TWL-00-04.v00

Rurouni Kenshin - "That Which Lingers" (prologue, Parts 1-4) by Madamhydra

This story is set in my own ALTERNATE REALITY universe which I've called "The Nightwitch Tales" -- think of it as Rurouni Kenshin mixed with various supernatural and paranormal elements. Other stories in this alternate reality are: "Night Visitor"; "All in the Family"; "Romancing the Wolf"

WARNING: This story is "semi-dark" -- it has dark elements (violence, etc) but it's not a darkfic! Actually, there's quite a bit of romance in it.... ^_-

This story takes place after the end of the Kyoto story arc. After that, it takes a sharp left turn into its own world. Elements of the Revenge story arc may or may not show up later on in the story. The Kenshin Gumi already know that Saitoh survived the destruction of Shishio's stronghold.

As always, C&C is greatly appreciated! ^_^

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THAT WHICH LINGERS: A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfic by MadamHydra
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Prologue: The Shadow of Ghosts to Come
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Disclaimer

All rights and privileges to Rurouni Kenshin belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki, Shuiesha, Sony Music Entertainment, and associated parties. The characters of these series are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit. Original portion of the fiction included here is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author.

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Text Conventions

( ) are character thoughts

* ----- * ----- * marks the start and end of flashbacks

[ ] denote visual or time notes

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[Kyoto, 13 years in the past]

In a modest house in the outskirts of the city, a man lay in bed. Unmoving. His stillness was not a matter of choice. He could hear voices from the hallway.

A young woman's voice said in desperate tones, "Are you sure!?"

An older man replied, "Yes. I've tried my best, but the injuries were too great. He will never walk again. And I doubt he will even be able to regain any meaningful use of his arms."

"But... but... surely, there must be something you can do!"

"There is nothing that can be done! I'm not a magician! I can't heal a broken spine with a wave of my hand."

There was a long silence, then the woman's voice said flatly, "So there your famous skills as a doctor are worse than useless."

"I'm sorry. To see such a skilled swordsman cut down in his prime...."

The woman's voice was bitter. "Apparently not skilled enough to defeat the Hitokiri Battousai."

"Ahhh.... Then he's lucky to be alive."

"LUCKY!? Unable to move hand or foot, and you call that lucky!?"

There was another silence, then the elderly man said quietly, "I've done what I can."

A loud, metallic clink echoed through the deserted house.

"Then take your money and go, old man. I never want to see you again!"

He heard the old man depart. Soft footsteps approached his room, then the door slid open. A shadowy form crept to his bedside.

"You... you... must have heard."

The injured man said nothing. Perhaps he would not.

Perhaps he could not.

The young woman picked up his limp hand -- a hand that bore the calluses of a expert swordsman -- and pressed it to her tear-stained cheek. In a choked voice, she whispered, "If... if you want me to... I... I will end... your suffering...."

She lifted her head. His eyes were fixed on the ceiling, open and unblinking. She couldn't tell whether he was simply ignoring her or whether he was unaware of her presence.

"It's... it's me... Junko! Please answer me!"

There was no response.

After a muffled sob, Junko said, "I... there's one last chance. If doctors can do nothing, perhaps SHE can. I'll... I'll be right back."

-----------------------------------

A few hours later, the door to his room opened again. A hooded woman glided into the dimly lit room, carrying a long, thin bundle. She was followed by Junko. The woman murmured, "Leave us."

"But Aunt...."

"Leave us, girl," the hooded woman firmly repeated.

"....very well." Junko reluctantly departed.

Alone in the room with the injured man, the woman pushed back her hood. She was more handsome than beautiful, with a tired, careworn face. The woman stared down at the man on the futon.

"So.... Minobe Junichi, a promising swordsman of the third unit of the Shinsengumi, his career and life cut brutally short in a battle with the infamous Hitokiri Battousai." Her voice was cool, almost mocking.

The man did not respond.

"I know you can hear me perfectly well, nephew. It is only your body that is broken, not your mind."

There was finally a reaction from the injured man... a mere twitch of an eyebrow.

"But to the matter at hand." She sat down gracefully beside Junichi and said, "I tell you bluntly, nephew. I cannot heal your broken back and you will never walk again...." She gave him a bone-chilling smile. "....on this side of the grave."

She pulled the wrappings away from her bundle and held up a sheathed sword. Pulling it a few inches out of its sheath, she held it up, but the blade did not gleam. Instead, the matte black steel seemed to drain what little light was in the room.

"Do you recognize this fine weapon, boy? This sword has been a family treasure for over 400 years, but it has been used by only one man.... the legendary swordsman Minobe Koji. It was the atrocities he committed in his madness which gave this blade its name." She abruptly slid the blade back into its sheath with a snap.

"Kinslayer."

She leaned over him and said, "The only thing left for you now is revenge. How badly do you want that revenge?"

Junichi stared directly at her, his eyes glittering.

The woman's smile widened. "Good. I can see the hatred burning in your eyes. Then listen well, Minobe Junichi. You have two choices." She held up one bony finger. "You can chose to die now, freeing yourself from your crippled body... and also freeing your enemies from any threat of vengeance."

She held a second finger. "Or you can live. Tend your hatred carefully and feed it well, boy... become one with this blade, because only then will you have the skill to defeat the Hitokiri Battousai! If your desire for revenge is strong enough, your spirit and this sword will become one and the same. If you succeed...."

The elderly woman cackled softly. "When this useless flesh of yours eventually dies, this sword and this sword alone will help you to accomplish what your body in life could not... the destruction of the Hitokiri Battousai and the others who have wronged you. Do you understand, my nephew?"

For the first time in days, the young man's face moved. He smiled.

-----------------------------------

In another part of the house, Junko had an unexpected visitor.

"Saitoh Hajime."

The tall, thin man with the lean, dangerous face said, "How is he?"

"He's ... crippled. His back was broken by the Hitokiri Battousai."

"Or by the fall off the bridge." Saitoh gave her a chilly smile.

Junko noticed that the captain of the third unit of the Shinsengumi looked both ill and exhausted.

"What happened to you?" she rudely asked.

He looked at her. "The same thing that happened to the whole squad. We were cornered on a bridge and it collapsed during the ensuing battle. Between the fighting, the falling debris, and the icy waters in the canal, some may say it's a miracle that any of us survived."

"And what of the Battousai?"

"Cunning as a fox and just as nimble... as always. He was long gone by the time the bridge gave way." He shrugged and turned to leave.

She jumped to her feet and yelled, "Is that it? Aren't you and the other Shinsengumi going to hunt down the Battousai and make him pay for what he did to my brother!?"

Saitoh gave her bored look and said, "Why should we do that? We have enough to do without spending valuable time on personal vendettas."

"How can you say that!? He's your comrade...!"

"Your brother was a fool and he disobeyed my direct orders. We had an important mission to complete. The last thing we needed was to have an encounter with the Ishin ShiShi forces, but Junichi deliberately attracted the Battousai's attention in some moronic attempt to gain a reputation for himself. His foolishness nearly got my entire unit killed."

"That's not true!"

"Believe what you like. I don't have time to waste arguing with half-witted girls. If he is crippled, you should give some thought to cutting his throat and putting him out of his misery. At least he'll have a relatively painless death. That might not be the case if some of your brother's so-called 'comrades' find him. My men are quite unhappy with all the trouble he caused us."

"Why can't you stop them!?" Junko shrieked.

Saitoh gave her a cold, cynical smile. "On the contrary. I think I'll praise them for their initiative."

He disappeared into the evening shadows, leaving behind a badly frightened young woman. She crouched on the floor, shaking, until she realized that she was no longer alone.

"Junko."

She hastily rose to her feet and said respectfully, "Aunt."

"I could not but overhear you conversation with Captain Saitoh...."

"That cold-blooded bastard!"

