Part VIII - Decisions

---

"Bakusai Tenketsu!"

The rock exploded in front of Ryoga, to reveal more rock behind. Ryoga stopped to wipe his brow; he'd been at this for hours now. He was going to hit the surface eventually, he knew. He just hoped it was somewhere that looked familiar.

It didn't help that he had a huge statue strapped to his back. He leaned back and let it rest on the ground. It was a statue of a big, silly-looking bear, banging on a big drum. Ryoga had mixed feelings about the statue. It was a present for Akane. Or maybe it was for Akari. He didn't know who it was for. He had a lot to work out in his mind. For now, the statue remained on his back.

He lifted it up again and stepped forward. He focused on the rock in front of him, looking at the way it was shaped, finding the flows in the rock that would tell him its breaking point. "Bakusai Tenketsu!"

This time, the exploding rock revealed daylight. Ryoga sighed, then reached around and turned off the lantern strapped to his backpack. He widened the opening a little, then stepped out.

He was in the middle of a street. Some people were looking at him strangely, but he was used to it. He looked around, hoping to find some place familiar. The restaurant across the street looked familiar, but it was named "Ukyo's". Obviously not "Ucchan's", which was too bad. He could usually get a free okonomiyaki or two out of Ukyo.

He sighed again heavily. "Where am I?" he said to the open air. What was usually best in these situations, he had discovered, was to just start walking and not actually try to get anywhere. That would usually get him someplace he knew. As often as not, it was the Tendo Dojo.

Ryoga wandered down the street, lost in pleasant anticipation of spending the night with Akane again.

***

"Kasumi, where's the damn shampoo? I can't find any in the bathroom."

Kasumi frowned slightly as she turned to find Nabiki dressed in nothing but a towel. "Nabiki, there's no reason to use that kind of language."

Nabiki's scowl deepened. Inside, Kasumi was a little amused. Tonight was Nabiki's prom, and she had been on a rampage all day preparing for it. Kasumi had already seen her tear into Ranma over some little thing, and since then, the rest of the family had steered clear. Kasumi was hoping she'd calm down, as people usually did when talking to Kasumi. She gave Nabiki a vacant smile, her specialty. No one could resist it.

Nabiki, though, had been experiencing it the longest. "Don't give me that stupid look, Kasumi. I know there's more going on in that pretty little head of yours than you let on. If you'll just tell me where the da-, uh, where the shampoo is, I'll get out of your room."

Kasumi couldn't help but laugh a little. She should know better than to try and fool Nabiki; she was as good an observer of human nature as Kasumi had ever seen. Almost as good as Kasumi herself, although she'd never let Nabiki know that. "I had to do some shopping today. Akane said she would put away the groceries, so I imagine she'll bring it up the next time she comes upstairs."

Nabiki whirled and ran out into the hallway. Kasumi could hear her shout angrily "Akane!".

Kasumi smiled and went out into the hallway herself. She watched as Akane and Nabiki growled at each other from the stairs for a minute, which ended with a bottle of shampoo being thrown up the stairs at Nabiki, who deftly caught it. She twirled, almost losing her towel in the process. She quickly readjusted it.

"Nabiki, would you like some help with your makeup later?" Kasumi was the house expert on deftly applying minimal makeup to best highlight natural beauty.

To her surprise, Nabiki looked almost guilty and shook her head. "Er, no thanks, Kasumi, Akane will be helping me with that."

Kasumi blinked her eyes. "Oh my." She didn't know what to make of that. Akane was good at makeup herself - one of the few things she didn't overdo - but not as good as Kasumi. She wondered what Nabiki was up to.

Nabiki looked at her, then reached over and took Kasumi's hand. "If you really want to help me, keep Daddy off me when I leave. He'll just want to hug me and slobber all over me and it'll ruin everything." She looked at Kasumi, imploring her. "Please, older sister? You're ever so good at managing Father."

As it happened, Kasumi had already planned some diversionary tactics; she remembered her prom all too well. "Of course, Nabiki. Don't worry about Father."

Nabiki smiled brightly. "Thanks, Kasumi!" She turned and ran down the hallway into the bathroom.

Kasumi smiled and descended the stairs. Nabiki was trying so hard. Kasumi hoped she remembered to have a good time.

She stepped into the kitchen and was surprised to find Auntie Saotome already there, preparing tea. "Oh, no, you mustn't do that, Auntie! Please, let me."

