Kei got a recommendation from Daisuke's father for a man to verify the details of Mikiko's story. He wasn't surprised when, four days later, everything checked out. Mr. Fujita's man was thorough, even getting descriptions of Mikiko that matched her perfectly, except that they were descriptions of a young woman instead of a scruffy boy.
With the report in his hands, he sat for a long time, in stillness, trying to absorb the facts in it. He found it impossible to picture Seijuro Hiko with an older sister. Hiko wasn't like ordinary people, people who had families. The only thing normal and human about him was that he loved his wife. In everything else, he stood apart, alone. Trying to picture a 5-year-old Hiko following around a 12-year-old sister, the way he himself had once followed Hitomi around, was beyond even his imagination.
He'd been putting off making any decision until this time. There was no sense running ahead of the facts. He'd visited the Aoiya a time or two, although he avoided Mikiko, and Aoshi had assured him she was doing well and seemed happy. Now, however, he had the facts and he had to decide what to do with them.
No, that wasn't exactly right. He knew what to do. He had to introduce Mikiko to Hiko. He had no choice in that. But how to do it? He couldn't see himself just walking up to Hiko and saying, "Hey, did you know you have a great-niece?" Hiko would be down the mountain the next moment, explaining to his parents why he had minced their son. And how was he going to explain to poor little Mikiko that Hiko was a lot more likely to run her out of town than to become the family she wanted so desperately? He'd seen that desperation, as much as she'd tried to hide it. After all, he'd already seen a version of it in Dai - less hungry, but the same basic thing - when Dai had come to know his parents, so he knew what it looked like. Hiko could crush the silly girl with a word.
About many things, Kei knew he was smarter than any man his age. But about some things, only age and experience could supply the wisdom needed. He put away the report and went to find the two wisest people he knew - his parents.
The reactions of his parents weren't, however, immediately edifying and certainly wouldn't have led any outsider to consider them wise. Both of them simply gaped at him. Kenshin was the first to find his voice. "Master? Master has a niece?"
"Yes, Dad. Well, she's a great-niece, but it's the same thing."
There was a long silence. Then Yuki cleared her throat. "I assume you're sure about this?"
"I had one of Mr. Fujita's men check it out. Don't worry, he doesn't know what he was checking. He thinks it's just background on someone Mr. Barnes might hire. There was nothing to connect it to the name Hiko."
"That was good thinking, Kei." She gave her husband a poke. "Kenshin? He wants our advice."
Yuki turned her attention back to Kei. "She didn't inherit Seijuro's personality, did she?"
Kei grinned. His mother's dislike for Hiko went all the way back to the first day she'd met him, and it was a standing joke in the family. "Not at all, Mom. She's little and nice, smart but na´ve, and a bit silly. She has some of his self-confidence, but I promise, she's not arrogant at all."
Kenshin was rubbing the back of his head, perplexed. "I would like to meet her, that I would. This is going to be a bigger shock to Master than it is to us."
"That's what worries me, Dad. Who knows what he'll say to her?"
"Exactly," Yuki said grimly.
"That isn't what I meant," Kenshin said.
"I know. But Kei's right. I'm a lot more worried about this girl's feelings than Seijuro's." She suddenly smiled. "Hikaru is going to go crazy."
Kei said, "That's another reason I want you to meet her. I could be wrong about her. If I am, and she's a bad person, and we don't figure that out before Hikaru's gotten attached to her..."
"Which will take about five seconds," Yuki said.
"I don't want to be wrong. Or if I am, I want to be in good company. Yours."
Kenshin said, "Why don't you bring her here, Kei? She should be staying here and not at the Aoiya anyway, that she should."
"What's Hitomi going to say?" For this visit to Kyoto they were all crowded into Dai and Hitomi's small house. Another person might burst the seams.
Yuki smiled. "What do you think she'll say?"
"Something like, 'Kei, go and buy another futon, and be quick about it'."
Mikiko was washing dishes, her arms up to the elbows in sudsy water, her hair in sweaty strands on her forehead, and wearing an old kimono which was inadequately protected by an apron borrowed from the Shinomoris, when she next saw Keitaro Himura. It was all in a piece with her normal luck.
She couldn't help but stare at him. In the first place, what was a man like him doing in the kitchens? In the second place, he looked nothing like the last time she'd seen him. Gone were the strange Western clothes; now he wore a loose grey yukata and black kendo pants. And third, he was still as beautiful as an angel to her.
But she had decided, a day or two ago when she'd caught herself daydreaming about him for at least the hundredth time, that although she couldn't seem to find a way out of her infatuation, she was never going to let him see it. If he were a cad, she had too much pride, and if he were as good a man as she thought, she wasn't going to burden him with an undesired worshipper. So, as the first step, she stiffened her wobbly knees, straightened, and, before he could get a word out, she said, "Don't you ever knock?"
