List of family terms and their translations:

Okaasan: Mother
Otoosan: Father
Oneechan: Older sister
Ojisama: Uncle (very respectful)
Oyaji: Father (very disrespectful)
Sensei: Teacher, other professional person (e.g. Doctor)

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Heart of the Home

By Richard Lawson

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The soft light of dawn warmed Kasumi's cheek. She opened her eyes and gazed through the window at the lightening sky. It promised to be a beautiful day.

Kasumi reached over and shut off the alarm clock before it could ring; no need to wake anyone else just yet. She slid out of bed and shook her hair out slightly.

She dressed, tied her hair and pulled it over her shoulder. Kasumi allowed herself a second to admire her hair; it was her best feature, she thought, and she worked hard to maintain it.

Kasumi shook herself out of her reverie; too much work to be done, as always.

She slid open the door and walked softly down the hallway. Everyone was still sleeping, although that would change soon.

She stepped into the kitchen and took one of her aprons off the hook. Putting it on gave her a sense of control, of mastery over her environment.

***

Kasumi leaned across the opening into the kitchen, not wanting to desecrate Okaasan's domain. She could see Okaasan's back, with the apron tied in a pretty, neat bow. Chopping sounds could be heard from beyond her. Kasumi wanted to know what Okaasan was doing. She wanted to *be* with Okaasan, but the kitchen was sacred, not a place where she or her sisters were allowed.

The sounds of chopping stopped. Okaasan turned toward Kasumi. Kasumi knew an instant of fear - Okaasan was about to chastise her for spying, and send her away. But the warm, loving look that always seemed to find its way to Okaasan's face calmed Kasumi's fears as quickly as they had formed. "Kasumi-chan, do you want to help?"

Joy filled Kasumi. Okaasan was going to let her enter! She was going to be allowed to do grown-up things! "Eh!" She ran over to Okaasan and stood in front of her, quivering with excitement.

Okaasan laughed softly. She placed her hand on Kasumi's shoulder and guided her back over by the door. Hanging on a hook next to the door were several aprons. "They're a little big for you, Kasumi," Okaasan said as she sifted through the aprons. "Let's try this one." She lifted a frilly apron off the hook and held it in front of Kasumi.

Kasumi's eyes widened. To be allowed into the kitchen was a wonderful adventure. To put on grown-up clothes - with permission! - was enough to take her breath away.

Eagerly Kasumi took the apron from Okaasan and thrust it over her head. The apron *was* a little big, and it hung over her gracelessly. She picked up the strings of the apron and held them in front of her, unsure what to do next.

Smiling, Okaasan knelt, took the strings and reached around behind Kasumi. "Your apron is the face you wear in the kitchen. It keeps your clothes from getting dirty, and it's a good place to wipe your hands during cooking. Of course, you should always wash your hands before you cook!" Okaasan finished tying Kasumi's apron and leaned back on her heels, her eyes level with Kasumi's. Okaasan smiled widely. "Most of all, it defines you. It tells the kitchen," and her voice took on a playfully peremptory tone, "'Pay attention! Kasumi-sama is here to cook! You will do my bidding and help me make a delicious meal.'"

Kasumi giggled. Okaasan stood up, placed her hand behind Kasumi's head and gently guided her towards the sink. "Your apron is also an expression of love. You love your family so much, you're willing to put on this apron to prepare a meal for them." Okaasan ran the water in the sink and gave Kasumi a bar of soap. "Later, we'll alter this apron so that it will fit you. Then we'll start making you a new apron, and put some love into it so that Otoosan and your sisters know how much they mean to you."

Rubbing her hands with the soap, Kasumi could barely contain her joy. Sewing, too! Okaasan was going to let her *be* a grown-up. That thought was as frightening as it was exciting, but knowing that Okaasan would always be there to help took away some of the worry.

Kasumi looked up at Okaasan and gave her a smile of pure love and adoration.

***

Kasumi dried her hands with a towel and stood for a few seconds facing the wall. The ritual of putting on her apron and washing her hands always had echoes of Okaasan in it. Less and less, though, it had brought back this memory. That saddened Kasumi.

The kitchen was not a place for sadness, though. Okaasan had taught her that. She went over to the cupboard and pulled out two kettles. She filled them with water and set them to boiling. She went about preparing breakfast. When the kettles started whistling, she turned down the temperature on one and kept it just below boiling. The other she took off the burner completely.

She could hear the sound of feet pounding down the stairs - Ranma and Ojisama going for their morning workout. Since it was a pleasant morning, they held it outside, and the sounds of fighting soon filled the yard.

This was usually enough to wake up the rest of the household. Kasumi poured the not-quite-boiling water into a teapot, put some tea in it and put it on a tray with some cups. She took it out to the dining table and set it in the center.

As she did so, Otoosan came in. "Good morning, Kasumi" he said as he poured himself a cup. He turned to watch the fighting in the yard.

Kasumi returned to the kitchen. Breakfast was nearly ready; almost on cue, the fighting in the yard intensified. It ended, as it almost always did, with a splash.

