It was midnight and not a sound stirred the Kamiya Dojo.
Kenshin knelt over the wash bin, his forehead was beaded with perspiration. He scrubbed at the bit of silk furiously... why wouldn't it come clean? The water and suds in the bin were a faint shade of pink.
With a small noise of frustration, Kenshin dunked the small wad of blue silk into the rinse bin and squeezed out a cloud of red from the indigo fabric... again... and again. Finally he lifted the silk ribbon from the water and squeezed the water from it.
"Please." he whispered. "Please be clean."
He carefully untwisted the fabric only to groan in dismay. The bloodstain hadn't come clean. There was still a ruddy brown puddle with darker edges from where the wound Jin'eh had given him had stained and ruined Kaoru's indigo ribbon... her favorite.
Kenshin let out his breath and let his chin rest on his chest. He should have rinsed it out in the river while the blood had been fresh, but he'd been worried about silt stains, not to mention Kaoru had been chasing him...
He should have known better, once blood dried it never completely left the surface it clung to. It was the same for silk and hands. Hands... he looked down at his own.
How could he have dared? He accused himself. How could he have ever even thought for a moment that he could have anything with Kaoru? Everything he touched became bloodstained... like the damn ribbon. Kaoru had trusted him, trusted him to bring it back... to come back to her.
If only Jin'eh... Kenshin sighed bitterly; what if's weren't going to do him any good. Was this the way it would always be? Some half-crazed swordsman from his past always coming to the Dojo crying for the blood of Battousai? Would Kaoru always be dragged into his mess?
Kenshin tried to rinse the ribbon again, but no more blood would come out.
Maybe if he soaped it again... Kenshin gritted his teeth and shoved the wash bin away from him. It would do no good.
The ugly rusty brown stain was now a permanent part of the silk Kenshin sighed and stuffed it into his Gi.
"What am I going to do, it was her favorite..." Kenshin shook his head, it wasn't Kaoru having fits he worried about... she'd already let the ribbon subject go.
"Damn.": he repeated. "She would have been so glad if I had gotten it out..." he explained to the moon shining down on the courtyard.
Kenshin jumped. "Kaoru-dono?!"
She stepped into the small room. "Kenshin, it's almost midnight. Why are you still up?"
Kenshin swallowed. "I... was..."
Kaoru noticed the washbasin and pinned him with the glance. "Kenshin! You're doing laundry at this hour? My god! You've just spent the day fighting with the Crazy Swordsman from Hell and you spend the night doing laundry." she shook her head. "Really, sometimes I wonder where your priorities are."
Kenshin flushed and spared a guilty thought for the ribbon. "Kaoru-dono..."
"Not another word." she said sternly. "you're going to bed."
"Kenshin! I expect this `I don't wanna go to bed!' stuff from Yahiko, you're way too old for this!"
Kenshin sighed. "Yes, ma'am." Kenshin let himself be herded into his room with a dejected oyasuminasai.
He spent the rest of the night staring at the ceiling wallowing in guilt and dark speculations. The morning rose and with it Kenshin, though his customary place at the wash bin was forbidden to him by Kaoru. Feeling slightly put upon, he moped around the Dojo until finally she gave him a chore.
Kenshin whistled as he accepted the sen Kaoru counted out from the house account and sent him after tofu. The tofu errand didn't bother him, he could have that done in seconds. When Kaoru had mentioned the word `shop', a brilliant notion had birthed it's self in his mind. Truly, truly genius!
Taking mental note of the contents of his wallet, Kenshin's grin grew slightly. It was perfect...
The tofu took seconds as predicted, but his second errand took longer.
"How long are you going to look?" the stall keeper snapped irritably.
"Honto... de gozaru.." Kenshin murmured to the bristly woman. There were so many to choose from, how could he find just the right one? "It's just...."
"It'll be for someone special, right? Ain't they all." The large woman stopped. "You seem nice, any one who'll spend this much time over..." she stopped, leaving her thought unfinished. She drew something from underneath the counter. "How about this? It's special work, a lady down town does it."
Kenshin stared at it. "It's.... perfect."
The woman snorted. "Of course it is! 23 sen."
The price was, of course, highway robbery; but Kenshin counted out the coins and mentally added the burly booth lady to the list of `people he really didn`t care for very much and would sic a drunk Sanosuke on their booth one of these days'.
