hey all, standard disclaimers apply.

sorry that took so long. i just started school again so really sorry to those who waited.XD

really thanks for all the reviews. they really made my day as i stare at the rain clouds. XD


The sun had already lit up the streets when they returned. Kaoru had reined in the horses to a slow canter for the most part of the journey to avoid attracting too much attention.

The streets of Kyoto were slowly bustling with life, hawkers had displayed their daily wares and called out to people on the streets.

"Can't we go any faster?" Sano whispered hurriedly.

"No." Kaoru stated as she nonchalantly looked at the peddler who brought his wares to the side of carriage. He was selling some hard biscuits and small snacks.

"I'll have four of all you got." Kaoru said as she dug her pockets for change.

"Big appetite, miss? Here you go." The peddler teased gently as he packed her stuff.

Kaoru smiled winningly as she placed the food next to her. "I have a brother who eats too much."

The peddler laughed heartily, replying, "That's boys for you. How else can they become as strong as oxen?"

Kaoru waited until they were out of earshot before she said, "Eat, we'll be there soon and you need strength."

"Here's some soft bread," Nightingale poked her hand out. "I wet it with water that you hid. You need to eat too, you are still recovering."

Kaoru ate without tasting as she pulled into yet another shortcut. "Is there enough water?"

"We can survive for a while longer. You can't. Your limit is reaching soon, isn't it?"

"I've got a bit more time." Kaoru assured. "I can crash later when we go back."

The sounds of munching told her that breakfast was already being devoured. They had slept for most of the journey since Kaoru promised to wake them up at the first sign of trouble.

"We are here," Kaoru said as she pulled up in a small side street. Guiding the carriage into the back of a small print shop, Kaoru was greeted by the owner with a cheery smile. He was a small unassuming man who kept his hands behind his back, looking like he was at parade rest.

"Nice to see you, Rabbit. You are in one piece. Excellent, I take it the job went well." His sharp voice piped.

"Yes. Thank you for loaning me the carriage. Here is your fee." Kaoru handled the transaction as the others climbed out.

"I look forward to the day you ask me for a carriage to handle more pleasant stock." The owner smiled as he waved them out of the shop.

"He knows?" Nightingale inquired.

"No." Kaoru snorted. "Do I look like an idiot? I told him I'm transporting secret lovers."

That startled out a laugh from Nightingale. "He believes you?"

"I'm really convincing," Kaoru smirked in confidence as she showed them the way back to the Aoiya. The gang kept really quiet as the back door that came into view was slightly open.

Kaoru and Nightingale shared a look. Each of them perched at each side of the door as Kaoru imitated a low whine. A returning whine had her nodding.

They are safe, Kaoru mouthed. Need to check.

With that, the four men entered first as the women followed. They swept the grounds to find a horribly raided Aoiya with no sign of people.

"It's all clear here alright. There ain't anyone here." Sano burst in a fit of anger. "You said they were alright."

"Sano?" a small voice from under the Aoiya asked from the gap between the house and the ground.

"Yahiko, you there?" Kenshin asked as he crouched low.

"Yup," Yahiko pulled himself from under the house, all dirty and sweaty. "We all are."

Slowly the occupants emerged from under the house to the courtyard, filthy but otherwise safe.

Blade was the last to come out. "When I next see Raven, I'm giving her big sloppy kiss. Those boards she had are one heck of an illusion."

"I'll be sure to warn her," Nightingale joked. "You might scar her for life."

"Ha.Ha." Blade laughed dryly. "You can try hiding so many people in the middle of the night when surrounded from all directions."

"All things clear?" Kaoru asked, with her hands on her hips.

"Yes, my dear Rabbit. You can return to your beauty sleep." Blade said scathingly.

"There might not be a Sakura teahouse. I heard some murmurs in the market. Our entire district was torched last night." Kaoru informed.

"Who the heck would do that?" Blade yelled, her face red.

"The ones who want us dead, Blade." Nightingale answered tiredly. "You got any gear we can use? We can't walk around town like this." She asked ignoring the commotion as everybody tried to confirm that everyone else was all right at once.

"I got some kimono stashed but Kaoru, aren't you a bit paler than normal?" Blade questioned. She was very sharp on such matters.

"I'm fine as long as I sleep for a while. It's been a long two days." Karou yawned her reply.

"Tell us what you heard. We'll confirm and you can catch some Z's. You didn't sleep all night." Nightingale ordered.

"I heard that several of the teahouses on our street were burnt to the ground last night. They say it's arson. No survivors to speak off at the moment."