Kasumi smiled and brought out the breakfast dishes.

Akane and Nabiki had joined their father in watching the courtyard antics. Nabiki looked terribly disinterested in the proceedings, while Akane looked disgusted and muttered something under her breath. Panda-ojisama entered and sat down at the table. Kasumi poured him a cup of tea, Ojisama being unable to accomplish that feat at present. He growled his thanks and brought the cup to his lips, rumbling with contentment.

Ranma stood in the doorway, trying to wring out her clothes while still wearing them. Kasumi went back into the kitchen, took the second kettle, and brought it out to Ranma. Ranma smiled her thanks, and dumped it over her head.

"Ranma, when are you going to learn that fighting in the yard is not a good idea?" Akane sounded exasperated, as she often did when talking to Ranma. "You always end up wet and dirty. I wouldn't mind except we have to sit in the same classroom all day."

Ranma looked indignant. "Hmph. As I recall, when we fought in the dojo yesterday, you told us to take it outside."

Akane leaped to her feet. "That's because you tore a hole in the roof again!" She was sounding angry now, another common emotion. "Do you think we have an army of elves around that fix the things you break!"

"Hey, it was Oyaji who broke the roof!" Ranma responding in kind.

"It was you who sent him through it!"

"He was asking for it! We don't go easy on each other when we're in training!"

"Then could you take it easy on the house? The rest of us have to live in it too!"

"Including your stupid elves?"

Things were quickly getting out of hand. Kasumi decided to step in. "Oh my! Do you suppose the elves would like some breakfast?"

It had the desired affect. Ranma and Akane seemed to deflate a little when they turned to look at her. Nabiki rolled her eyes. Otoosan seemed surprised. Ojisama produced a sign that had a giant question mark on it.

It was Ranma who answered. "Uh, I don't think so, Kasumi." He stepped to the table and sat down. "Looks good, though."

Akane joined him. "Yeah, real good. Thanks, Oneechan."

Kasumi attended to her own breakfast, glowing in her successes. Presentation was an important aspect of any meal; no one would eat a delicious meal that looked like slop. She realized, of course, that their compliments were halfway meant to placate her, as they might placate a young child. That was okay with Kasumi, as long as it kept them from fighting again.

She was back in the kitchen cleaning up when Nabiki, dressed for school, came in. She waited as Kasumi finished wiping the counters. Kasumi placed the wet towel on top of the basket of laundry she was planning on washing today. Nabiki looked down at the towel with disdain. Kasumi shrugged mentally; it was Nabiki's loss that she would never know the satisfaction of manual labor.

"Do we have the money for the roof repair, Nabiki-chan?"

Nabiki glanced up at Kasumi then down into the pocket of her frock. She brought out a large stack of bills that she began counting off. "How much do you need?"

Kasumi tipped her head and considered the many previous visits of the contractors. "I would guess fifty thousand yen."

Nabiki rifled the money quickly, stopping to check some figures in her notebook. She took a pencil out of her pocket and tapped the eraser on her lips.

***

Kasumi sifted through the loosely scattered papers on the dining table. There was so much to sort through, and the pressure to get something done was growing daily.

Kasumi glanced at her watch and grimaced. If she didn't start dinner now, it would have to be ramen again - as it had been since the funeral. But the papers in front of her needed attending to, and Otoosan was in no condition to help.

She took another look at the bank account. There had been a healthy balance there, but the medical bills had taken a large chunk of that. As had the funeral. Not to mention that Otoosan had not been teaching during the crisis, and thus not collecting any fees.

Kasumi sighed, as close to total despair as she had ever been. Okaasan - it hurt too much to think of her right now. Otoosan was devastated; when he wasn't crying, he was staring at the walls and not speaking. Akane, refusing to understand, would still ask when Okaasan was coming home.

And there were the bills. The dojo, thankfully, was paid for, but taxes were due on it, as were the normal utilities. The car was in good shape, but it still needed the insurance paid. There was still food to be bought, if she could ever get around to cooking it.

Kasumi closed her eyes and bowed her head over the table, letting more of her despair show than she meant. She couldn't let the children see her like this. She needed to be strong, for them. She just wasn't sure she could do it for very much longer.

She looked up and blinked. Nabiki was sitting across from her. Kasumi hadn't even heard her come in. As much as Kasumi was worried for Otoosan, she was worried for Nabiki. Only a year and a half older than Akane, Nabiki hadn't shown much emotion; she had just watched everyone and everything around her with a slightly interested but otherwise blank look. Tears had streamed from her eyes at the funeral, but otherwise, Nabiki had shown no other expression.

Now, as usual, she was just watching. Kasumi tried to smile, but it felt weak on her lips. "Nabiki?" She had meant to say more, but the words died on her lips.

Nabiki rose, came around the table, knelt next to Kasumi, and picked up a bill. "What is this?"

Kasumi looked at the paper. "Electricity bill. We owe for the lights and the TV and the other electrical things we use."

Nabiki cocked her head to the side. "4780 yen. I can pay that. I have that many yen."

