Disclaimer: All characters and settings portrayed in this work of fiction belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki, VIZ Media, Shueisha. I'm merely fooling around with the characters and will put them back with as little wear and tear as possible.
Collection Title: .blossoms and shadows
Chapter Title: .a ribbon for her hair
Character(s): Himura Kenshin, Kamiya Kaoru
Rating: T (PG-13). Rating may go up in later chapters.
Prompt: fc-smorgasbord prompt .21 –- gentle warmth
Author's Note: Finally, a chapter written from Kenshin's point-of-view. Lesson for the ever-learning rurouni: never think of even refusing one of Kamiya Kaoru's gifts.


And he heard me say,
"Oh, he doesn't, he doesn't understand
I don't need riches to make me care;
Just a ribbon for my hair..."

Bent – A Ribbon for My Hair


Tokyo, Meiji 11 (1878)

The waters were almost as wild and turbulent as her thoughts – the seemingly quiet, gentle river transformed into a fierce, raging torrent, threatening to sweep away everything in its wake and drown it in murky depths. She was too old, too tired and too marked by loss for her thoughts to have quite as much ferocity as the river before her eyes – yet Kenshin could hardly pretend that she was thinking as clearly as she should be at a time like this. The sakabatou's weight was an equally warm and icy comfort against her shoulder. It was the whisper of security so thoroughly ingrained within her spirit, ready to be drawn at a moment's notice... and the cold reminder that an implacable truth now stared her in face.

Kill or be killed. As it had been during those moonless nights long ago, as the Ishin Shishi's guardian, striking freely in defense of her comrades once she had been freed from the shackles of commanded assassinations.

No. Not so. She took in one slow breath through her nose and gradually let it out, allowing that brief flicker of old, predatory instinct to flow away, just as the sakura petals used to gently float down the waters of the Kamo river. Her thumb lightly caressed the tsuba's metal surface, prepared to free the sword from its sheath with one quick, light press. What she had told Sanosuke remained just as valid – there was a great difference between her and a man like Udou Jin'e and nowhere was that difference more apparent than in battle. She knew perfectly well what he had meant to say when he had hoarsely taunted her to get a real sword for their next encounter.

'A hitokiri who willingly shackles himself like this can't hope to win against someone like me!'

Kenshin had heard variants upon this general model more times than she could hope to count – and only her remarkable memory kept most of them as sharp and clear within her mind as the face of every single man she had slain with these bloodstained hands. Disgruntled former samurai who had lost everything when the old world had come crumbling down all around them, men motivated by greed, by a desire for fame or by lingering hatred of all that had ever been connected with the Ishin Shishi; most of them had said the same things when they had seen her sakabatou drawn from its sheath.

If they had seen it before being knocked unconscious. Kenshin had never been one whose heart thrummed for the anticipation of violence, yet even she had grown weary enough to end most of those engagements as quickly as possible, if talking the other party out of their foolish intentions proved to be an exercise in futility. And it usually was – rage and a desire for vengeance eventually blinding even the most clear-minded man.

Another drawn breath, slowly, slowly released in the cool morning air. Yes, they were all correct, in a sense, even if most didn't possess the sword-skill to follow their contempt to its logical ending. She was bound by an oath which kept her from the terrifying depths of depravity that Udou Jin'e had reached, just as it gave him that much-needed edge when their swords had crossed and he was able to fling her aside with far too much ease.

'Can this battle even be won with a sword that does not kill...?'

The stinging question hovered at the edge of her mind – and Kenshin had to glance at it, as much as she was loath to do so. Running away from the difficult facts had never served her well and now she knew enough of the world after so many sun-scorched years that it seemed utterly childish to even contemplate such a thing. The cold, hard truth was that she had no answer for that sort of question, couldn't even hope to make any prediction for the future until she and Jin'e weren't face-to-face again. There was only one certainty in her mind, surrounded by the raging, foamy waters of a swollen river – it didn't matter if she could or couldn't theoretically defeat him with the use of a sakabatou and a vow to never kill again. It was the only weapon that would ever be held by the unworthy hands of Himura Kenshin and she would do everything in her power to stop Kurogasa from hurting others... or from continuing to hurt himself.

It was the only thing that this lowly person could ever hope to do.

A quiet rustle behind her pulled Kenshin's grim gaze away from the torrent of water, as she quietly admonished herself for falling so thoroughly into one of her waking reveries.

'He's here.'

A gentle tap against the tsuba released the blade, freeing the first centimeter of gleaming steel from its confiding sheath. As expected, Jin'e had decided to strike near the river, where he could easily retreat should there arise a need to do so Very well – he would have his coveted battle, if such was the price for stopping all of this senseless violence. Kenshin's muscles carefully tensed under her skin as she prepared herself to move in the blink of an eye, to draw the blade in a motion as smooth as the flowing of air.

