Author's Notes: I actually do like Kaoru. Oh, she annoys me at times, and I dislike that she makes people rule out the possibility of a Sano-Kenshin pairing, but she's a kind-hearted character. And I rather like her immature, but well-meaning nature. She will play a big part in this story since she's acting as the main catalyst (the center of the triangle). It's still a Sano-Kenshin pairing, but this fic isn't meant to bash Kaoru. I rather like the clingy girl.

Category: Anime, Rurouni Kenshin, Yaoi, TWT
Warnings: not much, bit of a 'language' warning
Pairings: SanoxKenshin, Kaoru-Kenshin, Katsu-Sano, may have some KenshinxSano
Author: Arigatomina
Email: arigatoumina (a) hotmail . com
Website: www . arigatomina . com

To Be Alone

Part 3

Yahiko's head was surely splitting apart, and he had no idea what he could have done to make it hurt so much. But the horrid, horrid, ugly girl was heartlessly shaking him. She was so mean and annoying in the mornings. Didn't she know better than to treat a guest that way?

With a dark scowl, Yahiko grumbled against the movements. "Stop it...stop shaking me..."

"I'm sorry, Yahiko. We'll be there shortly."

The words were muffled strangely, but very close. And they sparked a memory that lay in the back of his oddly fogged and pain-ridden mind. An echo of frightening laughter that hadn't sounded at all like laughter.

Yahiko's dazed eyes snapped open. "K-Kenshin...?"

"Ah."

His head was still pounding from the movement, but he managed to make out his surroundings. Kenshin was carrying him on his back. And around them...blurs to either side that made Yahiko's head spin so much he ducked it, hiding his eyes on Kenshin's back. He groaned at the pain in his temples and inadvertently got a mouth of hair.

It was the sake he'd drunk. Of course, he'd known better than to guzzle so much of the stuff. He had learned from that horrible headache he'd felt after Sano's party so long ago. But the first few sips had filled him with a pleasant calm warmth. He'd been relieved to let go of the dark worry and disturbed shivers.

Which, now that he recalled the cause of his headache, had sprung from none other than Kenshin himself. Kenshin, who was now carrying him home so quickly he couldn't see what they were passing.

He lifted his head with wary, if slightly blurred, eyes. "Kenshin...?"

"It's all right," said Kenshin, "I'm just taking you back to the dojo. Kaoru-dono was quite worried about you. You should not have run off without telling her."

"Yeah," Yahiko mumbled.

He was still wincing from the steady shaking of Kenshin's pace. It wasn't really that rough, considering the speed of it, but his head made it a thousand times worse. He was tempted to smack his face into Kenshin's shoulder in hopes of knocking himself out.

"She'll probably yell at me," Yahiko grumbled. "But if she hits me, she better do it hard or I'll just puke on her." There was no answer from the man carrying him, and he sighed. As much as he wanted to play like everything was normal, it wasn't. "Kenshin...earlier you..."

They weren't too far from the dojo now, so Kenshin slowed, choosing a quick but smooth walk. "Yahiko, I'm sorry for that. I did not mean to do that, and I didn't realize it would frighten you."

The softer walk let Yahiko's head settle a bit, much kinder on the pained throbbing. He sighed, letting his head fall onto the warm back he was leaning against.

"I wasn't scared," he denied, "it was just weird. I've never seen you like that - or heard, I mean. I didn't know what was wrong. What happened with you and Kaoru? Katsu said some dumb thing about you guys getting married!"

Kenshin stumbled, and Yahiko lifted his head so he could glare down at Kenshin's bangs, trying to see through them to the man's eyes. "You guys wouldn't plan something like that without telling me, would you!"

"No," Kenshin stated. His voice was soft but firm, and tinted with more than a little anger. "He should not have said that to you."

"Yeah, well, I don't care what he said, he doesn't even know Kaoru. Like anyone would marry her... But then Sanosuke agreed with him!"

"Did he..."

"Yeah," Yahiko scowled. "And he was being a real jerk. Just because I said you two had an argument and made up, that doesn't mean you're getting married, that's stupid. And he wouldn't listen to me at all. Katsu listened more than Sanosuke did. I don't know what's wrong with him. He acted like I was making it up when I said you were - were..."

The pace had slowed to a normal walk, and Yahiko trailed off. "Kenshin...earlier...were you...?"

The man didn't look up, and Yahiko shivered despite the warmth pressing his stomach. He didn't want to know if it were true, but the very thought made all of his walls crumble. Kenshin was the strongest person he knew, surely he wouldn't snap like that. But the way it had sounded...not laughter. He'd never heard laughter sound like that.