Kasumi blinked again; she had no idea how Nabiki had come across so much money. "Thank you for offering, Nabiki-chan, but it is just the smallest bill among all the others we have. Even if we pay it, next month they'll send us another bill for the electricity we use this month."

"Oh." Nabiki picked up the insurance bill and read through it. "This is for the car? I don't have that much money." She looked at Kasumi. "Do you?"

Kasumi sighed gently. "No, Nabiki, you have more money than I do." She picked up the bank account book. "However, the family has this much money available to it."

Nabiki put down the bills she was holding and took the bank book from Kasumi. She flipped through the pages until she found the current balance. "That's a lot of money," she said, her face and tone still expressionless.

Kasumi felt the grimace coming again, and stilled it before it reached her face. She must be strong. "It may seem that way, but all that money must pay all of these bills." She swept her hand over the pile of papers. "When we pay them, next month another set of bills will come. Oh, and we have to use what's left to buy food for us to eat."

The mention of food made Kasumi look at her watch again. "Oh my, I have to get dinner started." Kasumi looked at the bills and felt her heart sink again; too much to do, and Okaasan was gone.

Out of the corner of her eye, Kasumi could see Nabiki watching her, bank book still held open in her hand. Nabiki reached her other hand over and tugged on Kasumi's sleeve. "Oneechan, let me help."

Kasumi turned her head towards Nabiki, and saw more animation in her face than she had seen in a long time. There was an earnestness there that spoke of true desire. Nabiki glanced down at the bank book, over to the bills, and back up to Kasumi, silently imploring.

Was this what Okaasan saw in Kasumi at the kitchen door? The memory came to Kasumi, and buoyed her.

Kasumi smiled, this time genuinely. Nabiki was certainly good with numbers, and if she could try to make all of these figures balance, it would certainly help. At the very least, it would keep Nabiki occupied, and allow Kasumi the time she needed to make dinner. "Certainly, Nabiki-chan. See if you can figure out how we can pay these bills, and buy food. See if you can figure out a plan for next month, too." She pushed a pencil and pad of paper in front of Nabiki. "I'll be in the kitchen if you need me."

Kasumi reached over and picked up the notebook that she would need in the kitchen. She stood up and walked to the doorway. Looking back, she could see Nabiki pick up the pencil, glance at the bank book, and write a figure on the pad.

Still smiling, Kasumi turned back towards the kitchen.

When dinner was just about ready, she returned to set the table. She stopped in the doorway. The bills had been arranged into neat piles, with torn off bits of paper labeling each pile. Figures covered the notepad and several other pieces of paper in front of Nabiki. Nabiki herself was staring at another piece of paper in her hand, tapping her pencil's eraser on her lips.

"Oh my." At this, Nabiki raised her head. Kasumi walked over to the table and set the dishes down on it. "How are you doing, Nabiki?"

"I think we'll be okay." Nabiki showed her the crude, handwritten spreadsheet that was in her hand. "I think we'll have to sell the car. We don't need it - the store is within walking distance, and we don't need to go to the hospital any more." Nabiki paused a moment, then plunged on. "If we can conserve on the electricity and water, be careful of what we buy to eat and use our leftovers efficiently, we should be able to get by on the bank account for six months." Nabiki screwed her face up thoughtfully. "If Otoosan hasn't begun teaching again by then, I'll have to see about developing other ways of getting money."

Kasumi slowly knelt next to Nabiki, studying the spreadsheet. Getting rid of the car would certainly free up a lot of money. Nabiki had deduced from the entries in the bank book how much money they spent a month on food and had reduced the amount appropriately. Nabiki had estimated what the car was worth - a figure that seemed fair to Kasumi - and predicted that it would take two months to sell. She had also figured in some modest school and clothing costs, and had put a little aside each month for "unexpected expenses".

If these figures were accurate - and she had no reason to doubt Nabiki's math - they would be able to survive for half a year. Kasumi had been worried about surviving until next month.

Kasumi looked at Nabiki, a startled expression on her face. "Nabiki-chan!". She couldn't think of what else to say. Nabiki looked slightly surprised at her sister's reaction. Kasumi reached over and hugged Nabiki tightly. "You don't know what this means to our family."

Nabiki actually giggled. "It was fun really." She squirmed out of Kasumi's grasp and started piling the papers on top of each other. "Let me get Akane and we'll set the table."

Kasumi sat back and stared at her sister. Nabiki was smiling as she gathered up the papers, stealing glances back at Kasumi and smiling more broadly.

Gathering herself up, Kasumi practically danced back to the door. A weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

As she looked out into the courtyard, her happiness vanished. Otoosan was sitting in front of the pond, staring into its murky depths. Kasumi stopped for a moment. Determined not to lose the momentum she had gained, she walked over and stopped a couple of feet behind him.

"Otoosan?" No answer. Kasumi spoke a little more forcefully, trying to use the tone Okaasan had used. "Dinner's ready." Still no reaction.

Kasumi took another step towards him, reaching out to not-quite touch her father's shoulder. "I made one of Okaasan 's recipes."