"Sounds bad," Blade added as she pulled out a few kimono from a room. "Change. We need to check. Kaoru, you stay here."

"I need to go back. I need to take some medicine before I sleep." Kaoru rubbed her face tiredly. "If not, I might not wake up."

The silence that fell was deafening.

"Do you have a sample? I can reproduce it," Megumi suggested, the first sign she saw Kaoru at all.

"No. Madame Butterfly has it."

"If she's dead, you going to stay awake for the rest of your short life?" Nightingale asked in mock disbelief.

Kaoru only glared in reply.

"Just sleep already, damn it. Your eyes look like a panda."

"You've never even seen a panda," Kaoru huffed as she leaned against a pillar and slept sitting upright.

"She's out cold." Blade snickered.

"She's only half asleep. If someone unfriendly comes here, she'll know and wake up. We need to get back now, Blade." Nightingale hurried. "Kaoru can hold the fort here."

"Sleeping?" Blade asked in jest.

"Yes, in sleep." Nightingale quickly changed and pulled Blade out on the streets.

The day dragged as the gang left Kaoru in her half dream state propped by the pillar. It was not that they did not want to help her, they could not find in their hearts to forgive her for her lies.

The fact that the dojo papers had been sent to them the day before with the deed signed off to Yahiko's name caused them to consider if Kaoru had any intention of returning.

Nevertheless, Misao had placed a thin blanket on Kaoru after the Aoiya was cleaned.

Kaoru stirred from her light sleep at midday. She had been sleeping in the sun for a long time and her face was scorching from the summer heat. With a half yawn, Kaoru folded the blanket neatly as she walked into the main building for the first time since she was dragged away.

"Kaoru," Okina called her warmly. "You can leave the blanket with me."

Smiling sweetly, Kaoru passed the blanket as requested.

"Why don't you go clean up? We'll be having lunch shortly."

"I'll pass lunch. I'm not hungry." Kaoru lied as she made her way to the baths. She was hungry but her hunger was no match to the pain she knew she would feel eating with the people she had loved as a family.

More important was the Sakura teahouse. If the district was razed, it would be necessary for her to made fake trails to show that Raven had indeed escaped. It would boost the morale of the Balancers and waste some resources of the enemy.

Biting her lip in consideration, Kaoru washed her teeth and face in a bucket of cold water.

"I thought you hated cold water." Yahiko spoke from behind her. He had come to see if she was joining them for lunch. Looking at her wash by the well made him think of the times even in summer when Kaoru made him heat the water for her.

"I do." Kaoru replied, "but my face is burnt from sleeping in the sun." another blatant lie. "Were you looking for me?"

"Are you joining us for lunch?" Yahiko asked in an unsure voice.

"You go ahead. I'm not hungry."

"Sure. Whatever." Yahiko blabbed as he walked away.

Kaoru watched his retreating figure with a wistful note. She would have loved to join them; there were so many things she wanted to share with them, even though it may have been too late.

Shaking her head, Kaoru went back to her thoughts. Doctor Genzai and the girls back home were her utmost concern. If Carrion knew about Kamiya Kaoru, he might know about them. After all, they were very close even before she met Kenshin.

Sending them away would arouse too much suspicion and leaving them there was also a dangerous option. Kaoru thought in worry. I could ask them to go on vacation but so many people vacating the dojo at once would lead to rumors. Pacing a little, Kaoru tried to put her thoughts in order with her lack of sleep.

There were many things she needed to do. People she should hide, not to mention herself. Someone had to take over her place in Aoiya before she could leave.

Her busy thoughts were interrupted as she sensed a strong ki, Saitou's approaching. She walked to the front to the Aoiya only to find Kenshin already there glaring at Saitou.

"I suppose you want to know what happened last night." Saitou stated as he made himself comfortable.

"All of the okiya on the lane had been torched. The estimated time was about three in the morning. Currently, Kyoto's geisha population has been whittled down to approximately thirty who were not there at the time. We're still pulling out bodies; the count was about forty so far within the Sakura teahouse itself. Looks like the Balancers took quite a beating last night." The last sentence was aimed at Kaoru.

Kaoru ignored the bait and silently counted the people present in the teahouse. There should be a hundred of the Balancers on duty so that meant that at worst half the numbers were gone. Many were unrelated staff employed to avoid suspicion, thus there should be more civilian casualties than Balancers. The Balancers would have gotten off lighter.

If the Madame was dead, we would be free. Kaoru thought.

Fat chance, a small voice in her head mocked. You should know better since you tried to kill her once yourself.

"We shouldn't have lost that many people." Kaoru answered after a while. "Most of the workers have no relation to the Balancers."