"Oh, I quite understand his feelings. My nephew's a fool beyond measure. However, he's a fool who wants to continue living as long as possible. I suggest you leave this house and quickly, before the Shinsengumi arrive."

Junko gaped at her formidable aunt. "He wants to... live?"

Her aunt grabbed Junko's chin with cold, bony fingers. "Listen well, girl. Your brother has chosen to live, despite his injuries. It is your duty to ensure that he does. You are to protect and take care of him, no matter what it takes. Is that clear?"

"But...."

The cold fingers tightened their grip. "Your oath on it, girl!"

"Y-y-yes. I... I swear."

"Don't worry about the money. I'll tend to that. Now, get moving, Junko."

For the second time in less than an hour, Junko was left alone with her burdens and her fears.

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[the present, 11th year of the Meiji period, late summer]

In the outskirts of Tokyo, a crippled middle-aged man died one night during a raging thunderstorm. No one except his sister knew or cared.

Minobe Junko was glad that her brother was finally dead... as dead as the love she had once had for him. When she gave her word to her aunt all those years ago, Junko had no idea that her brother Junichi would linger on for over a decade. And during that time, Junko's life had been stagnant and monotonous -- feed her brother, clean her brother,... over and over again. But all that changed a few months ago when she met and fell in love with Uboshita Sachi, a young man from a rich and influential family.

As long as her brother lived, marriage was out of the question. And although he was sick and crippled, Junichi could have still clung to life for another decade or more... and she wasn't getting any younger.

A pot of tea, a little white powder, and Junko was now a free woman.

She entered her brother's room for one last time. Sachi's mother had welcomed Junko into her home. She was eager to go.

(I'm never coming back here. Never.)

A dull gleam caught her eye and she noticed the sheathed sword lying on her dead brother's bed. He had clutched it in his crippled hands almost continuously for those thirteen years.

(What a waste of a fine weapon. I can't just leave it here and I don't want to take this ghastly thing with me. I know! I'll sell it and buy something nice for Sachi's birthday.)

She picked up the sword and admired the craftsmanship. It would fetch a good price. Junko tugged on the hilt and the black blade slid effortlessly out of its scabbard.

The room seemed to darken and shadows crawled across the walls.

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(end of prologue)

******************** Author's Notes ********************

Next part: An unexpected meeting! ^_^

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THAT WHICH LINGERS: A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfic by MadamHydra
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Part 1: Unexpected Encounters
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[the present, 11th year of the Meiji period, late summer]

Strolling down the street, Kamiya Kaoru glanced at the girl beside her and said, "Misao, I'm glad you came to Tokyo for a visit."

The girl laughed and said, "Well, actually it wasn't entirely my idea. Jiya suggested it. I think he wanted me out of his beard for a while."

"Why?"

Misao sniffled. "Aoshi-sama."

"Oh.... I'm beginning to see. Uh, how is Aoshi?"

Flicking her braid over her shoulder, Misao said morosely, "He's... he's so quiet! No matter what I do,... no matter what I say,.... All he does is drink tea, meditate, and read books on Zen! I've tried and tried and tried to get him to smile, but nothing ever works! I've told him jokes, read him funny stories, dressed up in silly costumes,..."

Kaoru thought uneasily, (I'm beginning to understand why Okina suggested she take a little trip away from Kyoto!)

"But I refuse to give up! I'll going to make him smile... somehow!" There was a gleam of ferocious determination in Misao's eyes. "Aoshi-sama is like an injured bird, one that's forgotten how to fly. And I'm going to teach him, one way or another... even if it kills me!"

Kaoru laughed nervously, "That's... that's nice."

Catching the uneasy look on her friend's face, Misao relaxed and chuckled. "Oh, don't worry. I'm not going to do anything stupid. Patience and persistence. That's my motto! And Jiya was right. I did need to get away from Kyoto for a while."

"I'm glad you're enjoying your trip."

Misao said, "Well, I have to confess that it's not entirely all fun and games. I'm sort of playing errand girl."

"Oh? If you don't mind me asking...."

Misao's expression become somber. "One of Jiya's old friends was recently killed under very suspicious circumstances."

"Oh no!"

"Yes! Mr. Uboshita and his entire family were killed just about a week ago. And on the very same day of their deaths, his son's fiancee threw herself off a bridge and drowned, in full view of everyone on the street!" Misao frowned. "That was bad enough, but when I got here, I found out that they weren't the only suspicious deaths that have occurred recently."

Kaoru bowed her head. "Yes, I know. Everyone in Tokyo has been talking about it. In the last week, nearly thirty people have died. Five entire families!"

Misao nodded grimly. "And most killed by a sword."

"Yes. Chief Inspector Uramura has been by the dojo to talk to Kenshin...." Kaoru's voice trailed off.

The ninja girl blinked, then shouted, "The police don't think HIMURA had anything to do with this!?"

Kaoru shook her head emphatically. "No. They know that Kenshin couldn't possibly be responsible. One of the families were murdered at the exact same time Chief Uramura had his meeting with Kenshin."

"And was Himura able to tell them anything?"

"He went to take a look at the bodies, but...."

"But what!?"

"He said that there appeared to be only one, extremely skilled attacker. Kenshin also said that he had never seen that exact style before, but that some of the injuries reminded him of the work of the Shinsengumi."

"You don't mean to say that it's Saitoh...!"

Kaoru shook her head again. "No. It can't be him either. He has an even better alibi than Kenshin. He was apparently in Osaka meeting with government officials for the last several days. And... Saitoh may be a ruthless killer, but he doesn't kill without reason."

Misao muttered, "I suppose that's true. But there can't be that many master swordsmen or assassins around capable of doing this sort of work."

"I know. But what's even worse is the total lack of rhyme or reason to the deaths. I could see a rich and influential person like Mr. Uboshita having enemies, but two of the families were just ordinary shopkeepers. There doesn't seem to be any connection, so there's no way to predict who's the killer's next target. Then there's still the matter of the suicides."

Misao frowned. "All were members of the massacred families or close friends?"

"That's right. A mad killer is bad enough, but those suicides...." Kaoru shivered. "The police have been trying to hide the true extent of the problem to keep the public from panicking, but there are already rumors. People are trying to act like nothing's wrong, but you can feel the fear and tension in the air."

"Yeah. Everyone's twitchy."

There was a long silence, then Kaoru abruptly shook her head. "Listen to all this doom and gloom! You're here and we're going to have a celebration dinner."

Misao grinned and said, "Is this the reason for the long walk?"

"Yes, Tae told me about this little shop that has the best fish and shellfish in the city. Their merchandise is a bit expensive, but it's going to be worth it! Here we are." She stopped outside a prosperous looking store.

The ninja girl said, "Then I hope you're going to let Himura do the cooking.... Eep!" She clapped both hands over her mouth and nervously watched Kaoru.

She glared at Misao and muttered, "Hmph! Just because I'm not the best cook in the world...."

Inside the store, the shopkeeper was busy chatting with a female customer. The woman was not young, perhaps in her early thirties, but she had a serene, ageless sort of beauty that invited people to take a second look. Beside her stood a young boy with spiky black hair. He was carrying a shinai slung over his shoulder.

For a startled moment, Kaoru thought it was Yahiko, then quickly realized that the boy was too tall and too scrawny to be her irritating pupil. When the boy turned and glanced at her, she was struck by the bleak stare and the harsh lines of the still young face.

(Such old eyes. Yahiko's had a hard childhood, but his eyes are nothing like this. This boy's seen truly terrible things....)

The boy suddenly blinked in surprise, then said, "Hey, it's the Weasel Girl!"

Misao turned bright red and yelled, "What do you mean 'weasel'... Eiji!?" Her jaw dropped open as she gave the boy a stupefied stare.

Kaoru said, "Uh, Misao? Do you know him?"

The ninja girl ignored Kaoru for the moment and blurted out, "What the hell are you doing here in Tokyo!?"

