Rurouni Kenshin - "That Which Lingers" (Part 24) by Madamhydra

Last major revision:  05/29/99
Last modified:  05/04/00

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This story is set in my own ALTERNATE REALITY Rurouni Kenshin universe which I've called "The Nightwitch Tales" -- think of it as Rurouni Kenshin mixed with various supernatural and paranormal elements.  It takes place after the end of the Kyoto story arc.  After that, all bets are off.  Other stories in this alternate reality are: "Night Visitor"; "All in the Family"; and "Romancing the Wolf".  

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

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THAT WHICH LINGERS:  A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfic by MadamHydra
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Part 24:  SPIRITS IN THE MATERIAL WORLD
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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
  represents mental dialogue
* ----- * ----- *  marks the start/end of dreams or flashbacks
[ ] denote visual or time notes

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[ Kyoto, mid-August, 1878 (11th year of the Meiji period) ]

As Sano, Yahiko, and Misao continued to stare dumbfoundedly at Saitoh -- he calmly released his grip on Tokio and imperiously lifted his arm.  They heard the barest whisper of wings as a large jet black raven swooped out of the dimness and settled on Saitoh's outstretched wrist.

"Make sure that idiot grandcub of mine doesn't screw things up," he said curtly.

The raven cocked its head.

He suddenly turned and stared at Misao.  A sinister smile -- unusually so even for Saitoh -- appeared on his lean face. 

Misao instinctively retreated a step.

"And then see what you can do with the Weasel Girl."

The raven glanced at Misao.  It seemed to sigh before bobbing its sleek black head once in acknowledgement.  Then with a single powerful sweep of its wings, the bird was airborne.

Saitoh watched the raven disappear into the murky, cloud-clogged sky, then turned on his heel and stalked purposefully toward Misao.

In a strangled voice, the girl croaked, "Wha... what do *you* want?" as she scuttled backward.  Saitoh was scary enough under normal circumstances, but the dark aura of power that now hovered over him made the man infinitely more intimidating.

Saitoh's feral grin widened.  Before she or the others could react, with uncanny swiftness, he grabbed Misao by the back of her neck and effortlessly hauled the girl into the air just like an errant puppy.  Ignoring her struggles and the sputtering Sano and Yahiko, he then headed off down the street with Misao still firmly in his clutches.

"What the hell are you doing, you bastard!" she shrieked, her outrage finally overcoming her fear and nervousness.

"I've got plans for you, girl, and I don't want you wandering off in some half-witted attempt to find Shinomori."  

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[elsewhere in Kyoto]

After leading the Battousai on a long, convoluted chase through Kyoto, Junichi paused for a moment to give Kaoru's body a chance to rest.  Even with the sword's power, Kaoru's body could only be pushed so far.  He took a quick peek backward, expecting to see the Battousai trailing far behind... but there was nobody there.   A scowl appeared on Kaoru's face.

With a feeling of profound annoyance, Junichi wondered, (Where did he go to?  Did he finally get tired and give up?)  However, his thoughts were also tinged with relief.  He was reluctant to admit it, but Junichi had been more than a little bothered by the Battousai's unexpected speed and stamina.  With Kinslayer's magic, Kaoru shouldn't have too much trouble outpacing any mortal.  However, it seemed that the Battousai was keeping up without too much effort.  True, his enemy wasn't able to actually catch up, but still....  Junichi quickly shoved the thought aside as trivial.

He glanced around, but there was still no sign of his enemy.  Finally, after impatiently waiting several minutes, Junichi swore in frustration and stalked off down the street.  He had nearly been ready to end this chase anyway.  Another block or more, and they would have been at the southern canal... the place where everything started thirteen years ago... the place where he would again challenge the Battousai.  But this time, he would be the victor.

Junichi was desperately eager for this confrontation.  He wanted to see the Battousai's guts spilling all over the ground.  He wanted to see the Battousai begging for his life....

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

Trapped in her mind, Kaoru was very much aware of Junichi's thoughts.  She might have laughed at the sheer irrationality of his fantasies, but there was something else first and foremost thing on her mind.

The Hitokiri Battousai was back.

She felt her guts knot in dread and anxiety as she remembered her last good look at Kenshin.  She would never forget the sight of him standing in the middle of a street strewn with corpses as a fine mist of blood settled ever so slowly out of the air.

