Yukiyo Himura could wield a broom as well as any housewife, but she wasn't quick enough to stop a determined beetle. She'd swept it off the threshold with the dust, but it scuttled back. "No you don't!" she yelped, but knew she was going to miss it.
A sword blade flicked out, caught the offending bug, and flipped it casually away. Eight feet in the air, it spread its wings and flew off to bother someone else. Yuki grinned. "Thanks, Moriko. You'd think it would take a hint."
Moriko grinned and put up her sword again. "Any time."
Moriko's husband, sitting on the porch with his long legs stretched out and apparently asleep, opened one eye at this and remarked, "Not a worthy use for a sword."
Yuki had become accustomed to having Saitoh around in the past year, since he and Mori had married, but he still got on her nerves, and she disagreed with almost anything he said just on principle. "I don't think so. I think it's a fine use for a sword. Kenshin?"
Her own husband, sitting on their other side and also looking more than half asleep, started at being addressed. "Oro?"
"Don't you agree?"
Saitoh removed the piece of straw from his mouth which was the substitute for the cigarettes Yuki wouldn't allow him to smoke in her home. "Yes, tell us what you think, Battousai."
"Who are you talking to, Wolf?" Yuki demanded. "The Battousai's dead. How many times do you have to be told that before it sinks into your thick head? Or do you like talking to ghosts?" With this, she swung at him with the broom. Both his sword and Moriko's stopped the housewifely weapon, crossing just under it.
Kenshin looked at the tableau - his wife and Moriko as well as Saitoh in kendo pants and yukata, two of them flashing swords and the third in a classic swordsman's pose with her broom - and scratched the back of his head. "What I think is that we are not like any other neighbors, that we aren't."
All three weapons were raised and put up, and the two women laughed. Saitoh said, "What's the purpose of this sudden spurt of cleaning energy anyway, Yuki? You're usually not armed."
Moriko answered him. "Baka. Mikiko's coming to visit today. Keitaro's already gone to pick her up at the station."
Kenshin said to Yuki, "Mikiko would be happier if you left the cleaning for her to do, that she would."
"I am not going to have her come here and work."
"Send her to my house, then," Moriko begged.
"Yes, do," Saitoh seconded dryly.
Moriko turned on him. "Are you trying to say something?"
He eyed her with his golden gaze for a long moment, gauging her mood. "No."
Yuki offered him the broom. "Want to help?"
He rolled to his feet. "I think I'll go have a smoke."
Kenshin, ever alert, said, "I think I'll go with you."
Yuki, who was even more alert, said, "Why don't both of you walk down toward the train station? Kei might need help with Mikiko's luggage."
The two men exchanged glances of complete understanding. "Sure!" said Kenshin cheerfully.
"As soon as I finish my smoke," Saitoh said, edging away with him.
Kenshin muttered, "How many do you have?"
Saitoh muttered back, "Sufficient."
"Why does she always have so much luggage, anyway?" Saitoh demanded as they went through the gate out into the street, which was the closest Yuki would allow him to come to her home with a cigarette. "I can go away for a week with what I can carry on my back, and never need to do laundry."
"It's the Western clothes. They need to be packed carefully in trunks."
"I'll never understand the Westerners." He lit up and took a long, satisfying drag, narrowing his eyes against the smoke that floated upward. Then they both looked to the right. "Is that laughter I hear?"
"Yes. That's Keitaro and Mikiko, that it is."
"Kei's a big boy."
"That he is."
"If he's gotten the luggage this far, he can get it the rest of the way without our help."
"That certainly sounds reasonable, it does."
"Why don't we just stand here ready to open the gate for them?"
Kenshin just gave him an amused look.
A few minutes later, Kei and Mikiko came around the corner, Mikiko still in her Western clothes. Each was dragging a little cart with trunks and boxes stacked on them, Mikiko had a bag in one hand, and Kei had yet another bag slung over his shoulder. The reason for the laughter was a sandalwood box that Mikiko was carrying precariously on the palm of her other hand and trying to give to Kei, who was steadfastly refusing responsibility for it, insisting that, since she'd brought it, she'd have to take care of it.
