A/n: because the only appropriate response to Reflections is the double bird. For the record, I am sticking mainly to manga canon but adding some stuff from the anime when it works, so this is post-Jinchuu.
Shout-out to my girl Alina, who provides invaluable moral support in between talking me into doing things against my better judgement.
"…and so little Suzume looked up at us, after all that trouble, and she yawned and said 'grandpa, why am I under the floor?' No memory at all! That's how we learned she sleepwalks." Dr. Oguni chuckled, setting down his tea. "Oh, what a time that was. Well, it all turned out for the best in the end, didn't it?"
"It surely did, that's so." Kenshin nodded, and only a very old man, wise in the ways of the young, would have noticed his slightly-too-tight grip on the cup of tea. "How old is little Suzume now? Almost four, this one believes."
"Oh yes, yes, she'll be four this fall. She was three when you two met, isn't that so?"
"That's so, it is."
The doctor sighed and clucked his tongue. "Children grow up so fast. It seems only yesterday she was running around chasing soap bubbles from the laundry. But they are a blessing. Now, whatever was it that you invited me over to discuss?"
"Ah." Kenshin put his cup down and bent forward slightly, rubbing the back of his neck. "That matter is – there is the issue – that is, concerning – this one – "
He took a deep breath, put his hands on the tatami, and bowed low.
"Honored Doctor Oguni, this unworthy one would beg you to do him the favor of serving as go-between in the matter of proposing a union between his family and Miss Kaoru Kamiya!"
He blurted it all out in one breath, all the words he'd so carefully rehearsed that morning, and then froze. This was not, strictly speaking, proper. It should be his parents or remaining relatives asking, not him, but he didn't know who they had been and Master Hiko was unlikely to bother leaving his mountaintop to attend to his idiot apprentice's domestic woes. So there was no other option, and surely the doctor would grant points for effort? He had done everything else right – the invitation, tea and sweets, a small gift to show his appreciation…
It wasn't as though Miss Kaoru would have cared, not really. But it mattered to him, and he wanted to do things the proper way. For her sake, too, because he had seen how she lingered to look in the shop windows on the way to market, and he knew she sometimes felt like less of a woman because of her kenjutsu and her bad cooking and her temper and her perfect, vibrant liveliness and –
Focus. The doctor was responding.
"Goodness me, I thought you'd never get around to it! Sit up, sit up now."
Kenshin sat up.
"There, that's better. Such a production! Now, then, let me think. I don't believe little Kaoru has any living relatives – well, perhaps some very distant cousins in Osaka, but I don't think the Tokyo Kamiya family has had anything to do with them in three generations, there's no filial duty there. I suppose that means I'll be approaching her directly. Although perhaps Mr. Kamiya left instructions as to who would stand as her father if the question of marriage should arise. We'll have to check his will, Miss Kaoru and I. I'm quite happy to serve as go-between, Mr. Himura, quite happy." He chuckled to himself again. "It'll be good practice for when my grandchildren are grown, hmm?"
Kenshin could only blush and thank him profusely in response.
It had been the pension that had decided him. He'd been owed one for some time, due to his services during the Revolution. He'd never claimed it. This wasn't that pension; Yamagata's letter had made very clear. This was for Shisho, and Enishi; for protecting Japan, not for killing the government's enemies.
Give it to charity if you wish, his letter had ended. But please accept this, Mr. Himura, from one veteran to another, as a very small token of the debt that is owed to you – for what you have done, and for the burdens you have been forced to carry.
It had been a kind thought, and he had already been considering what to do with the money – the dojo always needed repairs, and perhaps there would be enough left over for a meal to properly celebrate Miss Kaoru's next birthday – when he had looked at the actual sums involved and had to sit down very suddenly.
The numbers involved weren't huge. He'd never be rich, and that was fine. But it was enough – just this, alone, not factoring in the money Miss Kaoru earned from teaching and the pension she still received from her father's military service – to marry on. To raise a family on.
Kenshin had swallowed very hard at the realization.
He knew that Miss Kaoru loved him, and he… love was not the word. Did a person love the blood in their veins, or the beat of their heart? She was essential. Absolutely essential. And it was one thing to know that and yearn silently, knowing that he had nothing to offer her except the work of his bloody hands, and quite another to feel all that – longing and unworthiness – but also know that now, at the very least, he could provide for her as a man should.
With this development, he became his only obstacle. He was the one thing standing between himself and a future that was all her: walking beside her, chattering in the kitchen, laundry and groceries and gardening, waking every morning to her scent lingering on the pillows and a passel of children with their mother's clear blue eyes.
He'd hunched over slightly, stricken at the vision and terrible ache it cause.
Was he permitted to want such a thing, now? A small, selfish happiness.
He had sat and thought for a long time, while the shadows lengthened and the laundry went undone, until he'd been startled from his meditations by the gate swinging open for Miss Kaoru's return.
"Kenshin! I'm home!" She'd rounded the corner and stopped, taking in his obvious lack of activity. "…is something the matter?"
And he'd seen the fear on her face, then – what now? Will he leave again? Will I lose him? – and understood that sometimes, selfishness could be selfless, too. And he'd smiled.
"Ah, nothing's wrong, that is," he'd said, laughing. "This one was only thinking about something, that I was."
"Eh? What was it?"