At that, Otoosan stirred. Slowly, he stood up and turned to face Kasumi. "Ah, so? That would be good," he said in a complete monotone. "I'll be right in."

"Thank you, Otoosan." Kasumi turned and ran back to the kitchen. She needed to get there before anything burned. She was not running away from Otoosan. That's what she kept telling herself, anyway.

Eventually they were all seated around the table. Kasumi sat across from Otoosan and looked at him, slightly fearful of his reaction. Her own self-confidence wavered for a second. How dare she make one of Okaasan's recipes and serve it at the table. She could never be the cook Okaasan was.

Otoosan took a bowl of rice with one hand and a pair of chopsticks with the other. He reached with his chopsticks and grabbed some of the food on his plate. Kasumi wasn't sure if he even knew what he had between his chopsticks. He put it into his mouth, bit into it, and chewed for a moment. He stopped, and for a second all of Kasumi's fears rushed in to claim her; *now* was the time that Otoosan was going to be angry at her for trying to take Okaasan's place.

"It's delicious!" In his excitement, Otoosan broke the chopsticks in half. "It's just like Okaasan used to make, Kasumi!" He started to cry.

For once, though, the crying brought happiness. The sad, oppressive tension that had permeated the house dissipated. Akane and Nabiki looked at Otoosan, evidently taken aback by his sudden exuberance.

Kasumi smiled, then turned towards Nabiki. "I had help when I most needed it, Otoosan."

Nabiki turned, startled. Pleased comprehension came over her face. They sat there and smiled at each other. The last of Kasumi's despair evaporated. They would make it. They had lost Okaasan, but they had each other, and that was enough.

***

"With what I got off Kuno yesterday, we should be able to cover this expense and a couple of others." Nabiki put the money on the counter, then scowled. "Ranma's just lucky that he makes more money for us than he costs us, or he and his freeloading father would be out on their butts."

Kasumi decided to ignore Nabiki's slightly crude language to focus on another issue. "You sold more pictures to Tatewaki-kun?"

Nabiki looked pleased with herself. "Yup. I had a whole roll and he bought them lock, stock, and barrel."

Kasumi pressed her point. "Oh my, and he has so many pictures already."

Nabiki shrugged. "He's obsessed, what can I say?"

Nabiki didn't understand. Kasumi tried another tack. "It's amazing, isn't it, that he spends so much money for them?"

"He's rich, what else? He-"

"And he always seems to be willing to buy so many of them when we need the money the most."

Nabiki paused, her eyes widening slightly.

Kasumi stooped down and picked up the laundry basket. "Oh well, it's as you say, he must be obsessed."

She walked past Nabiki as animation slowly returned to her. Nabiki looked very puzzled as Kasumi turned the corner out of the kitchen. Good. Hopefully Kasumi had planted some seeds there that would take root. Tatewaki and Nabiki would be good for each other, if they could just see beyond their narrow perceptions of each other.

Some time later, after the wash had finished drying on the line, Kasumi went out to take it inside. Panda-ojisama and Otoosan were playing shogi on the porch. There were no classes scheduled until the evening, when the few students they had would gather in the dojo. The contractors were working on it now, failing to react at all to the sight of a panda playing shogi. They had been here many times before.

"Hah! Got you now, Saotome-kun," Otoosan said as he placed a piece. Kasumi looked over at him and smiled affectionately. He had, over time, recovered something of his cheerful nature. He was still extremely fragile emotionally, and anything that even remotely threatened his family was enough to cause him to cry and carry on. His daughters understood for the most part, although Nabiki and Akane would occasionally become exasperated.

Kasumi had just taken the last of the laundry off the line when a missile came hurtling out of the sky. Naturally it landed in the pool, sending water spraying everywhere. The contractors on the roof failed to react to this as well. Kasumi wondered what was left to surprise them. Maybe the only thing left was a bolt from heaven.

Nabiki had once posted odds on who would show up in the pool. Ranma got you even money; Ojisama was 3-2. Ranma and Ojisama together were 3-1. Ryoga had odds of 5-1, and Mousse and Shampoo were longshots at 20-1. Shampoo in the bathtub, however, was only 3-1.

To Kasumi's surprise, it was Tatewaki who staggered out of the pool and shook himself off. After checking to see that the laundry had escaped the water, she walked over to him and bowed slightly.

"Hello, Tatewaki-kun. May I get you some tea?"

Her unassuming greeting brought Tatewaki back to himself. "It is always a pleasure to see you, Tendo Kasumi-san. Your offer is most gracious, and I would gladly accept, but I must be off to teach a - certain someone - a lesson in manners."

Kasumi smiled sweetly. Not again. "Ranma-kun did this to you?"

"He is the cause of it, to be sure, and it is to he that I must administer my stern lecture. But, as for the...argument...that sent me to your lovely abode, it was none other than my sweet Akane-san who delivered it."

"Oh my!" Kasumi blinked, and inside she flinched. "Why would she do that?"