Saitoh's cigarette dropped from his fingers. "What is that thing she has on her head?"
Kenshin sounded equally baffled, although he had an answer. "That's a hat, that is."
"It looks like someone covered a cartwheel in fabric and ribbon."
"A strong wind would blow her away, that it would. I wonder what Yuki will say to that?"
"I know what Moriko will say. Not a word. She'll be too busy staring."
Just then a stray breeze stiffened up, and the absurd hat got caught in it just as they expected. Mikiko made a grab for it, dropping the box, but before she could so much as gasp, Kei handed it back to her, having caught it even as it slipped from her hand. "I told you I can't handle it," she protested, face pink with laughter, holding onto her hat with her free hand rather than taking the box.
"And I told you I don't care what happens to it."
"You caught it for me."
"Reflexes. It was automatic."
"Fast, too. You've been practicing," she said in admiration. "But now that you have it..."
"I'm giving it back to you."
"You are so selfish."
"If it were a present for me, I wouldn't be."
"There's one for you in there somewhere. What a baby."
Saitoh lit a second cigarette, propping his shoulders against the wall, but Kenshin stepped forward to greet them. Mikiko dropped her bag to hug him. "Uncle Kenshin! It's been months! Oh, sorry about the hat, did it hit you?" She yanked impatiently at the ribbon under her chin, pulled the hat off, tossed it onto the cart behind Kei, then hugged Kenshin again and kissed him. "I've missed you all so much! If not for your letters, I would have been so lonely in Yokohama."
"Dad, will you take this stupid box?" Kei asked.
Kenshin accepted it without protest. "What is it?"
Mikiko explained, "It's a present for Kiyoshi from Aunt Hikaru, which is why we have to keep it upright. It's a plant from England that Ki didn't think we could grow here, but Aunt Hikaru figured out a way, so she's sending him a piece from hers and a whole scroll of instructions on how to take care of it."
Kei said, "You see why I didn't think it was worth the trouble to carry it?"
Mikiko gave him a mock scowl. "You're just a selfish pig. Oh, hello, Mr. Saitoh. How are you?"
"Stunned by your hat."
She laughed. "It's awful, isn't it? But it's considered very fashionable amongst the English, I promise you. I got at least three compliments on it, on the train, and one of them was from a lady, too. It's good to see you again, sir. Is Aunt Moriko here?"
Kei poked her. "Show him that thing you do. It's perfect for him."
"What thing? Oh, the curtsy?" She twinkled up at Saitoh, gathered a handful of her long skirts out of her way, and dipped partially to the ground, with a straight back, but bowing her head. As she came up, she was already talking again. "That's how an English lady bows."
"It looks like everything else Western. Stiff."
Kenshin, still holding Ki's box, took Mikiko's arm in his other hand. "Come along, Mikiko, Yuki can't wait to see you, that she can't. No, leave the cart, Saitoh will bring it for you. It's the least he can do after that... what was it?"
"After that curtsy you did for him, that it is."
At the expression on Saitoh's face, Kei started laughing again.
They had stood outside long enough for Yuki, hearing them, to put away her broom and slip into a clean yukata. There was no sign of the cleaning frenzy when Mikiko came through the gate, saw her, dropped her bag, and threw herself into Yuki's arms. Neither Yuki nor Kenshin were particularly physically demonstrative in public, but Mikiko never gave them a choice about being hugged and kissed, and her evident love and pleasure at seeing them made it impossible to hold her off. After Mikiko gave her Aunt Moriko a hug as well, Yuki said, "I can see you're in the best of health. How is Hikaru? And Hitomi and Daisuke?"
"They're all fine. Dai keeps clucking around after Hitomi as if she's the first woman ever to get pregnant in the whole world. It's so cute. Aunt Hikaru sends her love and says she'll be here next week for Uncle Kenshin's birthday, the same as always, and she's promised Dai that she'll take very good care of Hitomi on the way."
"Isn't Dai coming?"
"Yes, but not until the day before the party. Something to do with the school."
Kenshin set the box down carefully on the step. "How is Master?"
