There were three of them, actually. She made a mental note to fine tune that particular sense, then dismissed it; if there were this much change already, things would be too wonky to be reliable for at least a few days. As if in proof, the wave of their intent intensified unbearably, then backed off to almost nothing, leaving her dizzy and startled. She wanted to change the mental note to 'don't leave home until this thing settles', but that would be about impossible, as well. Instead, she gave up on mental notes, and fixed her attention on the three men in front of her.

There was another, off in the woods. No more than one, this time, though – it seemed… too weak. Maybe it was a pet dog? Something like that. No matter, these three would have been a fair match for her, even the way her friends knew her. Though – she had no bokken. She wanted to fall into a fighting stance, but the kimono would surely make that impossible. Her hand-to-hand was a bit rusty, too. Nervousness tugged at her, but she pushed the feeling aside with a well-practiced ease. Life with Kenshin had prepared her for unexpected battles.

"Aww, now, what's a pretty thing like you doin' out here all alone?" Said the first man, the one in the middle.

Kaoru rolled her eyes. Did these idiots always say the same sorts of things?

"Walking home." She said.

"Well, how's about we give you some help?" He said, leering at her. "I think we could help you home, eh, boys?"

His goons chuckled in the accepted manner of the standard goon. Standard being a bit more malicious than 'stupid goon', and a bit too fast on the heels of their boss' comment to suggest any real brains of their own.

Kaoru slipped her shoes from her feet; they'd only get in the way. Turning an ankle wasn't her idea of fun. Honestly, she'd half a mind to strip naked rather than try to fight in the kimono – though the distraction that would provide would give her too much of an unfair advantage. She stifled a giggle. Besides, it would take far too long to untie her obi.

The head thug stepped in her direction, and she fell back – into a modified fighting stance. One meant for use with kimonos, and hand-to-hand combat.

Strange, how her muscles found it so easily, when it hadn't been used in two years.

"Aww, lookit that – she wants to fight." The goon grinned. "That's alright, girly, I like 'em feisty."

Kaoru had enough. She spun on the ball of her forward foot, and launched herself at him.

She was so surprised by her own speed that she missed the chance at attack, and simply sailed past him to the other side. Oh, she was nothing nearly so fast as Kenshin, but still – she felt… less weak. Less like the world was passing by as she fought to make herself faster. Less as though there was a barrier and she just couldn't move faster, less as though she were moving through water – she felt… so very…

Strong.

Kaoru landed lightly behind the men. It didn't matter. They were street toughs, and nothing more – she was right to begin with, she could have handled them yesterday, a week ago, a year ago. She took the one on the right, first, before he'd even turned to look where the woman had gone. She reveled in the sheer speed of it, in the grace and power she had the time to display. He fell unconscious to the ground with the stupid, lost look still on his face. The second one had begun to look, and that only made it sweeter as she slammed a fist into his piggy face. His eyes widened in surprise, but he hadn't even managed to cry out before he, too, fell into the abyss waiting behind his eyes.

The leader she left for last. She stopped long enough to stare at him, long enough to see his fear. She watched as it shifted to incredulity, then determination. She moved, almost playing as she tried to see just how fast she could move. She was behind him, before him – off to his side. Kaoru was everywhere at once, watching as the foolish man realized he was no match for her.

And then she watched as he fell to the ground, beside his companions.

She stared at her hands, for a moment. Stared around herself, as though almost unwilling to believe no rescue mission had come – and, more, that she hadn't needed one. She wanted to dance, she wanted to sing – the world seemed even brighter! Oh, what a wonderful thing, to have beaten such degenerates by herself!

A soft sound began, and then grew louder, becoming the steady beat of slow clapping. The feeling behind her, the 'other' person, suddenly seemed brighter. Kaoru spun.