He scowled at her and muttered, "You're SO stupid! I live here now."

"Live here? In Tokyo?"

"Didn't I just say that? You're sounding like a brainless parrot!"

"But... but... I thought you were going to live with... with...," Misao babbled.

The boy said irritably, "I AM living with her!"

As the shopkeeper bustled away into his storeroom, the woman turned around and put her hand lightly on Eiji's shoulder. In a soft, gentle voice, she said, "Are these friends of yours?"

Eiji glanced up at the woman. Kaoru was astonished to see his scowl turn into a relaxed grin.

"Oh yeah. She's the Weasel Girl that I told you about."

The woman gave Kaoru and the still speechless Misao a warm smile. Her dark brown eyes were calm and patient, but there was also a faint twinkle in them which hinted at a playful sense of humor.

"So you're the girl who saved Eiji's life on more than one occasion. I would like to thank you very much."

Eiji snorted loudly as the woman gave Kaoru and Misao a deep bow and said, "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Fujita Tokio."

"T-T-Tokio!?" stuttered Misao, who looked like someone had hit her over the head with a brick.

Kaoru couldn't quite figure out why Misao was behaving so strangely. (Fujita? Fujita... why does that name seem so familiar?)

Misao continued to babble incoherently, her eyes bulging. "You're... you're... S-S-Saitoh's... Saitoh's...."

(Saitoh? What does Saitoh have to do with Fujita....)

"....w-w-wife....!?"

Kaoru's packages toppled to the ground. She turned to stare at Misao, who was still gaping like a beached fish.

"She's... she's...." It was Kaoru's turn to start babbling.

Misao slowly nodded.

In a strangled voice, Kaoru whispered, "You're Saitoh Hajime's... wife!?"

Tokio said mildly, "Yes, I am."

"Here you are, Fujita-san! I was saving those fish just for you!" The shopkeeper reappeared in the store. With a flourish and a deep bow, he handed Tokio a carefully wrapped package.

She gave him a happy smile and said, "Oh, thank you! They're one of my husband's favorites."

The shopkeeper turned to Kaoru and Misao. "Now, ladies, can I help you?"

"...."

"Uh, ladies? Would you like some fish? Clams? Shrimp? Squid?"

"...."

Eiji gave Misao a sharp nudge with his elbow. "Hey, stupid! The guy's talking to you!"

"Wha...?" the ninja girl mumbled.

Tokio walked up to Kaoru and said, "Excuse me, I didn't catch your name?"

"....Kamiya Kaoru...," she answered in a dazed voice.

In a gentle, coaxing voice, Tokio said, "What were you planning to buy?"

"Uh.... octopus... eels....."

Without appearing the least bit pushy, Tokio managed to get a hold of Kaoru's shopping list. A few minutes later, with Kaoru's purchases completed, Tokio deftly ushered the two young women out of the shop, leaving behind a very confused shopkeeper.

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Before she quite knew what hit her, Kaoru found herself standing in a quiet side street along with Misao, fresh seafood in hand. Eiji was holding Kaoru's other packages with a bored look on his face.

Kaoru said, "I'm sorry, Fujita-san. It's just that I can't imagine a man like Saitoh being married...." Her words came to an abrupt halt and she turned bright red. "I mean... that is... it's such a shock.... Oh dear, I'm making such a mess out of this...."

Tokio chuckled softly. In a placid voice, she said, "Don't worry, Kamiya-san. I've seen some much more extreme reactions before. My husband's known to be a little difficult to deal with at times."

Misao finally managed to get her mouth back in working order. "A little difficult, she says!"

"Misao!" Kaoru hissed angrily.

The ninja girl mumbled, "Sorry."

Before Misao could say anything else, there were faint shouting noises, followed by the distant sound of gunfire.

Misao immediately stiffened and said, "What the...?"

Several minutes passed, then they heard a crash and the sound of stumbling footsteps from around the corner. As Misao reached for her kunai, a fat, middle-aged man staggered into view, bleeding heavily. In one hand, he clutched a bloodied sword.

Kaoru dropped her package and snatched Eiji's shinai. Both she and Misao stepped protectively in front of Tokio and the boy.

The man didn't even seem to notice them. He stared down at the sword in his hand, then flung it down on the ground with an anguished cry. He babbled, "No... no... I didn't... I couldn't stop myself... I loved them! What have I done! WHAT HAVE I DONE!?!?"

With that final wail of despair, the man turned and charged head first into the nearby stone wall. The impact was strong enough to send blood flying.

"What are you doing!?" Misao shouted.

Kaoru jumped forward and grabbed the man in a frantic effort to stop him. He flung her aside and continued slamming his skull into the wall, over and over again. In front of their horrified eyes, he kept beating his head repeatedly against the unyielding stone, apparently hellbent on his own destruction.

There was a final, sickening crunch, then the man slowly sagged to the ground, his face now only a bleeding mass of bone and flesh.

As Kaoru slowly got to her feet and walked over to the mortally wounded man, Misao glanced away from the pathetic sight. She frowned as she noticed something odd about the bloodied weapon lying discarded on the ground. She bent down to take a closer look.

(That's strange. I've never seen a black sword blade like this before....) The ninja girl reached out to pick it up.

With her hands on Eiji's shaking shoulders, Tokio quietly asked, "Is he dead?"

Kaoru stepped away from the man's body. "Yes... yes, he is. I... I don't understand. How can someone... DO... something like that to himself? How can someone... beat their own brains out?" She glanced around in a slight daze, then saw Misao kneeling on the ground, holding the man's sword.

"Misao, what do you have...."

Without warning, the ninja girl whirled and slashed upward. Only Kaoru's excellent reflexes kept her from being gutted as the razor sharp blade sliced across her stomach.

Staggering backward in both pain and shock, Kaoru fell against the wall, clutching at her belly. She could feel warm blood seeping between her fingers.

"MISAO... WHY!?"

Eiji yelled, "Have you gone crazy, you stupid bitch!" He tried to lunge at her, but was firmly held back by Tokio.

The hairs on the back of Kaoru's neck rose as the ninja girl chuckled softly.

"Why? Because I felt like it." With a pantherish leap, Misao jumped onto a nearby rooftop.

Her vision going dim, Kaoru shouted, "Where are you... going!? Misao!"

With her braid angrily lashing back and forth like the tail of a great cat, Misao tossed her head and said, "I'm going to give my love to my darling Aoshi-sama!" With those words, she disappeared from view.

The vicious little smile on the ninja girl's face and the maddened gleam in her blue eyes left Kaoru with no doubt of Misao's intentions.

As Tokio quickly moved to Kaoru's side to examine her injuries, the young woman frantically whispered, "She's going to try to kill him! And... she might... be able to do it! We have... to warn... Aoshi!"

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(end of part 1)

******************** Author's Notes ********************

Next part: It's not exactly a roll in the hay for Aoshi. ^_^

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THAT WHICH LINGERS: A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfic by MadamHydra
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Part 2: Pursuit and Prey
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[the present, 11th year of the Meiji period, late summer]

Somehow, Tokio managed to flag down a passing carriage. Before anyone quite knew what happened, the wealthy carriage owner was falling over himself to be helpful to the beautiful lady with the injured companion. Of course he wouldn't mind letting her borrow his carriage for a few hours. Just send it back when she's through using it. A few bloodstains on the upholstery? No problem....

"Kamiya-san, I'll take you to a doctor...."

Kaoru grabbed Tokio's arm with a bloodied hand.

"Saitoh-san...."

"Yes?"

"Take me to Megumi... Takani Megumi. She's a doctor.... Please, it's very important!"

Tokio checked the long slash along Kaoru's stomach. It was bleeding steadily but not too heavily. Reapplying her makeshift bandage, she said, "All right, if it's not too far away."