"He's fine, too. I don't think either of them ever change or age a day. I hope that's something I inherited. He says he hasn't made up his mind whether he's coming or not, but I think Aunt Hikaru will talk him into it. She's got that look on her face. I think she wants him to protect Hitomi on the way, but of course she hasn't said that to Hitomi!"
Moriko said suddenly, "By the heavens." This was in reaction to Kei. He'd already pulled one cart in, and was now hauling the other through the gate, Saitoh having refused to do it. "Mikiko, how in the world can one person need all that baggage?"
"It's the English stuff. We'll just put the trunks into the guest house. Once I get the presents out, they don't need to be opened again until I get a new job. My real clothes are in those two bags."
"You didn't have to buy us presents," Yuki protested.
"You always say that, and I always do it anyway. I like to do it."
Moriko had spotted the hat and stepped down into the yard to pick it up. "Mikiko, does this go on your head? What does it do, make you fly?"
Mikiko giggled. "Silly, isn't it? It's good shade on sunny days, however."
"You could shade four people under it, that you could," Kenshin said.
"And there's enough ribbon to make an obi," Moriko observed. "I know you have to dress Western for your job, but why would you buy something so absurd?"
"I didn't buy it, Mrs. Smythe-Gibbons gave it to me, to go with this dress. Since she was nice enough to take me to the station, I thought I should wear it. Also to make Kei laugh."
Kei said, "I laughed, all right." To his mother, he said, "She got stuck coming out of the train car."
"I did not! Well, only for a second."
Yuki knew that the two of them, once started, could bicker for hours. They were worse than Hitomi and he had been. "Come inside and change, Mikiko, so that you look like yourself, and then we can sit down and have a nice long talk. I haven't been to Kyoto since early last month, and nobody there is a good letter writer like you are."
Moriko picked up the box with Ki's plant. "I'll take this to Ki," she offered.
"Thank you, Aunt Moriko! And tell Ki that if it suffered any damage, that was Kei's fault, he dropped it." Kei playfully swatted at her and she danced out of his reach.
When she and Yuki disappeared inside, Moriko glanced inside the box and closed it again with a baffled expression. "I'll never understand Ki and Hikaru, and these plants."
"Neither will I," Kei admitted. "It's always puzzled me how a swordsman that good could also enjoy digging holes and pulling weeds."
Moriko laughed. "He doesn't enjoy pulling weeds! He says it's like learning kenjutsu basics, painful, but something you have to get through."
Kei smiled. "Well, I admire him but I don't want to emulate him."
"When Hajime's in a bad mood, he says Ki's unnatural," Moriko said, rolling her eyes.
Saitoh came up in time to hear this, reached over his wife's shoulder, opened the box, and closed it again. "I hold to it. Do any of you see anything in there except dirt and one puny leaf? I didn't think so. But Kiyoshi will run off with it like a miser with a fresh bag of gold."
Moriko said, "Kei, how long will Mikiko be here?"
"As long as Mom and Dad will have her," with a shrug and a smiling glance at his father. "The Smythe-Gibbons' gave her a bonus, so she's all right for money for a while."
"Unless she spent it all on presents," Saitoh said.
"She didn't. She's too careful with her money for that. You know, she likes working for the English - you know how she likes helping people, and the English need a lot of help - but she would much rather be here helping Mom, or on the mountain with Hikaru and Seijuro, or in her own house, running back and forth to Hitomi's. So she saves all she can, and that way she doesn't have to be in a hurry to look for more work between jobs."
"Will she have trouble finding any, when she is ready?"
"None at all. She has a reputation now. I'm always being asked when she'll be available again."
Moriko said, "They ask you?"
"Most of the English think I'm either her brother or her husband," he grinned. "So they ask me. Are you two coming to dinner tonight?"
"No," Saitoh said. "Not until she calms down."
Moriko glared at him. "Then you take me to the Akabeko for dinner."
Kei picked up the handle of one of the carts. "Saitoh-san? I don't suppose you want to help me."
"With your father standing right here? I wouldn't presume," Saitoh said, and followed it with his wolfish smile.
Kenshin sighed and took up the other cart handle.