It was only one person, but there was something in the way he moved that said danger. He walked slowly towards her out of the darkness, his hands moving together in a clap that was slow enough to be half-mocking, his posture a wary sort of relaxed – the way a person stands who is being utterly nonchalant, but doesn't know how to relax past a certain point. Some part of her suggested that she had thought him a dog, or maybe a child, not because he had less life-force, but because he had known how to shield it.

The thought put her even more on edge, her weight balanced in her toes, ready to run. This foe would be far, far beyond her.

"Congratulations." The voice seemed to tear a hole in darkness to force itself out, low and grating to her ear.

All at once, Kaoru relaxed. She settled her weight to almost her full foot, and bowed - but forced her mind to pay more attention. "Sensei."

"I came only to make sure you would not cause trouble." He said.

Kaoru looked at the three goons, flopped in the middle of the road. She raised an eyebrow, but then blanked her expression, saying only a flat "Gomen nasai."

He laughed, a sound like a saw on wood. "No, no, little Kaoru. That was not what I meant. You may exercise to your hearts content, as long as you keep your attentions to places and people who will not be missed." He stepped forward out of the last concealing shadow, bringing his form - towering and massive - to stand before her. "I had heard you had made a comfortable life for yourself. I wanted to make sure that comfort had not erased the memories of struggle."

"No, sensei." Kaoru said. She wanted to ask more, but there were only a few phrases she was permitted to utter to this man – a lesson she had once learned very well.

He laughed again. "No questions? No accusations? You seem to have gotten smarter." He grinned, toothily; it reminded more of a wolf's snarl than any smile. "Good. It is obvious that you have already stopped the inhibitors, and so I will reward your good behavior. I will not bother you more – or at least not much more. This time is still your own, and I will not interfere in it or the people who make up this life of yours –" He stared straight into her eyes. "Until or unless you let them take up my time, Kamiya."

"Arigato, sensei." Kaoru said. Still flat, emotionless. It was a struggle, but she refused to so much as let that fight show in her eyes.

He stepped backwards, and began to blend into the shadows. "You will not see me again for 12 weeks, Kamiya. But rest assured; if you try to run, if you try to get your little friends to fight me or to help you escape I will be there. And it won't work, little girl. Your Battosai may well be more than a match for me, but even he is not immune to bullets. Nor can he help you from within a jail cell, if it comes to that – and I'm sure we can keep him on false charges for at least a night, my dear.

He grinned again, "And a night is all it will take, ne?" He disappeared, and her sense of him faded as well. Whatever mask he'd used before, it was obvious that it was intentional that he had let her know something was there. "Sleep well, little Kaoru. All will be well, and better than well, so long as you do as you've promised."

Kaoru stared into the darkness where he had been, fighting her shudder. No doubt he was still watching. She shook her head, and started walking again, her former elation gone. Reminders of the past were cropping up everywhere, it seemed. Why the past couldn't stay back where it belonged, she had no idea. Even the beauty of the night seemed lessened, and Kaoru wondered if this weren't what mellowed adults; this fear that some unnamed thing they'd done, some small tarnish on their soul, would come to light. That perhaps a person made a mistake every so-many years, and the longer they lived, the more of those they could remember, saddening the present with the built-up past.

She shook her head, as she walked. There were good things gained in time, too. The ache in her fist reminded her of the feeling of connecting with those idiot thugs, of the burning anticipation she'd felt before that fight, of the triumph as they lay sprawled across the ground, and her smile crept back onto her face. Oh, yes, there were good things.

She continued her walk, her step just a little lighter, the ache just a little less sharp.

She reached home quickly, slipping in the gate and locking it behind her. She made to move silently across the lawn, then paused. She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath, and then tried to move quietly without being too quiet. She was sure she looked like an idiot, really, but she could always excuse it on the sake.

"Kaoru-dono?" Came the expected voice. "I have been worried for you." He said, plainly. "You left without mentioning it to this one."

