He got home just after twilight, coming through the gate into a garden lit by dozens of fireflies. His father was on the porch watching them, a contented smile on his face, and Kei joined him, the two sitting side-by-side, with similar profiles and identical expressions.
Kenshin finally said, "You missed dinner. Your mother set some aside to keep warm for you."
"That's good. I'm pretty hungry."
"Where have you been?"
Kenshin only nodded. He was one of the few who actually understood that response. Kei said, "Dad, will you tell me something?"
"If I can, I will."
"How did you know you were in love with Mom?"
Kenshin looked back out at the fireflies, a reminiscent smile on his face, but when he spoke again, he only said, "I don't think I can give you the answer you want, that I can't. There was no moment, no event. I didn't see my heart opening to her, and before I realized it, it was as natural to love her as to breath, that it was."
"All right then, when did you know you wanted to marry her?"
"As soon as I recognized I loved her. Of course, I couldn't, not back then. But, I always wanted to. Is this about Mikiko?"
"Mom said something to you, didn't she?"
"No, that she did not. I know you left together, and she came back alone, and she has been unusually quiet, but that is all I know. Did she talk to you about Mikiko?"
"Yes. She says Mikiko is in love with me."
"I think that's true, that I do."
Kenshin smiled. "No one actually knows, Kei. Mikiko hasn't told anyone. But, we all believe it, nevertheless."
"Everyone knows but me."
Kenshin responded to his tone as well as his words. "You aren't stupid, Kei, that you aren't. Mikiko didn't want you to know it." He tilted his head, studying Kei. "Now what will you do?"
"What do you think I should do?"
"Oro? This isn't something I can answer for you, Keitaro. I can't tell you how to be happy. Nobody can tell you that, only your own heart. And you know that. I think you've already decided what to do about Mikiko, but you want reassurance, that you do."
"Which you're not going to give me."
"I'll give you this reassurance, that whatever you want to do, if it will make you happy, your mother and I will support you."
"Even if I say I've decided I'm never going to love Mikiko and she can't come to stay here anymore, when I'm here?"
"Even then." He laid a hand gently on Kei's shoulder, then rose. "I'll go tell your mother that you're home. I think she worried."
His father was right, as usual. He'd decided, yes, and the decision scared him. But when he'd sat in the temple and cleared his mind, when all the doubts and worries had faded away and he was calm, floating in that state where the distractions of life were gone and he could see directly to the heart of things, only one feeling remained. He didn't want to lose Mikiko. He needed her. And when he knew that, and began thinking of what they'd done together and how happy he'd been with her, he knew he loved her, too. As his mother had done to his father, Mikiko had crept into his heart and found a place there. If marriage was the price to pay to keep her, then he'd pay it.
Inside, he could hear his father say something, and then his mother's soft chuckle. He thought about his sister, contented and peaceful as he'd rarely seen her, and Ki, who had matured so much in the past few years that he was almost a new person. Marriage didn't have to be a trap. He knew Mikiko. They could work out a way to have a good marriage that was not a trap, one that would make both their lives better.
Then he remembered his mother saying Mikiko wanted a home and a family of her own. Home? Family? Kids? No. He was not ready for that. He broke into a sweat at the very thought. That was something they'd have to discuss. On the other hand, now that his way of looking at Mikiko had changed and he'd stopped thinking of her as a sort-of sister and starting thinking of her as a woman… well, even in these short hours, the way his mind had been going, unless she was barren, babies were going to be inevitable. At least neither of them came from large families, so he wouldn't have a whole litter of them to worry about. Still, he wasn't ready to be a father. No way. He wasn't even sure about the husband part yet!
He was sitting there, staring into space, in a state of complete internal panic, when Mikiko came through the gate. She paused in mid-stride to stare at him. "Kei? Is something wrong?"
From somewhere, he managed to find a smile for her. "No, I'm just thinking."