Auntie smiled at her. "Nonsense. I'm perfectly comfortable serving tea to my husband and your father, and you've plenty of other things to do."

"Yes, Auntie." Kasumi began her apron ritual. This time, it brought back strong memories of her mother, probably helped by Auntie's presence in the kitchen. Auntie was really becoming more and more like a mother to the Tendo house. She helped out so much, Kasumi wondered if she shouldn't go to the Saotome home and help maintain it. She had mentioned it once, but Auntie had laughingly refused.

"There is so little to do there, Kasumi," Auntie had replied. "It has been so long since I've had to keep house for a family, I'd forgotten how pleasant it was. I am greatly indebted to you for allowing me to remember what it is like to be a mother again." And she had bowed to a blushing Kasumi.

Kasumi was quite protective of her family, but had admitted to herself that Auntie could do just as good a job running the Tendo home as Kasumi could. For some reason, that relieved her tremendously. She thought she would be jealous; instead, it lessened her burden somehow.

Nabiki was going to college. She had the money she needed, and she had already started making some contacts with businesses who might want to hire her after college. She had also found a good place to live. All in all, Nabiki was doing a wonderful job of establishing an independent life for herself.

Akane and Ranma's relationship was proceeding by leaps and bounds. Akane now wore an engagement ring, and she blushed furiously anytime someone mentioned it. She had already endured a few weeks worth of good-natured teasing by her classmates.

Ranma himself seemed embarrassed by the whole thing as well. Kasumi knew, though, that this was a good thing for him. He had done a good job of hiding his feelings of affection for Akane; the ring was a constant reminder to him and the rest of the world that those feelings weren't so hidden anymore. Ranma himself had changed in the past few weeks. He seemed more considerate, less rushed, and almost respectful. Very much like a young man.

Kasumi would have preferred that they not get married so young, but her father, Uncle Saotome and especially Auntie Saotome were very eager to have the wedding as soon as possible. Kasumi couldn't disagree with them publicly, but privately she'd have liked to seen Akane graduate first. Being a wife and a high school student would be very tough. At least Kasumi and Auntie Saotome would be there to help.

Nabiki in college. Akane getting married. Auntie helping take care of Father. These thoughts kept running around in Kasumi's head.

"Kasumi?"

Kasumi looked over at Auntie. "Hmm?"

"You've been drying your hands for five minutes now. Is there something on your mind?"

Kasumi looked down at her hands, realizing that she had been very lost in thought for a long time. "Oh my!" She took her hands and patted them on her apron absently. She didn't know what to say.

Auntie smiled, and poured two cups from the tea she had prepared. "The men can wait. Let's drink some tea and talk, eh, Kasumi?"

"Okay." She walked over, took a cup, and sipped it eagerly. Its warmth ran down her throat and soothed her. "This is very good, Auntie."

"Please call me Nodoka." She looked amused over the cup she was bringing to her lips. "What is it that has you lost so much in dreams?"

Kasumi blushed a little. "Oh, I was thinking of how wonderful it was that Nabiki was graduating, and Akane was getting married, and-"

"Now, Kasumi, I remember when I was your age; it was not thoughts like those that had me staring dreamily at nothing." Nodoka's eyes twinkled. "Who is he?"

Kasumi's blush deepened; she brought the tea cup to her lips and put her face over it, trying to gain time to think. It didn't help; she lowered the cup and looked at Nodoka, who was smiling sympathetically at her.

Kasumi ran her finger around the lip of the tea cup. "Well, there's this sensei who runs a clinic not to far away from here..."

"What is his name?"

"Tofu. Ono Tofu." Just saying his name sent tingles up her spine.

"Does he love you, Kasumi?"

Kasumi swallowed and nodded. "He's - when I'm around him he acts so... irrationally." She smiled at some of the memories. "Akane tells me that his patients flee when they hear that I'm coming over, for fear of what Tofu will do to them when he is in such a frame of mind."

Nodoka nodded. "That sounds like love to me. But why have I not met this man?"

Kasumi looked down. "I told him my family needed me too much. They depended on me for so much; I couldn't leave them. He understood."

Nodoka smiled. "A noble sacrifice you both made. And now, as you say, Nabiki is going to college, and Akane is getting married, and I am here to help with the house. Does it seem like you are not as needed here as you used to be?"