The burly booth lady laid Kenshin's salvation into a pretty gift box and wrapped it in rice paper, which he took quickly and departed with a hassled "Arigotou Gozaimasu."
All the way home Kenshin worried over the gift.
"Will she like it? Should I have picked out something else?"
As he stepped into the Dojo proper Kaoru appeared in the courtyard. "Hey Kenshin! Welcome home! Did you get the tofu?"
Kenshin nodded brightly. "Yes, at a very good price too..." he trailed off as Kaoru whisked the tofu out of his hands and swept into the kitchen shed with it.
Kenshin's hands crept towards his gi where the perfect gift lay concealed. When should he give it to her? Now? After supper? He had to find just the perfect moment.
Dinner was the usual affair of Sanosuke griping and Yahiko trying to bait Kaoru, who for once was having none of it. After supper Kaoru excused herself into the garden and didn't come back in.
As Kenshin quickly rinsed the dishes, a thousand scenes rushed through his mind. Right now, in the garden would be ideal. He would finish his chores and quietly join her there, they could sit and talk for a while than he could give IT to her.
He set the bowls out to air dry instead of rubbing them as he normally did. Kaoru was sitting serenely on a stone by the koi pond.
"May I join you, Kaoru-dono?"
She looked up like a startled doe, the moonlight caught her glossy hair and set it to mystical fire. "Uh... yes. Yes, of course."
Kenshin bowed politely and took the stone next to her. They sat quietly for a moment, until Kenshin reached into his gi and pulled out the bloody ribbon, something must have been tangled in it because a hard little lump fell out as he pulled it out.
Kaoru caught it easily and handed it back to him. Kenshin accepted it and held it in the light.
"It's my top!" he murmured.
Kenshin found himself blushing. "Yes, I've had it as long as I can remember. Even before my Sword Master found me. Even when I was fighting in the Bakumatsu I could find a touch of peace by spinning it. It's silly, but I have a vague memory of my father whenever I spin it, a touch of the love I know he felt for me, even though he died before I really knew him..." he trailed off and clutched the ribbon reflexively. "Kaoru-dono... about your ribbon...."
"I knew it!" Kaoru cried and buried her face in her hands. "I knew that's what you were doing last night! You were working yourself into exhaustion over that stupid ribbon, didn't I tell you that it really didn't matter whether or not you got blood on that ribbon?"
"Not buts! You always worry about the smallest things, you didn't disappoint me Kenshin. No one expects you to be perfect all the time, it's all right to make mistakes." Kaoru glared at him. "You think that if you make the tiniest little mistake that no one will like you anymore, dammit Kenshin. I'm... we're your friends, being friends means taking the good with the bad. I've seen you moping around the Dojo like you were going to be kicked out, I'd never do that. I don't care about the ribbon, I'm just glad you're alive!"
Kenshin caught Kaoru awkwardly as she threw herself into his arms. He closed his eyes and tightened his grip on her, her words struck home to him and somehow calmed a piece of him that had been scared for a time.
They stayed that way for a time until Kenshin released her and pulled back a little. "Kaoru-dono, I'd like to ask you a favor."
He held up the bloodstained ribbon. "I'd like to hold onto this for a while, if you don't mind. Please, I'd like to keep it."
Kaoru blinked through her tear dampened eyelashes. "Yes, of course. I don't mind."
Kenshin smiled, even as he escorted her to her bedroom and closed the screen behind her. As he entered his own room he still kept it gripped in his hand.
As he stripped out of his gi and into his sleeping yukata, it lay close to his heart. The blood on the silk was his own and the ribbon was touched by Kaoru's love. It was symbolic in a way, of his renewed resolution. His own blood would be spilt before anything touched Kaoru-dono. The perfect gift he stowed away in the chest in the corner of his room. It would have to wait.
Jin'eh would only be the first of a thousand men after him, he sensed the future would hold many such battles, but there were only so many men in the world. Eventually they would stop coming. Until that day, he would use his sword to protect Kaoru and this safe-haven in a bloodstained world.
His gift would have to wait until there was peace and time for flowery courtship and lover's gifts. Now his sword would stand between the world and an innocent girl.
The ribbon he wound around the top his father had given him. Two gifts of love that he would treasure until he could allow himself to love her in return. Two things to sustain him until he was truly ready to put both Battousai and Kenshin the wanderer aside and simply be Kenshin Himura.