She studied him, concerned, and he stared back at her. He knew she was just seeing him, but he was noticing for the first time, thanks to the moonlight, just how exquisite and delicate were the curves of her face, and just how sweet her mouth was. He also knew she was curious, but she didn't press him. She never did. "I promised to help your mother with some mending tonight, but if you want to talk about it, just let me know."
She gave him a half-smile, still concerned, but left him, just as she knew he wanted. He stared after her, watching the way she walked, with the long black wave of her hair swaying just above her hips. His panic melted away. It didn't matter. They would be friends as well as lovers. Whatever happened, whatever it took to make them both happy, they could work it out together. With Mikiko, that was possible.
Yuki emerged from the back room with an armload of clothes that reached almost to her chin, and Mikiko took most of them from her. "This will keep me busy for a while!"
"It's not just us, it's Kei, too. You should have been here when Hitomi lived with us!"
"I've helped Hitomi with her mending," Mikiko giggled as they sat down together, dividing the pile. "This is nothing in comparison. Here, no, let me take that one."
"Be my guest, you're much better with that fine work. I'll get the hem on this one. Yes, Hitomi was always hard on her clothes."
"With her, at least, it's the sword training. But Dai's almost as bad, and with him it's simple carelessness. He gets absorbed in something in his brain, and pays no attention to what he's doing." She picked up the needle, frowned down at the very fine embroidery, and was about to select a color of thread when new light fell on her, making the job much easier. She smiled up at Kenshin, who had brought three lamps to them and was now placing them carefully where they would do the most good. He smiled back, then sat behind Yuki, arms and legs wrapped loosely around her, and pretended to help while interfering enough to make her laugh and swat at his hands. With Kei in her mind, the easy physical affection between his parents had once been painful for Mikiko to see, but that had long ago ceased, and now she enjoyed it. Her own parents had never touched affectionately in her view, and sometimes she wondered how they had managed to conceive her. She'd always hoped that all married couples weren't like that, and since finding her great-uncle, she now knew they weren't. Her mother had always seemed happy with her lot, but Mikiko had spoken the truth to Yuki earlier today. She wouldn't accept anything less in life than being as comfortable and happy and loving as the couple across from her. She just wished she could imagine that happening with someone other than Kei.
As if to punctuate the thought, Kei came in, smiling at the picture his parents made. Mikiko thought that if he ever smiled at her with half that much love, she'd be able to die happy. But when he looked at her, it was with one his more inscrutable expressions. "Mikiko? Would you take a walk in the garden with me for a few minutes?"
She'd known something was troubling him. She looked to Yuki for permission to desert the mending, and Yuki, concentrating on the hem, said, "You go ahead. I think Kei has something he wants to talk to you about." She looked up and added dryly, "This will still be here when you get back, don't worry."
Mikiko grinned at her and rose to follow Kei, wondering what could be bothering him. There were so many possible things, between family, business, and friends. Well, it didn't matter. She'd listen and give advice if it were needed, as she always did, and as he always did for her. That's what friends were for. One of the few things she'd done in life that she was proud of, was to win his friendship and be able to help him without ever letting him know how much she loved him.
When he took her hand as they stepped off the back porch, she wasn't surprised - it was dark, after all, and he was always careful of her - but it did surprise her a little when he wound his fingers through hers and kept it. He must be more worried than she thought. Frowning, she followed him along the path to a place where the garden opened up into a moonlit open area. There he stopped, turned to face her, and said, "Stay right there."
Where did he think she was going? He was acting really odd. Now he was just standing in front of her, looking down at her, with that inscrutable expression again. "Kei? What is it? What's wrong?"
"Nothing." He was still holding her hand. His free hand came up, and he ran strands of her hair between his fingers. Then, with one finger, he traced the line of her cheekbone. "You know, you really are very beautiful."
"Hans used to rave about how beautiful you were, and I never paid much attention to him. But he was right."