Kasumi frowned. "That sounds selfish of me, doesn't it?"

Nodoka laughed. "Not at all. You have done so much to keep the spirits of your family thriving happily. There does come a point, Kasumi, where you must attend to your own spirit, or it withers. Your family will always welcome your help, but they will be much happier knowing that you have found peace and love for yourself."

Kasumi considered the words for a long time. Slowly, she felt the weight of a lifetime of responsibility being lifted from her. Too long had the needs of her family come before her personal needs. She had been a good daughter, and had performed the duties her mother had asked her to assume when she had fallen deathly ill. Now, it was nearly time for her to let her family go its own way. She had her own household to establish.

She smiled, a good, wide smile. Her cheerful nature came through, and this time it wasn't being used to cheer anyone up, or to deflect their anger, or to comfort them during their troubles. Rather, it simply reflected how happy she herself was. "Thank you, Nodoka. I think I am going to prepare the dojo for a tea ceremony tonight. May I ask you to make dinner? Oh, and please come get me when Tatewaki arrives; I'll need to be there."

"Of course, Kasumi." Nodoka went over and gave her a hug. "I hope he knows how fortunate he is. I know how lucky my son has been to have you be there for him when I couldn't be." Nodoka stepped back, her smile warm and affectionate and understanding.

Smiling in return, Kasumi turned and went outside to begin the preparations.

***

Ranma sat glumly on the roof. He'd been hoping to spend some time with Akane today. However, Akane and Nabiki had been spending the day getting ready for Nabiki's prom. They had both been quite irritable, and when they weren't snapping at everyone around them, they were yelling at each other. Ranma had tasted their anger and found it not to his liking. Best to stay here and out of trouble.

He looked to see Kasumi cleaning the courtyard. This surprised him; this was something Uncle Tendo usually did. Ranma leaped down to the ground and ran up to Kasumi, who seemed intent on removing every loose twig in the yard. "Hey, let me help."

Kasumi looked up. She had her hair tied up in a loose bun. She was grimy, dirty, and sweating. She was also wearing a big, silly smile. The whole effect was unsettling; he had never seen Kasumi this way before and didn't know what to make of it.

"Thank you, Ranma-kun, but I must do this by myself." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small scroll. "However, it would be very helpful if you could deliver this to Tofu-sensei for me."

Ranma took the scroll and looked at it curiously. "What is it?"

"Now, Ranma, it's not polite to ask such questions." She bent back down to the grass, humming softly to herself.

Ranma stared at her a moment. What was she up to? He shrugged; delivering the scroll would at least get him out of the house where everyone was behaving so irrationally.

He leapt over the wall and ran to Tofu-sensei's clinic. Maybe he'd find some answers there.

He burst through the door of the clinic, almost running into a guy who was leaving. There were three patients sitting in the waiting area, while Tofu-sensei was making some notes on a clipboard he was holding.

Tofu-sensei looked up. "Hello Ranma! What brings you here? Is Akane okay?"

"She's fine, sensei." Akane's limp was gone and all her bandages removed. Her scar was everything Tofu-sensei had promised: nearly invisible, unless you got close and knew where to look.

Ranma held out the scroll he was carrying. "Kasumi sent me over here to give you this."

There was a scraping of chairs. Ranma looked to see the patients bumping into one another in their haste to leave the clinic.

Tofu-sensei didn't notice; instead, his eyes lost focus and his face grew a big silly smile. Very similar, Ranma was startled to notice, to the smile Kasumi had been wearing on her face. Tofu-sensei took the scroll from Ranma, broke the seal, and opened it.

He seemed to be having difficulty reading it. When he finished, he turned towards the skeleton hanging on the wall. "Look, Betty-chan! Kasumi has invited me over for tea tonight, isn't that nice?" He dropped the scroll, picked up the skeleton, and began dancing with it.

Ranma looked on in bewilderment. He was also slightly disgusted with himself; had he really expected to find rationality here? He shrugged his shoulders, turned, and left the clinic.

***

Ryoga struggled around the corner. He was finally beginning to wear out. Carrying the heavy statue, tunneling, and then wandering for hours were taking huge tolls on his tremendous reserves of stamina. He was no closer to finding Akane or Akari, and no closer to deciding what to do with the gift.

