A/N: I have always been, still am, and will always be a rabid Kenshin and Kaoru fan. In fact, they're the primary reason RK has always been my favorite manga/anime. However, lately I find myself intrigued by Sanosuke and his place in the couple's life. I don't see them as a love triangle, but I find their three-way relationship very dynamic, as Sano and Kaoru are the most important man and woman and Kenshin's life. :)
And thus, this fic was born as I realized that Kaoru and Sanosuke's relationship had never been fully explored either in the manga or the anime. The story takes place right after Kenshin's fight with Jin-ei, as he and Kaoru returned to the Kamiya dojo. This is purely manga-based, which means that unlike in the anime, Sano and Yahiko never followed Kaoru to look for Kenshin at the riverbank. I hope you guys enjoy reading this as much as I did writing it. :)
DISCLAIMER: If I was even half the genius Nobuhiro Watsuki-sama was, I wouldn't be a broke college student right now. No... Rurouni Kenshin belongs to him, and him alone. I'm just merely borrowing a few of his ideas for a bit...
A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfiction
What Hurts The Most
"So you met up with her last night and didn't come back until morning, eh?" Sanosuke grinned wickedly as he slung an arm over the smaller man's shoulder.
"Aren't you the smart guy?" Yahiko muttered as he peered up at his red-haired idol. "Did you finally do it?"
Scandalized by the insinuations of their conspiring whispers, Kaoru screamed from behind them, "Mou! Stop it, you two! Can't you see that Kenshin's hurt?"
Both Sanosuke and Yahiko blinked as they stepped back and gave Kenshin a quick once-over. "Oh," said Sanosuke nonchalantly when he saw the wound near Kenshin's shoulder. "So he is."
"Well don't just stand there!" said Kaoru impatiently. She placed her hands on her hips and stomped her foot on the ground for emphasis. "Yahiko, quickly, go fetch a doctor for him!"
Yahiko glared at her. "You do it then, if you're so worried about him." He crossed his arms over his chest and smirked at her. "If I didn't know any better, I bet you're the one who did it to him."
The kid meant it as a joke, of course. He was too young to notice these kinds of things. But Sanosuke didn't miss the stricken look that passed over the little missy's face before she dropped her gaze and turned away.
His eyes narrowed.
"Oh come on, Kaoru," continued Yahiko in a loud voice as he rolled his eyes. "What's got you so worked up anyway? Kenshin's been through worse before. It's not like he's not strong enough to—"
The harsh tone of her voice startled all of them. "He's not invincible, you know."
The former hitokiri's eyes were unreadable as he watched her. "Kaoru-dono…"
"He may be strong, but…" her voice dropped down to a whisper. "He's also just a man."
Yahiko opened his mouth to speak, but whatever protest he was going to say was cut short when Sanosuke roughly picked him up by the scruff of his shirt and led him towards the gate.
"Hey!" Yahiko burst out once Sanosuke dropped him unceremoniously on the ground. "What the hell do you think you're doing?!"
Sanosuke halted the boy before he could pounce on him. "You heard the little missy," he said as he pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "Go get a doctor. Looks like your idol got himself hurt."
Yahiko crossed his arms defiantly. "Why should I be the one to do it? Why don't you run into town and get a doctor?"
Sanosuke sighed. This kid was as stubborn as a mule. "Because if the doctor still hasn't arrived and something happens to Kenshin, I'm the only one strong enough to carry him."
The boy pursed his lips. It was a valid enough reason and he couldn't think of an appropriate reply to that. He therefore resorted to changing tactics. "So why won't the old hag do it?"
Yahiko blinked when Sanosuke knelt down to face him. And the boy's breath got caught in his throat when he saw the hard look in the fighter's eyes.
"Because, you stupid brat, she's hurt too."
Yahiko furrowed his brows in confusion. He stepped around Sanosuke to peer at his teacher – and his eyes widened when she suddenly hunched over in a coughing fit.
Sanosuke caught the concern flitting over the young boy's eyes before he schooled his expression once more into a look of indifference. "Stupid hag… can't even take care of herself…" he muttered under his breath, the worry in his voice belying his words. He looked up at the older man. "You're sure you can handle things around here?"
The former fighter-for-hire smirked at how one look at his teacher changed the boy's countenance so quickly. "Leave everything to me, little man."
"Hmph. Don't destroy the dojo while I'm gone." And with that, Yahiko started down the road in a quick trot.
"Don't get lost on the way now!" Sanosuke called out as he straightened. He watched until the young boy disappeared around the corner before he turned around to face the remaining residents of the Kamiya dojo. Kenshin was already eyeing Kaoru with worry as he moved forward towards her.