He blinked. "It's the kitchen."
"Is that any reason to treat it as your own home?"
His mouth curved. "It practically was, when I was growing up."
She felt herself blushing hotly. "Oh. I forgot." She brushed back a strand of hair, got soap suds all over her forehead, wiped those away with a fretful swipe, and said, "What happened to your clothes?"
"I only wear Western clothes when I have to meet with someone from the West. Otherwise I never do. They're the most uncomfortable and confining clothes imaginable. It says a lot about the Western mind, that they choose to wear so much tight clothing and believe that anything less is uncivilized or indecent. Why do you keep snapping at me? Are you having a bad day?"
Her blush deepened. If anything was needed to convince her that he had no interest in her as a female, that coolly friendly, concerned tone was it. "No. I'm just nervous. Didn't you come to tell me something? Are you going to take me to meet my great-uncle now?"
His smile was reassuring. "Not yet. First I'm going to take you to my sister's house. My whole family is there right now, and you're going to stay there with us. My parents want to meet you."
So much for reassurance. His whole family? She could not begin to comprehend what he was talking about. What did his family have to do with anything? "Why?" she demanded.
"Don't be so suspicious. My father was Seijuro's apprentice for six years, and thinks of him as a father."
"What does that have to do with my Uncle Kakunoshin?"
His face fell. "I thought Isamu would have told you by now. I guess Aoshi did better than I thought," he added, talking to himself now.
"Told me what?" She stamped a foot impatiently. When she was this close, any delay was a strain, and she couldn't cope with any more confusion. "What is going on? What does your father have to do with it? Why is there such a mystery about a old potter?"
"You'd better sit down."
"I can't. I have dishes to wash." She sounded surly even to herself.
He said it firmly enough that she was in a chair before she knew what she was doing, just like an obedient dog. Who would have thought anyone with a face so sweet could rap out an order like that? She giggled.
"What's so funny?" he asked, sitting opposite her.
"You sound like my grandfather again."
"Did your grandfather ever tell you stories when you were little?"
"Sure, all the time."
"Well, I'm about to tell you a story, too. Except this one is real."
An hour later, at the Fujita house, Hitomi, who had been spying, came running inside. Moments later Kenshin was protesting feebly while his wife and daughter shoved him out onto the narrow, shaded porch. Hitomi then dropped Koneko into his arms and said, "Good, she's wet, that's perfect!"
"Sure. Here's the diaper and some towels."
His wife said, "Just sit here and change Koneko. Miss Yoshida has to meet you first, Kenshin."
Hitomi said, "You make the best impression of all of us, Dad."
"I think I'm being used, that I do."
"You are being used," Yuki said. "But only for the best of reasons." She gave him a swift kiss and slipped back inside behind Hitomi.
In her best kimono (which wasn't a very good one), clutching her hands together nervously, Mikiko followed Kei through the bamboo gate of a house in the residential area a few streets down from the Aoiya. The house was small but scrupulously neat, and the tiny garden surrounding it was planned to make the best possible use of the limited space for both utility and beauty. On the threshold sat a man with bright red hair, attempting to change a baby's diaper.
His expression was harassed, but he gave her a smile as she came through the gate, a sweetly rueful smile which showed both a welcome and a desire to be rescued. She didn't need the introduction Kei hastily made to know who he was. He had the same angelic expression and beautiful violet eyes as Kei. She bowed and said, "Do you need some help, Mr. Himura?"
"Well, I'm a little out of practice, that I am. The last diaper I changed was Kei's."
Mikiko giggled and sat opposite Mr. Himura, tickling the baby's foot. The child was a lovely little girl, perfect in all her parts as babies so often and miraculously were.
Although wet through, she wasn't fussing, simply staring up at all the faces looking down at her and gurgling playful bubbles of spittle. Mikiko wiped those with her fingers, then took the clean diaper and a towel from Himura. In moments the tiny bottom was clean, dry, and neatly covered again. Himura picked the baby up, saying, "You should be glad Miss Yoshida came along, Koneko, that you should."
Their eyes met over the baby's dark head, and Mikiko was suddenly lost.
Long ago, she had gone to the lake near Itokoshi on a perfect day, when the light was just right and the wind had died for a short time. She'd looked down at the water and seen the bright, happy sparkle of the sunlight on the surface and, at the same time, the darkness of the soothingly cool depths. She'd stood for a poised eternity then, just absorbing it, until a fish jumped and broke the spell. Looking now into Kenshin Himura's eyes was the closest she'd ever been to that moment, before or since. She stopped breathing and simply existed in his smiling gaze, unaware of Kei or the baby or anything else around her. She didn't feel about him as she did about Kei, although the feeling was just as strong. He was above that, in a way. She just knew she had found a very, very special person, and the knowledge went deeper than happiness.