"I – er, I got this letter." Kaoru said, finding the alcohol – or perhaps it was the stress, or the fight, or the long day - suddenly catching up with her. Regardless of the source, she was grateful for the slight slur it added to her words. A little slur like that would add credibility to her story, provided she kept her tongue saying the right things.

"It was from an old friend." So far so good, the right story and the truth. "A friend of mine will be staying here, starting tomorrow. I, um, I had to go and… do some things. Um, for …. Her, and stuff." Kaoru wanted to cry at the sheer stupidity of a statement like that. She wasn't sure whether she hoped he believed it or not. Considering if he believed it…

"That is reasonable, Kaoru-dono"

…he thought her an idiot. Oh, well.

"But why have you been drinking? Sake, Kaoru-dono?" Kenshin asked, sharper than was his wont.

"Uh – hai." No getting out of that. "I…well, you see…"

"You do not wish to see this friend?" He sounded confused – as though that had seemed like a good excuse at one time, but wasn't making sense now.

She wanted to growl. The excuse he conveniently provided might have been worth using, but he'd figure out right quick that she didn't mind Rinako's presence. Besides, she wouldn't be able to stand it if the two people closest to her in the world hated each other. Especially not if they did so because of her lie…

"Kaoru-dono?"

… and she'd been quiet too long. "Hai, Kenshin, gomen. I was drinking, yes. Rinako and I became friends shortly after my father died. She is very dear to me, but her return reminds me of… some very sad things." Some drunken part of her brain wanted to add Kenshin's standard 'that it does' to the end of that sentence, and she had to bite her tongue to keep from saying it.

"Sessha understands, Kaoru-dono. Bad memories are hard on us all. You should get some sleep."

Her mind added the that you should, and she almost burst into giggles. She didn't know why it was suddenly so very funny, but it was. She blamed the sake.

"Are you alright?" Kenshin asked, with concern.

"Fine, Kenshin, fine. Um, I'll get some sleep. That's a good idea."

That it is.

Kaoru clamped a hand to her mouth, and ran for her room.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

He watched her run away with a puzzled look. The hand clamped to her mouth – she wasn't going to be ill, was she? She didn't seem that drunk… He frowned, no, she wouldn't run for her room to be sick.

Strange. Very strange.

Kenshin chalked it up to the oddities of women, and went to settle for some sleep.

He walked normally to his room, then opened and closed the door – without going in. He didn't know why he bothered, as there was little chance she was aware of such sounds. Still, he stood, waiting until the sounds of her breathing evened out, and then went to sit in front of her door. He settled his sword to his shoulder, sleeping against the shoji. It had been a long while since he'd felt the need to do this, but not so long that it wasn't comfortable. Something was bothering Kaoru, more than just a friend visiting – he was almost sure of it. And until he knew what it was, he'd be sleeping right here. Where he could guard her – with his life, if need be.

He'd wanted to ask her more. He wanted to know all about the friend, all about the letter. He had wanted to ask her about that time in her life – even if it meant she asked about his own history. It had seemed suddenly… unforgivable, that he hadn't asked sooner. A betrayal of their friendship, that he didn't know something so important about her.

He had dwelled, all day, on the fact that Kaoru would have any sort of secret from him that could affect her so, that he had sworn he would talk to her about it the moment she returned, no matter what. But she'd looked so very tired, and rather rumpled and even a bit dirty – he thought she might have tried to run off her frustrations, something he'd done more than once. And when he'd realized that, on top of all that, she'd been drinking… well, he would let her sleep tonight. His questions could be asked just as easily in the morning.

And yet –perhaps they didn't need asking at all. What she'd said was reasonable. This friend must bring up terribly conflicting emotions, both the comfort during her time of greatest need, and the painful reminder of the need itself.

Kenshin settled more fully against the door-support, and cleared his mind of his worries. Staying up all night wondering about it wouldn't help anyone. He closed his eyes, stretched his senses in a familiar blanket about the house, and drifted into a light, wary sleep.