Yuki would have sympathized with Saitoh by the end of the evening, although she would rather have killed herself than admit she agreed with anything said by the old Wolf. Mikiko was always happy to help around the house and in the kitchen, but when she'd been away for a long time, she got a little too eager and tried to do everything at once, with the result that she often got in the way. Yuki was glad for the peace and quiet when, after dinner, Kei offered to walk Mikiko up to the Akabeko to see Sanosuke and Tomiko (and irritate Saitoh, if he was still there), and then to the Sagaras to say hello to Ki and Hanako.
By the morning Mikiko was back to normal, and they worked smoothly together, almost in silence, making breakfast and cleaning the house. Yahiko had once remarked on how much cleaner the Himura house was when Mikiko visited, and although he never repeated the remark (not after being warned with a good knock on the head), Yuki knew it was true. At first it bothered her to have the girl doing the housework. When they'd first met Mikiko, she was such a lost little waif, and Yuki had felt imposed on, in a peculiar way, as if Mikiko were helping only to get acceptance. That might even have been true, but it was no longer. After almost three years, Yuki had come to look on her as a second daughter.
With the housework done, Yuki made tea and the two of them and Kenshin sat down and talked for a long time, mostly about Mikiko's job (the antics of the English always amused Kenshin) and about their relatives in Kyoto. Mikiko was an excellent letter writer, but she always saved the best stories for when she visited and could tell them with the appropriate gestures and expressions.
The next day was spent on a round of visits, something which never seemed to bore Mikiko. After her upbringing in such a small (and, in Yuki's opinion, rather cold and restrictive) family, she had been awed when thrown into the very large group which included not only the Himuras, Sagaras, and Fujita/Saitohs, but also the families of Yahiko, Sanosuke, Kaoru, and Megumi. Kei had teased her about it ("You wanted a family. Well, this is a really big one. You must have pleased some god mightily."), but once she adjusted, she simply loved it. Yuki always took her visiting, just for the pleasure of watching her enjoy herself, and Mikiko was always willing to run the most trifling errands at any time of the day, glad to be able to see someone again whom she'd just seen the day before. Yuki supposed that being isolated with the English for so many months at a time added to that enjoyment, and her love for Mikiko was mixed with a measure of pity. Mikiko seemed content with her jobs, but Yuki was certain the girl wanted more from life than that.
On the fifth day of her visit, they were shelling beans on the porch, being "helped" by toddler Koneko, whom they had offered to babysit so Ki and Hanako could spend a day in town together, and the subject came up naturally. Koneko had announced, quite clearly, that she needed to go to the bathroom and wanted to be taken right now, so Mikiko picked her up and carried her off. They returned with Koneko's feet on the ground, her hand tucked in Mikiko's and her face very solemn as she walked carefully along. Mikiko helped her step up onto the porch, praised her as if she'd performed a miracle, and then gave her a bowl with some beans to snap, just like the adults. Over that bent head with its cloud of dark, wispy hair, the two women looked at each other and smiled, identical smiles of maternal indulgence, and Yuki said impulsively, "You should have your own children to look after."
"I will one day, I'm sure."
"Isn't that what you do for the English? Babysit, mostly?"
"Pretty much. But I also cook and clean, at times. Whatever is needed. As I do here, except of course it's more pleasant here because it isn't a job and no one takes advantage."
"Your employers take advantage of you?"
"All employers do. The English, once you get past their funny ways, are like us. Most are good, some aren't."
Yuki shook her head. "You should have your own home and family to take care of, and your own servants, if you want them. You shouldn't be a servant."
Mikiko bent all her concentration on the bowl of beans in her lap. "I don't mind it," she said blithely.
On instinct now, Yuki said, "Haven't you ever thought about marrying and having those things?"
"Certainly." Mikiko looked up, smiling, at ease now. "I've thought about it twice, because I've had exactly two proposals."
"You have? Who were they?"
"One was a businessman's son in Yokohama, and one was the son of the second family I worked for, the Dutch family."
"But you accepted neither one? Why not?"
"I'm spoiled, I suppose."
"Because you don't need the money?" Mikiko made her own way in the world, but that was because she chose to. It was no secret that Hiko and Hikaru would have given her an allowance and let her live in Kyoto doing nothing at all, if that had been what she wanted.
