by Constance Eilonwy

I wrote this after episode 80-something, so it's set after the Kyoto arc; at any point after they return home
to Tokyo. Spoiler-free, though, except for a few vague references to events in earlier episodes.

Ruruoni Kenshin is the property of Nobuhiro Watsuki and Fuji Television.

My knowledge of Japanese culture, let alone that during the Meiji era, is vague. Bits of Japanese and
certain details come from hours of watching subtitled anime for a variety of series. I'm sure I've made a
few gaffes.

Thanks to for their helpful budo techniques list.


The song of insects was defeaning.

Kaoru shifted her grip on one of her two bags of groceries, and the strong tendons in her wrist obeyed her
command. Sunlight splattered through the thick green trees shading the back lane, and cast abstract,
blotched patterns over the sleeve of her kimono and on the dusty ground. Her footsteps were soft and
steady, a counterpoint to the insects. From her left came the soft lap of water in the canal.

She smiled slightly, and put her head back to catch an uninterrupted ray of sunlight. Peace.

Often, it seemed as if their odd family wandered as much as the Battousai himself. Perhaps Kenshin was
indeed the catalyst for their adventures. Trouble had a way of finding him--and people in trouble, who
needed help. It was like instinct. He had to help. They all felt it--she and Yahiko and Sanosuke--an
inability to turn away when something was wrong, when someone was suffering.

~I hope you are proud of me, father.~

A breath of wind through the trees, a sigh, seemed to answer her.

She could see the end of the lane ahead of her, a turning in the wall. The dojo was a few streets away and
she'd have to attack the task of making dinner. Kaoru flinched. It wasn't that she didn't enjoy cooking.
The process itself held a kind of simple pleasure, the rhythm of chopping vegetables, the steam rising
from the pot, the scent of spices. Yet somehow when she cooked, the outcome of all this was an
unidentifiable mess.

Footsteps, soft and steady.

She neared the turning.

Another footstep joined her own. Only one, but there was a sly sound to it, as if its owner had not meant
for it to be heard. As if it were only one of many.

Kaoru's eyes widened.

One dropped from the top of the wall to land in front of her, knife drawn, the blade gleaming in an echo to
the crooked, toothy smile his ugly, unshaven face wore. He wore a dirty _gi_.

She turned with a gasp, and saw three more slowly approaching her from behind, all dressed similarly,
their faces varying degrees of cleanliness, age, and unpleasantness. Their hair was as distinct as the faces-
-a topknot here, a ponytail there, one shaved to cocky baldness.

The ugly one looked her up and down and licked his lips. But his eyes rested on the money purse at her

Kaoru's eyes narrowed. She stood still, listening for the slightest sound, watching for the slightest change
in their posture.

The one with the ponytail raised his sword. "If you just give us the money, we won't have to hurt you,

"Yes," said another, middle-aged, the one with the top-knot. "There's been enough...unpleasantness in the
neighborhood already, wouldn't you agree? We wouldn't want to add your blood to the pool."

Anger flashed through her. "I know who you are!" She challenged. "You're the gang that's been
terrorizing this neighborhood for weeks. Picking on old men, and children, and helpless women. You
should be ashamed of yourselves!"

The answer to this brave speech was laughter.

"Oh, oh, that was precious," baldy gasped, relaxing his posture and leaning his elbow on Topknot's
shoulder. "You were right, this bandit thing is fun." Then he straightened, changing his grasp on his
sword. The blade caught the sunlight with a flash. "Enough wasting time." His eyes were hard.

One whistled sharply. It was a signal.

Kaoru dropped both bags of groceries, letting vegetables spill out all over the lane. As one rushed her, she
snatched up a heavy melon and hurled it at him. It conked him on the forehead.

The gang member staggered stupidly, blinking.

"Who's next?" Kaoru demanded, lifting a cabbage, her eyes flashing. She hurled the vegetable at the bald

His blade sliced the air, and suddenly her cabbage was neatly quartered and ready for the pot. The pieces
fell to the dirt and lay there forlornly. Kaoru grabbed another melon and backed up a pace.

The ugly one smiled again as he approached her with his blade. "What are you going to do me? Stab me
with the broccoli?"

Kaoru threw the melon, and again one of their swords sliced it, this time into neat, round sections. She
reflected, with an absurd detachment, that their talents were wasted and they should be working in a

Her back was to the wall. They would take the pouch of money, and, if she were lucky, leave her bleeding
and bruised.