"I'm fine, Kenshin," Kaoru beat him into speaking when Kenshin opened his mouth. She looked up at him and smiled weakly. "You're the one who's hurt."
"But sessha is fine, Kaoru-dono," Kenshin protested. "Sessha believes you're the one who's hurt."
Sanosuke rolled his eyes and stepped between the two before they could start another round. "Come on, Kenshin," he said as he lightly laid a hand on the smaller man's shoulder. "Let's have a look at that wound. I don't look like it, but I do know a thing or two about first aid." He grinned. "I couldn't have survived this long if I didn't."
Kenshin looked up at him and smiled. "Sessha is grateful, Sano. However…" he trailed off and his amethyst gaze traveled over once more to the young girl who had to sit down at the porch as another coughing fit attacked her.
Sanosuke sighed. These two lived to worry about each other. "Don't worry," he said as he followed the older man's gaze. "I'll take care of that too." When Kenshin blinked at him in surprise, Sanosuke gave him a reassuring smile. "Hey, you made me promise, right?"
Kenshin gazed at him for a long moment before he returned the smile with one of his own. "Aa. Sessha did," he said softly.
"Hey Jou-chan," Sanosuke called out to Kaoru, who was still sitting at the porch. "Can you brew a pot of tea for Kenshin here?"
Kaoru blinked, unsure on how to react at being ordered around her own house. Her sapphire gaze flickered over to the dark stain on Kenshin's gi and her eyes hardened with resolve. "Hai," she replied as she stood up.
Sanosuke didn't miss the way her legs wavered as she did. Apparently, neither did Kenshin, and Sanosuke had to grip his arm harder to prevent him from striding forward towards her. "You think the kitchen will survive if you do?"
Kaoru, who was already heading towards the kitchen, spun around and glared at Sanosuke. "Even I can't ruin a pot of tea, you know. Or maybe I can – when I smash it over your rooster-head after I'm done with it."
Her eyes were flashing at him, but for the first time since they arrived, Sanosuke saw the barest hint of a smile tug at her lips. He was glad to see that. "Oi, oi… you're more violent than Jin-ei," he complained good-naturedly. "You should save your energy though. You're looking a little pale. What did Jin-ei do to you anyway?"
Sanosuke realized belatedly that he must have struck a nerve when he felt Kenshin stiffen beside him. He looked down and noted with surprise how the former hitokiri's hands balled into fists so tight that his knuckles were turning white.
Kaoru seemed to have noticed this too, because she quickly rushed to say, "I'll go start that tea then. Sano… you'll take care of Kenshin, right?"
Sanosuke looked at her pleading eyes for a moment before he turned to gaze at Kenshin's rigid form. His eyes narrowed. Both of them were obviously hurt… and both of them seemed to believe that they were the ones to be blamed for it. It didn't make any sense. Isn't Jin-ei supposed to be the one behind it all? What happened at the riverbank when Kaoru followed Kenshin?
Kaoru's soft-voiced inquiry jolted him out of his thoughts. Sanosuke turned and saw those sapphire orbs gazing up at him, seeking – needing – reassurance. He smiled at her.
"I will, Jou-chan. I will."
"You drugged him?" Kaoru shrieked.
Sanosuke automatically raised his hands in defense. The little missy looked ready to attack him. "Oi, hear me out first, Jou-chan!" he protested.
"You have exactly two seconds before I pummel the living daylights out of you, Sagara Sanosuke," Kaoru growled.
He cringed. She was scarier than Jin-ei too. Sanosuke silently thanked whatever gods were watching over them that Kaoru wasn't holding a bokken at that moment. She may be a woman, but she was deadly with that thing. "Hey, it was the only way I can make Kenshin stay put! The guy was too worried about you!"
That had the effect he hoped for. Kaoru immediately pulled back, pacified and somewhat guilty. "What do you mean?"
Sanosuke sighed as he sat down at the porch beside her. "I managed to convince him to let me have a look at his wound. It looked worse than it really was," he added when Kaoru flashed him a look of concern. "I cleaned it up the best I could, but I warned him that he has to lie down and wait for the doctor so that the wound wouldn't reopen with his actions." He leaned back against a post and stretched his legs. "Of course, Kenshin would hear none of it. The man just wouldn't sit still. He wanted to make sure you were taken care of first."
"He shouldn't worry about me," said Kaoru quietly. She stared at her hands – her fingers were wrapped around some kind of fabric. "I don't deserve it."
"That's funny. Because that's exactly the same thing he said about himself when I told him you were worried about him too."
