Fever Dreams ~ Chapter 4: Exorcising the Demon
"Take your hands off her... if you wish to keep them." Kenshin bit the words out, the sight of the sobbing woman in the other man's arms angering him on many levels. Anger that she'd been frightened, anger that she was crying... anger that another had dared to touch her.
The pair startled at the sound of his voice, the woman turning a tear-streaked face to him. She whispered his name questioningly, her voice still shuddering with sobs. Fury and renewed pain throbbed through his head at the sound, his vision flashing momentarily white in response, his balance turning unsteady. He closed his eyes, fighting to remain in control. When he opened them again, he found the other man had not moved.
"Perhaps you didn't understand," as he spoke he thumbed his sword partially out of its sheath. "Remove your hands from her. Now."
Sano had never heard Kenshin's voice run so cold, nor carry so much venom. But then, the man standing in the kitchen doorway bore little resemblance to the rurouni Sano knew. This was Battousai... radiating anger in icy waves, the menace contained in his slight form even more palpable than during his fight with Saitoh. Che, Sano thought, I don't know what's going through his head, but I don't think it's anything I'm going to like. He certainly didn't like the way Kenshin's eyes flashed at the fright in Jou-chan's voice, or the way that amber gaze fixed on Sano as the source of her fear.
Slowly, so as not to alarm Kenshin, Sano released Kaoru and backed away from her. "I don't know what's wrong, Kenshin...-san," he began, adding the honorific when Kenshin's eyes narrowed at the familiar use of his name, "I just startled her a little when I came in here."
Ignoring the explanation, Kenshin moved to where Kaoru still stood frozen in shock. He reached gentle fingers to wipe away the last of her tears before speaking, his voice both soft and warm as he asked if she was all right.
She blinked at the strange contrast, his voice now sweet as honey where a moment before it had been savage; the fingers brushing her tears away so tender, while in his other hand he still held the sakaba partially unsheathed. Confused, unable to reconcile the conflicting actions, she looked down at her hands. "Ha... Hai. Daijoubu. Sanosuke didn't do anything..."
Jou-chan, he's not listening, Sano thought, watching Kenshin as Kaoru repeated the same explanation he himself had offered a moment before. Battousai watched Sano in turn, his fever bright eyes showing no trace of recognition.
Sano swallowed nervously. Through the thin wall separating their rooms, he'd heard Kenshin cry out in his sleep countless times. As frequently as he'd screamed Kaoru's name, it was easy to guess what kind of nightmares had plagued the rurouni. Now that he was awake, Kenshin seemed to think he was replaying one of those nightmare scenarios... and was determined to change the ending. If Sano couldn't talk him out of it, he was going to end up smeared across the floor -- despite the fact that Kenshin was clearly struggling to remain standing. As his fight with Shishio had shown, the most daunting thing about Kenshin was his determination. If he decided to attack, his illness wouldn't be allowed to deter him.
Battousai noted Sano's nervousness with satisfaction. "This woman is under my protection." His calm, flat statement instantly halted her explanation, and increased the other's uneasiness. His thumb stroked across Kaoru's cheek once more before he turned his full attention to Sano. "For touching her, for frightening her..." as he spoke, he paced slowly across the room until he stood little more than a sword's length away, "...you will answer to me." This last was punctuated by the steely rasp of his sword sliding home in its sheath. "Come."
"Kenshin..." Sano protested, as calmly as he was able, "there's no need for this. You know I'd never hurt Kaoru, she's like a sister to me!"
"Of course Sano didn't hurt me," Kaoru agreed. "I just overreacted to a little scare." She took a step toward them. "Kenshin, please, let me help you back to bed..."
On some level Kenshin heard and understood what they were saying. The name Sano struck a familiar cord, but his memories were confusing. He'd fought this man before... more than once. Once could be a misunderstanding... but twice? Why? Obligingly his fever-ravaged mind supplied a reason, focusing on the crystal clear memory of her voice screaming his name: This man had been warned away before.
"Stop!" The word was a command, directed at Kaoru, warning her to stay back. Battousai shook the hair out of his eyes, their feral glow revealing the anger still burning within him. "Come." The word was an invitation to fight, directed at Sanosuke, issued with the same note of command.
Sano remained where he was, searching frantically for some way to appease the demon the fever had awakened in his friend. "Kenshin... I don't want to fight you. I haven't... I wouldn't... hurt Kaoru. Even if I wanted to, I'd have to be stupid to try. We both know how easily you can beat me." The blunt truthfulness of his own words hurt... but not as badly as Kenshin's lack of recognition. And not as badly as he'd hurt if Battousai insisted on this fight.
Battousai hesitated again at this new argument. His own memory agreed with the other man's assessment... he had defeated this... Sano... twice before. Other memories surfaced slowly... Sano, I need you to do something for me... he'd entrusted something infinitely precious to this man's keeping. Without hesitation. It didn't make sense. He shook his head as if to rid himself of the conflicting memories, and looked again at the dark-haired man. For an instant, he recognized the other as both friend and partner. But when he blinked, the friend was replaced by a man with narrow eyes, who laughingly offered to slit the woman while Kenshin watched.