She was a highly trained swordswoman, a master of the _Kamiya Kassin Ryu._ She would not let it end
like that. Her eyes flickered, looking for a stout tree branch that might be in reach or that had fallen to the

Instead, her eyes widened again, sharply, as she spotted not a tree branch, but something else, a glimpse
so quick it was gone before she was sure. But then, that was how it always was. You didn't know he was
there at all, and then once you did, it was too late.

There was a flash of scarlet, like flame, and the swift, quicksilver movements of swordstrokes, delicate
and swift as a dragonfly.

Three seconds later, the four gang members lay twitching and moaning at her feet.

Frowning with his eyes and his mouth, his wild red hair falling into his eyes, Kenshin sheathed his sakaba
sword and stepped over the bodies towards her. The frown in his eyes turned to deep concern.


"I'm fine, Kenshin. Thank you." Relief made her knees weak. Clearing her throat, she smoothed down
her kimono, then knelt to gather up the groceries. As she reached for an undamaged cabbage, she noticed
that her hand was shaking.

~Silly,~ she thought. ~You've been through worse, much worse.~

"Here, let me," Kenshin said softly, and before she could protest, the former samurai had gathered up the
fallen vegetables and packages of meat and replaced them in her bags.

"Kenshin!" she said sharply.

"Wha--?" he turned, in time to see the flutter of dirty fabric as the gangmembers ran away.

Kaoru started to run after them, but a wiry grip on her arm held her back. "No, Kaoru-dono. Let's just go

He carried the groceries for her.

Their reactions, back at the dojo, were predictable.

Yahiko's eyes went as wide as his grin. "Kenshin whupped that gang? And I missed it?"

"Heh." Sanosuke sat with the front legs of his chair off the floor, leaning back as he chewed lazily on a
long blade of dried grass. "Good thing Kenshin came along, Jo-chan. You were lucky."

"Yeah, poor Kaoru, Kenshin always rescues her," Yahiko said blithely, thinking only of his hero. "You
may be an okay teacher, Kaoru, but in the field, you get beat...ow!"

Kaoru's fist, ground into the top of his head, effectively silenced the boy.

"_Baka,_" Sano murmured, and Kaoru looked at him in surprise.

Kenshin sat silent at the table. As usual, it was difficult to read what he was thinking, or if he was even
paying attention.

Kaoru walked out of the room, headed for the kitchen.

"What did I say?" Yahiko said resentfully, rubbing his sore head. "It's true, isn't it? We all have to protect
Kaoru. I mean, she's a _girl_," he said, with a child's firm logic.


Cut the vegetables in a steady rhythm, slice the meat, inhale the non-scent of steaming water and the
pungent aroma of herbs and spices. It was almost like budo, there was a way to move the wrist, an order
of things, of not expending more energy than you needed to, of anticipating problems before they

She had nearly burned down the kitchen once.

She'd always comforted herself with the fact that while her feminine skills such as cooking needed work,
she was good at budo. Very few women, let alone one as young as she, had their own dojo.

Kaoru blinked back the stinging in her eyes. Why did it bother her now, all of a sudden? She had
approached Kenshin for help, after all. That was how they'd met. Not help so much for herself, but for
those she was trying to protect. He'd helped that time, and turned her life upside in more ways that she
could count, and defended her.

~We all have to protect Kaoru. I mean, she's a girl... ~

Frowning, she dropped a handful of scallions into the pan. How had she managed before Kenshin?

On the one hand, she could argue, before Kenshin, the troubles had been different. Small gangs like the
one she'd encountered today bullying a neighborhood. Little disputes. Muggers. Brawls. The wooden
sword of Kaoru-dono had bruised and disciplined the bullies. People looked to _her_ for protection. After
Kenshin, the troubles seemed to run more along the lines of highly trained assassins, and if she were
being honest, she knew a wooden sword was little use against such men.

Kenshin himself had said it once, if not in so many words: the way of the wooden sword was for the
idealist. It was a weapon for a better world. It was a weapon against bullies, not killers. A sakaba was not
nearly as naive as a wooden sword.

But today...that had been a group of ruffians. Scruffy, undertrained, greedy. She'd taken down a group
like that herself when she was thirteen.

