From time to time he'd awaken -- his body wracked with chills, his muscles aching -- to a dark room where strangers urged him to relax and to trust, and he pleaded brokenly to be left alone. Each time, gentle fingers stroked his hair, and a sweet voice promised relief from his torment, coaxing him to drink some sort of bitter liquid. Slowly sleep would rise up around him, rescuing him from the icy fire bathing his limbs.
His dreams were muddled, memories past and present commingling strangely. An adorable little girl threw herself into his arms, crowing happily that she had a present for Ken-nii... and handed him a black envelope, stirring a combined sense of dread and duty in him at the sight. One moment he stood in an alley, dark and reeking of terror, where a blood spattered woman watched him with black, startled eyes; the next he walked down a moon- and star-lit Tokyo street, where a different but no less beautiful woman challenged him, brandishing a bokken and calling him Battousai. He was the hitokiri, working in shadow; he was the wandering rurouni, armed only with a sakabatou, unwilling to kill for any reason.
He fought to make sense of the distorted memories, but the endeavor only seemed to twist them more, his worst fears placed on display in a disconcerting blend of reality and nightmare.
A dark eyed woman who held his happiness in the palm of her hand was snatched from him with a single, lightning stroke of the sword. The gaping wound of her passing was repaired only by the smile of a second woman, her eyes as bright as her smile... and then she, too, was snatched away. Caught in the grasp of a laughing butcher, she screamed his name desperately as the madman's sword ended her life... and he could do nothing more than watch, the ribbon she'd given him clenched tightly in his fist.
No. NO! He tried to protest, before another voice whispered to him, overriding his rejection of the images playing inside his mind. Pathetic... it taunted him. Pathetic. The Legendary Hitokiri Battousai, unable to protect his woman from worthless scum. Not just once, but twice. Caught in a loop of guilt and horror, his mind constructed scenario after scenario in which she was stolen from him, the two women gradually blending into one. And each time, he either stood helpless to protect her, or dealt the deathblow himself.
Kaoru carried the basin of once tepid water to the kitchen, emptying the contents before fetching fresh from the well. She stretched slowly, longing for sleep but too worried to do so, even if she could allow herself the luxury. Megumi had left not long before, promising to return after her shift at the clinic. Until then, Kaoru would have to take care of Kenshin on her own.
They'd been combating the fever for a day and a night, and still there was no sign of it breaking. He'd awakened several times, distraught and confused, half-demanding and half-pleading that they leave him be. At her request, he would willingly drink the potion Megumi had prepared, though his drug induced slumber seemed no more restful than his waking state. In the grip of his dreams he thrashed and fought, crying out in anger and hurt as he confronted enemies both remembered and imagined.
As he seemed to sink deeper into the nightmares, Kaoru had been surprised to hear her name uttered several times -- now whispered longingly, now shouted in desperation. She was even more surprised to hear another name -- Tomoe -- spoken with almost the same frequency. Always, regardless of the name he called, the longing in his voice was accompanied by tears, the desperation by anger.
At first she'd tried to soothe him with her touch or her voice, answering when he called her name; and at first, it seemed to work. For a few moments he would relax, his fists and jaw unclench. But eventually he slipped past the point where her voice could comfort him. Responding instead as if she were calling for him, he would shout demands to know where she was, to have her returned to him. Her efforts to help serving only to make things worse, Kaoru'd been forced to simply watch as he struggled with the demons that haunted him.
Suddenly worried that Kenshin would awaken while she was gone, Kaoru picked up the refilled basin and turned to walk back to his room--- and screamed loud and long, the basin slipping from her fingers to break as it struck the wooden floor, when she found Sanosuke standing right behind her.
"Sanosuke!" She yelled, once she'd calmed down enough to speak. "Don't do that! Look what happened!" As she spoke, she knelt and began picking up the larger pieces, barely pausing for breath as she scolded him. "And what are you doing out of bed? Yahiko isn't running around, too, is he?" She rose to her feet again, glass fragments cradled in her hand. "You'll get worse if you don't take care of yourself! I don't think I can take it if you... if... you..." And suddenly she was crying -- over the basin, over Kenshin, out of worry.
"Jou-chan--" Sanosuke began, but got no further before she stopped him.
"He's not getting better, Sano... he's not getting better! He doesn't know who I am, he doesn't know who any of us are!" She gasped for breath, sobs shaking her entire body. "It's my fault, it's all my fault..."
"Wait a minute," Sano interrupted, cupping her face in his hands and trying to wipe away the tears, "How could it be your fault?"
"It is, it is!" She gulped, nodding her head miserably. "If I'd paid more attention, this wouldn't have happened. How could I have let it happen, Sanosuke? Ho-ow?"
"Jou-chan..." Sano put his arms around her, not sure what to say, but certain he needed to say something. "Jou-chan, it isn't your fault. You checked on him as often as you did me and Yahiko, didn't you?" She started to deny it, and he gave her a little shake. "It's no fair counting the times I made you check on me by playing the invalid. You checked on all of us more often than the Fox Lady instructed, didn't you?" Reluctantly she nodded against his chest. "What more could you have done? Knowing Kenshin, he probably tried to hide how sick he was... he never wants to upset anyone, ne?" Again she nodded reluctantly.
"I just... I just want him to get well," she said, her voice tight with tears and muffled against his chest.
"Aa. He will, Kaoru, he will." He heard a slight whimpering sound, as if she were trying to hold back the tears, now that she'd already opened the floodgates. "Go ahead and cry it out, Jou-chan," he coaxed her, and a moment later she did, burrowing her head even further into his chest, sobbing like her heart was broken.
His eyes snapped open as he heard her scream, the sound ripping through layers of fog, forcing him awake. Instinctively he knew it was her voice, the voice of the woman he'd tried and failed to save a countless number of times in the realms of sleep. "Not this time," he growled, his voice hoarse and savage.
He staggered to his feet, wondering why the room kept swaying. Something is wrong, the rational part of him whispered. "Shut up!" he told it, images of a beautiful woman -- his woman -- lying broken and bleeding flitting through his mind. Standing straight by sheer force of will, he looked around, knowing his daisho would never be far from him when he slept. Yes, there was the katana... but where was the wakizashi? Well, no matter... the katana would be enough.
Stealthily, he sped through the hallways, pain and confusion fading as adrenaline kicked in. He found them in the kitchen, a tall man standing with his arms around a sobbing woman, broken glass littering the floor around their feet.
He's made her cry. He'll pay for that... among other things.
"Take your hands off her... if you wish to keep them." The voice was low, feral with anger, shocking in it's intensity. Startled, Kaoru raised her tear streaked face from Sanosuke's chest and turned to find Battousai in the doorway, sword in hand, hair wild about his bare shoulders....
...and absolute, unreasoning hatred in the amber eyes he held fixed on Sanosuke.
August 4, 1998