"It was that cursed Saotome's fault, have no fear, Kasumi-san. For some unknown reason he took exception to the pictures of my beloved pig-tailed goddess that I had recently acquired. In our ensuing... discussion, I found myself lying on the ground next to my other beloved, your dear sister Akane-san. I rose and expressed my undying love for her, but the pictures that the fiend Saotome had tried to wrest from me spilled out upon the ground between us, and my beloved Akane-san was much wroth at my seeming indiscretion. She let me know her displeasure, as is her right. And yet, it is Saotome Ranma who knows the blame of it, and it is he who will pay."

Tatewaki-kun, Kasumi thought to herself, you must get over these infatuations. "Won't you just stay and rest a while? It would be pleasant to have some company."

She saw the refusal die on his lips as he looked behind her. Turning, Kasumi saw Nabiki walk out onto the porch. "Kasumi! Ranma and Akane will be a little late; it seems they're having a fight with..." Nabiki trailed off as Tatewaki stepped around Kasumi.

"Perhaps, Kasumi-san, I would stay and share a cup of tea with you." Tatewaki bowed, but his eyes didn't leave Nabiki's.

"Excellent. I'll go get the tea. Nabiki-chan, keep our guest company until I return."

Nabiki flushed ever so slightly, then quickly recovered her composure. "C'mon, Kuno-baby. Maybe you can help me with my English lessons. 'How are you today, my favorite pigeon?' "

As Kasumi left, she could see Tatewaki struggling to respond. "'I am good...well. I am well, Ms. Nabiki.' What is a 'pigeon'?"

Kasumi put a pot on to boil, stopped to consider what would happen when Ranma and Akane got home, and put on a second pot. She was just poring the water into the teapot when shouting ensued. Kasumi put the teapot and some cups on a tray and paused at the door to the dining room, waiting for the right time to enter. Soon Tatewaki came flying through the door to reacquaint himself with the pond. Shortly thereafter, following a cry of "Ranma, you idiot!", another person continued his long familiarity with the depths of the pond.

Kasumi entered, smiling brightly. "Tea's ready!"

Akane and Nabiki stared at her. Still, her simple, unassuming statement calmed them and gave them strength. Having a reputation for being oblivious had its advantages.

Ranma dragged an unconscious Tatewaki into the hallway. She dropped him and continued on down to the kitchen, where Kasumi could hear the second kettle being put to good use.

Kasumi went out to get the first aid kit. She returned and knelt next to Tatewaki, who was struggling to sit up. Kasumi examined his face. A couple of bruises and a bump on the head; she had certainly seen him with worse. Ranma staggered back in, and Kasumi looked over at him. Despite remaining conscious, Ranma had a few bruises himself.

Nabiki, with a great show of exasperation, came over and knelt by Tatewaki. "Here, let me." She took the bandages from Kasumi and began to tend to Tatewaki.

The seeds have taken root, Kasumi thought, and turned over to Ranma. He instinctively sat still and allowed her to examine him; they had been over this many times before. As she reached for the first aid kit, she felt a hand grasp her wrist.

"I'll do it!" Akane looked fierce and determined. Ranma saw, and looked up into Kasumi's eyes, silently begging her.

Kasumi did a quick weighing on her scales, then stepped back. "All right, Akane-chan."

Ranma slumped over, beaten. Akane picked up some bandages, grabbed Ranma's chin, and shook his head a little. "Now stay still! This may hurt a little."

Ranma looked up at Kasumi in misery. Kasumi smiled reassuringly at him. If he only knew what was in store for him.

***

Kasumi stood in the kitchen, making dinner. She was still getting used to preparing food for six people. She had the rice boiling, and the vegetables were frying. It would be a simple dinner tonight; she and Nabiki were still working on stretching the budget for six people. Nabiki had had initial success with selling pictures of Ranma (what kind of pictures and to whom they were being sold, Kasumi preferred not to think about), but for now, simple food in vast quantities seemed to be best.

She was tossing the vegetables in the pan when she heard Akane enter.

"Kasumi-oneechan?"

"Hello, Akane. How was your day?" Still holding the pan, Kasumi turned around.

Kasumi gave a small shriek. She flung the pan in the air and raised her hands above her head. Ranma, who evidently had been lurking in the hallway, darted in and grabbed the pan in mid-air. Remarkably, she also managed to catch the vegetables.

Kasumi barely noticed. Part of her was panicking over Akane's appearance. The other part was chastising herself on her dramatics.

Akane evidently agreed with the latter. "You don't have to make such a big deal out of it, Oneechan."

Kasumi lowered her arms. "What happened to your hair, Akane-chan?"

Ranma looked up from where she was kneeling with the pan. "Actually, it was-"

Akane interrupted. "Well, I thought I'd give myself a little haircut. But I guess I messed it up a bit, though." She held out a pair of scissors. "I was wondering, could you even it up for me, Oneechan?"

Kasumi blinked, flabbergasted. She looked down at Ranma, who looked uncharacteristically worried and concerned. Two things were obvious: this wasn't a voluntary haircut, and Ranma was somehow involved. If Akane didn't feel like telling her, though, Kasumi didn't want to press her. There were certainly more important issues involved.