Then Kei took the baby from his father and broke the spell, and she was looking at a smiling man with lovely violet eyes who definitely did not look old enough to have a grown son. He asked her how she had enjoyed her stay at the Aoiya, so she began to tell him how kind everyone had been to her. Before she'd properly begun, however, the door slid open and two women came out, and she got to her feet with Mr. Himura.
Her first impression of Lady Himura was that she was the most beautiful woman she'd ever seen, and she was never to change that opinion, although she was eventually to meet many women that others considered more lovely, not the least of which was Lady Himura's own daughter beside her. But although she could acknowledge that Hitomi Fujita was a dazzling woman, especially with her red hair and bright blue eyes, and although she could see that Yukiyo Himura had features more quirky and strong than were generally considered pretty on a woman, Mikiko saw something else in her, an energy controlled with grace, an abiding happiness tempered with wisdom, and a physical presence like the clear stillness of the light and air after a storm. She had no idea what she babbled after Mr. Himura made the introductions and she made her bow. She just followed the two women inside, barely hearing Hitomi's happy chatter, too awed at the moment by this family to be properly grateful to them for giving her a place to stay for the night.
Kei swung Koneko around in a wide circle, making the baby laugh. Kenshin said, "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"She loves it." He swung her down to him again gently, then tucked her against his shoulder, where she giggled, burped, and then threw up on him.
Kenshin chuckled, "I hate to say I told you so, that I do."
"Are any of those towels clean?"
Kenshin handed him one, and he put it between him and Koneko. He'd have to change his shirt anyway, so there was no need to try to clean it, but the Kitten needed a clean spot to lay her head. Then he loosened her grip in his hair. She liked to pull hair, and she was strong for a baby. "So, Dad, did you get an impression?"
When he didn't get an answer right away, he turned to look at his father. Kenshin was staring at some point many miles, or perhaps many years away. Then, suddenly, he turned a sunny smile on Kei. "You have always been a good judge of people, that you are. There is nothing wrong with Miss Yoshida."
"Are you sure?"
"She let me look straight into her heart, that she did. I have almost never seen anyone so open. She means no one harm. That doesn't mean she will harm no one, that it doesn't, but it won't be by her intention."
"Come on, Dad. Seijuro's a grown man. And it isn't as if he's being offered a curse."
"No, but he will be forced to change. Which is not something he accepts well, that it is not, no matter what he thinks."
The last sentence was said with the force of frustration, and Kei grinned. Seijuro Hiko was one of the few people in the world who could actually irritate his father, even without being present. "What do we do now?"
"I think the best thing would be for you to change your shirt, then go up the mountain and tell Hikaru that your mother would like to invite her to join us for dinner this evening. Take Koneko with you."
Kei stared at him. "Of course I will, if you say. But you make it sound like a ladies' night. And why do I have to go? Why not just send a messenger? And why in the world should I take Koneko all the way up there?"
"The answer to all of those questions is the same. So that Master won't wish to accompany her."
"Oh. Good thinking, Dad."
"If you are lucky enough to get Koneko to sleep on the way down again, you will tell Hikaru all about Miss Yoshida, that you will."
Kenshin gave very few orders, but Kei knew one when he heard it. He grimaced. Well, he'd started it with his curiosity and with feeling sorry for the silly girl, so now he supposed he would have to follow through. But the next time his curiosity and pity were stirred, he was going to run in the other direction.
Still, as he strode up the mountain, praying that Koneko would stay asleep in the sling on his back, he pondered his father's words. He'd never heard Kenshin describe anybody in those terms before. There must be something special about Mikiko Yoshida, even if he couldn't see it. He could only be grateful, because this whole thing was going to be a lot easier with his father and all these women supporting him. He didn't doubt for a moment that he would get Hikaru's support.
However, later when Mikiko came up to meet her "Uncle Kakunoshin" for the first time, Kei had every intention of bringing her himself. He wasn't going to take any chances of leaving her alone to the mercies of the old bear, even with Hikaru there to help.
Hikaru quietly served breakfast the next morning and waited for Seijuro to say something. She was concerned and worried, and after so many years together, she knew even her best efforts wouldn't hide that from her husband.
It took only one sip of his sake before Seijuro demanded without preamble, "What's wrong?"
"You didn't sleep much last night. Don't tell me nothing's wrong. Usually you sleep like a log."