"Kenshin."

She instantly froze at that low, drawn-out voice, not even noticing the blade that sliced though the skin of her thumb as Kenshin's arm suddenly jerked sideways.

"I've found you."

'Oro! She's scarier than Jin'e...'

With her heart racing madly in her chest, Kenshin struggled to breathe and gather her lost bearings, too aware that the riverbank had suddenly decided to start swaying every which way. Kaoru's weight thumped none too gently next to her on the old, rotting tree and the former hitokiri was certain that just about anyone could knock her over with a feather right then. Perhaps, she thought dizzily, Kaoru-dono should have considered espionage work alongside kenjutsu training.

"I've heard from Sanosuke." Blue eyes were staring straight into the river, with the same intensity as her own gaze, only minutes earlier. "You're not coming back to the dojo. So I'm not going back either. I'm staying here with you."

'Do you even realize what you're saying–'

That thought was quickly smothered by something softer, yet equally laced with shock, as Kenshin did her utmost to stop anything from showing on her neutral expression. Not now – she couldn't afford to falter for one single moment, not when it could end up involving Kaoru-dono or anyone else. Not Kaoru-dono, with her innocent, sweet ideals and her courageous heart, making even Kenshin feel old and worn-out and so very jaded by comparison. With her thoughts still in turmoil, Kenshin did the only thing that she could hope to do in such a situation – turned slightly around and offered a small, hopefully ignorant smile, drawing on the many years she had needed to play the fool, the silly backwoods boy or the soft-headed day-laborer who could only hope not to poke out an eye with that silly sword of his.

"Oh? Did you have a fight with Sano? Or with Yahiko, perhaps?"

"That's not it!"

Kenshin had to offer the younger woman a good deal of credit – it took some restraint to keep herself from openly flinching at Kaoru's sharp tone. No use playing the fool, then – yet she had hoped for one moment that perhaps this situation could be diffused without heaviness or an admission of just how uncertain the outcome seemed to her. She hardly wanted to worry Kaoru-dono even more.

"You heard about Jin'e, then?" It just figured that Sanosuke was the last person who could be counted on to keep quiet about all of this. Still, Kenshin was quietly grateful for her unlikely friend and his rather foolhardy honesty. It was for the best that the decision was taken firmly out of her hands, torn as she was between keeping Kaoru out of harm's way and potentially hurting her by lying. Even if only by pretending that no mass-murderer was after her.

"I heard, but I'm not leaving."

Only honesty, Kenshin silently decided, fingers tightening against the iron sheath of her sword.

"This one cannot possibly defeat Jin'e while protecting someone else." Of that much Kenshin was absolutely certain. It had once been possible to do battle to the utmost of her abilities while guarding the safety of others, yet that had been in a wholly different place and a very different age. It had been only in that time of mad justice, in the small narrow streets of Kyoto, when she had raced alongside her comrades, only to gradually slow her steps and allow the first pursuer to catch up, before striking him down with one smooth battoujutsu in full motion. This was not Kyoto, not the Bakumatsu, nor or a time when she was willing to harden her heart into complete ruthlessness for the sake of her purpose.

Kaoru was quiet by her side for a moment – far too quiet, as Kenshin subtly studied the young girl. Dark blue eyes met her own and suddenly Kaoru was standing up with an air of complete and utter determination, smoothing the wrinkles in her kimono's heavy fabric with steady hands. Blazing in the late winter sun, the other's ki buffeted Kenshin and the swordswoman could say nothing as she watched Kaoru undo the indigo ribbon in her hair with all of the resolve of one walking off to war. A smooth waterfall of dark tresses flowed down the girl's back and she shook them out with a quick movement of her head, before turning back to Kenshin and holding out the piece of cloth.

"It's my favorite ribbon. I'm lending it to you, Kenshin."

'What...?'

Half in utter disbelief, half wondering what Kaoru might be trying to do – never underestimate a girl who can hit you with her tofu bucket from fifty meters away! – Kenshin stared up at her, squinting against the sun's glare shining in her eyes.

"This one cannot possibly accept..." Entirely the wrong thing to say, it seemed, as Kaoru saw fit to blast her ears off.

"Just take it already!"

"Hai, Kaoru-dono!"

Reflexively, her fingers reached out for the soft material, tightening around the offered ribbon before Kenshin could even fully process what was happening. She was left blinking owlishly up at Kaoru, far enough from those other days that the memory of a similar gesture – 'you need a sheathe to keep the madness at bay' – no longer assaulted her senses.

"All right? I'm only lending it to you. Be sure to give it back."

Kaoru was looking at her with fraying patience, waiting for an answer and obviously trying to discern what was happening behind those puzzled features. Kenshin uerself could think of no suitable answer for such a gift, glancing down at the ribbon in her hands, thoughts as chaotic and tumultuous as ever. Why would she...