And even more unforgettable was the ominous golden sheen in his eyes.  If gold was supposed to be a warm color, then how could the Battousai's gaze seem so distant and so cold?

She didn't *hate* the Battousai, but the sight of those golden eyes filled her with foreboding because they symbolized a part of Kenshin that she did not know and felt no desire to know.  They meant that the Kenshin she knew was no longer there.  

(No... that's not really true,) Kaoru reluctantly admitted to herself.  The Hitokiri was undeniably different from Kenshin... and yet, he wasn't a separate entity wholly distinct from Kenshin.  

Perhaps that was what she found most frightening of all -- to think that the killer she had heard so many stories about and the rurouni that she had come to love could be so closely intertwined, even in her eyes.  Because if that was true, then that meant....

(I could never have the one without learning to accept the other....)

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

Junichi wanted to destroy the Battousai NOW... but something kept holding him back.  He told himself that it wasn't fear or nervousness.  He was ready.  He had the skill and the power.  Why should he want two more days until the festival of Bon?

(No.  I... I want to play with him a bit more.  Make him suffer....  Yes, that's it.  The timing has to be just right....)

Fully occupied with his attempt to rationalize his lack of action, Junichi failed to pay attention to where he was going until he nearly fell into the canal that blocked his path.

For some strange reason, the bridge that had collapsed those thirteen years ago had never been rebuilt.  Instead, a new bridge had been constructed a few blocks to the east.  Junichi stood at the edge of the canal and stared down at the water.  There was no wreckage to be seen.  Two large stone blocks on each bank of the canal were the only traces that there had once been a major structure on this spot.

Suddenly, Kinslayer quivered urgently in its scabbard.  Junichi spun around, looking for danger.  At first, he could see nothing out of the ordinary.  The surrounding streets, normally full of bustling people, was empty.  

(Cowering in their homes, no doubt, if they haven't fled the city already.)

Junichi tensed as he finally noticed a slim figure silently standing less than ten yards away.  Dressed in a dark navy jacket and hakama, the man was nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding shadows.  If it hadn't been for Kinslayer's warning, Junichi would have never noticed the other's presence until too late.  And although Junichi would have ardently denied it or characterized it merely as anticipation, he felt a faint shiver as the slim figure emerged into the dim light of the afternoon, revealing ominously familiar details....

....the long red hair caught up in a high ponytail....
....the cold golden eyes that pinpointed every possible weakness....

....and the deadly gleam of a katana.

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Kaoru's face twisted into a furious scowl as Junichi shouted, "How did you find me!?"

Kenshin didn't bother to reply to his opponent's childish ravings.  It hadn't taken him long to detect the pattern in Junichi's movements... how the spirit possessing Kaoru's body seemed inexorably drawn to the canal where their first and only battle had occurred thirteen years ago, only to turn away at the last moment.  But no matter how many times he had swerved away from the location, Junichi always headed back to the canal.  The decision to cut short the chase had been a gamble, but one that had paid off.

As he watched the expression of baffled frustration on Kaoru's face, Kenshin could almost taste the darkness in the air -- the fear, bloodlust, and desperation that hung over Kyoto, just like it had over a decade ago during the Bakumatsu no Douran.  It was as if returning to the persona of the Battousai had reawakened senses that had become blunted over the intervening decade of wandering.

That decision had not come easily.  He had spent over a decade trying to separate himself from his past.  And for the last several days he had been desperately struggling to cling to his new self... the man he had become in the years since the Douran.  But a less idealistic and more coldly practical part of Kenshin kept telling him that he was squandering valuable energy on a futile battle -- energy he probably could not afford to waste -- as well as turning his back on badly needed advantages.

Sometime during the chase, he had come to a grim, but inescapable realization.

(I must go into this fight with a whole heart, not second-guessing myself... not constantly worrying if the Hitokiri is taking over or whether the Rurouni is strong enough.  There is no hope for victory if I'm divided against myself.  The Hitokiri is not the enemy.  Junichi and his demon master are my true opponents.  The killer is a part of me, just as the kindly wanderer I have tried so hard to be, and both are parts of Himura Kenshin.  Whatever it takes to stop Junichi and his shadowy puppetmaster... if it means returning to the ways of the hitokiri... so be it.  I must accept that.  No holding back.  No reservations.  I cannot fail.  I *will* not fail.)

In this particular fight, failure was totally unacceptable.  A world ruled by such a monster is not worth living in.  No, perhaps it was more accurate to say that such a world would not be worth *existing* in.