She raised her voice slightly. "Driver? Do you know where a Dr. Takani lives?"

He said, "Oh yes! She's a very good doctor. Here we go." The driver snapped the reins and the horses headed off at a brisk trot.

Inside the carriage, Tokio held Kaoru against her and applied firm pressure on her wound. A very quiet Eiji sat on the opposite side of the carriage, clutching Tokio's and Kaoru's packages.

"Saitoh-san...," Kaoru murmured.

"Call me Tokio."

Kaoru smiled weakly. "Then... you can hardly go on calling me Kamiya-san." She took a few deep breaths. "Tokio, no matter what happens, please make sure... that Megumi gets in touch with Kenshin and Sano. Tell them... that they have to... stop Misao. Something's... terribly wrong with her. Tell them to warn Shinomori Aoshi. She means to... kill him...."

"Yes, I will. Now relax, Kaoru."

The quiet confidence in Tokio's voice reassured Kaoru that no matter what happened, Kenshin would get her warning.

(I don't understand. Why are you doing this, Misao? What are you trying to do? Is she really capable of killing Aoshi? Does she have a chance of succeeding? Yes, she just might. He'd never expect an attack from her....)

As she fretted about Misao's inexplicable actions, Kaoru gradually slipped into unconsciousness.

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It had been a quiet morning at the clinic so Megumi took the opportunity to do a little reorganization of her medical supplies. She was trying to figure out just where to put that last stack of bandages when she heard the clatter of hooves outside the door.

A few seconds later, a man ran in and shouted, "Dr. Takani! There's an injured woman in the carriage!"

Megumi quickly ran outside and flung open the carriage door. Inside, there was a thin, almost scrawny boy. On the other side of the carriage was a beautiful woman who was holding a blood-soaked bandage against the stomach of a younger woman....

"Kaoru!" Megumi glanced to the other woman and demanded, "What happened to her!? Never mind! You can tell me later! You, driver! Help me get her inside!"

A few minutes later, Megumi had Kaoru in bed and was examining her wound. Fortunately, it wasn't too deep and was bleeding only sluggishly. She stared at the long clean slash and turned to Tokio.

"What was it? A knife or a sword?"

"It was a sword."

Megumi gasped sharply.

"She was very quick. If she hadn't managed to dodge, she would probably be dead."

"Yes.... It will require stitches, but she should recover without any complications."

"Takani-san. Kaoru insisted that I give you a message. She wants to you get in touch with Himura Battousai and warn him...."

Megumi interrupted before Tokio could finish speaking. "Warn him about what!?"

"I think it would be best if I explained things personally. The matter is somewhat complicated."

The doctor rushed over to the table and quickly scribbled out a note. Sticking her head outside the clinic, she called one of the neighborhood boys over.

"You know Kenshin?" When the boy nodded, she said, "Give him this note right away. If you can't find him, get right back here. Run!"

Megumi watched the boy scamper off on his errand, then turned back toward the patiently waiting Tokio.

"I'm sorry, I haven't had an opportunity to thank you for taking care of Kaoru."

"I'm glad to help in any way I can."

"Well, I better take care of that wound."

However, before Megumi took another step, there was a tremendous commotion in the clinic as a whole crowd of people rushed in. One of the men was holding a severely bleeding child. The sound in the clinic was deafening as the child wailed, women cried, and men shouted. The only thing Megumi could figure out was that the child had an accident in his father's workshop.

She bit her lip. The child was much more badly hurt than Kaoru. If should didn't do something immediately, the boy could die within minutes. Megumi turned to Tokio and said, "Excuse me, but could you keep an eye on Kaoru? Dr. Genzai's out of town visiting some patients and I have to deal with this first. Just make sure the bleeding doesn't get any worse...."

"Of course." Tokio give Megumi a deep bow. "If you will forgive my presumption, but I do have some medical skill. If Kaoru's injury only needs stitching, then perhaps you will allow me to take care of it while you tend to the child?"

Megumi liked her quiet air of competence. An extremely loud scream from the boy made her decision easy. "Thank you! The supplies are in that cabinet. Excuse me!" She rushed over to the seething crowd of panicked people.

"Sir, put the child down here. No, let go of him! Please you have to give me room to work. Can you please get that woman out of here! I can't tell you how bad it is until I've had a chance to examine.... BE QUIET!!!"

-----------------------------------

At the Kamiya Dojo, Yahiko was watching Kenshin absently washing the same shirt for the fifth time in the row.

(He's really out of it today. He's been like this ever since the Chief Inspector dropped by.)

Sano was sitting on the porch, chewing on a twig. He yelled, "Hey! Aren't you supposed to be scrubbing the floor or something?"

Yahiko stalked over to him and snarled, "I finished that an hour ago! So there! Bleeh!" and stuck out his tongue.

The sounds of the ensuing wrestling match barely registered on Kenshin's mind. He thought, (Something's not right. The sun's shining and there's only a few clouds in the sky... but it just doesn't feel right. I can almost smell the stench of death and violence in the air.... Just like Kyoto, all those years ago... when blood ran in the streets like rainwater....)

(Over thirty people dead in a week. But who can it be? It can't be Saitoh. This isn't his style at all... it's much too wasteful. But I definitely saw traces of Shinsengumi blade work....)

He glanced up as soon as he heard the patter of footsteps. A local boy ran into the compound and stopped in front of Kenshin, gasping heavily for air.

"Here... a... message... from Takani-... san.... Important...."

Yahiko and Sano stopped in mid-grapple and watched as Kenshin quietly rose to his feet and wiped his hands dry. He opened the note and started reading.

Sano dumped Yahiko on the ground as soon as he saw Kenshin's jaws clench and his hands tighten on the paper.

"What's up, Kenshin?"

Crumpling the note in one hand, Kenshin reached for his sakabatou and said in a flat voice, "It's a note from Megumi-dono. Kaoru-dono's been hurt."

As one, the three of them headed out of the Kamiya compound at a dead run.

-----------------------------------

When they arrived, the clinic looked like a disaster area. There was blood all over the floor, hordes of people crying or shouting, and general chaos everywhere. Just as they entered the building, a thin boy ran past them out the door.

(That boy... looked familiar,) thought Kenshin, before concentrating on more important things like....

"Megumi-dono! Where's Kaoru-dono?"

The doctor glanced up at them with a harried look on her face. She snapped, "Didn't you get my message? Her injuries aren't life-threatening. However, this boy's injuries ARE. Sano! I don't care how you do it, but get these fools out of here! I can't work with all this commotion! Yahiko, get me a basin of cold water!"

"Ah... right." The boy scurried off while Sano started to haul away various people.

"Where's Kaoru-dono?"

"She's over in the other room." Megumi jerked her head toward the back of the clinic.

Kenshin swiftly walked to the door and flung it open. The first thing he saw was Kaoru, lying pale and still on the bed. There was another woman in the room, who was just drying her hands.

He closed the door behind him, shutting out the shouting and other noise. Kenshin sank down beside the bed and gently grasped Kaoru's wrist. He could feel her pulse under his fingers... a bit fast, but reassuringly steady. He sighed quietly and closed his eyes in relief.

"She'll be fine with some rest."

Kenshin glanced up at the woman standing next to the bed. She gave him a gentle smile in return.

"I see."

"Excuse me, but you are Kenshin, correct?"

"Yes. Why...."

Tokio gave him a polite bow and said, "Then I have an very important message and a warning for you from Kaoru."

He rose to his feet and said, "What is it?"

Behind him, Sano and Yahiko rushed into the room. Sano said, "How's Jo-chan...."

Kenshin made a sharp gesture. "Sano. Wait a moment." Turning back to Tokio, he said, "What is the warning?"

"She said that you must stop Misao from killing Shinomori Aoshi."

-----------------------------------

They stared at Tokio for a long moment, before Sano blurted, "That's crazy! I don't know who the hell you are, lady, but you've got no idea what or who you're talking about!"