"NO!" he snarled as Sanosuke, thinking Kenshin had come to his senses, took a step forward. The sakaba snapped from its sheath, striking Sano full across the chest. Knocked backwards and off balance, he fell to the floor, screaming soundlessly as the breath was forced from his body.
Battousai looked at his katana with some surprise. A large welt ran across the other man's chest, but there was no cut, no blood. The sharp and flat edges are reversed, he thought. Why? Blood, regret, his own voice promising never to kill again... images flashed dizzyingly through his mind. He shook his head sharply, denying them all. "Get up!" he ordered the man gasping for air on the floor in front of him. It doesn't matter if the blade is reversed, he told himself, that'll make things a little more even. The flat of my blade against his fists.
Sano climbed painfully to his feet. Over the pounding of his heart, he could hear Kaoru pleading futilely with Kenshin to stop. Battousai wasn't willing to listen to reason, and wasn't going to hold back the way Kenshin had in their previous fights. Kenshin had been fighting simply to stop Sano. Battousai, however, was fighting to protect Kaoru. No, it's more primitive than that, Sano thought. He's fighting to protect his woman, his mate... his other half. Kuso... If I'm lucky, he'll be satisfied with beating me to a pulp. He didn't want to think about what it would be like to be unlucky. Still, for a moment, there'd been a flicker of recognition in Kenshin's eyes... maybe if he kept trying, he could break through. "Kenshin," he began...
...and in response, Battousai leapt into motion.
Sano ducked under as the sakaba came toward his head, only the slight hesitation in the swing -- a side effect of the other's lingering dizziness -- allowing him to escape. Compensating immediately, Battousai altered his attack, striking Sano in the back with his elbow. His own efforts to escape the initial swing of the sword combined with the force of the blow to send Sano tumbling to the floor. Allowing the momentum to take him, he rolled a few paces away before rising to his feet again.
"Kenshin, listen to me!"
The only answer was a rush of movement. Sano's added height working to his opponent's advantage, the sakaba came up to deliver the Ryu-Sho-Sen. Thankful Battousai's battle cry warned him what to expect, Sano fell back as the other struck, narrowly avoiding having his jaw dislocated. His throat and head exploded in agony as he was raked by the sakaba's dull edge, battered by the strength behind it.
Battousai flipped in midair, gracefully landing on his feet. He looked on impassively as Sano half fell, half leaned against the kitchen wall, struggling to recover. His own breathing seemed strangely heavy, his muscles tired and slow.
"Kenshin..." his ears still ringing, his balance still off, Sano tried once again to reason with his friend. "Kenshin, listen to me. No one has hurt Kaoru. But you're hurting and frightening her now."
Instantly, he knew it had been the wrong thing to say.
Battousai's mind latched onto the words and refused to let go, twisting them to fit the pattern of his dreams. Your fault, your fault. A woman dying because he'd been too slow to stop his strike; a laughing maniac suffocating another because he wasn't what the madman expected; a wolf threatening his family, because he was weak. Your fault, your fault. Now she was hurting, because he'd failed again... he hadn't been there to protect her from this man.
"Kisama..." Sano heard the low, angry whisper, and then Battousai disappeared. A moment later the sakaba smashed into his shoulder from above, knocking him down, back, and partially through the wall. Using Sano's shoulder and the wall to gain momentum, Battousai sprang backwards, landing several feet away. "Stand-up," he grated out, flipping the sakaba over, "it's time to finish this."
Kaoru watched, horrified, as Battousai attacked the man Kenshin treated as brother, as friend. She shouted at him to stop -- now pleading, now ordering -- and just as he had during his fight with Saitoh, he ignored her, seeming not to hear her voice.
But this time, there's more at stake. It wouldn't be Kenshin alone that was lost. If she couldn't break through, Sanosuke might very well die. Battousai's eyes promised it as he struck Sanosuke with the full force of the Ryu-Tsui-Sen, shattering the wall behind him. Now he waited for Sanosuke to crawl out of the rubble, struggle to his feet... so he could deliver the final blow.
Yamete, she silently pleaded.
Sano turned a bleak gaze to meet hers. His shoulder was held at an odd angle, dislocated, possibly broken. Unwilling at first to fight his friend, now he was in poor shape to do so... and Battousai was still out for blood.
Standing as tall as he could manage, Sano signaled his readiness.
With a shout Battousai charged forward, hand on the hilt of the sakaba. He tensed, drawing the sword from the sheath in a lighting fast movement... and suddenly she was there between them, arms outstretched, screaming for him to stop.
Kaoru's eyes widened as she saw the horrified realization in Kenshin's own, his rush still carrying him toward her. She closed hers, afraid to watch what was happening. Scant seconds later she felt his arms close around her as her ears registered a faint metallic clatter, and then they were tumbling, sliding across the floor, coming sharply to rest against the far wall.