(But if I must kill, then I do so on my own terms and reasons, just as I did during the Douran.  I will not be a mindless pawn in Junichi's game -- or rather, his demon master's game.  I will not be controlled and ruled by my memories.  Rather, my past will give me the weapons I need to win in the present.  As for the future... I shall deal with that when it comes.)

Once his fateful decision had been made, Kenshin had stopped fighting the incessant pull of the past.  And if he did not eagerly embrace those memories of his old self, at least he accepted them and made them serve his own purposes.  And as his mind returned at least in part to its old patterns, things in the physical world also reverted to familiar patterns.  In some ways, it was as if the last ten years had never been.

Even as he absently retied his hair, a part of Kenshin couldn't help wonder if Kaoru could understand what he was doing.  What would she think of him and his newfound... no, his rediscovered willingness to take a human lives if necessary... possibly her own?

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Kaoru watched as the Battousai slowly stepped from the shadows, the drawn katana in his hand gleaming in the dim light of the afternoon.  

In response to Junichi's angry questions, he finally said, "With your obsession with revenge, it was an easy guess."

Kaoru could feel Junichi grinding her teeth in fury.

"And now that I'm here, we will settle matters once and for all."

"No!" Junichi snarled.

The Battousai narrowed his golden eyes and coldly said, "Why not?"

"B-b-because!"  Junichi's voice wavered uncertainly.

Kenshin continued his relentless advance.  "You fool.  You still haven't realized the truth yet, have you?"

"Realized what!?"

"That you're just a puppet in someone else's scheme."

"That's ridiculous!  You're the one who's the puppet!  You're the one dancing to a song of my choosing!"

"Your choosing... or your master's?"

"What are you talking about!?  I'm the master of the game here!"

The Battousai coldly retorted, "You call me a puppet, Minobe, but you are the one dangling from someone else's strings."

"No, that's not true! You're lying!"  Junichi shook Kaoru's head in frantic denial.

"Then prove otherwise," came Kenshin's sharp reply.  "End this now.  Or do you lack the courage?"

"No!  I told you, I'm not ready yet!  I... I have plans!"

"Like what?" the Battousai ruthlessly interrupted.

"Do you really think I'm going to tell you?" hissed Junichi.    

The red-haired swordsman said in coldly scathing tones, "Perhaps you don't *have* any plans...."

"I do!  I do!" shouted Junichi, sounding more child-like with each passing second.

The Battousai continued relentlessly, "....because you really don't have the slightest idea of what's going on."

"You're wrong!"  Junichi actually stamped Kaoru's foot in a mixture of frustration and anger.

If Kenshin might have shaken his head in a mixture of sadness and exasperation, the Battousai did no such thing.  He would not give an opponent -- even one as hopeless-seeming as Junichi -- the slightest tactical advantage, no matter how small.  

"Listen to yourself!" the Battousai snapped, "and then try to remember the man you were thirteen years ago.  You were one of the Shinsengumi, a member of the most feared and respected groups in Kyoto.  You might have been overly arrogant back then, but at least you weren't a complete idiot.  Now look at you, Minobe, whining and throwing a tantrum like a spoiled child, unable to come up with the simplest explanation or reason for any of your actions.  Who's the brainless puppet now?"

"You're... you're just trying to confuse me!"

"That's a pathetically easy thing to do.  Kinslayer may have given you the opportunity for revenge, but see what it's cost you -- your ability to reason, your courage, your self-respect, your humanity... everything."

"Shut up!"

"Whatever damage I might have done to your body is nothing compared to what Kinslayer and its' master have done to you.  They've crippled your spirit and your soul far more than anything I might have done."

"I told you to shut up!!!"

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As Kaoru listened to the conversation going on between Kenshin and Junichi, she wasn't sure what amazed her more -- the abrupt degeneration in Junichi's behavior or Kenshin's... well, Kenshin's apparent restraint.

(The last thing I expected was to hear the Battousai simply... talking.  Then again, how often have I really seen this side of Kenshin?  Only once, during that fight with Saitoh in the dojo.  But perhaps... perhaps I shouldn't be that surprised.  Perhaps I was so upset, so caught up with Kenshin's ruthlessness and determination during that duel, I failed to notice what was really going on.  Kenshin didn't go berserk.  He wasn't mindlessly attacking Saitoh.  He knew exactly what he was doing and he knew how best to accomplish that.)