"Yeah!" chimed in Yahiko.

Tokio didn't appear to be the least bit offended by their comments. She patiently waited for Kenshin to respond.

In even tones, he said, "Why would Misao do such a thing?"

She bowed her head. "I don't know. I met Kaoru and Misao for the very first time this morning. I can only tell you what I saw."

"Which is?"

"I saw Misao attack her friend Kaoru with no apparent provocation."

"Hold it! You mean to tell us that MISAO did this to Jo-chan!?"

"Yes."

Sano reached out and grabbed a hold of Tokio's wrist. She gasped quietly, but didn't try to struggle. Clutching the front of her kimono with his other hand, he hauled her halfway into the air and snarled, "I don't know what your game is, you lying little bitch...."

"She's not lying," a weak voice whispered.

Kenshin was instantly kneeling by Kaoru's side. "Kaoru-dono! Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. And it's all true. One moment she was fine and the next moment, Misao tried to kill me." Tears shimmered in her eyes. "Kenshin, something's horribly wrong with her! I don't know what's going on, but she really means to kill Aoshi! I could see it in her eyes! You have to stop her!" She struggled to sit up, but Kenshin gently pushed her back down again.

"Fine, we'll take care of that. You just rest, Kaoru-dono."

Lying against the pillows, Kaoru gave them a faint smile. Her eyes abruptly widened as she saw what Sano was doing. With a definite expression of panic, she yelped, "Sano, you idiot! What are you doing!? Let go of her!"

"Huh?"

"Baka! She's Saitoh Hajime's WIFE!"

Dead silence followed.

Sano stared blankly at Kaoru's anxious face. Without even noticing, his hand opened and dropped Tokio. She landed on the floor with a hard thump. She sat there for a moment, giving them all a faintly bemused look.

With a stunned expression, Kenshin stammered, "You're... you're... T-T-Tokio!?"

"....duhhh...," was Yahiko's only comment.

Tokio slowly got to her feet, discretely rubbing her sore hip. She edged away from a still frozen Sano and gave them an exquisitely graceful bow.

"Allow me to introduce myself. I am Saitoh Tokio. I've heard a great deal about you, Himura Battousai."

"You've GOT to be kidding, Jo-chan," mumbled Sano.

"Do I look like I'm joking!?"

Tokio coughed delicately and said, "Um, about Misao...?"

Kenshin shook his head rapidly. Shocking as this discovery was, they had much more serious things to worry about. "Kaoru-dono, is there anything else I need to know right now?"

"No, that's it. I can tell you the rest when you get back."

"Sano! We need to get a message to Kyoto right away! Yahiko, stay here with Kaoru-dono."

Getting no response from Sano, Kenshin ended up forcibly dragging the still stupefied man out of the clinic.

-----------------------------------

As they ran down the streets, Sano muttered, "I don't believe it! It can't be! How can an total, psychotic bastard like Saitoh be MARRIED!?!? It's impossible! Someone's playing a bad joke on me...."

Kenshin said, "No. It's true. So that's Tokio."

Sano gave his friend an accusing stare. "You knew!? And you didn't tell me!?"

"It didn't seem that important...," Kenshin mumbled.

"I still don't believe it.... Naw, can't be.... Uh, Kenshin? Just where are we headed, anyway?"

With a grim look on his face, the swordsman replied, "To one of the Oniwabanshuu message centers. They have carrier pigeons. I'm not sure what's going on, but we need to put Okina and Aoshi on guard."

"Oh, I get it!"

-----------------------------------

Kenshin abruptly skidded to a stop in front of a small shop and put his hand on the hilt of his sakabatou.

"What's wrong, Kenshin?" Sano whispered.

"I smell... fresh blood," was the quiet reply.

"Oh hell...."

They circled around to the backyard. There was a large wooden shed, its door smashed open. Kenshin carefully pushed it open a bit further.

The room was littered with gray feathers and the corpses of dead pigeons.

Kenshin said, "We're too late."

"Do... do you think that Misao did this?"

"I don't know. It's a strong possibility. The person who did this was good. Most of these birds have been sliced cleanly in half, probably while on the wing."

"So what do we do now?"

"The Oniwabanshuu must have more than one station of carrier pigeons in Tokyo, but I don't know where they might be."

"The pigeon handler... do you think... Misao killed him?"

Kenshin sighed, "I don't know. I can't imagine Misao trying to kill Kaoru-dono or Aoshi, but Kaoru-dono and Tokio-dono both said.... We need to concentrate on finding her first. Once we've done that, maybe we can figure out what's really going on."

As they stepped back into the street, they saw an elderly man trudging in their direction. The man stopped suddenly, then quickly walked forward. "Himura-san! What can I do for you today?"

"Where have you been?"

The man blinked. "I just stepped out to get some food."

"Have you seen Misao?"

"No, I haven't. And I have an important message for her."

"What is it?"

The man blinked. "Uh..."

"It's very important! Something terribly wrong has happened to Misao and we need to get in touch with Okina and Aoshi as soon as possible!"

"Well, certainly, I'll send a message to Okina right away...."

"You can't. Someone's slaughtered all the pigeons. And I suspect that if you had been here, you would have suffered the same fate."

"What!?"

"You must have an alternate way of getting in touch with Kyoto!"

"Yes, yes. I'll take care of it right away. But don't worry about Aoshi-sama."

Kenshin frowned. "Why not?"

"He's already on his way here. He should be arriving either today or tomorrow...."

"WHAT!?" Kenshin and Sano both shouted.

"Yes, I was about to forward that message to Misao."

"Where is the actual message? The one delivered by the pigeon?"

"In the shed. Why?" the old man said.

A few minutes later, their worst fears were confirmed. The message was missing.

Sano said, "Kenshin, do you think...?"

"If she's found it, Misao will know he's coming. And there's no way to warn him!"

Kenshin turned back to the old man. "Is there a special trail that the Oniwabanshuu prefer to use between Kyoto and Tokyo?"

Unnerved by Kenshin's urgency, the old man said, "Uh, yes, there is. It's a forest track that runs parallel to the Toukai Way."

"Come on, Sano! She can't be more than a hour or two ahead of us. We have a chance of catching up with her, especially if she decides to wait in ambush." Armed with the old man's detailed directions, they set off in the direction of Kyoto.

"Kenshin, what are we going do when we find her?"

"I don't know, Sano."

-----------------------------------

[Kyoto, five days earlier]

Okina walked into Aoshi's room and said, "I would like you to go to Tokyo."

Aoshi glanced up from his book, but said nothing.

"You know I sent Misao away for a little vacation. Aside from the fact that she was driving everyone crazy with her antics, she was also supposed to check with our local agents about the suspicious deaths of my old friend Uboshita and his family."

Aoshi nodded impassively.

"I just received news of more suspicious deaths. Another fifteen, to be exact."

"What?" Aoshi looked visible surprised.

Okina nodded grimly. "All dead within the last two days. Which brings the current total to over twenty. Three entire families and close friends... all killed by the sword. Something's going on in Tokyo and I don't like it. I don't like the idea of Misao wandering around alone in that mess."

Aoshi glanced down at his hands. "She's hardly unprotected, considering that she's staying with Himura Battousai."

"But you know Misao. She's as curious as a cat. And like a cat, she's liable to go snooping a bit too far and a bit too carelessly. Besides, I think Himura has more than enough to do keeping an eye on Kaoru and that scamp Yahiko. I would prefer that you were there to keep Misao out of trouble."

Aoshi was silent for a long moment. Okina could only guess at the thoughts going on in the young man's head. Finally, Aoshi uttered a faint sigh. "Very well. I'll leave after lunch."