Kaoru looked up at him in surprise. Despite his words, Sanosuke wasn't laughing, and there was no humor in his eyes – only questions. She dropped her gaze. She wasn't ready to answer them… yet. "What exactly did you put in his tea, anyway?"
Sanosuke pursed his lips, fully aware that Kaoru had just deflected a chance for him to ask about what happened. He watched as Kaoru gently ran her fingers over the silken material – was that her indigo ribbon? – and his gaze softened. There would be time for questions later. "I'm not sure what its exact contents were, but it's some kind of sleep inducer that sort of acts like a pain reliever too."
The suspicious look was back in her eyes. "You mean you didn't even know what you used to drug him?"
"Hey, I'm sure it's nothing dangerous or illegal!" Sanosuke countered.
Kaoru snorted. "Right. 'Dangerous' and 'illegal' are exactly the words I'd use to describe all the trouble you get yourself into."
Sanosuke harrumphed. "For your information, it's something the doctor gave me after Kenshin beat me up." He smirked at the surprised and guilty look that passed over her features. "I had some left over, so I figured I might as well put it to good use. Kenshin needs it now more than I do." The tone of his voice softened. "After all… he took care of me after that fight too. One good turn deserves another, ne?"
He turned to grin at the little missy, but faltered when he saw she wasn't looking at him. She was staring at that ribbon again, apparently lost inside her own thoughts. Curious, he leaned closer to take a good look at the ribbon – and his eyes widened when he saw that it was stained with blood. He pursed his lips. He had a feeling he knew whose blood it was – and why it was currently causing the little missy such misery.
"It's not your fault."
Kaoru raised her head in surprise. "What?"
"What happened with that Kurogasa. It's not your fault." Sanosuke shifted his position on the porch so that he was facing her fully. "And even if it was, Kenshin would never blame you. So stop torturing yourself like this."
She dropped her gaze once more. "But it is," Kaoru said quietly. Her fingers gripped the indigo ribbon more tightly. "It is my fault. And I deserve to be blamed for it."
Whatever protest he was going to say died on his lips when she raised her head and stared straight into his eyes. "Sanosuke…" she spoke softly. "You were right."
A twisting feeling at the pit of his stomach warned him that he was going to regret being right. "Er… what exactly was I right about?"
Kaoru took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "When you came back yesterday without Kenshin… you warned me not to follow him. You told me that I will just get in the way of his fight and that I'll only cause trouble."
The knots in his stomach tightened. "Jou-chan…" he couldn't help himself anymore. "What happened?"
"Jin-ei kidnapped me."
Sanosuke's eyes widened.
A bitter laugh escaped her lips. "I never thought I'd say this to you, rooster-head, but I wish… I wish I listened to you. Then I wouldn't have been… and Kenshin wouldn't have been…" she trailed off, her voice cracking.
"Oi, oi…" Sanosuke patted her arm awkwardly. He never knew what to do when women get too emotional. "Stop that. Kenshin will have my head if you keep on doing that. He made me promise to take care of you, not to make you cry."
Fortunately for him, this little missy wasn't like most women. Kaoru swiped at her eyes furiously and glared at Sanosuke beneath tear-stained lashes. "I am not crying."
He grinned. Now that was the fierce little tomboy he knew. "Okay, so you're not," he conceded, holding up his hands. "But how did Jin-ei kidnap you? And more importantly, how was he able to succeed?"
Kaoru's brows creased in confusion. "I'm not sure I understand the question."
Sanosuke scratched his head as he searched for the right words to say. "Kenshin was right there at the riverbank with you when Jin-ei abducted you, right?" he finally asked.
"Well, yes, he was, but…" Kaoru was looking at him curiously now. "I still don't understand the question."
Sanosuke shrugged. "I guess I just find it hard to believe that Kenshin just stood by and let that lunatic take you." He shook his head. "Considering how Kenshin always puts your well-being as his first priority, I'm kind of disappointed in him."
It was simply his way of telling her that she shouldn't blame herself for what happened. He merely wanted to lift the burden off her shoulders – to make her feel that she wasn't entirely at fault. After all, Kenshin had a stake in it too – much more than she did. What she said next, however, was completely beyond his foresight.
"Sanosuke…" she spoke in such a soft voice that he had to lean forward to hear her. "Am I… really that much of a weakness to him?"
Women have a strange way of interpreting the things he says. He frowned. "Jou-chan, that's not what I—"
"Why were you disappointed in him for not being able to protect me?" Her sapphire gaze, bright and blazing, was trained on him now. "Why couldn't you have been disappointed in me for being unable to protect myself? You really have such low expectations from a woman like me, don't you?"