Could it be that she had heard too many stories of the Battousai's ferocity and killing skill?  Had she unconsciously bought into the legend of the blood-thirsty Hitokiri Battousai, a murderous monster that killed indiscriminately?  

But she was beginning to see that the Battousai's deadliness did not solely reside in his sword arm, but also in the cold, calculating mind that guided that arm.  Just like Kenshin, the Battousai understood his opponent -- the motivations and the reasons -- but while Kenshin often empathized with his opponent, the Battousai offered no sympathy or kindness whatsoever.  He dragged Junichi's fears and uncertainties into the open, exposing them to his merciless scrutiny.  

Oh, the Battousai understood Junichi all right, but it was the ruthless understanding a true predator had of its hapless prey.

Now that the Battousai had pointed it out so clearly, she realized that frightening dark presence that had been controlling Junichi for so long was strangely absent.  It wasn't completely gone, but without its constant guidance, Junichi seemed much less dangerous and threatening.

(What's going on?  It's almost as if that other presence has somehow been... distracted.  But with what?)

With the controlling evil gone, she could clearly sense what Kenshin evidently had.  If a person's mind was like a building, then Junichi's mind was a structure tottering on the verge of utter ruin, its walls and supports deliberately and systematically weakened by Kinslayer's manipulations.  She could literally *feel* the gaps and holes in Junichi's thinking processes.  

Hope surged in her heart.  This could be her one chance to break free.  With that thought, Kaoru attacked the mental barriers holding her prisoner within her own body with renewed vigor and determination.

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With a jolt, Junichi became aware that the Battousai had managed to come dangerously close.  Kaoru's arms belatedly whipped Kinslayer up into a guard position.

"You cunning bastard!" Junichi shrieked, infuriated both at the Battousai and himself.  "But you've forgotten the most important thing!  I still have the girl!"  Kaoru's lips curled into a most unladylike smirk as Junichi consoled himself with the thought that he still had the upper hand.

Something flared briefly in the Battousai's golden eyes, but that was all.  The cold, unshakable purposefulness of his expression was far more unnerving than any display of anger or rage could be.

"There's no way to stop me without killing her!" Junichi taunted his opponent.

The Battousai said evenly, "If that becomes necessary, I will."

Junichi blinked in astonishment.  "You... you're willing to KILL her!?" he shouted, sounding hopelessly baffled.  "I thought you loved her!?"

As his long red ponytail fluttered in the faint breeze, Kenshin fixed his golden-eyed gaze upon Kaoru's face and simply said, "I do."

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Trapped inside her body, a stunned Kaoru mentally whispered, (Kenshin....)  

She could not doubt the utter sincerity in his voice when he said that he loved her... nor could she doubt his sincerity when he said that he was willing to kill her.

For an instant, she was torn between joy and despair.  How often had she dreamed of hearing those words from Kenshin?  But she had never dreamed that she would hear them from the Battousai.  Did it really make a difference?

(Have I been lying to myself all this time?  I kept telling myself that I didn't care about Kenshin's past... but I did.  All the stories of death and murder... I couldn't help wondering how such a terrible killer have a heart.  How could someone like that take so many lives and still have feelings?  How could someone like that care about anyone else?)

With a guilty twinge, she wondered, (Did Kenshin know?  Did he somehow guess how I felt, even though I didn't even realize it myself?  Is that why he seemed so hesitant about getting close to me?)

(Maybe... maybe I've been wrong all this time.  I've been thinking of Kenshin and the Battousai as two completely different people... but they're not.  Kenshin... my Kenshin... he's still there, a part of the Battousai that stands before me, just as the Battousai is a part of Kenshin.)  

But perhaps the mistake wasn't entirely her own fault.  Perhaps it was partially Kenshin's fault, too.  

(He's tried so hard to become someone different from the infamous Hitokiri Battousai.  The Battousai had killed often, so Kenshin had chosen to never kill at all.  If Kenshin himself turned away from the Battousai -- the killer within -- is it any wonder that the rest of us should do the same?)

But in trying to change, had Kenshin gone too far?  If she was right and the Battousai was an integral part of Kenshin, then rejecting what the Battousai stood for meant that Kenshin was trying to reject a part of his own soul.  It might not be a pretty or pleasant part, but it was a part nevertheless.  And it was often said that an incomplete soul could never know true happiness....

Could she accept Kenshin?  Not just the gentle part of him, but the killer, too?  

