The Cost of Protection
A Rurouni Kenshin Story
Chapter Six: A look into the Soul
Sanosuke woke slowly, vision blurry and arms numb from obviously having laid on them too long. His left shoulder was an aching mass of abused flesh and muscle, but the discomfort was distant in a way that suggested the lady doctor had dosed him with something for the pain. He rolled himself up from his stomach and over onto his right side with considerable effort. Only to be greeted by a wide, young set of brown eyes.
"Your awake. Do you need something, a drink of water or something? Megumi-san says you'll be thirsty after loosing that much blood."
Yahiko looked and sounded so very earnest about all of this, that had Sanosuke felt better he would have laughed at the boy. As it was, he croaked an agreement. "Water'd be good, yeah."
It was an awkward business sipping water from a cup held by an eleven-year old while lying on your side. The two of them managed it with very little mess though. Sano stretched out his right arm, flexing the rest of the stiffness from it before curling the appendage beneath his head and taking a better look around the room. There was one obvious point to note. "Where is everyone?"
Yahiko poured a second cup of water and sat it beside him as he tucked in his knees and faced Sanosuke. "Megumi is napping after having to work so long on you. She spent an hour stitching you up and trying to get you to drink while you were dead to the world! Ugly is working on supper. And Kenshin's also napping because he says it'll help you."
"Oh," was all Sanosuke could think to say to that as he gestured for the refilled water.
Yahiko again shifted to his knees and helped the older of the two drink. "Thanks," Sano offered.
"No problem," the boy quickly assured him, shifting a little on the wooden floor before looking for a long silent moment at Sano. "Is it true? Are you really getting hurt every time something happens to Kenshin?"
Yahiko looked for all the world as though he didn't want to believe it – as though he couldn't believe it. Sano supposed he understood. The boy had just been told his invincible hero was only so because a friend was taking the brunt of everything physical. The ex-gangster shrugged, and immediately regretted it for the tug on his left shoulder, before saying slowly, "Yeah, it is."
"So," the boy continued while fidgeting with the empty glass, "Nobody actually cut you in that fight on the street. You were bleeding because Kenshin had been hit."
"And Kenshin getting shot actually got you shot?"
Yahiko scowled intensely into the cup before meeting Sano's eyes again. "And Kenshin napping will really help you?"
Sanosuke just stopped himself from shrugging again. "Can't hurt. I'd think if he starts keeping normal sleeping hours again, I'll be less tired."
"Because," the young swordsman continued, "You don't just get Kenshin's pain and stuff, you get the tiredness and his hunger too."
"Yeah," Sano softly agreed.
There was a long moment of silence between the two and Sano watched as the boy's eyes drifted to the rainy outdoors. "Why didn't you say anything, Sanosuke?"
Sano sighed and sought eye contact with his youngest friend. "Were you happy about Kenshin not getting hurt anymore?"
Yahiko nodded slowly, but affirmatively to this question. Sano continued, "Are you happy now that you know why?"
The boy scowled and shook his head no. Sano gestured lightly with his left hand, barely moving the wrist, "Well there you go. I was able to protect Kenshin and see you and Jou-chan happy. Why would I say anything?"
Yahiko set the cup on the floor and began doodling patterns on the wood with his finger. He answered in a round-about way. "Kenshin is pretty angry about it."
Sano huffed out a breath, feeling perversely grateful that the rurouni had gone down for a nap instead of staying awake to lecture him. "I know he is. Are you? Angry about my not saying anything?"
Yahiko finally lifted his eyes to meet Sanosuke's again. The boy straightened his back. "Not at you, I don't think. You just want to protect Kenshin. I'm mad at this 'gift' though. I don't ever want to see Kenshin hurt, but I don't really like seeing you hurt either. You look tired though, you should probably go back to sleep."
As though obeying a command, Sano's eyes slid closed and he drifted back into sleep while contemplating the boy's words.