He looked ahead of himself and blinked. There was a guy walking on the fence some distance ahead. Only one person that could be. Ryoga shifted the weight on his shoulders and moved quickly after Ranma.

Fortunately, Ranma didn't seem to be in a hurry, so Ryoga was able to keep him in sight. Finally, Ranma hopped down, walked half a block down the street, and entered a building.

Ryoga moved forward to confirm that it was the Tendo Dojo. He relaxed; one major goal accomplished. Now he needed to make some decisions. He moved around the house to the back alley. He set the statue down and sat opposite it, trying to think. He had to get this right.

Akane. Akari. The statue.

And Ranma, too.

***

Kuno Tatewaki watched as the driver pulled back on the reins. The horses clattered to a halt. The driver jumped down, opened up the carriage door, and put a step next to the door. Tatewaki stood slowly up, gathered the corsage from where it rested on the seat beside him, stepped carefully from the carriage, and approached the Tendo home.

He stopped to check his outfit. He had his finest samurai garb on. His shirt was in the style of kendo-gi, white with three-quarter length sleeves, although it was made of silk instead of the usual cotton. His hakama, which resembled a pleated, divided skirt, was dark blue and almost glistened in the dark. He had his katana thrust through his belt; he didn't intend on drawing it tonight, but it felt right. After his mother's death, he had stopped wearing his short tanto blade.

Satisfied with his appearance, he knocked on the door. It wasn't long before a woman opened the door. He blinked; he didn't know who she was. She had wide, friendly eyes, a beautiful smile, and reddish-black hair. She looked vaguely familiar, and with a start he realized she reminded him of the pig-tailed girl.

That was Ranma, he had to remind himself. When he had first met Ranma as a woman, he had become so obsessed with her, that he had ignored the obvious signs that the pig-tailed girl and Ranma were one and the same. It became harder and harder to ignore the signs, to feign obviousness whenever he and Ranma fell into some water (which happened a surprising number of times). His obsessions were capable of warping everything he saw, and had threatened to become full-blown madness.

Then Nabiki had begun spending lunch with him, sharing good food, quiet conversation and pleasant company. She soothed the raging fires which sometimes threatened to claim him. She also had a keen eye for human nature, and would see things in him and other people that he thought well-hidden. Her influence had begun eating away at the barriers he had erected within himself, until he finally could acknowledge to himself who the pig-tailed girl really was.

The woman in front of him now, he realized, had to be Ranma's mother. Nabiki had told him how she had been spending a lot of time with the family recently. He bowed to her. "Saotome Nodoka-sama, it is good to make your acquaintance. Perchance, is Tendo Nabiki-san available to accompany me this evening?"

Her smile widened. She held the door open for him. "Come in, Tatewaki-san. Nabiki will be down in a minute. Please wait here and I will go fetch her." She waited until he came inside, then quickly climbed the stairs.

Tatewaki stood, slightly impatient but not allowing it to show. He gazed at the top of the stairs, waiting for Nabiki.

"Hey, Kuno-sempai, way cool clothes. Waiting for an invasion fleet to appear so's you can hack 'em to bits?"

Tatewaki glanced over at Ranma, who was leaning against the wall, appraising him. It would be so pleasant to draw his katana and have at Ranma. Tatewaki knew, thought, that two things would happen: he'd ruin the good mood he was in right now, and Ranma would likely throw him against the wall, ruining his outfit. Fortunately, he knew how to get under Ranma's skin - something he had learned from Nabiki.

"Ah, Ranma-san. 'Tis good to see you. I understand you professed your love to Akane. How good that you can so easily display your emotions for the whole world to see, and comment on. It has been much the topic of discussion in our class, I know. I salute you on your forthright behavior."

As had hoped, Ranma started turning red, both from anger and embarrassment. Ranma clenched his teeth, but Tatewaki had carefully phrased his words so that Ranma could find no insult in them. Ranma glared at Tatewaki, but couldn't find anything to say back. Tatewaki adopted a superior, amused expression guaranteed to further drive Ranma crazy. Mentally, he thanked Nabiki for her observations. There were more ways to get to Ranma than by futile physical attacks.

"Tatewaki-kun, are you here to take my baby away! Let me look at you!" Tatewaki barely had time to brace himself before Nabiki's father had grabbed his shoulders and given him a good shake. "Oh, you're so handsome, my Nabiki is lucky to have you!" He looked to be on the verge of tears.