The mere act of killing itself wasn't automatically evil.  She couldn't condemn a person just because they took another's life.  

(Shinomori Aoshi, the other Oniwabanshuu, maybe even my own father before he developed the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu... they've probably all killed, but that doesn't make them monsters.  I don't fear or hate them.  Why should it be so different with Kenshin?)

(Perhaps because he's so good at it.  Maybe that's what bothers me... he makes it seem so effortless.)  She gazed at the Battousai.  There was no eagerness, no anticipation.  There was only... purpose, a determination to do what he deemed necessary.  

(Looking at him now... I think I'm beginning to understand.  The Battousai might be an expert at killing, but he doesn't do it casually.  He doesn't *enjoy* taking people's lives.  He kills because he believes that it's necessary to achieve the greater good....)  

(If I had to... to protect someone I loved or an innocent person... if I had no choice....)

A part of herself whispered stubbornly, (There's always a choice!  You can always choose not to kill!)

But was that really true?  Was there always a choice?  If Kenshin's or Yahiko's or Sano's life truly was at risk, she knew what she would do in an instant.  It was a sobering realization for her.

(Are my hands unstained because I choose to follow the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu... or is it merely good luck?  Is the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu really a luxury only possible in a more peaceful time... a time that was the result of the loss of so many lives and the sufferings of countless others?)

If she was willing to take a life out of love... to protect the people she cared for, how could she possibly scorn Kenshin for being prepared to do the very same?

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Kenshin continued, "But I will not permit your master to carry out its scheme to drown this city and country in blood and misery.  No matter the cost."

"What the hell are you babbling about now!?"

"Exactly that.  I'm talking about hell... here on earth.  That's what your master wants."

"I have no master!  This is between you and me!"

"Wrong.  Your obsession and your aunt's obsession for revenge against me allowed the demon to get a foothold in this world.  Do you really think that your desires mean anything to this monster?  You're just a pawn in your demon master's grand scheme...."

Kenshin abruptly stiffened and whirled to his right, katana ready to strike.

"Quite true.  And a pawn that's just become expendable."  The voice was familiar to both Kaoru and Kenshin, but the vicious undertone of malice was not.

"You," Kenshin bit out as he stared upward to see Shinomori Aoshi calmly standing on the roof of a nearby building.  Like an obscene pack of hounds, several long spindly creatures crouched at his feet and stared down at Kaoru and Kenshin with bulging red eyes.  Thin wisps of smoke arose from the roof as stray drops of the monsters' saliva ate into the roof tiles.

Kaoru couldn't help a mental shiver as she saw the corner of Aoshi's mouth curl upward in a faint, blood-chilling smile.  She had never seen such a purely... evil expression on anyone's face before.  In that instant, she *knew* where Junichi's mysterious puppetmaster had gone.

(No wonder....  It's taken possession of Aoshi!)

"The sword," Aoshi coolly demanded.

Junichi burst out, "What are you talking about?  You can't take Kinslayer!  I haven't gotten my revenge yet!  I haven't defeated the Battousai!"

Aoshi said mockingly, "Do you really think you ever had a chance?"

"You promised!  You swore that...."

For the first time in the entire encounter with Junichi, the Battousai smiled ever so slightly.  "You know what they say about those foolish enough to believe the promises of demons, Minobe."

Aoshi uttered a nasty chuckle.  "The situation has changed.  You've of no use to me now, Minobe.  Now, I want Kinslayer."

"No!  I can beat him!  I know I can!"

The monsters stirred restlessly, but the expression on Aoshi's face made it clear that the demon was apparently amused by Junichi's continued defiance.

Kenshin stepped forward and said flatly, "You're not getting Kinslayer."

"Do you think that you'd be any more successful in stopping me than this fool?" the demon said mockingly as Aoshi pointed at Junichi.

Preoccupied with the ongoing conversation, no one noticed as a large black raven silently landed in the shadows of a nearby building.

Kenshin refused to be distracted by the demon's taunts and continued to warily watch the demon's every move.

Apparently bored with the whole affair, Aoshi gestured impatiently.

Kinslayer wrenched itself free of Junichi's desperate grasp and dropped neatly into Aoshi's right hand.  He leisurely held out his left hand and the cursed sword's sheath followed suit.