"Of course, Akane." She turned to the stove and lowered the heat on the burner. "Could you watch this for me, Ranma-kun? Make sure the vegetables don't burn and the rice doesn't boil over." Kasumi looked down at Ranma's shirt, which was badly torn in front. "There's a kettle of hot water by the sink, and one of your shirts is drying outside."

Taking the scissors, Kasumi followed Akane upstairs. She noticed that Akane was limping, further evidence that something unusual had happened. They went into Kasumi's room, which had the best mirror. Kasumi took the sheet off her bed and had Akane lift the chair while Kasumi spread the sheet underneath it. Akane sat down. Kasumi surveyed the damage and began cutting.

All the while, her brain was working furiously. This was a very delicate time for Akane. It wasn't that being Ranma's fiancee was so bad - everyone knew that if she protested strongly enough, she wouldn't be held to it. Akane, being the youngest, always felt that she needed to outperform her sisters. Kasumi had already assumed the duties of running the house, and Nabiki, for the most part, controlled the finances. Akane had decided that the only position left was inheritor of the dojo.

She had pestered Otoosan mercilessly. He had been reluctant - he held the antiquated view that only men could run a dojo - but he didn't have the will to resist Akane for long. He began training her in the school of Anything Goes Martial Arts. Akane had taken the training very seriously, working out with weights and challenging anyone who came along to a match. Otoosan had kept at it, and had begrudgingly accorded her martial arts skills some respect.

Then Ranma had come along. Ranma had been trained since birth in the same school. He had been taught that all other things were secondary to the Art, and every major portion of his life was guided by "lessons" of the school. Add to that his remarkable strength and speed, and he was a veritable force of nature in the dojo. Akane had been beaten easily in her first match with Ranma. That, Kasumi knew, accounted for much of the hostility Akane felt towards Ranma.

Stripped of her martial arts superiority at home, Akane had immediately fallen back on her hair. After an incident with Tofu-sensei a few years ago in which he called Akane a boy, Akane had experimented with different, longer hair styles. After settling on one, she had concentrated on letting it grow. Kasumi had felt Akane's eyes measuring Kasumi's hair and comparing it to her own. Then had come the day when Akane had decided that she had the longer hair. A quiet relief came over her then. After losing to Ranma, Akane had leaned on her longer hair like a crutch. Kasumi, although very proud of her hair, didn't begrudge her sister's greater length. Akane needed to feel that she was the best in the family at something, and Kasumi didn't mind that at all.

Then today Akane had walked in, her hair chopped off, acting like she hadn't a care in the world. While Kasumi trimmed Akane's hair, her mind raced. Akane had to be given something new to focus on, and quickly. Akane was in a state of shock. Kasumi knew a reckoning was coming, and it would be fearful, if it couldn't be partially offset by something else that made Akane feel special.

"So what do you think of Ranma?" Kasumi blurted out.

"Huh?" Akane looked confused.

That was much too abrupt. Kasumi calmed herself and started over. "Are you getting to know your fiancee better?"

That caused a frown to briefly flit across Akane's face. "He's not my fiancee."

Kasumi continued as if she hadn't heard. "Otoosan is very glad that you're engaged. He thinks very highly of the Saotomes."

Akane clenched her teeth, then forced herself to be still. Another advantage to an apparently oblivious nature, Kasumi had discovered, is that people couldn't stay mad at you. "What about what I think?"

That's a good point, Kasumi thought, and if I didn't think you liked Ranma, I'd have Otoosan call off the engagement. But I think you know better. "It's nice that you're the first one of us to get engaged."

Akane opened her mouth quickly, then left it open before closing it slowly.

Got you, Kasumi thought. "You'll be the first one of us to get married. That will make Otoosan very happy."

Akane looked thoughtful.

Beaming, Kasumi continued. "And you'll be the first to give Otoosan a grandchild. Imagine his face."

Kasumi expected a violent reaction to this remark. Instead, Kasumi saw a small smile appear on Akane's face. This, Kasumi decided, was a good sign. The smile remained there as Kasumi finished up.

"There you go, Akane-chan. It's a little more even now."

Akane shook herself out of her reverie, looked at herself in the mirror, and gasped. "Oneechan! It's beautiful."

Kasumi brushed the hair off of Akane's uniform, pleased. "I'm glad you like it. How is your ankle?"

Akane stood up and winced. "I think I better go see Tofu-sensei."

The name sent a small tingle along Kasumi's spine, but she didn't dare react. Akane was still going to have an outburst of some sort, and Tofu-sensei was just the man to handle it. "All right. Don't be long; I'll hold dinner."

Kasumi entered the kitchen and didn't see Ranma. The kettle was empty, however, so she assumed he was changing his clothes. She went over to the stove and was pleased to notice that the vegetables hadn't been allowed to burn.

She looked out the window; Ranma had donned his orange shirt and was throwing one of his red ones in the trash. He saw her back in the kitchen, gave a small wave of his hand, and jumped up onto the roof.

Not for long, though. Shortly thereafter, he appeared in the door behind her. "Kasumi, where's Akane?"