Tatewaki looked around, hoping for a rescue. All he saw was Ranma smirking at him; no help there.

Fortunately, rescue was not long in coming. Kasumi practically threw herself down the stairs. She was wearing a bathrobe and slippers, and her hair was loose and flying around. Tatewaki wondered what she was up to. She was also carrying a camera.

"Father!" She ran up to him, almost shoving herself in front of Tatewaki. "Here's the camera, you want to take some pictures don't you?"

He looked a little confused. "Er, I suppose I do." He looked down at the camera. "Does it have film?"

"I don't know, let's check." Kasumi turned the camera around in her hands, and soon she and her father were engrossed in its details.

Tatewaki was thankful; his shoulders hurt. He rotated his arms in their sockets, looked up at the top of the stairs, and froze.

Nabiki stood there, her face carefully neutral. She had a pink and white dress on, the skirts long and flowing, with subtle sparkles interlaced throughout. The dress had no shoulders, and revealed a great deal of her bosom. All of the flesh that was showing had been treated, somehow, to give her skin a creamy white, almost translucent look.

She descended the staircase as the rest of the family stared, flabbergasted. Even Kasumi appeared stunned. Nabiki was wearing shoes with medium-height heels; they gave her movements a graceful look. She stopped before Tatewaki, gave him a western-style curtsey, and smiled at him.

Tatewaki just stared at her. She was beautiful. He had been attracted to her for her intelligence and her forthright nature. But he had never suspected that such a stunning creature remained hidden behind the school uniform. She had found a way to emphasize every attractive feature, from her fine face to her small waist to her beautiful breasts.

Tatewaki blushed at the direction his thoughts were going; they seemed unworthy of a true samurai. Hastily he offered her the corsage. "This orchid cannot possibly hope to match your beauty, Tendo Nabiki-san, but I hope that it can highlight that beauty and offer a reminder of how far us mortals have to go to match perfection such as yours." He bowed deeply.

"N-Nabiki you l-look so..." Nabiki's father trailed off. "So grown up!" He looked to be near tears again; he started moving towards her. "Oh, if only your mother-"

"Father," Kasumi smoothly interrupted, once again thrusting herself between him and the target of his exuberance, "let's take some pictures now."

He seemed to realize that he was carrying the camera. He stepped back as Nabiki turned so that she and Tatewaki were standing next to each other. Her father shouted out instructions to position them, then took two pictures. He frowned as the camera beeped at him.

"Look, Father," Kasumi pointed at an indicator on the camera. "It's out of film. Let's see, how do we rewind it?" As her father looked down at the camera, Kasumi shot a glance at Nabiki.

Nabiki grabbed Tatewaki's arm. "Let's go." She pulled him to the doorway. "Bye everyone, don't wait up."

"Bye Nabiki," Akane shouted from the top of the stairs, an affectionate smile on her face. "Have fun!"

Tatewaki struggled to clear his mind as they went outside, but it was full of the vision of Nabiki. He couldn't take his eyes off her. She noticed, and smiled wryly. "C'mon, Kuno-baby, wipe that drool off your face and let's get where we're going." She looked at the horse-drawn carriage. "Tatewaki-kun, how many times do I have to remind you of what century we're living in?" Nevertheless, she looked impressed.

Tatewaki stepped into the carriage and helped pull her into it. As they sat down and the carriage got underway, she grasped his hand and their fingers intertwined. Kuno, staring at their hands, decided that no matter what happened to him later in life, nothing would match the pure magic of this moment.

He looked into Nabiki's eyes, and thanked fate for putting her in his life.

***

Tofu approached the door to the Tendo residence, his heart racing. It had been so long since he had been invited here, he had begun to doubt that we would ever be welcome. The formal invitation, written by Kasumi in her graceful style, had started his blood racing. He had stumbled around in a daze for hours, before realizing that he needed to get dressed or he would be late.

He stood in front of the door, scared witless. He remembered seeing Kasumi for the first time. She had been fifteen. Her mother had died recently, and she had taken on the burden of running the household. At first, he had admired her courage and tenacity. He had watched her bring her sisters in, the love she shared with them. He had watched as she left the awkwardness of adolescence behind her and became a beautiful young woman. And suddenly, he couldn't stop watching her. Her image filled his mind all hours of the day. The ironic thing was, when she actually appeared, the sight of her was too painful to bear. He'd actually had to gaze beyond her, lose his focus, so that her beauty wouldn't blind him. At least, that was how he saw it.