"Of course I wouldn't expect much from you! You're not as strong as Kenshin!" Sanosuke cried out in desperation. His eyes widened when he saw those sapphire orbs flare painfully before she turned away, and he regretfully realized that without his meaning to, he had just hurt her in the worst way possible.
"K-Kaoru…" his lips fumbled over her name, unused to saying it in such a personal manner. "Hey… I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"
"No," she whispered. "No, I'm sorry. You're right. I'm not as strong as Kenshin."
The silence stretched between them for a long moment. Sanosuke kept his gaze on the ground, unable to look at Kaoru in the eye. Their shadows were shortening, which meant that a considerable amount of time had already passed since Kenshin and Kaoru's arrival. He frowned. What was taking Yahiko so long to return?
"I'd like to believe, though," Kaoru said suddenly, breaking the silence. "That I'm stronger than most people."
Sanosuke sighed and summoned up the courage to look at her face. He was surprised to find her smiling.
"A swordsman's life isn't easy," she mused. "You know that, of course. But imagine what it's like, Sanosuke, to be a swordswoman." She grinned at him wryly, and he blinked at her sudden shift in temperament. This girl was as unpredictable as that damn rurouni.
"Swordsmen, at least, command respect and fear from people, no matter what their level of skill or expertise in the art is." She shifted her position on the porch so that her legs were tucked neatly beneath her. Golden rays from the morning sun warmed her skin and brought out the highlights in her raven hair, and Sanosuke was struck by the utterly feminine portrait she made. "Swordswomen like me, however, are disgraced by society."
She leaned her head against a post, and her hair, unbound from the ponytail she usually wore, danced in time to the warm breeze that blew. "I don't always understand what we did wrong to deserve such disrespect. It wasn't as if we chose to be born as females in such a male-dominated society. A lot of men seem to think that the world was better off without the likes of us."
The air around them picked up slightly, and Sanosuke dimly registered the sound of the wind chime tinkling above them.
"I've been challenged by numerous swordsmen for the simple reason that I was a woman. They said they wanted to teach me a lesson, to show me what my place in society should be. Naturally," Kaoru smirked. "I was forced to show them their place in society too."
Sanosuke raised an eyebrow at the mischievous glint in the little missy's eyes. "And what was their place?"
She grinned. "The hospital beds, of course. They should've known better than to challenge the shihandai of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryuu." She chuckled. "Those men probably couldn't walk for weeks after I was through with their family jewels."
Sanosuke grimaced. The girl knew how to hit a man where it will hurt the most.
"I was proud of myself, you know," she murmured. Her voice turned soft, her gaze pensive. "I was stronger than those men. I was stronger than the women who chose to stay home and have their men fight their ideals for them. I went out there and fought for those ideals myself."
Her gaze dropped once more to the ribbon she held in her hands, and the wind ruffled her bangs, obscuring her eyes from his view. "I'm strong. There's no issue there. I know it, and I'm proud of it."
He watched as her fingers absently traced the patterns the blood made on her ribbon. From the way she had been speaking, Sanosuke thought that she was merely thinking aloud – that she was talking to herself more than to him. He was startled when Kaoru suddenly addressed him.
"But you know what hurts, Sanosuke?"
For a brief moment, the breeze died down. Even the wind chime above him stopped tinkling. And in the silence that followed her question, Sanosuke felt a sudden, unfathomable connection to this girl he barely knew – because he, too, knew he was strong, and he, too, knew what type of pain that knowledge brought. He turned away, not wanting to hear it from her, because a woman like her shouldn't know this type of pain.
Then again… she wasn't like most women.
"What hurts, Sanosuke," she spoke once more, and he narrowed his eyes. He didn't want to hear it… because he would be forced to acknowledge that he felt the same pain. "What hurts is that when it comes to the things that matter…" her hands closed over the ribbon tightly, "…to the people that matter…"
And Sanosuke closed his eyes, the words he spoke in his mind perfectly coinciding with the words Kaoru spoke out loud.
"I'm not strong enough."
His other hand traveled upwards to cradle his arm that was bound in a sling. Unwittingly, his fingers found the exact spot where the blade of that madman Jin-ei pierced his flesh and broke through his bones. It wasn't hurting now as much as it did the other night. No… his arm wasn't the one that was hurting.
He was stronger than all of those men at that mansion combined. He was stronger than that pig Juusanrou Tani, who slaps money in the faces of those low lives who protect his ass because of greed. He was stronger than all those policemen who had to enlist the help of a former hitokiri and a former fighter-for-hire because they couldn't clean up the government's mess themselves. He was stronger than all those men he defeated over his years of fighting, embittered by the brutal fate that had befallen the Sekihoutai.