Still stirring the vegetables, Kasumi answered him. "She hurt her ankle this afternoon, so naturally she went to go see Tofu-sensei." She paused; if Akane didn't want to tell her what had happened, perhaps Ranma would. "Did something happen at school today?"

She didn't get an answer. She turned around, but Ranma was gone.

"Oh my." She turned back to the stove, the implications staggering her. Ranma cared for Akane. Although she hadn't been fooled by Akane's protestations of complete indifference, Kasumi had wondered if Ranma cared for anything besides martial arts. He had been raised to believe that martials arts was all there was to life, after all. Now, though, it was obvious that Ranma was truly concerned about Akane. He had gone to be with her during her trouble. That spoke volumes about how he felt towards his fiancee.

Kasumi smiled and began to sing a little ode to the vegetables she was cooking. Once Akane had recovered, she would begin taking the engagement seriously. Of course, once Akane decided to do something, she tended to work too hard at it, often to her own detriment and the detriment of those around her. However, Ranma - despite all of his protesting - would eventually succumb, because deep inside his heart he liked Akane.

There was a lot for them to work out, but they would be getting married. Of this, Kasumi was certain.

***

As Kasumi watched Akane wrap Ranma's head, she reflected that she had severely underestimated the problems those two would have to overcome. Fiancees for Ranma had popped out of the woodwork, and Akane had faced her share of suitors. Yet, through it all, Kasumi's certainty hadn't wavered. Ranma and Akane had managed to remain together. They'd very nearly gotten married, too, just last month. Those plans had been put off until things could be settled between Ranma, Akane, and their various suitors. Kasumi also thought that maybe nothing could happen until Ranma had his curse lifted (although Ranma seemed to have almost grown attached to his dual nature). But all that didn't diminish the inevitability of their marriage.

Finally Akane leaned back, pleased. "There! All better, right, Ranma?"

Ranma was having difficulty answering, since most of his head was swathed in bandages.

Kasumi moved in. "Wonderful job, Akane-chan! Let me adjust the bandages just a little."

Ranma eyes glowed with gratitude as Kasumi stripped off most of the bandages.

Akane, meanwhile, was looking over at Tatewaki and Nabiki. "How are you two doing?"

"I am doing fine," Nabiki answered. "Kuno-baby is going to be aching for a week." She finished her ministrations, leaned back and eyed him critically. "Not bad. You'll receive my bill shortly."

"Of that, I have no doubt, Tendo Nabiki-san." Tatewaki rose to his feet and bowed deeply to the center of the room. "I thank you all for your unsurpassed hospitality." Glancing at Ranma out of the side of his eyes, he corrected himself. "Almost all of you."

Tatewaki turned towards Akane, and appeared to be on the verge of spouting some of his infamous poetry. However, he seemed to feel the weight of Nabiki's stare, and, glancing quickly at her, instead left the room.

Kasumi finished with Ranma. He looked much better. Akane stuck her face in front of Ranma's and eyed him worriedly. "Do you think he needs to see Tofu-sensei?"

Ranma glowered at her. "Hah! You just want an excuse to go see Tofu-sensei yourself!"

Akane practically growled. "What would you know about it?"

Ranma looked smug. "I was there when you told his Okaasan that you were in love with him."

Shock covered Akane's face. She sat still, trying to look at Kasumi out of the corner of her eye. Ranma looked embarrassed himself, and tried not to look at Kasumi.

***

"Whatcha do that for!" Ranma glared at Saotome-ojisama.

Ojisama lowered the kettle. "You can stop now. The Okaasan knows everything, Ranma, my boy."

"What?" Embarrassed (and why wouldn't he be, wearing that pink dress?), Ranma turned and faced Tofu-sensei's Okaasan.

Remarkably, she ignored the background antics and turned to Kasumi. "You must be Kasumi, right? Would you walk with me to the train station?"

A bolt ran through Kasumi. Tofu-sensei's Okaasan approved! "Of course."

"You go on ahead with her, Tofu." Tofu-sensei's Okaasan tried not to look sly.

Tofu-sensei turned in the general direction of Kasumi. "Sorry to be so much trouble to you."

Kasumi felt her legs go a little weak, but she had long practice in appearing unaffected by the things around her. "Oh no, it's no trouble at all, Tofu-sensei."

Without another word, he took off down the street, his Otoosan's shrine on his back.

"Sensei!" Akane had behaved remarkably well during the whole ordeal, and Kasumi was grateful for her help. Akane pointed down the street. "The station's that way."

"Oh!" He looked around and started laughing. "You're right!" He turned and started running the other way.

Kasumi couldn't help laughing also. He slowed to a walk as she joined him. His Okaasan remained behind, talking to Akane.

Tofu-sensei was still laughing. "Okaasan, when did you get so tall?"

Kasumi giggled. "It's me, Sensei. It's Kasumi."

"Oh! Kasumi." The silly smile that always seemed to cover his face grew wider. Kasumi could remember when he first opened his practice. He had behaved more or less normally. As she had grown older, the silly smile had appeared and had grown wider with the passing of time. Now that they had the approval of his Okaasan, it was the widest she had ever seen it.