Megumi silently mixed a medicinal powder into the weak tea she had prepared for her patient. Said patient watched her with half-lidded brown eyes and a sloppy sort of smile. "You trying to make me feel half-human again, Lady Doctor? Or just knock me out so I shut up."
The dark haired woman couldn't help but smile as well. "If I planned on knocking you out, Rooster, I would do it with a tree branch and a temper, not an herb."
"Good to know," Sanosuke drawled, "I'll work on my ducking skills."
Megumi shook her head as she helped Sano partially sit up and drink down his tea. The man was being surprisingly good tempered for the pain he was in and the weakness he must be feeling. She wondered if perhaps the herbal pain relievers she was feeding him were affecting his ability to notice how very thick the tension was in the dojo since his secret had come out.
"If you had conquered that skill, we wouldn't be in our current situation, now would we?"
"Come' on now, Lady Doctor. You can't fault a guy for napping. Which has nothing to do with my ducking, I'm pretty sure."
"Napping in an alley, surrounded by thugs, and standing up? That's okay these days, is it?"
The smile slid a little from the Sanosuke's lips, the humor fading from his eyes. "You and your sharp tongue don't really blame me for this, do you? You think I meant to get shot? Or have Kenshin get shot. Or both."
Megumi pinched the bridge of her nose even as she relaxed into a more comfortable position sitting beside the make-shift bed on the floor. She had only caught a nap after fighting to stitch Sanosuke back together, and had roused herself within two hours to check again on her patient. The stubborn man was fine, of course. Sleeping like the dead, but otherwise unfazed. She had passed a restless night of sleep that evening as well, her dreams constantly disturbed by seeing Kenshin getting shot. Only, in her dreams it was always Kenshin who was injured, and he always bled out before she could help him.
It was an odd affirmation of what she had done to help Sanosuke keep his secret. It was an odd way of proving how her heart favored the health of one man over the other.
Megumi felt a renewed pang of guilt at that, and let out a soft breath before answering Sano's question. "No, I don't really blame you. Your timing was terrible, Rooster, but it had to come out eventually."
"Yeah," the young man agreed, his eyes darkening with his mood. "Wasn't much choice about that, I guess. Sorry it got you into trouble with Kenshin, my asking you to help me out. I haven't seen the man since I woke up, but I'll guess he's given you a tongue lashing by now."
Megumi sighed, her shoulders slumping. "He hasn't, honestly. We haven't seen much of him since yesterday afternoon. Kenshin comes out for food, but otherwise has barred himself in his room and has made it clear he is not welcoming visitors. Its terribly out of character for him."
The woman hardly realized how pleading she sounded on the last sentence, but her patient gave her a certain understanding sort of look. "Kenshin's feeling angry and guilty all at once. Its a bad combination. I'm sure he just doesn't want to lash out and unintentionally hurt anyone."
They sat for several minutes of silence, Megumi lost in her own thoughts. Sanosuke broke in to her reverie with the thoughtful comment of, "You know, this whole thing, it really hasn't been so bad."
Megumi snorted despite herself, "Yes, I'm sure being exhausted, half starved, bruised, and shot are all fabulous and enjoyable moments in your life."
"No," Sanosuke said emphatically, "No I don't really mean those things. All though right up to the getting shot that wasn't terrible either. No. I mean I've gotten a pretty good chance to know you better out of this. Usually when we're in the same room we're like a couple of stray cats in a bag – hissing and spitting included. When your being your doctor self and I'm the patient though, then we get along all right. And with this extended crap, we've had a lot of time to just talk. Turns out, I might just like you yet."
Megumi couldn't help the way her shoulders stiffened or the slightly mortified blush that touched her cheeks. The Rooster could not possibly be saying what she thought he was saying. That would end in a horribly awkward way for both of them. And how was she to politely let the man down, anyway? "Sanosuke," she was very careful to use his given name in this, "You and I, a relationship really wouldn't work between us. As you said, when your not under the weather, we fight nearly constantly. It wouldn't do."