Kaoru, eyes fixed on the window, saw the trees, the patch of sky, the reflection on the goldfish pond, but
was blind to it all. Remembering herself, small and very angry, overly rash. But she'd won.

Her fingers went slack as the realization hit her. The meat fell into the pan with a sizzle.

~When did you stop carrying your sword at all times?~ her inner voice whispered.

A wooden sword was the weapon of an idealist. No sword at all was either for those like Sano, whose
fists were deadly weapons, or...for those who did not have to fight, because someone else would do it for

Lips fixed in a straight line, Kaoru carefully doused the flames. Sunset was not for hours yet.

By the time the others noticed that the cooking scents had faded, and that dinner was rather late, she was
already gone.


She wore her _gi_ and her sword, her long dark hair pulled back into a simply ponytail. No different than
any man would wear, on a similar mission. It didn't take her long to find them; it was a simple matter,
asking questions over a cup of tea or sake. Many knew her in this region of Tokyo. In some
establishments, she was greeted with enthusiasm and cries of "Kaoru-san!" In others, about half the
patronage would hunker down over their drinks and glare, none daring to actually make a move against
her, but resenting her very presence all the same. For some of these, the glares were due to her own
reputation as a do-gooder. In others, it was due to the reputation of another.

At last she acquired the information she sought, from the daughter of one of the innkeepers who had
overheard something questionable. Kaoru gulped down the rest of her tea with one swallow, brushed her
ponytail back over her shoulder, and stood up.

"_Arigato_," she told the girl. The surge of determination that had brought her out alone from the dojo
still carried her along. Not like a fire or a wave, as anger might, but a steady, hot wind. A tiny voice at the
back of her mind wondered if this was wise. A tiny voice wondered if she was in effect carrying out some
vendetta--not against the bullies, but on behalf of her own confused emotions.

Acting on a vendetta, in Kaoru's world, was deeply wrong. Since Kenshin had entered her life, she had
seen, again and again, the suffering vengeance caused, the further cycle of violence it caused, the loss, the

But this, she thought, swiftly running down a back lane overhung by elm trees, this was not vengeance.
This was about proving something, to herself. She had to know.

The sun began to set over the low, sloping rooftops, turning the horizon a molten red. Kaoru ran, fingers
light on the handle of the sword at her belt, past rows of dingy apartments and empty lots full of trees.
The fireflies had come out, their small yellow haloes momentarily revealing the hidden shadow places.

She had to know, and it was not only for herself.

At last, she found it, a rambling, tumbledown pagoda in the middle of an otherwise vacant lot. A single
lamp burned from within. The pagoda was easy to miss to a casual eye, just walking past, so overgrown
was the lot. They were hiding in plain view.

The wind picked up, and somewhere a broken gate creaked. Kaoru slid back into the shadows and settled
herself in to wait.

She didn't know that another waited as well, and watched.


The night grew colder, her muscles stiff. She stifled a yawn. Crouching at the base of a tree, Kaoru began
mental exercises to keep herself awake.

Two cats began to sing, streets away, a lonely, eerie music.

They emerged, laughing and half-drunk. A few limped, marks of their earlier encounter with Kenshin.
Kaoru was fully awake in an instant, and followed them as they made their way through the narrow lanes.

It didn't take them long to find victims. Children, this time, a girl a few years younger than Kaoru and a
boy of about Yahiko's age and build but with smooth, neat hair and gentle eyes. A lone street lantern
illuminated them. They had the slightly unkempt, lean appearance of neglected children. The girl kept a
tight grip on the boy's hand, and she carried a basket over her arm.

They had nothing worth stealing. Nothing at all. But there was no doubt some sort of food in the basket,
and the girl wore a small bracelet around her wrist. Those who stole for sport needed little more
motivation than that.

As the four stepped out to block the children's path, the boy and the girl froze in the glow of the flickering
street lantern. This section was too poor for gas lighting, and the flame in the lantern danced in the wind,
making the shadows of the four attackers swim unnaturally over the two small figures.

The men said the usual things, mocking, laughing, levelling innuendos at the girl as if they hardly cared if
she caught their meaning or not. But she did; Kaoru saw her cheeks grow red with shame.

Wait for it...

Kaoru braced her back foot, drew her sword. Her heartbeat was steady in her own ears, _ku-thump, ku-
thump, ku-thump..._ always wait for just the right moment, a shift of body language, an opening....

