Voices carried to him through a layer of fog. His eyes too heavy to open, he sought instead to fit faces to the voices from memory.
"Oi, Fox Lady, what's wrong with him?" That deep rumble belonged to a dark haired street fighter.
"Megumi?" This one to a young boy... maybe 10 years old... with spiky hair.
"Quiet. Everyone be quiet so I can examine Ken-san." Sly and flirtatious, though filled with concern, this voice belonged to a tall woman with dark hair and sad eyes. "Kaoru-chan," her voice came again, "I need some soft cloths and some cool water."
"Hai." This voice was quiet, subdued, and so sad. It didn't match the laughing, raven-haired girl in his memory at all. As with the others, he couldn't fit a name to the memory, but this time the lack was unbearable. He knew her name... it was etched on his heart. He struggled, fighting the first stirrings of panic, somehow appalled at his inability to remember such a simple fact.
"Sanosuke," the other woman said, "Help me get his clothes off. The compresses need to be against his skin."
"Aa." The street fighter again, agreeing with the sly voiced woman. A moment later he was wracked with chills as his blankets were abruptly removed. He curled into a ball reflexively, attempting to preserve as much heat as he could. Strong, icy hands caught his shoulders and he cried out at the pain they unintentionally inflicted. He heard the slight hiss as the other man sucked in air in surprise. "Kuso... Kenshin..."
"Sanosuke." The sly voiced woman again. There was a pause, as if she was waiting for some sort of acknowledgment. Her voice was sympathetic when it came again. "He'll be all right, once we get the fever down. Trust me."
Kenshin felt a surge of unreasoning resentment as the hands returned, and he fought as this "Sanosuke" sought to remove his kimono. Pain forgotten in the adrenaline surge, he shoved the other man away, his eyes finally coming open as he growled a warning.
Sano lost his balance and fell, surprised at Kenshin's sudden strength. From his prone position he looked up to find Kenshin standing, eyes glinting crazily.
"Don't... don't touch me." Kenshin fought to get his breathing under control, his head throbbing in reaction to the sudden exertion. As quickly as it had come, the anger was gone, leaving him weak and trembling as he swayed unsteadily on his feet. The room twisted dizzily around him and he closed his eyes, seeking to center himself.
Sanosuke watched as Kenshin gradually brought himself under control, climbing to his feet only when the rurouni appeared stable enough to allow it. Sensing Sano's movement, Kenshin's eyes sprang open, his nerves once again on edge.
Kaoru slowed as she approached Kenshin's room, puzzled by the strange silence. She entered to find Kenshin on his feet and breathing heavily, right hand clenching and unclenching slowly as he warned Sano, Yahiko and Megumi away with his glare.
"Megumi-san... what..." she began, stopping when Kenshin's gaze shifted to her.
I know her. Kenshin thought in relief. The others, though at first familiar, had slipped from his memory's grasp even as he struggled to pull the vague images closer. People who one moment seemed to be friends became strangers with his next breath. But this girl... her image threaded through his memory like sunlight, bright and unwavering. "Kenshin?" She asked hesitantly.
He closed his eyes and drew in a long, slow breath. When he opened them again, the crazed gleam had disappeared, replaced with soft, violet confusion. "I..." He swallowed, and tried again. "I don't know them," he said, gesturing carefully at the other three occupants of the room. Her eyes widened in shock. "But you... I recognize you." He took another deep breath. "Please... what's wrong with me?"
"Me... Megumi-san?" Her voice thin and frightened, his anchor turned to the other woman for guidance.
"It's all right, Kaoru-chan," Megumi responded, moving to take the items she'd requested from Kaoru's grasp. "He trusts you," she whispered as she gently pried Kaoru's fingers away from the bowl of tepid water. "Talk to him. Explain what's going on, and that we're trying to help."
"Ha… Hai." Kaoru responded, watching Kenshin over Megumi's shoulder. His eyes had narrowed when Megumi approached, and he continued to eye her suspiciously as she talked to Kaoru. Does Megumi-san realize? How dangerous he is now? How-- She cut herself off abruptly. Kenshin was still Kenshin. Releasing the bowl to Megumi's care, she brushed past the doctor and slowly walked towards him.
"Kenshin." His eyes, still trained on Megumi when Kaoru spoke, slowly shifted their focus to her, softening as they did so. "Kenshin... Megumi-san is a doctor." His eyes widened slightly at that, further indicating how much he'd forgotten. "She's come to help you, but you have to trust her." He opened his mouth, clearly intending to reject her request, and Kaoru gently covered his lips to stop him. His skin was frighteningly hot beneath her light touch. "Please. Please. Trust me if you won't trust her, but you have to let her help you." She hadn't realized she was so near to tears until she felt them spill down her cheeks as she begged him to listen to her. "Yahiko, Sanosuke, Megumi... they're all here to help you, but they can't if you won't let them. Onegai..."
She's crying. Because of me, she's crying. He was so tired, so confused. His entire body seemed to ache as he fought to suppress the slight shudders that swept through it. What she was asking wasn't so very difficult. He trusted her... and she trusted the others. "All right," he finally whispered in agreement, reaching out to gently brush her tears away. "For you." She smiled shakily in response, closing her eyes briefly in relief.
"Ken-san." Reluctantly he raised his eyes to the doctor's face. "Arigato." She smiled at him, too, and he nodded once in acknowledgment, somehow relieved that the decision had been made. As the slight movement sent pain pounding through his head again, the doctor took charge, ordering the young man -- Sanosuke -- to help him back to his futon.