"After you fight Jin'e, if you forget and go wandering again... I'll never forgive you."

'She expects–wants a... promise.'

Slowly, Kenshin allowed herself to smile as warmly and sincerely as she could possibly manage in this life, the expression lighting her features like a sunrise.

'Ah, Kaoru-dono... Do you even know how easily you can make this lowly person promise everything in one's power?'

"This one will surely return your ribbon, Kaoru-dono." Softly spoken, smiling brightly for the first time since Chief Uramura had walked through the dojo gates with his grim request. "So please return home and wait for its return."

The smile was returned and for a moment there was no worry gnawing steadily at her mind, no grief for those who had died by Jin'e blade – or for the hitokiri himself, so lost in his blood-craze. Only some quiet understanding finally reached between the two of them.

"Let me put it in your hair."

"Oro?"

It was the second time that Kenshin ended up caught by surprise – and perhaps that had been Kaoru's intention all along, still smiling and looking at her with an open and entirely trusting gaze. A nervous laugh came out of the swordswoman's throat, as she rubbed the back of her head in a nervous gesture and thought about a way to strategically retreat without insulting the younger woman.

"I insist. Kenshin, I loaned it to you and I would like you to wear it." Those shinai-calloused fingers were patting the fabric of her kimono in a gesture of equal nervousness, but there was nothing uncertain in Kaoru's eyes, as she pinned the hapless rurouni under a firm gaze. "It would look good on you."

What else could she even do? Letting out a soft sigh, a wry-tinged smile and a quiet 'hai, Kaoru-dono', Kenshin allowed the assistant master of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu to step behind her and slip those same calloused fingers in her hair. She was old enough and weary enough to not shiver like a silly girl barely out of childhood, Kenshin told herself – yet that hardly stopped the tiny tremor that reached all the way down to her wrists when Kaoru managed to hook one finger in the leather strap holding her hair tied in its customary tail. It was one thing to undo it herself... and quite another to have someone else do the very same thing. The flutter of something sad and wistful passed over her features then; the last person to do so, innocently and with a small of apology for his boldness, had been this remarkable girl's honored father. There had been nothing to forgive – she certainly couldn't have hoped to pull her unruly mane of scarlet hair into its top-knot with one tightly-bound right wrist and two bullet-wounds in the left shoulder.

Still smiling, Kenshin closed her eyes and gently gathered that memory close to her, letting it mingle with Kaoru's soft touch. It would keep her from thinking of another even before Kamiya Koshijirou, who had swept her hair up and set a lacquer comb atop it, in preparation for a festival. The younger woman worked with practiced ease, combing her fingers through the strands that gleamed bright orange in the morning sun, fanning out the hair over Kenshin's shoulders and then gathering it back at the nape of the other's neck. One hand pinned the mass of fiery tresses in place, while the other held the ribbon and began to wrap it securely. Once, twice, then the fingers of the first hand joined in, gripping the edges and forming the bow-knot with smooth motions.

Ah, if those she remembered could see her now! Kenshin wryly suspected that her current appearance would have incited a riot of hysterical laughter among the regulars of the Kohagi-ya, fearsome reputation or no.

'Yare yare...'

"There. That should do it." And she lightly patted the result of her work, earning herself a light chuckle from the swordswoman who had already raised the white flag, surrendering herself to Kaoru-dono whims – regardless if they happened to be wrapping her hair in a ribbon or making her carry most of the groceries when they returned from the market.

Turning around, Kenshin was suddenly seized with the impulse to freeze this one moment in time, if she could – with the weight of years seemingly lifted from her shoulders and Kaoru smiling with such happiness, her cheeks bright and lashes fluttering. If so simple a consent could make Kaoru-dono happy, then the lowly rurouni Himura Kenshin wouldn't hesitate to grant it. She had once promised to protect someone's happiness, so long ago – and now that very same shred of selfless desire flitted at the edges of her mind. She couldn't quite reach for it, could barely see it, still intent on one day resuming her wanderings – yet Kenshin still found herself mirroring Kaoru's relieved happiness.

When had she forgotten how wonderful it was to receive someone else's smile for no life-changing favor?


Explanations:

Bakumatsu: the revolution that brought an end to the feudal government of the Shogun and ushered in the rapid modernization of Japan.
hitokiri: assassin
Ishin Shishi: 'men of high purpose', 'patriots'. The faction which fought against the Shogunate forces during the Bakumatsu. Advocated a restoration of imperial rule and the expelling iof all foreigners from Japan.
ki: fighting spirit
Kohagi-ya: the inn temporarily used as a base of operations by the Ishin Shishi of Kyoto, before it was borned down in the great blaze of Genji 1 (1864)
rurouni: wandering swordsman
sakabatou: reverse-blade sword
yare yare: oh dear