The ugly one drew back his hand to slap the boy, who had defiantly surged forward. invitation.

Kaoru leapt, quiet. Not silent like a ninja, but a businesslike quiet. Kaoru rarely used a battle-cry.

She caught Ugly across the back with her sword. He grunted in pain, and she could feel by the impact up
her arms that he would have a large bruise as ugly as his face. The others spun around. Their faces grew
furious as they spotted her.

"It's the little bitch from earlier," Ponytail said.

A knife flashed. Kaoru brought her sword tip down against his wrist. He yelled in pain and dropped the

"Run!" She shouted to the two children. "Get out of here, now. Send a constable."

They gaped at her, mouths and eyes wide, then obeyed.

But one of them, the bald one, grabbed at the girl, who cried out in pain. "Leaving us so soon, flower?" he
inquired. Holding her still with one hand, he began to slip the bracelet off her thin wrist with the other.

"No," she protested with a gasp. "That was my mother's..."

Baldy laughed. "Mine now, sweet-face."

"Hey!" Kaoru said sharply.

Baldy turned. "Eh?"

*WHACK!* The wooden sword caught him full in the face. Blood spurted from his mouth.

The girl slipped from his grasp and grabbed her brother, practically carrying him as they ran as if the devil
himself were after them.

Baldy recovered and struck Kaoru across the face. She staggered back, hanging onto her sword for dear
life, seeing spots of light in her eyes. Then she recovered her balance, and raised the sword in a double-
handed grip to face her opponents.

One tried to grab her from behind, but she swung her sword like a scythe, up and then back, in a semi-
circle, and struck him in the chest without turning around. She heard his grunt of pain.


~You did this for Yahiko, don't you remember?~

He was nothing but a shadow, blending perfectly with the outlines of the rooftop as he watched the scene

~You told Kaoru-dono it was the only way to make him strong, strong enough to be a warrior.~

Afterward, despite the gain, he regretted it. He questioned his ability to teach so efficiently, so coldly. So
different from Kaoru-dono's methods.

~But you did do it. For his own sake. So why is it so hard to stand by now?~

On the lane below, one of them struck her. The shadowy outline jerked as if he was the one who had been

His teeth clenched so hard it hurt, and he tasted blood on his lower lip.

~She doesn't want your pity, it's something else that she wants. That's part of why she's doing this, to
prove she's not weak or helpless. To prove, of course. That was all.~

She got a good hit with the sword in, and then executed a move so swift and innovative it took his breath
away. He felt a flash of pride. It was nothing he had taught her, it was a move unique to _Kamiya Kassin
Ryu_, one designed to use skill and strength, not just the sharpness of a sword.

One, no, two, the second was up.

~There's too many of them. She can't.~

He found it difficult to breathe, and discovered that the only way to prevent himself from moving was to
forbid any movement whatsoever. No breath, no finger twitch, no slightest shift. His whole body was taut
now, stretched like a string on a koto. If he let go now, he would move with blinding speed, 'God-like
speed,' some had called it. And it had better be fast enough, if he waited like this, if he did not act, if he
only watched, until it became clear that he _had_ to act, as a last resort, or lose her.

Their blades lashed out, and she deflected one, then the other, then struck a third. Now two were down for

Her concentration faltered, he could read it in her stance, in the way she struggled to catch her breath. She
was tiring, her hair coming loose from her ponytail, blowing in the night wind.

One of the blades lashed out again, this time caught her across the back of her arm. For an instant, the
heart of the watcher stopped altogether.

There was the faintest movement--a finger twitched towards the handle of the sword at the watcher's side.
Barely a hair's distance the finger journeyed, before it froze again.

Kaoru's face twisted with the pain, but she bit her lip and steadied her stance. The wound wasn't deep,
but it probably stung. It had angered her and restored her energy.

She rushed them, a battle-cry rising to her lips, her hair flying out behind her, and for the first time the
watcher saw wariness and fear in their faces.


One was doubled over and groaning in the shadows beyond the street lantern. The other lay twitching
spasmodically on his side.

"J-just a l-little girl," he gasped. "H-how?...."

Lowering her sword, which she held in her right hand, Kaoru-dono brought her left hand up into a fist.
"The same as any opponent would," she said, her voice clear and calm, ringing out down the lonely dark
street. "You remember this night the next time you try to bully anyone."