-----------------------------------
(end of part 2)

******************** Author's Notes ********************

Next part: Aoshi finds out just how sharp Misao's claws can be. ^_^

======================================================================

THAT WHICH LINGERS: A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfic by MadamHydra
======================================================================

Part 3: Cat Scratch Fever
======================================================================

[the present, 11th year of the Meiji period, late summer]

Makimachi Misao was in the mood for mayhem and murder. Perched in a tree overlooking the forest path favored by the Oniwabanshuu, she waited impatiently for her victim to show up.

(It's destiny, I suppose. I didn't even have to travel all the way back to Kyoto to finish the fool off. Instead, he's walking right into my lap.) She chuckled evilly and admired that lethal black sword in her hands.

(Just you wait, Aoshi....)

She suddenly stiffened as she saw a familiar figure, dressed in a trenchcoat swiftly making his way toward her. As she concealed herself in the thick summer foliage, she could barely keep herself from quivering with anticipation.

There was a small dip in the path and Aoshi disappeared from view. She waited eagerly for him to reemerge.

Nothing.

After a few minutes, she snarled impatiently and hopped down from the tree.

(Isn't just like that bastard to screw up a perfectly good ambush!)

She carefully searched both sides of the track and soon located exactly where Aoshi had gone. Misao clutched the sword tighter and set off after him.

-----------------------------------

Shinomori Aoshi had plenty of reasons to go to Tokyo. They weren't necessarily pleasant reasons, but that didn't matter. This brief side trip was long overdue. He should have come here much sooner, but he keep postponing the journey. Now there were no more excuses.

He made his way along a barely noticeable track. It was hard to believe to that he travelled this same path just over two months ago. Two months... two totally different men. The Shinomori Aoshi of early May had been nothing more than a hollow shell, utterly consumed by his quest for the title of the "Strongest" and his pursuit of Himura Battousai.

He sighed wearily and glanced up at the blue sky. (And who is the Aoshi of today? What kind of person am I?)

That brief look upward saved his life as a slim figure dropped from the trees with an angry scream.

Aoshi flung himself aside. When he rolled to his feet, he was holding his two kodachi, ready to meet his attacker. But the sight that met his eyes left him totally dumbfounded.

"MISAO!?"

She glared furiously at him, a katana with an eerie black blade in her hands.

"What are you doing!?"

Misao's only response was a lightning swift lunge. Aoshi barely managed to fend off the attack, staggering backward a few steps from the sheer force of the attack.

(What the....!? That's impossible! She's moving nearly as fast as the Battousai! And where is she getting that strength!?)

The next instant, Aoshi was too busy trying to survive the lethal storm of thrusts and slashes Misao unleashed.

(This can't be happening! Misao knows how to use a sword, but there's no way she could have gotten THIS skilled!)

"Misao! What's wrong with you? What are you doing!?"

She sprang out of range and chuckled viciously. "What am I doing? Isn't that obvious, my dear Aoshi-SAMA!? I'm trying to rip your stupid guts out!"

Aoshi shook his head. The whole encounter was taking on the aspect of some horrible nightmare.

"Why....?"

"Why? WHY!? Because I HATE YOU, YOU FILTHY STINKING BASTARD!!!"

He flinched from the sheer rage in her voice.

"Misao, I...."

"I don't want to hear it! You don't care about me! You never cared about me! You're a selfish, traitorous coward and you deserve to DIE!"

Misao lifted her sword and held it horizontal, then charged.

Aoshi, stunned both by her verbal attack and what he was seeing, barely managed to parry Misao's thrust, but couldn't move quickly enough to fully block the sweeping side slash that opened a deep cut down his right leg.

(That's... that was a version of Saitoh's Gatotsu!)

"You're wrong, Misao! I... I...." (I do care about you....)

Misao hissed furiously, "Don't you DARE say care about me! You deserted me without so much as a second look, just so you could run around and feed your damn ego with all that 'glorious Oniwabanshuu' crap! It's all your fault Hannya and the others died!"

"No...."

She came in low and stabbed upward. Aoshi lashed out with a kick and nearly lost his leg to her incredibly fast counterattack.

Misao shouted, "You knew that they'd follow you wherever you went! You were the one who hired yourself out like some damn whore to that drug dealer Kanryu! Don't try to tell me that you didn't know EXACTLY what sort of cowardly scum he was! You knew, but you just didn't care! All you were concerned about was the chance to play around with the Battousai!"

In a blur, she slipped behind him. He spun away, but not before she managed to inflict another deep cut on his shoulder.

"And then you betrayed us by getting all cozy with Shishio just because you were too stupid and too lazy to find the Battousai by yourself! You abandoned us without a second thought! You probably would've led the the attack on the Aoiya yourself if you thought it would get you closer to Himura! Don't lie to me! I know it's true! You would have!"

Aoshi dazedly shook his head. (Would I have actually done that? Instead of just turning my back on them, would I have attacked them... killed them.... I might have.... I was ready to do anything, no matter how ruthless.... I... I don't know!)

Misao stood across the small clearing, panting slightly, but she was clearly in much better shape than Aoshi who was bleeding from several wounds.

"Last, but not least, you're a damn coward! After Himura managed to pound some sense into that thick skull of yours, what do you do? Crawl away and hide! That's all you did... all you've ever done. You act so cold and controlled, but all you are is a snivelling coward! I can't believe that Hannya, Beshimi, Shikijyou, and Hyottoko all died to save your miserable, worthless hide! Well, I'm tired of all your shit! If you're too scared to live, then I'll be happy to bury you myself!!!"

(Is... is she right? Is that all I am? Did Hannya and the others sacrifice their lives to protect a selfish coward?) He felt his guard slipping, then suddenly shook his head. (No. I've got to get myself together. This... this isn't right. This isn't Misao. I have to stop her... but can I? I don't know where all this skill, speed, and strength is coming from... I can't afford to hold back if I want to survive... but Misao could die....)

Aoshi had no more time to think as Misao pounced toward him, launching a furious series of strikes. He managed to parry or evade most of her attacks, but his reluctance to take the offensive proved his undoing as a last, vicious blow broke several ribs and sent him crashing through the undergrowth. His head slammed into something hard and everything went black.

-----------------------------------

/ Okashira, wake up! /

(Wha...?) A misty form with a familiar demon face seemed to materialize before Aoshi's eyes. (Hannya!? No, it can't be!)

/ Yes, it is I. /

(I'm sorry. It seems as if all of you wasted your lives saving a selfish fool of a coward.)

/ No! You merely lost your way for a while, but you are finding your way back. These things take time. /

(I think I'll be joining you quite soon....)

/ Okashira, listen to me! You can't die, especially by Misao's hand. It would destroy her utterly. If you want to save her, you have to stop her, no matter what it takes. /

(I don't want... to hurt her anymore.)

/ Sometimes that can't be helped. /

(If I make a mistake, I could kill her....)

/ It could come to that. /

(NO! I can't!)

/ If you fail, our Misao will be dead... as dead as if you stabbed her through the heart,... perhaps more so. /

(....)

/ Do you care about her enough to run the risk of killing her in order to save her from a much worse fate? /

(Like what?)

/ Madness. Damnation. /

(....yes.... What do I have to do?)

/ Get that sword away from her. /

(I see. Hannya?)

/ Yes? /

(The others... are they... here?)

Three more shadowy shapes appeared in his vision... blurry but instantly recognizable. Aoshi heard no words from them, but he could sense both their support and their urgency.

(All right. Himura made a promise to bring me back, no matter what the cost. Hannya... Beshimi... Shikijyou... Hyottoko.... I make you THIS promise. I'll bring our Misao back, no matter what it takes.... )

-----------------------------------

Misao jumped into the clearing and sneered at Aoshi as he lay on the ground. "That's pathetic! I was hoping to play with you some more, but I can see that it's just a waste of time." She lifted her sword, then stopped as Aoshi slowly rose to his feet.

"Not... so fast." He could feel the blood trickling through his hair and down his neck. He was steadily losing blood from his other wounds, also. He would have only this one chance.