Hans? She hadn't thought about that pale, earnest young Dutchman in ages. Kei had always been kind to him, but he'd teased her about him later. "What is the matter with you?"
The smile in his eyes deepened. "I give you a compliment, and you think something's wrong with me?"
"You're not acting like yourself."
"Maybe I'm acting like someone better."
"You're starting to scare me." She meant it literally. His finger had moved from her cheek to run along the line of her jaw and chin, and was now gently stroking just the edge of her lower lip. Between that, and the way he was looking at her, her knees were going weak and she was scared.
He didn't say anything to that, just smiled in that way he had which made her sure that everything was going to be all right. Then he released her hand, only to take her face between his palms. He bent his head, and she had a momentary impulse to run like a deer or collapse at his feet. Instead, she closed her eyes and stood there, trembling, feeling his lips brushing her forehead, then her eyelids, so gently. This isn't happening, she thought, and then his mouth found hers.
The kiss was soft, gentle, sweet. Tears prickled her eyelids. She couldn't bear it. "Kei," she whispered.
"What?" His mouth was still so close to hers that she felt his breath on her lips.
"Don't do that unless you mean it. Please."
"I mean it," he said, and kissed her again, this time more purposefully. His hands had dropped away from her face, and his arms went around her and pulled her close against him. She was confused, she was still scared, but at the same time she was beginning to understand what was happening. She didn't know why, or where they were going, but now she knew that the idea of dying of happiness wasn't so farfetched as she'd believed. Something broke inside her, the wall she'd so carefully created, so long ago, and she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back with everything she had.
A long time later, when they'd shared kisses that went all the way from the gentleness of their first kiss to a hungry greediness that should have scared her, but didn't, not at all, Kei suddenly laid his cheek against her neck and started to chuckle. Clinging to him, truly unsure if she could stand on her own, she said, "What's so funny?"
"Me. I had no idea you could kiss like that."
"I knew you could. Kei, why are you kissing me?"
He lifted his head and looked down at her, smiling, just as he'd smiled at his parents only minutes ago. "Because I wanted to. Because you're beautiful, and I love your mouth, and I love you."
"You… you what?"
"You heard me. Because I love you. And you'd better say you love me, after kissing me like that, or I'm going to wonder about your morals."
"You love me?"
"One more time. Yes, I love you. I wasn't completely sure until I kissed you, but now I'm sure." A dozen responses crowded into her head, all of them confused, some of them rude. She held him tightly, her cheek against his chest, and tried to sort just one of them out. Nothing happened. Her whole world had just changed. "I think I'm going crazy," she said.
"That's not what you were supposed to say."
She closed her eyes and tightened her arms around him. He said he loves me. "What am I supposed to say?" she murmured.
"That you love me, too."
"I've loved you since the very first time you smiled at me. Oh, Kei, do you really mean it?"
"Don't start crying!"
"Good. I want to ask you something."
Again a dozen thoughts crowded into her mind, and not all of them nice. But she didn't care. There was nothing in the world he could ask her for that she wouldn't give him at this moment. "What?"
"Do you want to marry me?"
"Oh." She must have heard that wrong. That wasn't possible. Of course, until a short time ago, kissing him wasn't possible either.
"Mikiko, do you have any idea what an answer is?"
"Well, 'oh' is not one."
"I mean yes, I want to marry you."
"Just like that? You don't want to think about it?"
It was her turn to laugh. "You idiot. I have a confession. I haven't thought about much else for the past three years."
"Good. I think I'm going to like kissing you a lot."
"I know this sounds stupid, but I'm sure this is a dream and I'm going to wake up in a minute, and it'll all be over but a nice memory."
"I'd better pinch you and prove it's not."
Because they were still holding each other so closely, she felt at once where his hand was going. "Don't you dare!"
He chuckled. "But we're engaged now."
"Not officially. You have to ask my Uncle Seijuro for permission to marry me."
"No way. We will go to Kyoto and tell him that we're getting married, however. Unless you're right and he comes here for Dad's birthday."