A slightly overweight constable and two policemen came running down the lane, followed by the two
children. Kaoru-dono turned, businesslike, to speak to them.

It was over.

The silhouette on the rooftop slipped away.


Kaoru walked slowly back towards the dojo, feeling her weariness in every muscle. She had rebuffed the
constable's efforts to fetch a doctor for her wound, wanting only to return to the familiar warmth of home.

Home. There were lights burning in the windows of the dojo. She could slip in through the back gate and
bind her wound before anyone noticed.

~Why do it, then, if you don't want them to know?…Because...because _I_ know.~

The big front gate was closed, as it should be. Kaoru turned at the beginning of the wall. The wind picked
up, and she began to shiver. Her arm hurt, even though the blood was already starting to dry.

There was someone there, at the back gate. She instinctively drew on the last reserve of her energy,
starting to draw her sword until she recognized the familiar silhouette.

"Kenshin?" she said in relief and shock.

"Eh? Oh, hello, Kaoru-dono," he said, as if he always lurked in the dark at back gates. His eyes went to
her arm. "You won," he said, his voice lowering as a statement even though his words seemed like a

"_Hai_," she said, walking past him through the gate, trying to hide how tired she was. "The constable
took them into custody. They won't be bothering the neighborhood anymore."

"Hm," he said. He was behind her, so she couldn't see him, and even in the dark, she wouldn't be able to
read his expression anyway. Kenshin's expression was hard to read even in full daylight.

He followed her as she made her way across the garden, past the fish pond, to the porch where she kept a
box of emergency supplies: cloth and binding, and healing herbs.

_Why_ wouldn't he just go away so she could finally collapse, and lick her wounds, and be alone, and

Kaoru sat on the wooden steps, more swiftly than she had meant to do, for she found it hard to stand
suddenly. The fireflies were gone. It was too late for fireflies. With a soft *plop*, a goldfish leapt out of
the water and dove back into the shimmering shallows again.

As her hand reached out for the medicine box, Kenshin's hand covered hers. He silently opened the box
and began to unfold a bandage with the same sharp, expert movements he used when doing laundry.

"Wait here," he said. He rolled up his sleeves and went to the well, then returned with a bucket of fresh,
cold water.

The water, when it first trickled over the wound, stung. She bit her lip, turning her head away. Then the
coolness of the liquid took over, soothing the cut.

"You were lucky his blade was clean," Kenshin said, as Kaoru kept her head turned away.

An insect clacked in the bushes. A dog barked.

She felt fingers, calloused and hard from years of holding a sword, touch her arm gently, applying the
bandage. Kaoru decided it was safe to turn around. His head was bent, wild red hair falling forward as he
worked, intent on tying the bandage correctly. He worked so that it hardly hurt at all.

He finished. His fingers released her. But he didn't raise his head.

"Kaoru-dono," he said, his voice low.

Kaoru drew her arm in close to her own body and touched the bandage Kenshin had made, running her
fingers over the ridges and valleys of the cloth. The bandage was snug but not too tight, soothing.

"I do not think you are weak," he continued, and now he raised his eyes to hers. "Or helpless. I never did.
I never will. It doesn't matter how many gang members you take down. If there's one thing I've learned,
true strength sometimes has nothing to do with how well you hold a sword. You are an excellent fighter.
But because you fight with the _Kamiya Kassin Ryu_ training in your soul, it's easy for some to take the
advantage. Not because you are weaker. Because they are."

The insect continued its noise. Kaoru listened to it, as something to focus on right then. She didn't think
Kenshin had said that many words to her, all at once, since they had met.

She wasn't exactly sure what he meant. But it made sense at a level that had nothing to do with what
could be explained.

The moment was too full. Unbearable. Kaoru got to her feet, breaking the spell.

"_Arigato_," she said softly. She turned to leave.


She froze. He hadn't used the honorific. Slowly, she turned back, and though he didn't avert his face, he
was in shadow since her body blocked the light from within.

"I just want you to know that...there are some to be protected because they are weak, and helpless. There
are others to be protected...because to see them hurt, is like being...hurt yourself."

Standing very still, Kaoru pondered this a moment. Then her face lit in a tiny smile.

"I understand," she said.

His shoulders heaved, as if in relief.

Kaoru turned away. She entered the warmth and light of the dojo, and in an instant found herself
surrounded by the noisy indignation of Sanosuke and Yahiko.