"Oh, now you're getting serious?" Misao snarled.

"Yes."

"Then come on... if you dare, coward!"

Aoshi silently flipped his grip on his two kodachi, then turned them over, presenting the back edge of the blades.

She narrowed her eyes, but didn't move. They stared unblinkingly each other.

(Misao knows she can outwait me. I'm losing too much blood. If this goes on, I'll be too weak....)

Suddenly there was a snapping noise in the undergrowth. Misao's attention was shifted ever so slightly and Aoshi made his move. With every bit of speed he could muster, he pounced. His kodachi attack broke Misao's two handed grip on her sword. He twisted and brutally yanked the hand that was still holding the sword off to the side. Aoshi was all too aware that Misao's other hand was free, but he concentrated all his attention on breaking her grip on the black sword. Even with all his effort, he was losing to Misao's unnatural strength.

Steeling himself, he slammed her arm across his knee and felt her bones crack. The blade dropped from her hand as Misao screamed in pain. That scream was echoed by Aoshi as he felt the enraged girl plunge one of her kunai deep into his side with her free hand. Somehow he managed to both punch the struggling girl unconscious and kick the sword across the clearing before finally passing out, still tightly clutching Misao's broken arm.

The clearing was silent, except for a faint, dripping noise.

-----------------------------------

Misao slowly awoke to an agonizing pain in her left arm and a slightly lesser pain in her jaw.

(What... what's going... on? Oh, I hurt....)

She gradually became aware of a warm body lying on top of her... a man's body. Misao squinted until the face came into focus.

"Aoshi-....sama? AOSHI-SAMA!?"

And then, to her utter astonishment, the moment she had been waiting for so long arrived.... he opened his eyes and smiled at her... REALLY smiled at her.

In a faint, breathless voice, he whispered, "Misao... you're... back...."

"You're smiling... you're smiling at me!"

"Yes... I guess... I am." He closed his eyes as his grip on her injured arm slackened.

Misao watched in horror as Aoshi's quiet sigh turned into a moist cough. Blood seeped from his mouth and splashed her cheek. Only then, she realized that there was warm liquid dripping all over her stomach. With a growing sense of dread, she touched the wet spot and looked at her hand.

It was covered in dark red blood.

"Aoshi-sama! Aoshi!" Getting no response, she struggled to wiggle out from under his limp body. Once free, she carefully turned Aoshi over. The amount of blood he was losing appalled her.

And sticking out of his side was one of her own throwing knives.

The memory of the last few hours hit Misao with a vengeance.

"NO!!! Aoshi, I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!!!" Tears mixing with the blood on her face, she clutched at Aoshi's body and started to sob hysterically.

"Mi... sao...."

She choked back her tears and leaned close to him. "Yes, Aoshi-sama?"

"Is... that... any... way... the Okashira... of... the Oniwa... banshuu... should... act?"

Misao took a few gulping breaths and said, "R-right.... I... I need to get some help! But... but it's too dangerous to leave you alone in the forest!"

Aoshi smiled again... another small but genuine smile.

"I think... this spot... is probably... the safest place... in Japan... for me. And... yes, I... care... about... you. A lot.... Get going.... Misao." He quietly passed out again.

Misao staggered to her feet and looked around in confusion.

(He... cares...?) Since her mind wasn't up to dealing with that particular topic at the moment, Misao concentrated on the first part of his statement. (What on earth is Aoshi-sama talking about? What's so special about this place?)

Then she noticed the short standing stones in the clearing.

Four of them.

In a neat row.

With a low mound of earth next to each stone.

Misao collapsed to her knees next to Aoshi's wounded body. As her eyes drifted from the smallest mound which was the size of a child to the largest which was large enough to contain ten men, her voice was the softest of whispers.

"It... it can't be! Beshimi... Hannya... Shikijyou... Hyottoko...."

The rustling leaves in the summer breeze sounded like a murmur of reassurance.

-----------------------------------
(end of part 3)

******************** Author's Notes ********************

Next part: Call 911! Call 911! ^_^

======================================================================

THAT WHICH LINGERS: A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfic by MadamHydra
======================================================================

Part 4: Stained Hands and Hearts
======================================================================

[the present, 11th year of the Meiji period, late summer]

Misao shook herself out of her brief daze. She instinctively reached to remove the kunai in Aoshi's side, then stopped.

(No, I can't! That blade might be the only thing stopping him from bleeding to death!)

She bent down and gently brushed her right hand against Aoshi's cheek. It already felt frighteningly cool. She pulled herself to her feet and quickly looked for something she could use to splint her broken arm. As her eyes fell on the black sword, lying in a patch of shadow, Misao shuddered in revulsion. The blade that had appeared so interesting... almost enticing... a few hours ago now made her feel sickened and unspeakably dirty. Giving the weapon a wide berth, she continued her search. Once she finished splinting her arm, Misao took one last look at Aoshi and the four graves in the clearing, before setting off on the fastest run of her life.

It didn't matter that every step jolted her broken arm. It didn't matter that every muscle and joint in her body throbbed and ached. The only thought on her mind was the frantic hope that there wouldn't be a fifth grave in that clearing.

-----------------------------------

Kenshin skidded to a stop in the middle of the trail so suddenly that Sano barely managed to avoid running over him.

"Kenshin! What are you doing?" Sano's voice trailed off at the look of shock and despair on his friend's face.

"We're... too late...."

"HUH!?" Sano spun around just in time to see Misao appear over the top of the small ridge in front of them.

She was covered in fresh bloodstains.

Misao staggered to a halt as soon as she saw Kenshin and Sano standing in front of her. Relief and exhaustion nearly drove her to her knees, but she managed to keep running toward them.

Kenshin noticed that she appeared to be unarmed but he watched her warily as the totally distraught girl grabbed at his kimono with her good hand.

"HIMURA!!! AOSHI-.... AOSHI-SAMA!!! I... I..." Misao erupted into tears and sagged to her knees.

Kenshin grabbed a hold of her shoulders and shook her hard. "Misao! What happened? Why did you do it!?"

She stared up at him, then her eyes widened. "I... attacked.... K-K-Kaoru! Is... is she all right!? No... not her, too!"

Kenshin gave Sano a swift glance. His grip on her shoulders gentled as he softly said, "She's going to be fine, Misao. You didn't injure her seriously."

A heaving sob was her only response.

"Misao, you have to tell me. What happened to Aoshi?"

She took a few gulping breaths, then blurted out, "I... I... I might have killed him! He's bleeding so badly! If he doesn't get to a doctor soon, he'll DIE!"

Sano wondered, (Is that possible? Except for that broken arm, she doesn't look like she's got any other injuries. Could she have taken out Aoshi and gotten off so lightly?)

Misao jumped to her feet and started dragging Kenshin in the direction from which she came.

-----------------------------------

Barely a quarter hour later, they were standing in the clearing where Aoshi lay, pale and unmoving. As Misao sank down beside him, Sano took a look and muttered, "Hell, he's a mess! I can't believe that a scrawny little thing like Misao could do so much damage, even if he didn't want to fight back! She doesn't seem strong enough or fast enough...."

Kenshin said quietly, "She's not. Misao's good, but she's no match for Aoshi. He should have been able to subdue her without too much trouble. Sano, can you get back to Tokyo?"

"Of course I can! What do you mean by that!? Besides, we're practically in view of the city."

"If his injuries weren't so severe, you could just carry him, but...."

"Leave it to me. I'll find a cart or something. Just stay here and I'll be back as soon as I can!"

Kenshin nodded briskly and noted with relief that Sano actually seemed to know where he was going. As he walked toward Misao, he suddenly gasped as he realized exactly what lay in the clearing.

Misao whispered, "Yes.... This must be where Hannya and the others are buried. That's why he left the trail.... I was hoping to see their graves someday... but not like this!" Her shoulders quivered as she tried fought back her sobs.