"How can you be so sensitive that you know if I so much as turn in the night, and so insensitive that you sit there and call me a log?"
"You're changing the subject," he said pointedly. "Something happened at dinner last night that's troubling you. What is it?"
She sighed and set down her chopsticks. She really had no appetite anyway. This was one of the very few times that she couldn't predict what Seijuro was going to do and say, and that demanded a mind more sharp than hers was in the morning. She understood why Yuki and the others had asked her to break the news to him about Miss Yoshida, but sometimes standing between her husband and the rest of the world was a burden. If learning that he had a family relative made him angry (or upset him, which would end up the same), it would then be up to her to soothe him and bring him around to a reasonable frame of mind, and that might take a lot of effort.
She would do it, however, whatever tricks she had to use. She had taken little Mikiko into her heart exactly as the Himuras thought she would. She had no doubt that fate had steered Keitaro to help the girl this far. Now it was her turn.
She looked up from her bowl to find him watching her intently. "I have some news."
"Good, or bad?"
"Good, I think. For me, anyway. I'm not so sure if it's good for you. Although it should be."
"Stop beating around the bush and just tell me." His shortness was a measure of his concern. Normally the two of them would spin every conversation out to its limit.
Instead of answering him directly, she said, "Seijuro, how much do you remember about the day your family was killed?"
The line between his brows deepened at the unexpected question, but he answered her directly. "Everything. As you know, I have an excellent memory."
"Did it ever occur to you that Chieko might have survived?"
There was a silence of several heartbeats' duration. Then he said, "No, it never occurred to me. I assume, from your question, that she did?"
"Yes, she did."
"Is she still alive?" he asked quietly.
Hikaru shook her head. "She died in her 60s, almost 15 years ago. But she married and had one child, a daughter, Midori, and Midori also had one daughter. Midori and her husband both died in an accident, and now their daughter Mikiko is the only remaining survivor of her entire family line. Except for you."
This time there was only a second's silence before he scowled at her. "That's a lot of information to gather from a dinner party. Where did it come from?"
"From Mikiko herself. She's here in Kyoto. She's been looking all over Japan for you, for the past four years."
That set him back. Literally, for he straightened away from the table for a moment. "Is Kenshin sure this is true?"
"Keitaro had it verified by one of Saitoh's men. Under a pretext, of course, but he says there's no doubt."
"Kei? How did he get involved? In fact, how did Kenshin get involved?" "Kei was at the shop when she came in, looking for you under the name of Niitsu."
"Which, of course, inevitably brings in Kenshin." He frowned. "Why is she looking for me? What does she want?"
"A family. No, don't start shouting. She's not a child, and not a responsibility. She's 20 years old and has an independent spirit. She just wants to know she has a blood relative, any blood relative. And to meet him. Nothing more."
"Hikaru, I know you better than that. You're already thinking about how we can move the fusama and make a room for the little orphan."
Her lips parted, then closed. That had been in the back of her mind. In all her long life, the one thing fate had denied her was the chance to hold a child of Seijuro's. Mikiko was no longer a child, but she still needed a mother, and Hikaru desperately wanted to fill that position. "She is your blood, Seijuro. Your only kin. Doesn't it please you to know about her?"
"I've gone without kin for more than 60 years. Why should I want any now?"
"She's just a girl. And she's..."
"No." He scowled at her until he saw her accept that answer, then said, "How often have I ever said no to you?"
"This is one of those times. I'm happy with my life. I won't have it overturned, even for Chieko's granddaughter. I was never that fond of Chieko anyway. She used to beat me."
She had to smile. "That's very hard for me to imagine."
"I was a child once."
"Sometimes you're a child now."
"I have one woman in my life, and that's disruptive enough. I don't need two. If she's in need, we'll think of something else to do with her."
Since that concession was the best she'd hoped for, realistically, she was happy with it. "Yes, Seijuro."
"I distrust you when you start being submissive."
She smiled. "Will you be kind to her?"
"That depends on her." After a moment he said, "What is she like?"
"Small and timid, but very bright. I can see you in her, but only a little."
He returned to his breakfast, and Hikaru felt her appetite stir again. For a short time they ate in silence. Then Seijuro said, "I should have gone back to check on her."
He meant Chieko, she knew. "Why would you ever have thought to go back? You believed she was dead. You believed it even as an adult, never mind as a child. She had a good life, Seijuro. Mikiko says she never remembered what happened. She always believed that her parents died of influenza, and that you drowned when you were four."
He grunted. "Typical Chieko. Drowned in what? We didn't even have a duck pond."
"You'll have to ask Mikiko for the details," she said demurely, and smiled at him.