This time her patient snorted in amusement, though he cringed at the way the action pulled at his shoulder. "You think I'm dreaming of wedding ceremonies and kids? No, Kitsune, just no. I mean I like you as a friend. I guess I always have, but I like you a lot more when we're not at each others throats. That's it, that's all I meant."
Megumi relaxed with a soft chuckle herself. "Sorry, I had to be clear. That I can agree with. Maybe its something we can work on when we get this entire 'gift' thing cleared up."
Sanosuke turned knowing eyes on her, his lips quirked in a soft smile. "Except, you don't really want it gone, do you?"
The doctor froze, for though she had said nothing of her dreams or concerns, Sano had seen through her. Worse, he didn't even have the grace to take offense. "I don't know what your talking about. Really, the pain reliever should be kicking in, you should rest."
The young man chuckled to himself at this abrupt change of topic, but obediently shifted position and closed his eyes before dropping off to sleep. Megumi closed her medicine supplies and tidied the tea set to be brought back to the kitchen. It wasn't fair that the rooster-brained idiot could hit so close to home like that. And the more she thought about it, she wasn't sure if she liked this gift more because of how it saved Kenshin, or because it meant she became something of a permanent doctor to Sanosuke. That shouldn't be a bonus, she shouldn't enjoy having the young man under her care and her thumb the way she did.
Megumi quickly stood and escaped the room. She had some priority ordering to reevaluate.
It had been nearly three days since the shooting incident. Having helped sit the wounded man up against a soft backing of blankets, Kaoru was now working on feeding him. Picking up a dumpling with her chopsticks, Kaoru proffered the treat to Sanosuke. Who in turn scowled back at her. "I am perfectly capable of feeding myself, Jou-chan. If you'd quite being stubborn and pass me the bowl and chopsticks."
Kaoru sighed, sitting back on her heels, positioned as she was beside the injured, and now ornery, man. "It didn't bother you yesterday. Or the day before that."
"I was half drugged the last two days," Sanosuke huffed, "Not much of anything was bothering me. Would you just give me those damn chopsticks?"
The young woman lifted her chin and gave a defiant look back at her charge. "No, I will not. I am taking care of you. And I am feeding you these dumplings!"
"I know Kenshin isn't letting you in to see him," Sanosuke half hissed at her. "This 'gift' doesn't work like that, Jou-chan. Your taking care of me is not vicariously taking care of him. Not like you think. I'm not Kenshin no matter how I'm now attached to him and I would really appreciate it if you would quit looking at me as though I were."
Kaoru dropped the dumpling back in the dish, setting the bowl on the floor and biting her lip. It wasn't true, was it? She wasn't so intent on looking after Sano just because Kenshin wouldn't see her? She wanted to look after Sanosuke as well. He was her friend, she had the right to want to take care of him. The fact that he thought otherwise stung. "I know your not Kenshin, Sanosuke. Can't I just want to take care of you?"
Her response was a low sigh and one large bandaged right hand coming to rest on her shoulder. "Sorry, Jou-chan. That was pretty uncalled for. Thanks for caring. I know you do, its what you do best. Take in strays and look after them, you know? I just hate feeling this useless. I can't go anywhere, I can't do anything, the very least I'd like to do is feed myself. You can watch, if it'll make you feel better about my finishing the bowl."
Kaoru offered the apologetic man a small smile. "I'm never worried about you finishing the bowl, freeloader. I'm worried about how your going to hold the bowl with one bum arm. Unless you mean to eat it from the floor and make a mess?"
"Fine," chuckled her charge, "You hold the bowl and I'll take care of the chopstick end. Work for you?"
The dojo-master laughed in agreement and presented Sano with the chopsticks while she held the bowl. He probably would have held the bowl himself, had she not called him out on it. For the moment though, Megumi had his left arm bound in a sling and strict instructions about his not moving it much until his shoulder was healed further. With his hair a little wild, and his temper turning sour as his days trapped inside continued, he really was looking more and more like a rooster with a broken wing.