"Were you...crying...?"

Silence seemed to swamp over them, the dark street suddenly heavy and black, and Yahiko shivered again. When it came, the response was a whisper, the voice foreign somehow.

"Is that why you ran?" asked Kenshin.

It was true. Yahiko shifted back, his arms moving to clutch Kenshin's shoulders. His voice was a sharp desperate whisper. "Why! What happened? I never thought you would - you're so strong! Why would you be..."

Kenshin stopped moving and Yahiko had an urge to get free. He wanted to see his face, but then...a part of him didn't want to see Kenshin's face if he'd really broken down like that. He couldn't take it in.

Kenshin crying? That just didn't make sense. Kenshin didn't cry.

He'd seen Kenshin angry, infuriated, and torn by the carnage of battle to the point where he'd screamed from it all. But never once had he broken down and cried.

"You're too strong for that," Yahiko whispered, "Strong people don't cry..."

"I'm only human, Yahiko. Everyone falls apart eventually." Kenshin lifted his head, turning to look back at the wide-eyed boy he was holding on his back. "I am sorry you witnessed that, and for upsetting you to the point where you had to flee." A vague wince passed the boy's face at the word 'flee,' and Kenshin gave a faint smile at him. "I have ruined your image of me, haven't I. Strong men cry, Yahiko. Only the heartless are void of tears, others merely hold them inside until they overflow. Such is the price of pride; eventually even the most proud reach their limit."

"Kenshin..." Wincing again, Yahiko shook his head. Now he had a horrible urge to fall apart himself, his eyes burning. "Why now? Are you leaving us? Is that why Kaoru was crying earlier?"

"No," Kenshin said softly. His arms tightened around the boy's legs as he started to walk again. "No matter what happens, I am not going to abandon you or Kaoru-dono. You both mean too much to me. I would never do such a thing."

A warm but happy flush swamped Yahiko's cheeks and he was glad Kenshin hadn't seen it. "Then why were you upset? What were you guys arguing about?"

"It is nothing for you to worry about," said Kenshin.

Yahiko scowled suddenly, his left eyebrow twitching. "You aren't going to say that I'm too young to understand, are you?" A soft laugh and a nod were his answer and he growled, dropping his chin and glaring over Kenshin's shoulder. "Stupid adults."

"And curious boys," Kenshin teased lightly. "One of whom might want to feign sleep now so he can avoid being scolded."

They were in sight of the dojo, and Yahiko abruptly went limp. Kenshin smiled at the sudden soft snores that issued near his neck.

As expected, Kaoru's angry words died on her lips the moment she realized the boy was in no condition to hear them. With a reluctant sigh, she stepped aside so Kenshin could put the boy to bed. She'd have to wait till morning to yell at him. It only took a few minutes to get Yahiko settled, and she shared a soft smile with Kenshin before waving him into the dining area.

Sitting lightly, Kaoru smiled, her voice soft. "I made some tea. I didn't think you'd get back so soon, but I went ahead anyway."

"Ah, thank you." Kenshin sat slowly, his gaze moving over the girl's happy expression. He judged his words carefully, but he knew there was no way around it. "Kaoru-dono, I can't stay long."

Kaoru flinched, her face losing all color. She bit her lip to keep the flow of pleas and questions inside. But she couldn't help the reproachful sheen to her bright eyes.

Kenshin sighed. "Last night I had an encounter with Sano, and it is unresolved. I need to find him and talk to him about this...misunderstanding." He paused, watching as she took the words in.

"Last night?" asked Kaoru. She blinked in surprise and not a little confusion. "You went out last night? And that's why you were worried earlier?"

Kenshin gave a sharp nod and she set her cup down with a little more force than necessary.

Kaoru scowled. "You mean you were just worried about Sanosuke? And you let me think you were getting ready to go off and face some enemy! You should have just said so!"

Kenshin's eyes widened, a flitter of nervousness taking over his face until he looked like anything but a dangerous samurai. Kaoru stood to tower over him.

"Don't you ever scare me like that again! And making me feel guilty for nothing - if that was all it was, then you should have said so! I wouldn't have tried to stop you - of course you should go check on him. Making a mystery out of it like that, and here I was afraid to even ask you anything, and all the time it was so simple. Baka!"

Kenshin winced when the irate girl struck him over the head, not hard enough to really hurt, but enough to make him bite his tongue. "K-Kaoru-dono!"