For a moment, everything seemed to stop, only the harsh sound of Kenshin's breathing breaking the silence. Kaoru raised her head, finding herself cradled protectively against him, his body having shielded hers as they rolled across the floor. His arms tightened when she moved, his entire body trembling. His face was buried in her hair, hidden behind the curtain of his, but she felt something warm and moist slide down her neck. "Kenshin?"
So close, he thought, holding her against him, afraid to let go. I couldn't bear that again... not again. Unbidden, tears welled up, slipping from his eyes to the smooth skin of her neck. "Kenshin?" Her voice, questioning and worried. Over you... his rational other, the rurouni, whispered to him. You shouldn't make her worry. He shook his head slightly, not yet willing to allow the intrusion.
Kaoru felt the slight movement, and whispered his name a second time. His arms tightened again in answer. Wait, he seemed to say. Not yet. She relaxed against him, breathing a quiet sigh of relief. It's over. She turned her head, raising her eyes to meet Sanosuke's. In silent agreement he left the room.
Kenshin... Battousai... neither one will hurt her, he thought,
but the scare seems to have knocked some sense into him. Too
shaken to do more than cling to Kaoru, Battousai seemed to have forgotten
Sano, the fight, and the imagined reasons for it. Sano wasn't going
to complain about that, but he wasn't going to stick around as a reminder,
either. He winced as he walked down the hall, swallowing heavily
against nausea stirred by the pain in his shoulder. His whole body
hurt... he needed someone to fuss over him. Yahiko, brat that he
was, must have slept through the whole thing. Well, he's about
to wake up, Sano thought with some satisfaction. Megumi needs
to get over here to check on Kenshin. And me. He fought
off another wave of nausea. Mostly me. Sliding the door
to Yahiko's room open with his foot, he bellowed the boy's name, enjoying
the shocked expression that appeared on his face, and the way he scampered
to fetch the doctor.
"I'm sorry," he whispered into her neck. "After I promised to protect you, to protect your happiness... I wasn't here. And then I... I almost...." his voice broke and he swallowed. "Gomen nasai." The words seemed so inept. He felt her shift against him, and immediately worried she would pull away. Instead, her arms wrapped around one of his, hugging it to her. He smiled a little then... his hold on her so tight that she could barely move, his arm the only part she could reach.
Kaoru wasn't sure who was holding her... the speech patterns were Battousai's, but the attitude was more like Kenshin. Whoever it was, he needed reassurance; the dreams, the fight, what he'd almost done, all shaking him to the core. At his whispered apology, she shook her head, uttering a soft sound of negation. "You don't need to be sorry. It's all right. I'm all right." She tightened the arms she'd wrapped around his, giving it a little squeeze. "See?"
He couldn't help but laugh at that, finally raising his head to look at her. Kaoru gasped slightly at the sight of Battousai's eyes glowing soft and amber above Kenshin's normal, sweet smile. They're not so different, after all, she thought. She smiled back at him, reaching up to gently brush his hair away from his face, noting his temperature as she did so. It still seemed high, though perhaps not as high as before... regardless, she needed to get him back to bed.
As her hand stroked across his face he closed his eyes, dipping his chin to place a light kiss in her palm, relief washing headily through him. His arms loosened their death grip on her as he relaxed, and she slipped off his lap, standing up.
Looking down at him she bit her lip, not certain how to persuade him that he should be in bed recuperating. His behavior seemed to indicate he felt fine. Mild annoyance surged through her at the thought. Poor Sanosuke.
"Nani?" he asked, rising to stand beside her.
She opened her mouth to speak, and then stopped. Tried once more with the same results. She's adorable, he thought, and sensed the rurouni's heartfelt agreement. He waited, and finally she simply blurted "You're sick!" as if he should know it, and not need her to explain.
"Oro?" As close as the two personalities were at that moment, the word just slipped out, the amber eyes widening a little in surprise. She smiled hopefully at him at the sound, before taking his hand to coax him back toward his room. Closing his eyes, allowing himself to be led, he slowly relinquished control. She was safe, she was happy. He could rest. Weariness rose to claim him, his anger long gone and the last of his fear slipping away at the feel of her fingers clinging warmly to his.
By the time they reached his room, the dizziness and headache had returned, his limbs feeling vaguely disconnected. She helped him to his futon, her fussing as she tucked him in bringing a small smile to his lips. She laughed in turn when he made a face at the bitter taste of Megumi's potion, although he drank it down. As drugged sleep rose to claim him, she turned to leave the room, the need to care for Sanosuke reasserting its own urgency now that Kenshin... Battousai... had been calmed. His voice stopped her.
"Wait..." she turned to find Kenshin's violet eyes watching her from beneath drowsy lids, making her wonder when the other had left. "Oyasumi nasai..." he whispered, barely awake.
She smiled back at him. "Oyasumi, Kenshin."
The door slid quietly closed behind her, drowning his words as he finished his half completed sentence, "...Kaoru-dono."
August 15, 1998