The meal still ended in a bout of laughter, as despite both Kaoru and Sano's best efforts a dumpling still found its way down his chin and into the blankets. Blushing, Kaoru had refused to go in after it, which had made Sanosuke laugh harder as he retrieved the runaway himself and despite her protests, still popped it into his mouth and ate it.
Kaoru pored a cup of tea for each of them, and she sat beside him to enjoy a moment of companionship while they both looked out into the gloomy day beyond the house. There was a reason though, why Sano's earlier temper-tantrum had bother her so. There was a worrisome thought working through her mind, and she needed it off her chest.
"If I told you," the young woman started softly, "That I still like this gift even knowing how it works now, would you think I don't care for you?"
Sanosuke turned to her, obviously confused by this conversation opener. "Jou-chan, what...?"
Kaoru rearranged her thoughts and started again. "Your like the big brother I've never had. Sure you pick on me all the time, and you make me mad a lot, but your always looking out for me anyway. Its not that I like seeing you hurt, I really don't. And I know Kenshin is actually stronger in a fight than you are, but you always come across as being so strong and grounded. I like this gift even with how it works because I feel like its nothing you can't handle. I think, when Kenshin realizes that, maybe he'll like it too."
Sanosuke relaxed back against his blanket support with a laugh. "Oh, I understand where your coming from, Jou-chan. No, I don't think you care less for it. I think you really just want to protect Kenshin. Its all you've ever wanted. But, I wouldn't share what you just told me with Kenshin himself. He'll never agree with us."
"Maybe if we just present it to him the right way..."
"No," Sanosuke snorted, "Trust me, Kenshin is not going to see it our way. He doesn't want to be protected, he wants to protect."
Kaoru sighed, understanding that her friend as very likely right. "You'll still look after him though, even though he isn't going to like this, right?"
"Even if I had a choice in the matter I would, Jou-chan. Of course I would."
The young woman smiled then, bright and open for her brother-figure. "Thank you."
Kenshin sat very still, sakabatou across his knees and back against the wall of his room. He slept all that he could, which was, irritatingly, not enough. He forced himself to take regular meals. These were things he would not care about nearly as much in his current mood were it only his own health at risk.
That, of course, was the root of the entire problem.
If it were only his own health at risk to his actions, Kenshin would not feel the anger burning in his belly or the overwhelming sense of guilt that permeated the rest of him. He feared moving too much, lest he trip and stub Sanosuke's toe. Not that he was a clumsy man, but when you couldn't feel the pain for yourself, you were ultimately less wary.
Which wouldn't do, considering how that would affect Sanosuke. So, for the three days since the truth of his so-called gift had burst into the open, Kenshin had retreated from polite conversation, only stirring himself to eat and answer the call of nature. Otherwise he alternated between sleeping and meditating. He couldn't hurt anyone with actions or words that way.
While three of the people in his small rag-tag family were willing to back away and respect his privacy, he should have known the fourth would not. The fourth, who was supposed to be resting in his own room, not prowling unsteadily along the porch and sliding the shoji of Kenshin's room open without so much as a knock.
"Hey," Sanosuke greeted with a brief wave of his right hand before steadying himself against the door frame. His features were far too pale, a light sheen of sweat on his face from the effort of traversing between their rooms.
The guilt built and burned in his throat, but he dared not stand and help the stubborn boy. "This does not look like you resting, Sano."
Sanosuke offered him a sloppy sort of smile to that. "When your right your right. I'm supposed ta' be sitting."
The younger man followed through on that statement by sliding gracelessly down the door frame to sit with his back resting against it. "They say you've locked yourself in here without visitation."
That was Sano for you, straight to the point. "I am not good company at the moment. For you either."
"You might be right about that, especially if you're going to insist on looking as though you just kicked a puppy. Or kitten. Where'd that thing get on to, anyhow?"
Kenshin chose to ignore that little straying of topic. "Sano, this one is so very sorry for all that he has..."