"No!" howled Junichi.  At that moment, Kaoru frantically threw herself against the bars of her prison.  This time, she felt something give way.  She was free... but only partially.  To her dismay, Junichi stubbornly refused to be ousted from his host body.  In response to the struggle for ownership, Kaoru's body suddenly collapsed and started thrashing convulsively on the ground.

Kenshin ignored her for the moment and leapt toward Shinomori, only to be intercepted by the scuttling, slime-drooling monsters that had been hovering eagerly at their master's side.

He effortless evaded the first raking slash and retaliated with a swift vertical cut that nearly cut the beast in half.  As the Battousai fought off another creature's attack, Shinomori said, "I would have much rather preferred to use *you* against the Hunter, but you proved to be unexpectedly stubborn.  I would deal with you myself, but I'm somewhat pressed for time.  I have an appointment to keep with an old enemy and much to do beforehand."

And with those words, Shinomori gave Kenshin a mocking salute with Kinslayer and departed to the east.

Kenshin's first instinct was to pursue Shinomori and retrieve Kinslayer, but aside from the monsters bent on blocking his path, there was also the problem of the obviously helpless Kaoru.  The thought of killing her himself had been difficult enough to contemplate, but to leave her to the mercies of these demonic beasts....  At least if he had been doing the killing, he could have made certain that her death was as swift and painless as possible.  However, with those creatures, he had no such assurance.  

As he struggled with his decision, Kenshin continued to beat back his attackers.  This was the sort of combat that the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu was created for.  The opponents might be nonhuman, their weapons might be fangs and claws, but the dance was the same.  He needed to eliminate his opponents as swiftly as possible if he was to stand any chance of catching the possessed Shinomori.

Suddenly, someone -- or something -- spoke to him.

Let him have it.

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

The words were not spoken aloud, but rather to his mind... or rather something hidden deep within his mind.  Even as his fight with the monsters continued uninterrupted in the physical world, Kenshin found himself on an unfamiliar mindscape... and embodied in an unexpected form.

Razor-edged scales softly rustled as the dragon that was Kenshin peered around warily at its strange new surroundings with great golden eyes and curtly snapped, What did you say!?

Let him have it, came the harsh, equally curt reply.  The voice came from a huge, shadowy raven that hovered nearby, its dark amber eyes glittering.

The dragon that was Kenshin reared up, its whiskers stiffened in outrage, and snarled, What!?

You heard me.  Let the demon take the sword, rasped the raven impatiently.  Or are you so eager to let the monsters have the girl?

The dragon hissed deep in its throat, exposing a mouthful of gleaming white fangs.

Give it up.  I'm not that easily impressed, retorted the raven.

....  The dragon glared at it, its tail twitching angrily.

Baka!

The dragon/Kenshin involuntarily twitched.  It sounded so much like his old teacher who used to frequently yell at him -- and who *still* yelled at him -- in the exact same tone of exasperation and irritation.  The mental equivalent of a sharp smack which accompanied the exasperated exclamation was also stingingly familiar.

I've had plenty of experience dealing with dragons like you.

The sheer arrogance... the overwhelming air of confidence... the razor's edge of malice....  The raven's voice sounded like an unholy mixture of Saitoh Hajime AND Hiko Seijuro -- a combination frightening enough to make the most cold-blooded fighter cringe.

That thought got Kenshin another sharp mental cuff from the raven.

I *heard* that.  Don't you dare liken me to that arrogant ass Hiko!

(Most definitely like Shishou....) the dragon muttered very, very quietly to itself.

Let the demon have Kinslayer, the raven repeated in an irritable voice.

Why? the dragon demanded.

So that Shinomori can break the seals and release the demon, replied the raven, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

WHAT!?!?

Stop howling like that!  You heard me perfectly well.

The dragon pounced at the raven, gleaming claws outstretched, but the raven vanished in a blur.  An instant later, a set of cruel talons dug painfully into the dragon's back and pinned it down.  

With a snort of contempt, the raven said, You're too young and too inexperienced to catch me like that.

The dragon thrashed and tried to wrench itself free, but to no avail.  Although the talons' grip was painful, it quickly realized that the raven was not inflicting any real damage.  

With its sharp beak poised dangerously close to the dragon's head, the raven snapped, Idiot!  The demon must be freed before it can be destroyed.  Even if you defeat Shinomori now, that solves nothing.  The demon remains and so the danger remains.  You would have only bought a little time, nothing more.  Follow our lead and you stand a good chance of destroying the demon once and for all.