"I can't believe you'd do that!" Kaoru glared. She swooped down to snatch away his cup and gave him a hard shove on the back. "And don't just sit there. You've been strange all day, over some problem with Sanosuke of all people, and you couldn't even tell me about it. I care about him, too, you know! Did you think I wouldn't care if you two fought over something? What, did you think a girl wouldn't understand? It's just Sanosuke - of course you have to go settle it. There's no reason to hide something like that. And stop staring at me. Go on! You should have gone earlier instead of making me feel like I was keeping you prisoner here!"

Wide blue-violet eyes stared up at her in blatant surprise and she sniffed at him. "What are you waiting for? You've known something was wrong with Sanosuke all day - now you're just sitting there? Go fix it!"

"H-hai!"

Kenshin stumbled a bit, Kaoru seeming to feel he needed prodding all the way out of the dojo. She didn't let go until he reached the grass, rubbing his abused head.

"I may not be back for a day or so..." said Kenshin.

"Well, knowing Sanosuke that's no surprise. Just drag him back here and I'll help knock some sense into him. Big stubborn freeloader..."

Kenshin winced a bit at Kaoru's mockingly angry fist, a faint smile flashing over his lips.

"I believe I can settle it myself," he said. "But thank you for the offer."

"Just get going," Kaoru sighed, waving a hand at him. "And I meant what I said, Kenshin." Her expression tightened into a disapproving frown. "Next time don't do that to me. I can't believe you'd keep some argument a secret like that. You don't have to worry about telling me, you know. I would have been happy to help."

"Ah," Kenshin said softly. His eyes dimmed a bit, but his gentle smile was genuine.

She wouldn't feel that way if she knew exactly what the nature of their misunderstanding was. But it was true that she did care about Sanosuke as well. It just wasn't the same nature of caring as what he had.

Still, he'd been wrong to keep the problem to himself like that. He could easily have given her just enough to ease her worries without telling her everything. And it seemed her need for his presence didn't extend to keeping him from helping a mutual friend. He should have known better.

"Thank you Kaoru-dono. I will return as soon as I can."

.-.

Had Kenshin used him, or had he used Kenshin? The question tore at him, the man's words replaying over and over in his mind.

He would do it again if asked. But did that really mean anything?

Katsu would have jumped at the chance to do 'it' again, and all they'd had was sex, at least as far as Sano was concerned. His friend had claimed it was more than that, but it certainly hadn't been mutual.

And what he'd done with Kenshin...had that been mutual? The physical part had been, of that he had no doubt. They'd both enjoyed it, and Kenshin had admitted he would do it again.

But it - was it just sex? Of course it was.

Sano had told himself all he wanted was one chance, just one chance to have Kenshin in his arms and try to gain the man. If he refused, that would be the end and he could live on knowing there was no point in his feelings for his friend. He'd never considered what he would do if Kenshin saw it as an offer for sex alone.

That was stupid of him, admittedly, but he hadn't. In his mind, there were two things that might have happened - either Kenshin would turn him down and he'd be left with the humiliation of having asked, or Kenshin would accept that he wanted to be with him. He still didn't know why he had assumed Kenshin would be so different from Katsu.

In his mind, Kenshin was everything he'd ever admired or desired. Kenshin held his loved ones close, never betraying them, never risking them. He wasn't the sort to do what Katsu had done, so Sano had never imagined he might view their encounter that way.

Not until the end. It wasn't until the act had finished that he realized what he'd done.

Ruined his friendship, changed things, taken advantage of Kenshin, a man who'd been without physical intimacy for ten long lonely years.

So what if Kenshin saw it as sex between friends? Sano hadn't seen it that way, yet he'd still allowed it to happen.

No, he'd done a lot more than allow it, he'd been the one to ask. He couldn't even blame Kenshin. There was no way Kenshin could have known it wasn't a casual thing for him.

The man had said it himself when talking about Kaoru - the girl was too innocent to know what might happen between men. He hadn't been talking about love, he'd been talking about sex, sex between friends. And the thought made Sano sick to his stomach. Kenshin thought he'd used him for simple physical gratification.

Was this how Katsu had felt when he left him months back? If his friend really had meant it when he'd proclaimed his love after the act, then maybe it was.

Horrible, torn apart, that was how it felt to think a loved one believed he'd been used for what his body could offer. But Kenshin hadn't been upset by it, he hadn't fought him, he'd even participated willingly. Sano had expected him to fight once they got inside his home. He'd expected the man to stop him, had known that Kenshin was capable of stopping him.

He certainly would have stopped Katsu if he'd been able to, and Kenshin hadn't been weakened by alcohol. But the man hadn't fought back, hadn't protested at all. It didn't make sense. So he'd done it.