But Mikiko was shaking her head and smiling. "No, spoiled by you. I mean not just you, but all the family. There is so much love here. Ki and Hanako, Hitomi and Dai, they still act like newlyweds. But that's only part of it. Look at Uncle Seijuro and Aunt Hikaru. Sometimes they don't even need to speak, they're so close, and Aunt Hikaru told me once that, even when she'd only known him a short time, she knew he would always be there for her. And then there's Aunt Moriko and Mr. Saitoh. They're very different, but it's still love. You can tell there's a passion between them, like a fire that never quite dies, and all the years haven't banked it. And of course, from the very beginning, I've watched you and Uncle Kenshin, and the way the two of you touch even when you're at opposite sides of the room, and how you do everything together as if it were the most natural thing in the world and there was no other way to be. So, I'm spoiled. If I can't have a love as rich as that, I don't want to marry." She smiled again. "You see. I have very high standards. But, you helped to set them."
"And you've never fallen in love? Never met anyone that you thought you could love that much?"
Mikiko looked away, ostensibly reaching for another handful of beans. When she looked up again to answer, her smile was normal, her eyes clear and direct, but there were two spots of bright pink on her cheeks. "No, never."
That, Yuki was sure, was the first time Mikiko had ever lied to her.
"But even if I had," Mikiko went on, the blush slowly fading, "he would have to love me, too, wouldn't he? Maybe someday I'll meet the right man. But I won't marry anyone until I do. I've been very lucky that I don't have to. If I were still in Itokoshi, I would have been forced into it." She shook her head. "Before I met all of you, I thought that marriage was like I saw in the village. Everyone knew his or her place, his or her duty. Husband and wife both worked for the same things, but he did his job, and she did hers. Their worlds never touched. Their minds never touched. They were contented, but I don't want only that. I want much more. I want…" The blush came back, this time spreading all over her face. "I'm sorry. Listen to me, I sound so greedy. But I want what you and Uncle Kenshin have, and I won't settle for anything less. Is that greedy?"
"I wouldn't wish anything less for you," Yuki said quietly. Mikiko had given her a lot to think about.
Mikiko was having dinner that night with Moriko and Saitoh, so Yuki had the kitchen to herself, and, alone in the quiet, she couldn't get the morning's conversation out of her mind. She knew why Mikiko had lied to her. The girl was always trying to avoid being trouble to anyone, so naturally she would never tell Keitaro's mother that he was the man she loved, and believed didn't love her. To save Mikiko's pride, Yuki could pretend to be blind, but the only person unaware of how that wind blew was Kei himself. At first, almost everyone had believed Mikiko was just infatuated because he'd rescued her and united her with Hiko, and that she would grow out of it eventually. But Kenshin had said from the beginning it was not an infatuation, and as usual he was right. Yuki and Hikaru had agreed with him within days, and by now, no matter how much Mikiko pretended that she and Kei were just friends, no one believed her.
Except, apparently, Kei.
But Yuki hadn't realized how deep Mikiko's feelings were. There had been an almost tragic resignation in the girl's eyes, and Yuki didn't want her son to be the cause of that much sadness. He wasn't aware, but he would be made aware. And right away, too, before Mikiko ran off to more months of servitude and vain wishing. Even if Kei's brotherly affection couldn't become anything more, Mikiko would be better off without hope of it. Severed from him, she might find someone else.
She was chopping vegetables and didn't even realize how deeply she was thinking until she saw that she had minced instead of diced them, and they were now a shapeless mash. Impatiently she brought the knife down, trying to separate out what could still be used and what would have to go into a soup, and Kei came in, grabbing a couple of cherries and popping them into his mouth. "Hi, Mom. What's for dinner tonight?"
With her son's carefree voice in her ears, Yuki stared down at the knife blade and the ruined vegetables, and she almost felt the click of decision in her mind. The time to talk to him was right now. "Kei, where's your father?"
"Out back. What's the matter? You sound funny. Do you feel all right?"
She looked up and gave him a small smile. "I'm fine. But, I want to have a talk with you, just the two of us. Tell your father that we're going for a walk down by the river."
"Sure." His tone was calm and light, but he was looking at her warily. "What are we talking about?"