Who are you? the dragon/Kenshin snarled suspiciously as it twisted its head and peered up at the raven.  Why should I trust you?  

Use your instincts to see the truth, then ask me again.

As the dragon that was Kenshin strained its senses to their utmost limits, Kyoto seemed to unfold before him like a great map overlaid by a bewildering pattern of glowing lines, bright points of light, and scraggily patches of darkness.  But the impressions he received were not limited solely to sight, but rather involved all his senses....

....the soothing sound of temple bells....
....the cold, clammy sensation of restless spirits....
....the foul aftertaste that hinted of rotting flesh....
....the subtle odor of holy incense....

Then the dragon picked up the faint trace of another presence prowling through the city.  It was immeasurably old and powerful... a flash of glittering fangs and glowing amber eyes... something that was dark and bloody, cold and ruthless... but not necessarily evil.

The Hunter.... murmured the raven.

No, that presence wasn't evil... not compared to the lurking mass of foulness that he instantly recognized as the true enemy -- that entity could only be the demon responsible for all the death and terror choking Kyoto.  

....and the Love-Eater, the raven said in a terse hiss.

Then Kenshin gradually became aware of a subtle pattern woven around the demon... a pattern was now fraying, like a fragile net slowly being shredded.

(No... not a net, but a binding holding it prisoner...,) a newly born instinct within him said.

Through the gaping holes in the binding, little patches of evil oozed free and crawled across the landscape of the city, leaving behind fear and misery like the slimy trails of slugs.  And tangled in the fraying net of power that held the demon, Kenshin saw Kinslayer.  The tainted blade seemed to be slowly sawing its way through the strands confining the Love-Eater, but it also seemed to be the linchpin that held much of the binding in place around the monster.

The binding... can it be repaired? asked the dragon.

The raven chuckled unpleasantly.  Only temporarily and to a much weakened state.  The seals are old.  Once broken, they can never be returned to their full power.  The Love-Eater would be able to free itself with comparative ease.  And the demon will only gain power as time passes.

So the only option is destruction.

Yes, now while it is still weakened from its long confinement.  However, that cannot be accomplished while the binding is still in place.

Now I understand.  The binding is both prison and shield.

I'm glad you've finally decided to start pay attention to the overall picture, the raven said mockingly.  I was beginning to wonder if you had been dropped on your head a few too many times when you were a baby.

The dragon shook its head in annoyance, then focused its newly awakened senses on the raven.  Kenshin received an impression of something that was all hard, sharp edges mixed with a lethal coldness that reminded him strongly of the Hunter.

But hidden deep inside the cruelly-edged presence, he sensed a sort of... warmth... that was strangely familiar.  It had surrounded him once, keeping him safe and secure....

(I... I know it.  Somehow... I know... *her*,) the dragon thought to itself in bewilderment.  For the presence was female, he knew that with utter assurance.

Then Kenshin heard a soft sound... a faint thumping rhythm that he instantly recognized.  That sound had been the very first thing he had ever been aware of... the first thing in his world.

It was the sound of a beating heart.

Who... who are you? asked the dragon in an oddly tentative voice.  I... know you.

The raven stiffened and blinked in surprise.  It hadn't expected this particular development.

Kenshin continued, I don't know exactly when or where, but... we were once... very close, weren't we?  I can feel it....

The raven that was Risako slowly eased its powerful mental grip on the dragon that was Kenshin -- her only child.  She stepped away from him and the two of them stared at each other for a long moment.  When the raven finally answered, its voice had softened, losing some of its earlier arrogance and harshness.

That's not important for now, little one.  Concern yourself with your woman.  The rest can wait.

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

The entire mental conversation took place in an instant.  Back in the physical world, Kenshin had been steadily working his way through the pack of demonic monsters with relentless efficiency.  His attention was suddenly caught by Kaoru's voice frantically shouting, "Kenshin, look out behind you!"

In a blur, he sidestepped.  In the same smooth motion, he turned and counterattacked, the lethally sharp edge of the katana whipping forward in a move calculated to slice his opponent down to the spine.  But his golden eyes abruptly widened as he finally got a look at his tanto-wielding attacker.

....Kaoru....

-----------------------------------
(end of part 24)

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

Next part:   Finally some face-to-face interaction between Kenshin and Kaoru!  A family reunion of sorts, not to mention an interesting confrontation between Kenshin and his cough grandsire.   =^_^=

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