Looking around at the empty dojo yard, Kaoru sighed: everything was far too quiet. Misao's leave-taking alone would have been enough to make the place echo with emptiness... but Sano and Megumi were gone as well, taking with them even the expectation of familiar voices. Yahiko had started sleeping in Sano's old lodgings as a show of independence, unaware that he was always under the watchful eye of one of the brawler's friends, so the unaccustomed calm would last until he arrived later in the day. Although she finally had Kenshin all to herself – an experience that was both thrilling and nerve-wracking – Kaoru still missed the rest of their friends more than she'd ever expected.
With another sigh she resumed sweeping the engawa, reminding herself to enjoy the autumn sunshine while it lasted. Besides, it was a lucky day on the calendar.
Something good was bound to happen.
When Kenshin called her for lunch, she was trying to decide if she should take advantage of the weather to air the tatami. Resolving to ask his opinion she joined him at the table, where she was surprised to find a modest feast rather than the cold onigiri she'd been expecting. There was rice and miso, pickles and salt-grilled fish. Fresh fish – he must have gone fishing early that morning, before breakfast. Her expression gave away both her pleasure and her confusion.
"I wanted something special for you today, Kaoru-dono," Kenshin murmured, moving to take the seat next to her. Before the fight with Enshi and their visit to Tomoe's grave, he'd always kept the table between them; this closeness was new, and still caused a faint flutter of nervous delight.
As with everything else lately, the meal was uncommonly peaceful, lacking both Sano's insults and Yahiko's demands for more. The absence of the latter gave her pause as she reached to refill Kenshin's rice bowl. "Shouldn't Yahiko be joining us? I haven't seen him yet today. I hope he's not skipping meals!" Frowning at what little was left of their feast, she warmed to her subject. "He's a growing boy, no matter what he says about being a Tokyo samurai. He needs to eat!"
Chuckling, Kenshin reached out to take her hand in his, removing the rice scoop she'd been waving around for emphasis. "Yahiko is eating at the Akabeko today. I suspect Tsubame will keep him company." A glance from beneath his bangs stopped any further question or protest, violet eyes serious and intent. "I asked him to give us this time alone."
Kaoru's fingers twitched in his grasp, her eyes falling shyly to her lap and a blush rising in her cheeks. His thumb rubbed gentle circles over the back of her hand in response, the gesture easing her spate of nerves while heightening her awareness of him and how closely together they were seated.
"Kaoru-dono..." he began after a long moment of silence, his voice firm but tone hesitant – as if he knew the meaning of what he wanted to say, but was uncertain of the words themselves, "although it is not entirely proper, given your family background, this unworthy one has something he wishes to ask of you." Dark lashes lifted in reaction, allowing her to stare at him as the touch of pink in her cheeks abruptly infused the whole of her face. Belatedly realizing his phrasing could be misinterpreted to mean something even more improper than he intended, he reached out to press her palms together between his in a plea for patience. "This is not traditionally the way things are done," he clarified in a rush. "What I wish to discuss is usually a matter decided upon between families. Yet as we each have only ourselves to speak for us, we will each have to trust that the other knows what choices are right." He drew a deep breath, watching her eyes carefully, feeling her dawning understanding in the trembling of her slender fingers caught between his. "I have often let my emotions direct my choices," he admitted with a small, rueful twist of his mouth, "and I admit that the same is true now. Nevertheless, I vow that my decision is no less well-considered, my motives no less sincere." There was a faint sheen of tears in her eyes, a softening he hoped boded well not ill. "Kamiya Kaoru, will you do me the honor of joining your family with mine?"
Kaoru wanted to be as formal in her reply as he was in the asking, understanding that he'd chosen to approach her with the respect he would have shown if addressing her father. It made her feel valued far more than a simple declaration would have done, and he deserved to know she valued him equally. But the moment the words were uttered, resounding in her ears, echoing in her mind, she was moving. Without conscious thought she shifted forward on her knees to throw her arms around his neck, proclaiming agreement in a voice tight with tears. "Yes!" she gasped, exultant. "Oh, Kenshin, yes!" And then his arms were wrapping around her the way she'd always wished they would: warm and strong, cherishing rather than protecting. Because he wanted her, not because some enemy had targeted her.
After long moments during which the tight pull of her kimono was ignored to savor the way his voice, murmuring wordlessly in her ear, engendered enough pleasant shivers to make her wonder about things best left for the wedding night, she released him. Sitting back, she wiped her eyes with one hand, while the other remained fisted in the sleeve of his kimono. "Yes," she reiterated, far more calmly, "the Kamiya family is honored by the request, and emphatically agrees to the proposal."
His answering smile was freer, happier, than any she'd seen from him before. Reaching under the table, he produced a flat, fabric-wrapped package. "It's less than you deserve," he said, placing it in her lap, "but it's the most important of the traditional gifts. I hope you find it to your liking."
Kaoru's breath caught, because she'd never expected him to go so far. Samurai custom or not, they'd been through so much together - had simply just lived together for so long – that she never imagined he would give her an engagement gift. Before the Meiji government had passed the new marriage laws, the townspeople – Tae and Doctor Genzai, the students at the Maekawa dojo, everyone – would have considered them already married, just on the basis of his living with her unchaperoned.
This... this was yet another way he was honoring her, and her family, and their future.