Kenshin hadn't protested so he'd done it, thinking the man accepted his feelings whether he returned them or not. But the way he'd looked that morning, the calm easy and normal way he'd spoken...

Kenshin hadn't acted like anything special had happened. That meant Kenshin didn't know that to him it was a profession of love, and even worse...Kenshin had been casual about it all.

He'd never thought the man was the sort to take it as something so simple and inconsequential. It hadn't meant anything.

Was he too naive? He wasn't a virgin anymore, but was he no better than Kaoru - too innocent to understand what might happen between men? Was he too idealistic to think that sex might mean something more than just...sex? It certainly looked that way. And Kenshin's words about Kaoru had driven the realization home.

He'd been so confused that his friend wasn't the least bit worried about having done that with him, hadn't considered it a betrayal to the girl who'd given him her heart. Sano saw it as a betrayal on both of their parts. He'd known that to take Kenshin's love would leave her bereft, and he'd taken that risk anyway.

But it wasn't love, and Kenshin hadn't felt guilty because to him, it was something that happened, nothing that would hurt her. Kenshin hadn't broken any promises to her by having sex with him because she was a virgin, and he'd never promised her his body.

Sano knew it was true, the girl blushed if Kenshin so much as held her hand. And Kenshin would never dishonor her by doing that outside of marriage. He knew that.

So why, when he was convincing himself that Kenshin's acceptance stemmed from love, hadn't he wondered why the man would do with him what he wouldn't do with Kaoru? He had no answer for that.

And Kenshin's question...where he'd learned to do that...it didn't matter because he wasn't an innocent virgin. There was nothing to protect, nothing to shelter and hold like there was in Kaoru. Either that, or it was just because he was a man, and such things happened between men.

That comment had stunned him when Kenshin gave it, now it made him want to throw his head back in self degrading laughter. He really was an innocent, at least in his mind. To think, it was so casual and he hadn't even known. He'd certainly been horrified when Katsu took him, both by the act itself and his reactions to it.

So he wasn't just an idealist, he was a strange one who didn't even know what sometimes happened between men. He might as well be Kaoru.

His low laughter was taken by the wind, and he held his head with one hand, shoulders shaking lightly.

"Baka," he whispered.

He rubbed the heel of his hand over his eyes, staring down into the darkness below him. His legs kicked gently, light rocks and bits of dirt coming free and falling away. "Such an idiot..."

"Hn. Aho fits you better."

The voice was right behind him. Sano wheeled around, wide eyes locking onto a dark, familiar figure who moved when he tilted back. A hand shot out, tight grip closing over his wrist.

Pulling the boy back into an upright position, Saitoh smirked. "And a clumsy one at that. If you want to die, try jumping. It's better to go face first than backward."

Sano gasped as he scrambled to the side, away from both the edge of the cliff he'd almost gone over, and the man he didn't like or trust.

"What do you want?" he asked. He scowled when it came out in a breathless whisper and cleared his throat for a more normal, if scathing, tone. "Why are you all the way out here? Don't you have some criminal to track down?"

"Funny you should mention that," Saitoh drawled. He didn't move from his spot a few feet from the edge, but he did turn to face Sanosuke. The boy was glaring at him, and his smirked widened.

"I'm not a criminal," Sano spat. Having someone tower over him was odd to begin with, having it be him was unacceptable. Sano climbed to his feet and took up a ready pose. "What do you want?"

"From you?" Saitoh sniffed and turned his gaze to the valley below them. "Who said I wanted anything from you? I'm merely enjoying the night air."

Sano frowned at him, not buying it for a second. But the man wasn't carrying his usual cigarette, that did explain why he hadn't smelled him, even if he hadn't been listening. Those narrow, untrustworthy eyes flicked back to him, and Sano straightened.

"Do you know you have goosebumps all over you?" asked Saitoh. "Did I scare you, or are you too dumb to bring a warmer coat on a night like this?"

Sano bristled, fighting an urge to jerk his coat closed over his half covered chest. The bandages only went so high. "Shut up!"

"And talking to yourself as well. Interesting to hear you agree with what I've said all along, Aho." The boy shook in visible anger, and Saitoh raised an eyebrow, glancing down at those curled fists.

"What the hell do you want!" Sano growled.

He really didn't want to deal with him right now. And he sure as hell didn't want to try fighting him. As distracted as he was, this was the worst possible time to have a rematch.

And why the hell was he out here in the first place? Sano had walked for hours to get this far from town. There was no way Saitoh had just happened to pass by while 'enjoying the night air.' He'd believe that the same day he believed Kenshin's claim that some woman out there had been stupid enough to marry the guy.