"Just a problem of being in the wrong place at the wrong time then?" Saitou mocked.

"I will not harm any one here, Mibu Wolf. Stop looking at me like I'm a spy." Kaoru said dryly.

"If you aren't, what would you be then? Slave number 28."

"I'm here because Madame has an order that one Balancer must be present in the Aioya at all times."

"Why follow her orders if she's already dead?"

Because she's like a bloody cockroach that can't die, Kaoru though as she amended her reply. "Madame Butterfly does not die so easily. If she is dead, I still have to wait for permission to leave. Madame Butterfly is not a name, it's a title."

"Who is the next in line then? Raven?"

"I have no idea. Nor do I care. Stop asking questions I have no answer for." Kaoru suggested, storming off.

Her rather hasty exit was blocked by Aoshi who planted himself at the door.

"We need to know more," he demanded with his stoic expression.

"More of what?" Kaoru snapped.

"Everything." Kenshin replied. This was the third time they had spoken since Kaoru confessed to have been spying on him.

Kaoru's head snapped in his direction. "I can't." if I could, you would have known everything already, she thought silently.

"Yes, you can. There's no one here but us. What you say can stay with us," Misao added boldly.

"You have no idea what the Balancers can do." Kaoru informed them. "There are no secrets from the Balancers. There is nothing they can't find out. If you are thinking of hiding something from them, they'll know and make you regret that."

"You can trust us," Yahiko said with his eyes unwavering.

"It is not you I do not trust. There is no hiding from the Balancers. No matter how hard you try."

"Why don't you take a chance?" Misao asked, her tone pleading. "Why do we have to stand on opposite sides?"

Because Kami is blind, Kaoru thought as she elbowed her way out.

"Kamiya," a voice called from the door. Nightingale had returned as pristine as she left. "I got some news and letters for you."

Kaoru hid scowl as she took the pile of letters from Nightingale. "What news?" She inquired.

"We only lost five last night. Madame caught the traitors and some random people from Carrion's side to fill the numbers. Many of the people dead at the teahouse are to fill numbers, but you already knew that." Nightingale added as she caught Kaoru's expression. Kaoru merely shrugged.

"Madame is alive and kicking. No surprises there."

"I once took a knife and stabbed her straight in the heart. She didn't die and was scolding me the next day for being so merciful."

"I'm not much better," Nightingale added. "I poured a whole cup of arsenic in her tea once and she drank the whole thing without a twitch."

"That woman just can't die." The two women concluded together.

"Sounds like a formidable woman," Saitou commented, pleased at such an ally.

"You're telling me." Nightingale rolled her eyes.

Kaoru randomly sifted through her letters. She was not expecting any since she left the dojo and was wondering how such a huge stack came to her. The slightly crooked hand writing on the last envelope answered her queries.

Doctor Gensai, Kaoru thought as she ripped open the letter.

"Why do you have mail, Kaoru? Who would care enough to write so many?" Nightingale leaned against the wall, her head cocked in challenge.

"Who knows? It could be more bills." Which reminded her she needed to pay the house tax soon. Kaoru breezed through the letter as Doctor Gensai stated his intention to go to Osaka to look for Megumi's family. Someone had told him that they have been living there. He would bring Ayame and Suzame along so if she came back from her trip, she did not have to worry about them being absent.

He knows more than he lets on, Kaoru shook her head. At least that is one less worry.

"Who, Kaoru?" Nightingale pressed on.

"It's a doctor who stays near me. I took care of his grandchildren once in a while. They are going Osaka for a bit and didn't want me to worry." Kaoru informed Nightingale and enlightened the gang who were trying to read the letters from behind her.

"You, friendly with a doctor? I never thought the day would come." Nightingale snorted to hide the pain she felt at having none of her own.

Kaoru understood perfectly as she tucked the rest of the letters away to stop rubbing salt in Nightingale's wounds.

"Are you taking over?" Kaoru inquired.

"Ya."

"See you then," Kaoru walked out the door.

"You're walking around in that?" Nightingale spluttered.

"No one will give me a second look. I blend easily remember."

"In that, you goanna have to look like a crow in the sky." Nightingale teased.

"All the more to enjoy the sun." Kaoru waved her comment off as she pranced.

"You should. There ain't goanna be any sun where we're going." Nightingale smiled after her.


translation:

Japanese do not pluralize by adding 's' so the plural to' kimono' is 'kimono',' geisha' is 'geisha' and 'ninja' is 'ninja', etc.

okiya is the establishment that houses geisha

hope everyone enjoyed this new chappy!

pls R&R to tell me what you think