She couldn't accept without reciprocating, and there was only one thing that would be appropriate.
"Wait," she told him, setting the package aside and rising to her feet as his features shifted into an almost comical blend of dismayed confusion. Bending, she placed her hand on his shoulder to keep him seated. "Just... I need a moment... I have to... I'll be right back!"
His soft, bewildered utterance sped her feet as she darted down the hall to the room she'd set aside in memory of her parents. It was one of the few areas of the house with wooden furnishings: her father's clothes chest, and the kimono chest her mother had brought with her as dowry upon their marriage. Her mother's kimono were long gone, Kaoru salvaging and altering as needed to supplement her own wardrobe, but her father's clothing had remained mostly untouched since his death.
Winter was coming, however, and Kenshin's threadbare, oft-patched hakama and kimono barely sufficed for summer. During the calm of the recent weeks, she had selected and started carefully altering a handful of items – three hakama, and two kimono. It was a stretch of her sewing skills, considering that her father had been closer in height to Sano than Kenshin, but the one hakama she'd finished had looked right (if just a touch long) when she'd tried it on herself. She felt a pang that it wasn't new, but the material was of good quality, with no signs of wear. Kenshin would understand the care and thought and effort that had gone into it, and the fact that it had once belonged to her father would perhaps mean something to him, too. Sliding open the shoji, she removed the altered hakama from atop the clothing chest, and then slipped further down the hall to her room. Moments later she returned to where Kenshin still sat waiting, the carefully folded hakama in turn wrapped in a precisely folded furoshiki.
"I'm sorry," she said somewhat breathlessly, kneeling beside him once more. "I needed to get... well, this." Holding the package out, she bit her lip nervously, then relaxed as his consternation gave way to almost awed gratification. His reaction was more than surprise at receiving an engagement present; it was as if he had rarely, if ever, received a gift of any kind.
In that moment, she decided to start saving immediately in order to give him something special the next time an opportunity presented itself.
"You first," he urged, voice a bit huskier than usual.
"Are you certain?" The tips of her fingers brushed lightly against the knotted ends of the fabric as she waited for confirmation.
A quick glance received an encouraging nod, so with an excited fluttering in her stomach, she loosened the knot and opened her gift. The obi inside was a soft purple color, a shade or so lighter than orchid, embroidered with a pattern of open fans and blooming iris. The blue threads were a perfect match for her favorite ribbon, the whole a lovely complement to several of her everyday kimono. "Oh, Kenshin," she whispered. The dye colors, fine fabric, and quality of embroidery told her the gift had cost him more than the dojo could easily afford. Possibly more than the kimono with which she would wear it. "How...?" Blue eyes lifted in askance, even as her fingers seemed unable to do other than linger over the embroidery, carefully tracing the design so as to ensure sword callouses couldn't catch or pull at delicate threads.
One of his hands joined hers, gently trapping her fingers and stilling their motion. "There was a reward offered for the capture of several of Enishi's associates. Since Sano is wanted by the police, and Yahiko is under-aged, Uramura insisted I accept on behalf of all three of us." He ducked his head down, ill at ease with the memory. "I did try to refuse," he assured her in a soft murmur, obviously embarrassed by his inability to convince the police chief otherwise, "but Uramura-dono is... persistent." Kaoru giggled at this admission, and Kenshin's eyes lightened in response. "I thought Yahiko's portion could be used for expenses here, and I've used Sano's to pay his debt at the Akabeko."
"Tae-san must have been in shock!" Kaoru teased.
"...she did have to sit down for a bit, that she did."
Laughing, Kaoru returned her attention to the obi, gingerly unfolding more of its length to admire the weight and feel. "It's lovely, Kenshin," she told him sincerely. "The most beautiful I've ever owned. Thank you."
"I'm pleased that you are willing to accept my unworthy offering."
"Not unworthy at all," she disagreed, folding her hands in her lap. "Honestly, thank you."
Her gift for him paled in comparison, and she had to bite her lip against protesting as he made to open it. A delay would accomplish nothing, as there simply wasn't money available to purchase anything better. Yet when the furoshiki fell away, and he stared down at the charcoal gray hakama, she began to babble nervously. "It... it was my father's. I altered it to fit you, and since it's the most important engagement gift, I thought..."
"Kaoru," he interrupted, "I'm honored." He knew she'd kept all of her father's things, revering the man as much as his teachings. That she would give them to him – not just give but cut and alter, so they would never again be the same – spoke volumes.
Especially since she had done so before he'd ever formally asked to marry her.
"Thank you," he said, catching and holding her gaze in an effort to convince her of his sincerity. Her expression remained doubtful, and so he tried a joke to reassure her. "I can't wait to see Misao-dono's face the next time we meet," he insisted. "She will know I am well cared for, and no longer have reason to think my wife has left me."
The reminder of the poor impression Misao had formed when first they met – a story Kaoru had heard from both sides – prompted a soft smile.
No, nobody would have reason to doubt that either of them was cared for.
"We're getting married," she told him, undisguised satisfaction in her voice.
"We're getting married," he agreed, leaning in for a kiss, their very first.
"Soon?" she asked long moments later, breathless and hopeful.
His response was a single, emphatic word.
Kaoru had known something good would happen that day.
It was a lucky day on the calendar.