He was strong. There was no doubt in it in his mind.
But in the end, it didn't matter.
He slowly opened his eyes. It didn't matter if those men knew he was strong – those men didn't matter to him. Just as those sick bastards who dared touch the little missy didn't matter to her. Neither of them have anything to prove to those people. But when it comes to the people who do matter… to the people you want to prove something to…
The hand of his bound arm curled into a fist just as her hands brought the ribbon up to her heart.
What hurts the most is that in the end, their strength wasn't enough for the one person who mattered the most to them.
"Jou-chan!" Sanosuke cried out when Kaoru's body suddenly hurtled forward without warning. He rushed towards her and was able to catch her by her waist before she hit the ground. "Jou-chan, what's wrong with you?" he burst out, his voice rising with panic. She was being attacked by another coughing fit, but this time seemed to be the worst. She looked as if her body was being torn apart from the inside, as if her lungs were learning how to breathe for the first time. She felt his worried gaze on her and she tried to voice her reassurance, but her throat only tightened and she had to clutch at her chest to quell her heaving breaths.
At a loss on what to do, Sanosuke simply held her and gingerly stroked her back as they both waited for her body to calm itself down. His brows creased when she tried to push him away. "Oi Jou-chan, what are you doing?" She merely shook her head and wiped her mouth with her sleeve as she tried to turn her body away from him. Was she trying to hide something from him? "Jou-chan?"
She gave him one final push, and in his surprise, he let her go. His arm flailed helplessly in the air, and his eyes widened when he saw the red marks staining the white cloth of his sleeve.
The little missy was coughing up blood.
Kaoru gasped when he grabbed her by her wrist and roughly turned her towards him. He raised her arm, and his eyes narrowed when he saw what he already suspected was there – the sleeves of her kimono were similarly stained with her own blood. No wonder she kept them hidden from his view all this time. His eyes bore reproachfully into hers. She merely turned away and pulled her wrist free from his vice-like grip, surprising him with her physical strength. She crossed her arms over her chest and refused to meet his gaze.
She spoke before he could even begin to reprimand her. "Don't tell Kenshin."
The girl was hopelessly stubborn. Just like that damn rurouni. "Kaoru." Her name came easily to him this time. "What did Jin-ei do to you?"
Her lips were pressed together in defiance, but he didn't miss the way they quivered at his question. He pressed his lips together and finally understood the damage he had caused. It was his fault why the little missy was being this way. He had channeled his own feelings of frustration towards her, and the truth in the words he told her yesterday hurt her deeply.
He turned away. She didn't know that it hurt him more, though. It hurt him more to realize that perhaps… he and the little missy weren't so different after all. He sighed.
"I'm not going to take it against you."
He had told her she wouldn't stand a chance against Kenshin's enemies. She had been kind enough not to point out that he wasn't much better off than her.
"It doesn't matter if you weren't able to defeat Jin-ei for Kenshin."
Because back then at the mansion – and his fingers gingerly traced the wound inside his bound arm – he was just as helpless as her.
"You were strong enough to survive, strong enough to live when most people have died by that murderer's hands."
Slowly, Kaoru raised her head. Questioning blue eyes gazed into gentle brown ones. "I'm not going to take it against you," Sanosuke repeated softly. "You're strong enough."
The wind chime tinkled as the breeze picked up once more. He missed the look in her eyes when her bangs danced over them. But he didn't miss the smile that played on her lips after he spoke. And for the briefest of moments, he had the strangest thought that maybe, just maybe, he finally understood the reason why Kenshin wanted to protect this girl so much. It was not hard to see how someone would conquer the world for her smile.
He shook his head quickly. He must have downed one too many jars of sake last night.
"Jin-ei kidnapped me because…" Kaoru started to say before she stopped and hesitated. She gazed into his eyes and found that they were devoid of what she was nervously expecting to see. There was no reproach, no judgment, no loathing in those russet depths – only a quiet understanding. In the soft glow of morning light, those brown orbs reflected the undercurrent of worry and guilt mutely contained in amethyst ones. He nodded, urging her to continue.
The clanging of the wind chime sounded above them as a gust of wind suddenly blew, ruffling their clothes and their hair. Her grip on the ribbon, though, never wavered as she began her story.
End of chapter one
A/N: Although I originally planned this to be a one-shot, I had to cut it because I'm having a bit of trouble with the second part. That, and because I'm hoping for a bit of constructive feedback before I go on. :)