Kenshin gently moved her fumbling fingers aside and did his best to stop Aoshi from bleeding to death before help arrived.

In a gentle voice, he said, "Misao. Please tell me. What happened? Why did you suddenly attack both Kaoru-dono and Aoshi?"

She clutched at her knees and whispered, "I don't know! Kaoru and I were shopping, then we ran into...."

"Saitoh Hajime's wife, Tokio... right?"

Misao chuckled weakly and tried to wipe away the tears on her face. "Yeah.... You should have seen Kaoru's face...." A fragile smile appeared, then quickly vanished. A stunned look appeared on Kenshin's face as she went on to describe the encounter with the suicidal madman who had pounded his own brains to a pulp.

Seeing the sword she mentioned, Kenshin got up and walked over to it as Misao continued her story.

"Then... then I went to take a look at his sword... it was weird... all black, with no shine at all!"

Kenshin glanced down at the bloody weapon. He had never seen a sword with such a totally non-reflective finish.

"I picked it up and then.... I don't know! It all got so hazy after that...." She turned around just in time to see Kenshin picking up the black katana. "NO! HIMURA!!! Don't touch it! It's EVIL!!!"

Holding the sword in his hand, he gave Misao a startled look. "What?" He calmly held it up in the afternoon sunlight. It was an exceptional weapon, a masterpiece perfect in both edge and balance. But aside from its unusual appearance, Kenshin couldn't detect anything strange or uncanny about the blade.

Misao looked totally bewildered. "You don't... you don't feel it?"

Kenshin mutely shook his head.

"I... I don't understand. There's something horrible about... about that THING! I'm not imagining it, Himura!" She started to shake. "Or... or maybe I am... maybe I'm going crazy...." Misao began to giggle hysterically.

Kenshin plunged the sword into the ground and ran over to her side. "Misao! Got a hold of yourself! I don't know what's going on, but I don't think it's just you! There's must be something else going on and we need to find out what it is. Please, Misao! Aoshi needs you to be strong...."

She gasped quietly for several moments, then she whispered, "Himura... you can't imagine the terrible things I said to him. They... they all came spilling out of me... like... like maggots out of a rotten carcass! All this anger... bitterness... it was so UGLY." She rubbed her hands together as if trying to wipe both the dried blood and some unseen dirt away.

"He finally... finally SMILED at me... and... and he said... that... that he... cared about me." She suddenly flung her good arm around Kenshin and wailed, "I don't want to lose him NOW!!! After all we've been through... I CAN'T lose him now!!!"

As Kenshin gently held a weeping Misao, his gaze drifted back to the black sword as it stood, protruding from the ground.

(I don't know why I can sense nothing strange about it, but I can't believe that Misao just went insane for no reason at all. Something caused her to behave this way. A matte black sword... perfect for wielding in the shadows.... It's the key to this mystery... but how?)

-----------------------------------

It was nearly evening by the time they managed to transport Aoshi back to Dr. Genzai's clinic. Megumi's lips had thinned when she recognized her patient, but she said nothing and set about working with her usual brisk efficiency.

Tokio was still there, patiently tending to matters that the overworked Megumi simply did not have time to handle. As Megumi struggled to save Aoshi's life, Tokio took custody of the distraught Misao, set and resplinted her broken arm, cleaned her up, found her new clothes, and simply held her through the occasional bouts of uncontrolled weeping.

Firmly banished from Megumi's work area, Misao said, "Do... do you think I can see... Kaoru?"

"I don't see why not," murmured Tokio and led the ninja girl to Kaoru's room.

Misao stood, frozen in the doorway, before rushing over to Kaoru's side. She fell to her knees and gasped, "I... I'm so SORRY!!!"

Kaoru gently stroked the girl's unbraided hair. "There's nothing to be sorry for. I know it wasn't really you who tried to hurt me. Shhhh... shhhh."

The door opened and Kenshin quietly slipped into the room. He was carrying something hastily wrapped in a sturdy cloth.

"Kenshin... how's Aoshi?"

Misao froze tensely as she awaited his reply.

"Megumi is just finishing up. She can't make any promises, but it looks like he'll recover."

The ninja girl went limp with relief.

"Kaoru-dono, Tokio-dono... Misao told me what happened this morning. I just wanted to make sure." He partially unwrapped the bundle to expose the black sword. "Is this the same sword the man dropped?"

Kaoru gasped when she caught sight of the blade. "It's... it's magnificent!"

Misao merely buried her head in the blankets and refused to even look at the weapon.

Tokio cocked her head slightly. "Yes. I'm fairly sure it's the same one."

"What are you going to do with it, Kenshin?" Kaoru asked.

Rewrapping the sword, Kenshin sighed quietly. "I'm not sure. I need to take a better look at it. Maybe it has some clues to what happened."

Tokio murmured, "It's getting late and I'm sure Megumi's too tired to do any cooking. If you'll excuse me, I'll prepare some dinner for everyone. We have all that excellent seafood. It would be a pity to waste it."

Kenshin gave her a deep bow and said, "Thank you, Tokio-dono, for dinner and for all your help."

"I'm glad to be of any assistance I can."

When she left the room, Kaoru said, "She's such a kind, sweet-tempered person. I can't imagine what living with someone like Saitoh must be like!"

They each tried to picture what life in the Saitoh household must be like, then they all shook their heads and muttered, "Nah...."

-----------------------------------

At that moment, Fujita Goro -- better known as Saitoh Hajime, Mibu's Wolf, and many other less complimentary names -- arrived home from his trip to Osaka. He took one last drag at his cigarette, then ground it out.

(So much for that.)

Even before he stepped in the door, he knew Tokio was not home. When she wasn't around, the house seemed eerily empty, even though there were a few servants and that boy Eiji lurking around.

"She left you a note," a sullen voice said. "Here."

Saitoh took the message. As he read it, he scowled slightly. Refolding the note, he gave Eiji a cool stare and said, "What happened?"

-----------------------------------

Casual passersby could barely keep themselves from drooling as they caught a whiff of the mouth-watering aromas that drifted from Dr. Genzai's clinic.

Kaoru insisted that she was well enough join the others at dinner. Misao had to be dragged from Aoshi's side and was fidgeting impatiently for dinner to be over and done with.

"But I want to keep an eye on Aoshi-sama!"

"Listen to me, Misao! You're even paler than Kaoru at the moment and you can barely move as it is!" Megumi scolded her.

"No, I'm fine...."

"Misao, you have a broken arm, you probably haven't eaten anything since breakfast, and you're totally exhausted! You need both food and rest! Get something to eat and I'll make you a place to sleep in Aoshi's room. All right?"

As the ninja girl reluctantly nodded, Sano took a deep breath and sighed. "Man, that woman has to be a goddess! I've never smelled stuff so good!"

Yahiko muttered, "Yeah. If she always cooks like this, how on earth does Saitoh stay so skinny?" His hand sneaked out to grab a dumpling and promptly got smacked by Kaoru.

"Ow!"

"You should wait, you greedy pig!" Kaoru snapped.

Megumi sank down into a tired heap on the floor. "Tokio-san, you're a lifesaver! I don't think I can boil water right now."

"It's nothing." Tokio stepped out of the kitchen and brought out the last plate of perfectly grilled fish. As everyone thanked her enthusiastically for her efforts, the door to the clinic abruptly slid open.

Tokio smiled happily and executed a graceful bow, food plate still in hand.

"Hajime-san! You're back just in time. I've cooked one of your favorites."

There were muffled thuds as various people toppled over in shock.

The tall, lean figure silhouetted in the doorway uttered a faint, almost rueful sigh.

(I don't know how she does it.... I'm almost afraid to ask.)

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(end of part 4)

******************** Author's Notes ********************

Next part: Next, the Dinner Show! ^_^

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