"What I want is a nice cup of tea," Saitoh smirked. "Which I won't be finding out here." After a raking look over the high-strung youth, he turned away. A few steps later, he paused, not looking back. "Might want to watch sitting so close to the edge. The next person to sneak up on you might not catch you when you fall."

"I didn't fall!" Sano's face flamed at the bold lie but he couldn't help it. He wouldn't have lost his balance if the bastard hadn't crept up behind him like some sort of...creep. The dark clothed officer didn't speak, and he glared after him, watching the shadows swallow his outline.

Once he was out of sight, Sano grumbled and folded his arms over his chest. He sent a look to the spot he'd been sitting but didn't move to resume that position.

Whether he'd admit it or not, nearly falling over that cliff was something he would rather not repeat. With a low mutter, he sunk down against a nearby tree, pulling his coat tightly closed beneath his folded arms.

"I hate that guy. I really, really hate that guy..."

.-.

Confusion, anger, and hurt were three emotions that didn't fit well with Kaoru, especially when she was exhausted.

She'd definitely be sleeping in tomorrow, and if Kenshin didn't come back early, then the dojo could just hibernate for a few extra hours. Yahiko would be happy for the extra rest since she'd be taking that worry out on his hide once she woke up. She'd teach him not to go running off so late at night without a word. But that wasn't what was on her mind right now.

No, as usual with her, it was Kenshin. The quiet man always seemed to occupy her thoughts, but today was worse than any she'd had in quite some time. And even now that she knew what had been bothering him, she didn't feel any better about it. Why hadn't he told her? That question was the one that kept her awake for hours after he left. Why would he keep a simple argument a secret from her?

And speaking of Sanosuke, she had noticed that the man had been absent for the last few days. Usually she could count on him showing up at least twice a week, if not daily to bum food and be annoying. Whether she'd admit it or not, his visits were a nice break from routine. He was the only one she could count on to argue with her without resorting to name calling, as Yahiko tended to do. And as much as she loved Kenshin's steady presence, the man was a little boring when he never so much as raised his voice over anything she said or did. Oh, she wouldn't change him for the world, especially considering how happy he was most of the time, but still. Dull did fit the description of her routine around the dojo. Training and chasing down Yahiko was the only real exercise she got, and even that became routine after a while. She could be sure after an hour he would take a break, inciting a chase with one of his typical insults. That was just the way he was. But the last week or so had been particularly quiet. She hadn't really noticed until Kenshin explained about his preoccupation. She couldn't remember the last time Sanosuke had visited for more than an hour. And that was just odd.

So they'd had some sort of argument? And it had obviously upset Kenshin to the point where he'd behaved strangely. But why the secrecy? The only thing she could think of was that Sanosuke had done something Kenshin didn't feel comfortable telling her about. And knowing him, that meant it was either some drunken mistake which would embarrass him, or something involving a girl. If that were the case, she could appreciate Kenshin not filling her in on the details. But Sanosuke wasn't the type to do something like that. Sure, he had lots of bad habits, and she'd been happy to remind him of them at every opportunity. He drank too much, played too much, and really abused Tai's kindness with his 'free' lunches at the restaurant. He was a lazy freeloader who could surely make plenty of money with his strength if he just put forth the effort. But he was still a good person, and she couldn't imagine him doing something to a lady friend that would be so bad Kenshin was afraid to tell her about it. So what was it?

The mystery annoyed her, and it had to be something very important for Kenshin to go to such an extreme in keeping it a secret. Yes, he should still have at least told her he was just worried about Sanosuke. The fact that she'd been so upset and angry at herself made her refuse to accept anything else. It had to be something extreme or she'd never forgive him for making such a fuss over it. But how extreme could it be? And why hadn't Kenshin gone that afternoon like he wanted to? She just didn't understand why he'd stayed and made her feel guilty like that when he could have just said it was a problem with his friend. Was it the privacy? She'd infringed on his privacy and his freedom with her worried clinging. Should she have simply accepted that he didn't want to tell her?

He was her life. Kenshin and Yahiko were her family now. How could she help wanting to know anything that affected them? Especially something that had bothered Kenshin so much that his eyes had gone distant. And why was he so upset! What could have happened with Sanosuke to make him look like that? It was driving her crazy. She couldn't help being torn with curiosity, irritated that Kenshin was keeping her in the dark, and guilty for prying into something that really - as Kenshin had said - didn't seem to involve her. She just couldn't help it. It was her nature to be a curious worrying wreck when she was kept in the dark. And she'd thought Kenshin would realize that by now.

.-.
TBC

notes-
The next part will be almost entirely Kenshin and Sanosuke.