru saw red. Before she knew what was happening she had turned, and started towards the man with arm raised.

An iron hand wrapped around her wrist, stopping Kaoru in mid- strike. Kaoru looked up at her hand. She held the dagger so tightly her knuckles were white. She looked to where the hand was holding her, and followed it along a lavender arm to Gin's dark eyes.

"He's not worth the trouble," she said calmly.

Kaoru's eyes narrowed and she jerked her arm with no affect. Gin's grip held firm. "Let go!" She hissed.

"No."

Kaoru growled and glared at the man, who was watching them with wide eyes. "Who are you calling otoko onna, fatass!" she shouted.

The man's face went pale, then red. Kaoru tried to move her arm again, with no result. The man pushed away from the doorway.

And laughed.

"Nani?" Kaoru whispered as the stranger roared with laughter, doubling over and slapping his leg. Without another word he turned and walked back into the drinking hall.

"Have you calmed down now?" Gin asked before releasing Kaoru's arm.

The younger woman rubbed her wrist. "I wasn't going to hurt him," she grumbled.

Gin started walking again. "I wasn't protecting him." "I could have taken him." Gin raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure you could have. But you wouldn't have been able to deal with the four just inside the door." Kaoru turned back to the building and saw four men standing just inside the door- less opening, watching the two women. "Exactly," the other woman said, and began walking. "And put that away."

The two reached a narrow hut crammed in-between two obviously newer buildings. Next to the door, so faded that the carving was almost unreadable, was the kanji for 'wise woman'.

Kaoru seemed taken aback by the sheer shabbiness of the house, and the smells coming from it, but Gin pushed her foreword. It was much like many of the traditional healing houses that still dotted the cities. There was a wall made up of drawers, some bigger, some smaller, that held everything the wise woman needed to diagnose and treat her customers. Animal parts hung from the rafters, and some over a smoking stove, probably the freshest additions to the woman's collection.

"I was waiting for you to enter," a bundle of tattered cloths said from one corner. "Come to find out what those city doctors don't know?"

Kaoru bowed. "Good afternoon, Obaa-san," she said.

The old woman stood and walked towards them on unsteady feet. Gin watched her closely, and discovered why. The rags and misshapen clothing hid a misshapen body. "Welcome child. Sit down," she gestured to a small, rickety stool. The moment Kaoru sat the woman was pushing her head this way and that, looking into her eyes, checking her ears and mouth, pushing at her fingertips.

"What had been bothering you, child?" she asked finally as she dropped Kaoru's hands.

"Ummm." Kaoru looked from the woman to Gin.

"I'll wait outside," Gin said, ducking beneath the ratty blanket that served as the door.

Gin stood silently outside the building and let her mind drift. Whatever was bothering Kaoru must have been very personal for her to be so secretive. She didn't seem ill, and she had seen her doctor only a few hours before when she attempted to sneak out of the dojo. Still, something must have been bothering her.

The sound of skin hitting skin attracted Gin's attention. Across the street a woman stood holding her face while a man towered over her.

"You'll do what I say, or you go out on the street!" He yelled.

The woman cowered and nodded. "Hai, Tashi-sama." The actions didn't seem to disturb anyone else on the street. They walked past and kept talking as if nothing was happening. Gin looked closer. The 'woman' was still a child, perhaps fourteen years old, and wearing the stylized clothing and hair of a geisha.

"Gin-san, you can come in."

Kaoru's voice called from inside the building, stopping Gin mid- step. She went inside without a backwards glance.

"I think we're done," Kaoru said, looking inside a small cloth bag. "How much is the medicine."

The woman shrugged. "How much do you think its worth?"

Kaoru looked from the woman to Gin to her bag, then pulled out three silver coins and dropped them into a shallow bowl. "Arigato- gozaimasu."

The wise woman looked Gin up and down after Kaoru stepped outside. "You're sure you don't need my help?"

"No."

The old woman sighed and sat back down on her stool. "So young, and so broken," she muttered under her breath as Gin walked outside. "Do you really think this'll work?" Kaoru asked as they walked back towards the Akabeko, holding the leather bag up to the fading sunlight.

"As much as anything would, Kaoru-san," Gin answered.

The younger woman nodded and stuffed the bag into the sleeve of her kimono. "Now, back to Tae's," she said happily and began bouncing down the narrow street.

Gin watched Kaoru with interest. Seldom had she see someone so old be so carefree. Kaoru acted as if there were nothing in the world that could harm her. She sought things out with single minded determination. Blind determination, if Gin were totally honest.

"You think we could sneak something from Tae's without Kenshin knowing?" Kaoru asked suddenly as they turned back onto the cobbled streets of downtown Tokyo. ________________________________________________________________________

Kenshin waited patiently for Gin and Kaoru to return, though his nerves were screaming at him. They had been gone longer than Kaoru had said. The sun was almost completely gone, dinner was nearly ready, and they still hadn't returned.

She will be fine, He told himself as he stirred the soba. Gin would allow no harm to come to her.

The thought was comforting, but only slightly. Gin's idea of protecting Kaoru would probably not coincide with his own. He didn't know how Kaoru would react to someone being killed before her eyes, something that might happen if Gin was pushed to physically defend them. Even when they were younger she'd had no objection to killing her targets. He himself felt a lingering sadness at times, a regret that led him to drink heavily before his assassinations. But for Gin there was nothing, not even a whispered word to the dead.

"Kenshin!"

The rurouni released an audible sigh of relief when Kaoru's voice drifted into the dojo. "Hai, Kaoru-dono. Dinner is ready."

The shoji to the kitchen opened and Kaoru peeked in. "I hope you didn't worry about us," she said.

Kenshin shook his head. "Not at all. Did you find out what you needed to know?"

Kaoru faltered slightly. "I think. I'll have to wait and see."

The red-head sighed as the door to the kitchen closed. Hopefully Kaoru had found out what she needed to know and would begin acting normally again. He'd give her a few more days and then confront her. _______________________________________________________________________

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for reading my drivel. So, love it? Hate it? Think I should be taken out into the woods and shot several times? LET ME KNOW!!!!PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE leave feedback!!! I need it, I crave it, so feed the author. I can't fix things that are wrong if you don't talk to me. (

And finally, some notes on the Japanese you see in this fic:

Otoko onna- literally means "man-woman" you'd say this to a bull dyke Obaa-san - I think this translates to a formal way of saying "grandmother". Nice way to refer to an older woman Hai - "yes"