"You didn't come see me to start yelling," Sano interrupted him, "So I figured I'd come to you. You can yell at me here instead."
"This one is in no mood for yelling and would prefer to apologize."
"Apologize for what? Not coming to yell at me sooner? I'd rather you yell. At least when you're good and angry there's life in your eyes. Right now you look damn lost. So, I'm here," Sano gestured at himself with his free right arm, "And I know your still pissed, so start yelling all ready."
Kenshin eyed the younger man. He considered arguing the point, he considered continuing the apology. He dismissed both ideas. He would feel better if he could burn off the anger at least, and he suspected Sanosuke well knew that. It was why he insisted on presenting himself as such an easy target.
"You should have told this one immediately."
Sanosuke gave a lopsided shrug. "Maybe I should have. What good would have done though?"
"This one could have told Shizuka-dono to reverse the thing then and there!"
The younger man sighed. "You really think she would have? I kind of don't."
Kenshin bared his teeth for a moment, feeling the anger he had buried for days rising to the surface at Sano's prompting. "We'll never know now. All the same, this one could have prevented a number of mishaps had he known what damage they were doing to you."
"Could you really? Seems like everything you did was everything you would have done any other time."
The rurouni hissed a breath between his teeth, "The consequences are never so great on ones self as they are inflicted on another. In all cases, this one would have found another way!"
Sanosuke watched him carefully, his own temper oddly and carefully in check. Kenshin didn't care just then. "So instead of doing what comes naturally to you, you know, helping others, your going to lock yourself in your room and just hope this gift of ours goes away. I see that's working out real well for you."
"This one does not wish to harm you," Kenshin fairly exploded at the younger man, "You have been a good friend to this one and this is a terrible repayment for such a gift. Your friendship, Sano, is the only gift I've ever needed from you. This is so much worse. This changes our relationship, this changes how this one must face the world. This changes how Sano must face the world."
"I'd rather you keep doing what you usually do. Only, yeah, eating and sleeping are greatly appreciated, trust me. Otherwise, talk to people, cook food, do the dishes, and if a crisis comes up, answer it, dammit!"
Kenshin glared at the younger man. "And if this one should burn himself on the kettle?"
"Then I get a blister," Sanosuke said with another lopsided shrug. "You know I do worse to myself on a weekly basis than you've ever done to me, right? Especially if you keep sleeping like normal, not that I mean to get stuck on that point. Seriously, move on, Kenshin. Your scaring the hell out of Yahiko and the girls."
Despite himself the rurouni huffed a small laugh. "This one thought you were trying to relieve his burden of guilt, not add to it."
"I am," Sano chirped agreeably, "I'll guilt you into crawling out of your cave so you can get rid of that one burden. We'll work on the other one."
"This one sees you as an equal," Kenshin reiterated from his earlier argument between Sano and Megumi-dono, "This one hopes you and the others in the household feel the same way."
Sano shifted uneasily, the usually direct young man skirting around the topic, "We just want to keep you safe, Kenshin."
Kenshin sighed, understanding that that argument would take time to work through to Sano. It didn't matter, he would do everything in his power to remove this one-sided tie between them. He would have Sanosuke have his own life, his own pains and not bare the burden of another. "I will end this curse."
"Fine," the younger man assented, "but I still say you'll have better luck with that if you'll crawl back out of this room and your little guilt trip. Feel better? Ready to go play nice with the kids now?"
"Very well Sano, but this one is putting you back to bed first."
"Do we have to?"
To be continued.
Its been a very long time since I've updated this O.o. I have no excuses and I think I may be beyond where apologies will save me. Ah, but, I offer you this shiny new chapter as a peace offering?
Yeah. The story isn't dead. I have to thank a lot of kind reviewers for helping me and prompting me and prodding me during the course of this. Your generous, lovely people and I do apologize If I didn't manage to respond to everyone.
As for the story, we got that bit of character exploration out of the way and now we can get down to the nitty-gritty of removing this curse.