She snuggled against him, rubbing her cheek on his shirt. She was beginning to believe now, and she felt as if she were floating. "He will. I know Aunt Hikaru. Won't he be surprised, though, when we tell him?"
"I doubt it. I don't think anyone will be."
"Never mind. Let's go tell my parents."
That was the only thing, other than another of those giddy kisses, that could have distracted her. "Oh, Kei, will they mind?"
He laughed. "No. They'll be happy."
She sighed. "Do you think… oh, never mind."
"Do you think they'd mind if I called them Mom and Dad, after we get married?"
"I think they'll love it."
The next morning, the sun woke Mikiko as always, and she yawned and stretched under the cover, wondering for a moment why she felt so good. Then she remembered, and her eyes flew open.
And there was Keitaro, sitting crosslegged next to her bed, smiling that smile she loved so much, the one that lit his eyes so softly and beautifully. She sat up, startled, clutching the covers to her chest. "Kei! What are you doing here?"
"Watching you sleep. Here, I brought tea." He handed her the cup, and when she took it without looking, still staring at him, he said, "Do you still think it was all a dream? That's the last thing you said to us last night."
"It must have been."
He took the tea from her hand, set it aside, pulled her across his lap, and thoroughly kissed her. "Now what do you think?"
"I think I could stay like this for a few hours."
"Well, you can't. You have to get up and pack."
"Pack? What for?"
"We have to go to Kyoto this morning. Mom got it into her head, and Dad agrees, that before anyone else hears about this, we have to tell Seijuro and Hikaru."
"Can't we just wait until they get here? It's only a few more days."
"Mom says the way the two of us are acting, it'll only be a secret for about two seconds. And besides, right now, whatever Mom wants, she can have."
"Oh, suddenly you're a very dutiful son. Why is that?"
"Because if it weren't for her, I wouldn't have kissed you yesterday. It's a long story, but when you finally get out of bed, if you're happy, you should go thank her."
"If I'm happy?"
With a nice sense of propriety, Kei had left the bedroom door open. Yuki stood just outside and watched Mikiko throw her arms around her son, and saw him gather her slight body against him and bury his face in her hair. She felt almost as happy as Mikiko.
A familiar arm slid around her waist. She leaned back against Kenshin and said quietly, so as not to disturb the kids, "I think this worked out just fine."
"I would call it a first-class piece of matchmaking, that I would."
She drew back away from the bedroom. "Maybe I shouldn't have done it," she admitted. "I practically forced him to ask her to marry him."
"You're forgetting who you're talking about, that you are. If Kei hadn't wanted to marry Mikiko, nothing you could have done would have made him do it. I know why you did it, of course."
"I felt sorry for Mikiko."
"I thought it was because you wanted more grandchildren, that I did."
"Oh, no! Kenshin!" she blurted, appalled. "I didn't even think about that!"
He blinked at her. "What's the matter?"
"We offered to let them live in the guest house!"
"You're right, we did. I suppose that's the end of our peaceful old age together, that it is."
She had to laugh. "As if it's been peaceful so far. Lets get them up and get them on the road." She stopped, scowling. "You know, that's the one bad thing that's come out of this."
"Seijuro Hiko is now going to be our in-law."
"Oro? That's right, he is!"
"I don't want to think about that."
"I don't either."
"Lets pretend we don't know it."
"If we can," he said mournfully.
"Right. I'll get them up, you go make breakfast. If I try to cook anything today, I'll just burn it."
"I'll go right now," Kenshin said, sounding alarmed. Yuki was only puzzled by that for a moment. The next moment she was staggering under the impact of an extremely grateful daughter-in-law-to-be, flinging herself on Yuki and babbling something about Kei. Over Mikiko's head, Kei gave her a sheepish expression to match Kenshin's, and both men retreated in cowardly manner, heading for the kitchen, and leaving Yuki to deal with Mikiko's enthusiastic joy.