"Nothing to concern you now, Miss Kaoru, no it's not." He'd shaken his head, amazed at his own foolishness. "The laundry will have to be done tomorrow, it seems. This one will begin dinner, that I will."
"Alright, then," she'd said, and smiled that smile.
Koushijiro Kamiya, as it turned out, had left someone to stand in his place should anyone ever ask for his daughter's hand. Which is how Kenshin found himself sitting nervously in the sitting room of the Maekawa home one week later, wearing a brand new hakama and haori he'd only managed to buy by reminding himself that this was much more for Miss Kaoru's sake than his own. They were still stiff, and he shifted uncomfortably as they scratched over his skin.
Dr. Oguni nudged him.
"Don't worry so. You'll make a bad impression."
"Mr. Maekawa and this one are already acquainted, that we are…"
"Ah, but now he stands in her father's place. It's a completely different situation."
"Excuse me, excuse me." Mrs. Maekawa bobbed her head as she shuffled in, bearing a tray of tea and sweets. She set the tray down and settled herself on the cushion across from him, beaming. "Well! What a lovely thing to see you here, Mr. Himura. My dear husband will be along in just a moment. How is little Kaoru? I hardly see her anymore! And you, Doctor, how are your grandchildren?"
He let her and Dr. Oguni make conversation, the words washing over him as he sipped his tea and answered politely at the appropriate intervals. His senses were strained, waiting for the first hint of Mr. Maekawa's approach, and the knot growing in his gut tightened when he finally detected the soft step of his feet along the hallway.
"Mr. Himura." He ducked as he came into the room, settling himself next to his wife, and fixed Kenshin with a stern look. Kenshin swallowed.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Maekawa," he said, voice steady.
"Good afternoon, Miyauchi," Dr. Gensai said cheerfully. "Your wife makes excellent tea."
"Why, thank you, doctor!" Mrs. Maekawa beamed.
"Ah? I'm glad you're enjoying it. And you, Mr. Himura. What do you think of my wife's tea?"
"It's – it's wonderful, that it is," he said weakly, fully aware that he'd barely tasted it. Mrs. Maekawa hid a giggle behind her hand and whispered to her husband. His face softened almost imperceptibly.
"So," he said, turning his attention to Dr. Oguni. "What is it that you wanted to discuss?"
"Ah, it's a simple matter," the doctor said, patting Kenshin on the shoulder. Pat… pat… pat… "Mr. Himura here asked me to serve as go-between, you see…"
Mr. Maekawa's gaze sharpened.
Pat… pat… pat…
"Oh yes. Although due to certain circumstances arising from the Revolution he has no family to speak for him, it seems he wishes very much to join the Kamiya family and wants to do things as formally as he can, given the situation."
"Oh my!" Mrs. Maekawa exclaimed. "Isn't that gallant, dear? Don't you agree?"
"Hmm. Yes. Very gallant."
Kenshin shrank under Mr. Maekawa's relentless glare. Somewhere in the back of his mind, his common sense was babbling that even though the Hiten Mitsurugi would be ineffective soon, for the moment he was still one of the strongest swordsmen in Japan, and he should not be feeling like Master Hiko'd just caught him with his hand in the sweet jar. At least Dr. Oguni had stopped patting him.
Now he's standing in place of her father, the doctor had said. It's completely different.
He blinked, and the outline become clear: two old friends, one who lives and one who dies, and the daughter left behind; too old to adopt and too young to leave to her own devices. If Mr. Kamiya had left Mr. Maekawa to stand in his stead in his will, then legally Miss Kaoru was answerable to him – but he had never exerted that authority, knowing that it wasn't what his old friend would have wanted. He had watched, instead, and worried for her, and helped as much as he could, and now he had one last duty to his old friend's memory.
Which happened to be putting the fear of god into the upstart asking for her hand.
It was only a kind of game, after all; and he was nervous because any prospective bridegroom would be.
Kenshin bowed his head.
"This one knows that the current situation is inadequate. However, it seems as though Miss Kaoru would want things done this way, and so it is hoped that you will overlook the circumstances."
"Is that so?"
Kenshin nodded. "This one did not previously possess the ability to fully provide for Miss Kaoru as a husband should. Therefore, it was not possible to court her. Recently, that has changed, and with the current income – " he named the sum and Mrs. Maekawa nodded approvingly. " – this one is capable of providing for Miss Kaoru's happiness and comfort. Therefore, this unworthy one humbly requests your consideration in the matter."
Mr. Maekawa made a contemplative noise. His wife shifted and he grunted slightly, as though someone had jabbed him in the side.
"Her happiness, eh?"
"Yes." Now Kenshin raised his head and looked Mr. Maekawa directly in the eyes, his earlier nerves faded. There was only one response. "This one has only ever desired Miss Kaoru's happiness."
"Well," Mr. Maekawa said finally. "If that's the case, I'll speak to Kaoru. Since you've been her tenant for so long, I don't know if there's much need for more than her approval. Mind you," he said warningly, "she gets the last word on the subject. That's what Koushijiro wanted."
"Understood." Kenshin bowed again. "Thank you very much."
"Have some of the sweets," Mr. Maekawa said. "My wife made them."
When he got home from market next week, after Miss Kaoru's usual visit to the Maekawa dojo, she wasn't waiting at the gate for him but was standing just inside, and before he had a chance to say anything she threw her arms around him and started gasping out a stream of acceptance and recrimination.
He wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in her hair, and whispered I'm home.