She turned her head to consider him. His eyes had that glazed, unfocussed look they always had around her. His tall, strong body didn't seem to be straining under the burden of the shrine. She felt her breathing quicken just a little. She fought to control it, and found that she wasn't particularly inclined to control her reactions to him.

But there were other considerations. She reached out and put her hand on his arm, stopping him. They stood and faced each other.

"Tofu-sensei." The words were very hard to say. She clasped her hands in front of her. His eyes slowly started to focus on her eyes.

"Tofu." That sounded better on her lips. "You know how much my family means to me?"

He blinked a couple of times. "Of course I do. You have wonderful sisters, and that Ranma fellow is-"

"They need me. Ranma and Akane need to get married. Nabiki needs to finish high school and find a good college. Otoosan...Otoosan isn't quite ready to be on his own."

Tofu-sensei was silent for a moment, his face sober for a change. In the distance, his Okaasan could be heard yelling "Hey! Tofu! Are you trying to leave me behind?"

He and Kasumi continued to stare into each other's eyes. Spurred on by the sound of his Okaasan's footsteps, he nodded. "I understand."

Kasumi wanted to touch his face, to put the smile back on it. Instead, she whispered softly, "Someday. I promise."

The silly smile returned in full force, and Kasumi's spirit rose with it.

His Okaasan joined them. "Let's get going, you two, I don't want to miss my train."

"Of course, Ranma, let's go!" Tofu-sensei started to walk back towards the Tendo home.

His Okaasan sighed, but looked affectionately after him. "He really likes you, my dear."

Kasumi's eyes shone brightly. "I know."

Tofu-sensei's Okaasan regarded her for a moment, smiled, then yelled down the street. "Come back here, Tofu! It's the other way!"

***

Akane glared at Ranma, then leaned over to him in an unsuccesful attempt to keep herself from being heard. "Shut up, you dolt!"

Ranma shooed Akane away. "All right, all right, I understand. But I tell you I feel fine. I don't need no medicine or stuff."

Akane's hand clenched into a fist. "I'm only worried about you, you jerk!"

Kasumi sighed. Even after all this time, Akane often couldn't express her feelings of affection without adding some hostility. Not that Ranma was helping. If they were going to be able to settle the differences between them and their suitors, they would need to learn to not fight with each other so often.

Kasumi went into the kitchen and came out with the cookies she had prepared.

In her absence, Ranma and Akane had risen to their feet, yelling into each other's faces. The rest of the family was watching with varying degrees of interest. Nabiki, looking faintly bored, looked up at Kasumi. Her eyes gleamed a little at the sight of the bundle of cookies; she knew who they were for.

"Akane-chan? Ranma-kun?" They stopped and turned to look at her, the anger draining from their faces. "Would you take this over to Tofu-sensei?"

Both of their faces brightened, obviously glad that they hadn't offended Kasumi in any way. They both really liked Tofu-sensei, and understood what he meant to her. Akane took the bundle from Kasumi. "Sure, Oneechan! He'll be glad to get them."

Kasumi's spirit did a quick rise and fall. "I know." She walked past them, out onto the porch, looking at the pond. The sun was at just the right angle to cause the pond to sparkle brightly. In her mind, the sparkles formed the face of Tofu.

Please be patient, beloved, she thought to herself. I'm making progress here. Soon Akane and Ranma will be ready to take my place here. They'll take care of Otoosan. Nabiki will go to college and make for herself a place in this world that will be the pride of the family. Then there will be time for you and me.

She turned around and started. "Oh my!" The whole family was watching her. Saotome-ojisama, returned to human form, a slight smile plying his face. Otoosan, his lips trembling through his smile, tears threatening to stream down his face. Nabiki, the glint in her eyes brighter, her smile full of affection. Akane, hugging the bundle, smiling broadly. Ranma, standing just over Akane's shoulder, his grin just as broad.

"Oh my," she said again, softly, tremulously. "You two had better get going; I'll have dinner ready when you get back."

"You always do," Ranma said, with affection she had never heard from him before. Lightly he put his hand on Akane's shoulder. "Let's go, Akane."

Akane's eyes glistened. "Okay." She leaned back into Ranma. Only for a moment; then she moved away, he let his hand fall, and together they walked for the door.

As Kasumi entered the kitchen and began the ritual of the apron, she reflected on her life. Bad things had happened, to her and her family. Sacrifices had had to be made by everyone. Their lives were in constant turmoil. Yet, she felt she had done good. Underneath the turmoil, the fighting, the struggle to survive from one month to the next, they loved each other. The knew when they needed each other the most, and were there to provide support. Kasumi was proud of her family.

Okaasan was proud of the family, too.

Kasumi paused while drying her hands. Where had that thought come from? She looked around the kitchen, as if she expected to find Okaasan there.

Perhaps, Kasumi thought, staring at the empty kitchen, she *is* here.

Smiling, she started to make dinner for her family.

~*~

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