"We'll discuss it when we get there."
"Am I in trouble?"
Her smile deepened. "No, Kei. But, that may change if you don't listen to what I have to say."
All the way down to the river, Kei kept looking at her with concern, until finally she tucked a hand in his arm to reassure him. By tacit agreement they stopped at one of Kenshin's favorite places, where soft grass rolled gently down to the very edge of the water and an ancient tree provided shade during the day and a place for the fireflies to alight in the evening. She sat crosslegged at the edge of the shade, and Kei dropped down beside her, bonelessly relaxed and happy just to be there with her. Looking at him, she was filled suddenly with her love for him, so that for a moment she couldn't even speak. He was so like his father sometimes. She only hoped that, like his father, he would hate an injustice, even if he were the one committing it.
He gave her a few moments of receptive silence, looking out at and enjoying the golden glow of the afternoon sunlight on the water. Yuki used the time to try to come up with a way to approach the problem, but she was still at a loss when he finally turned to her, smiling, and said, "What did you want to talk about, Mom?"
She had to start somehow, and she'd always been best at being direct. "About Mikiko."
"What about her?"
"I think she should stop being a servant for the Westerners, get married, and have her own home."
He blinked. "I don't think she wants to get married."
"Yes, she does."
"Mom, just because most women do, doesn't mean that Mikiko does."
"I'm not guessing about it, Kei. Mikiko and I have talked about it. She is no starry-eyed girl, but she does want to have a husband, a home and children."
"If you say so. But she's turned down two proposals, you know."
"You know about those?"
He smiled at her surprise. "Sure. She tells me everything. Even more than she tells you, I guess. But then, I see her more often, too."
"And what did you think about that?"
He shrugged. "Either of them would have been good to her, but she's better off without them. Hans was a nice young guy, but then he would have taken her to his own country with him, and she would have hated that. And that guy in Yokohama wanted a typical submissive wife, and you know, Mom, no matter how she acts, she does have a temper. If she gets married, she needs someone who really understands her, and she's not easy to get to know."
"I agree. She hides a lot of her feelings."
"Not from me, though," he smiled, obviously thinking of some of Mikiko's more fiery tantrums.
"Then, I suppose you know she's in love with you."
It was rare to see Kei do his father's Oro? expression, but that blunt statement did it. "Maybe you don't know," Yuki said, trying not to let her mouth twitch.
Kei wasn't the kind to deny the truth, even truths he didn't want to hear. He stared at her for a moment, trying to assess just how sure she was. Finally he came straight out and asked her. "Did she tell you so?"
"You know Mikiko better than that. She wouldn't burden me with something she didn't think I'd want to know. Or you either, for that matter. But, she's been in love with you since the day you two met. That's why she's never looked at another man romantically. Everyone knows it."
"Go ask them if you don't believe me. Ask your father. Ask Sano. Even he quickly picked up on it. But, I am glad you weren't aware of it. I would hate for my son to deliberately take advantage of a girl like that."
"I didn't. I wouldn't."
"I know. I never really believed you did. And it isn't your fault. But, now you don't have the excuse of ignorance."
"Excuse me?" he repeated sharply.
"You have to do something about this, Kei. I'm not going to watch Mikiko pine away for yet another year, or twenty years. She won't do anything that will risk losing your friendship, even if she remains single and alone forever, so it's up to you. If you love her at all, you have to do something about it. If you don't and you can't, you have to tell her that, and tell her that it's no use for her to care about you any more. She'll accept it, eventually. But you can't go on the way you have been. It's not fair to her. You either have to marry her, or tell her that it will never be."
"Mom. Just like that? Get married, or lose my best friend, right this minute?"
"Not right this minute. But, soon, Keitaro. It's already gone on far too long."
He swore and rose abruptly, taking three long strides to the water's edge. There he stood for a while, hands locked behind his back. Yuki sat quietly, allowing him time and peace to think. Finally he turned and came back to sit beside her again, although he didn't look at her. "If you're right, it has to be now," he said. "Are you sure about this? I know, I already asked that, but it's important, Mom."
"I'm as sure as my own intuition and three years of observation can make me. I wouldn't have brought you here if I wasn't sure, my dear."