"Be careful," he heard the girl warn Sanosuke, her voice protective.
"Jou-chan," Sano scolded in return, his eyes telling her he understood but didn't need the reminder.
"Kaoru-chan." Kaoru turned to Megumi as Sanosuke took charge of Kenshin. "I need you to take these..." as she gave Kaoru a packet filled with dried chrysanthemum flowers, "and brew a pot of tea." Kaoru opened her mouth to object. "It doesn't matter whether you can cook or not. You can boil water, and this isn't going to taste terribly good anyway. Go."
Kenshin felt himself gently lifted and settled on something soft. As he relaxed into its comforting embrace, a cool hand brushed across his brow, then touched briefly at his neck. "His temperature hasn't changed," he heard the doctor say. "Sanosuke, please remove his shirt -- gently this time." There was a non-committal grunt, and then someone began fussing with his clothing. Too tired to rouse himself to protest, he lay quietly until something icy was pressed against his forehead, followed by another against his throat. His eyes snapped open as his shivering instantly increased.
"Easy! Easy..." The doctor put a hand on his shoulder to prevent him from moving. "I know," she said soothingly, as if he were a child who needing consoling, "but we must get your fever down. Trust me, remember? Just relax." Reluctantly he did so, reacting only slightly when additional compresses were placed under each arm.
Gradually the ice at his throat and brow seemed to melt, the cloth absorbing heat from his body, cooling him in the process. Just as his shivering began to abate, Megumi ordered the compresses replaced, jolting his body back into discomfort. The process was repeated a countless number of times, before finally the doctor was satisfied.
"Kaoru-chan, we're ready for that tea now," he heard her say, and then his head was lifted and a cup of something bitter and tepid raised to his lips. Obediently he drank the stuff down, grateful that the doctor's next words encouraged him to do nothing more than sleep. She covered him with a light blanket before leaving the room, ushering the others out with her.
"Ken-san's fever has dropped below the danger level... for now. The tea should help keep it from rising, but we'll need to take turns watching him." Megumi's voice was solemn as she explained the situation to Kaoru, Sano and Yahiko. "If his fever begins to rise, or doesn't start to drop on it's own soon, the compresses will need to be reapplied. The shock to his system has already been extensive, or I'd push to continue the treatment now. Unfortunately, I don't think his body could take it, exhausted as it is."
Megumi surveyed the three worried faces before her as they nodded in understanding. Her next instructions were going to be more difficult.
"Ken-san only agreed to let me treat him because of his trust in Kaoru-chan, the only one amongst us whom he recognized. The next time he wakes, he may not recognize anyone, nor be as docile. Keep that in mind. Remember to talk to him in a soft, calm voice; don't touch him unless he seems willing to allow it... and agree with him if he recognizes you as a friend, even if he is mistaken in that recognition."
For their own safety, as well as Kenshin's, they needed to keep him calm. Megumi remembered the amber glint in his eyes as he'd shaken off Sanosuke's grip... those had been the eyes of the hitokiri, not their rurouni. And the hitokiri had been born in suspicion, had learned to kill his enemies without regret or second thought. No, they couldn't afford to misjudge the situation again. She blinked, coming back to the present to find the other three still watching her, waiting for more bad news. Sanosuke and Yahiko were both pale, she noted, each still recovering from his own bout with illness.
"Sanosuke! Yahiko! Both of you, back to bed right now!" That was rather abrupt, she thought, softening her voice before she continued. "Kaoru-chan and I will keep an eye on Ken-san for now. We'll call you if we need you."
"Da... dare?" His voice was dry and paper-thin. His head swam as he tried and failed to make out the figure kneeling beside him in the dark room.
"Shhh..." Her voice was calm, gentle. "Here, drink this." She slipped an arm under his head to lift him, bracing him as he drank first hesitantly, then deeply.
"Who are you?" he asked again, as she withdrew the cup and eased him back down to his pillow.
"My name is Megumi. Kaoru-chan sent for me. Do you remember Kaoru?" He would wake up right after Kaoru-chan left to check on Sano and Yahiko, Megumi thought.
"Kaoru..." he repeated, already starting to slip away into sleep again.
"Hai. You remember Kaoru. The pretty girl with blue eyes, who wears her hair tied back with a ribbon."
"No..." he sleepily disagreed, not because he didn't remember, but because the girl he saw in his mind's eye was beautiful, not merely pretty. Her eyes sparkled merrily as she said his name... Kenshin. A moment later her eyes changed from laughing blue to bottomless black, her hair tumbling from its ribbon to feather about her face. This new woman addressed him, too, but the name she called was not Kenshin. Confused, he protested a second time, raising his voice slightly.
"Shhh..." Megumi soothed again, uncertain what had upset him. She brushed the hair away from his face, noting as she did so that his temperature was beginning to rise. They would have to start applying the cold compresses again. Better to wait until he's asleep, she thought. The sleeping draught in the water should take affect soon. "Sleep, Ken-san." She whispered to him. "Sleep, and dream about your little Kaoru-dono."
Kenshin struggled once more to open his eyes before sleep rose up to engulf him, his mind still protesting the memory of a woman with bottomless eyes who called him anata.
Teaser posted July 29, 1998
Chapter completed August 1, 1998