He looked at her then, and to her relief, there was a smile in his eyes. "No, you wouldn't. So, Mikiko's in love with me, is she? She should have said something."
"Why should she? Have you ever given her any encouragement?"
"That wouldn't have been very proper."
"You've taken her places, done things together. Did you ever tell her she was beautiful?"
He ruefully rubbed the back of his head. "I've told her she looked good."
"That is not the same thing. Did you ever try to kiss her?"
"No, of course not!"
"Then how is she supposed to know you might want anything but friendship from her? In fact, how are you supposed to know?" She rose, brushing loose grass from her pants. "Well, I've said what I wanted to. The rest is up to you. I have to go finish dinner."
When his mother was gone, Kei drew his knees up, wrapped his arms around them, and sat staring at the water for a long time, wrestling with an unfamiliar emotion - resentment. His friendship with Mikiko had been a comfortable part of his life for three years now. He liked it, and he liked her. Now here was his mother, changing it entirely, and thrusting him toward a future he hadn't chosen and wasn't sure he wanted.
After some time, he realized the significance of his position, laughed at himself, and unfolded into a more receptive body frame, just as Aoshi had taught him long ago. His mother was not a frivolous busybody. She must feel strongly about Mikiko to have taken the step of talking to him in the terms she'd used. Her voice had been firm but gentle, but he knew her. She'd given him a choice, but he had no choice about actually making the decision, now that she'd spoken.
Besides, she was right. If Mikiko had been lying all these years about feeling nothing but friendship and kinship for him, then the situation was unjust, she was suffering, and it was up to him to fix it. He didn't blame her for the lie, because his mother was right about that, too - if she believed her love would burden him, she'd keep it to herself. Whatever the cost.
He swore again, catching himself starting to physically tense. He didn't want to get married. He was happy with his life just as it was. He had no need for a wife. He had nothing against marriage itself - his parents had a wonderful one, and so did most of the people he knew well. He'd seen plenty of indifferent marriages and some really bad ones, but the examples that had been before his eyes all his life were not like those. Maybe some day he'd want to marry. But not right now. It was sheer bad luck that Mikiko had chosen to fall in love with him, but he couldn't change himself, not even for her. He would have to deal with hurting her and losing her, as simple as that. He hated it, but life wasn't fair, after all.
His decision made, he rose and headed home, walking slowly, reluctant for the first time in his life to get there. The more he thought about Mikiko, the more he realized that setting her free wasn't going to hurt just her, but him, too. More badly than he realized. She was so much a part of his life now! She'd become part of the family, naturally, but she'd also become part of his life away from the family, in the other world where he enjoyed himself, the world of Westerners and business. Unlike anyone else in that world, she recognized that he was playing a game, having fun, and she went right along with it. They were together so often that being mistaken for her husband or brother was common. He was fortunate she wasn't a beauty - she'd only been taken for his mistress once, and he'd dealt with that pretty ruthlessly.
He stopped for a moment there. She wasn't an obvious beauty, true. She didn't hold a candle to his mother, or to Hikaru, Hitomi, or even Hanako. But she was pretty in a quiet way, her own way, and if you knew her, you could see beauty in her often, in odd moments. She had lovely hands, and beautiful eyes, and a very nice figure. In fact, the primary reason most men didn't see her beauty immediately is that she didn't have the mannerisms of the typical woman. She wasn't demure, she wasn't flirtatious, and she said exactly what she thought. She was a lot more like Hiko than Hikaru, except that, blessedly, she lacked his arrogance. But those qualities were what he liked best in her. Typical women bored him. Mikiko had never bored him, not one moment, not since the first time he'd seen her.
Yes, it was going to hurt to lose her. He didn't want to lose her. But he would if he told her not to love him. Knowing that he was aware now of how she felt would make her turn away from him, because that was the kind of pride she had.
Dammit, he was back to being undecided again.
He turned aside from the path home, going up a series of steps that would eventually reach a humble little Buddhist temple, one of his favorite retreats in Tokyo when he needed to meditate. His mother had seen into Mikiko's heart and told him about it. It was time for him to look into his own.