Tofu had been astounded to slowly discover that she liked him too. But the food she kept sending him, her continuous visits to borrow books and other things, the way she smiled at him, left Tofu with no other conclusion to draw. Then had come the day, during a visit from his mother, that Kasumi had set some limits: as long as she was needed by her family, she could not be with him. That had hurt, a lot, but she had softened the blow with the words: "Someday. I promise."

He wondered if the day had come.

Before he could gather the courage to knock, the door was flung open. Akane stood there, staring at him in surprise. "Sensei!" She beamed at him. "Kasumi is waiting for you in the dojo."

He looked behind her. It looked as if most of the family was getting ready to leave. "Aren't you coming to the tea ceremony?"

Akane's grin widened. "No, Sensei, it's just you and Kasumi. We're all going to a movie." She walked out the door, closely followed by Ranma, who clasped his arm in passing. Genma and Nodoka stood on either side of Soun, who looked as if he wanted to talk with Tofu but couldn't break away.

Akane turned back to him. "Go ahead inside. We won't be back for a couple of hours." She smiled, turned, grabbed Ranma's offered hand, and together with their parents, walked off down the road.

Tofu entered the house. He wasn't too familiar with the layout, but easily found the door to the back courtyard. Opening it, he looked around. The courtyard was immaculate. It was as if each blade of glass had been straightened. There was no debris, and the rocks looked as if they had been scrubbed clean. The surface of the pond was smooth and tranquil. He stood and admired the beauty of the scene. It was quite peaceful.

He approached the dojo door. He took out his fan and kneeled. He put the fan in front of him and opened the sliding door. Putting his hands on the tatami mat inside, he looked around.

Kasumi was sitting in the center of the room, the implements of the tea ceremony in front of her. She was wearing a kimono, and she had her hair tied up on her head. She gazed at the far wall, not acknowledging him for the moment, her expression neutral. He couldn't help but gasp; she was more beautiful than he had ever seen her before. As she heard his gasp, he saw her smile briefly.

Gulping, he put his fan in front of him in the room, then pulled himself, still on his knees, into the room. He picked up his fan, stood, and walked over to the small display on one side of the room. He put his fan down again, bowed, and examined the display. A scroll was attached to the wall, displaying the symbols for harmony, respect, purity, and tranquillity. There was a very pretty arrangement of flowers was set on a table in front of the banner, and Tofu admired them for a while.

He bowed again, rose, crossed the mats in a specific manner to kneel a small distance away from Kasumi and the tea kettle.

Kasumi finally acknowledged him with a bow. She picked up a silk cloth, folded it in a special way, and symbolically wiped the tea caddy with it. She unfolded and refolded the cloth, then repeated the process with the tea scoop.

She then removed the whisk from the tea bowl and set it on its end. She took the small wiping cloth out of the tea bowl. She then picked up the kettle, holding the cloth over the lid and pouring the hot water into the tea bowl. She picked up the whisk and symbolically cleaned it and the tea bowl. When this was done, Kasumi whisked the water, picked up the bowl with her left hand, transferred it to her right hand, and emptied the water into a water bowl. She replaced the tea bowl with her right hand.

Kasumi next picked up the tea scoop and the tea caddy. She opened the tea caddy and scooped some tea out of the caddy and into the tea bowl. She then put the lid back on the tea caddy and replaced it, along with the tea scoop.

She repeated the ritual of filling the tea bowl with hot water. Holding the side of the bowl with her left hand, she took the whisk and whisked the tea, quickly but gently. When it was frothy, she made one last circular motion with the whisk before setting it aside.

Kasumi picked up the bowl and turned it twice, clockwise, until its front faced Tofu. She then placed the bowl on her right near him.

Tofu blinked. He had been so entranced by her graceful movements, her elegant preparations, and the sheer beauty of Kasumi and the ceremony that he had nearly forgotten he had a role to play himself.

Tofu bowed to Kasumi. "Thank you for the tea." He took the tea bowl with his right hand and placed it in his left palm. He steadied it with his right hand.

Nodding his head to Kasumi, he turned the tea bowl twice so that its front was facing away from him. He drank all of the tea in the bowl, then wiped the place where his lips had touched the bowl with his thumb and index finger. He turned the bowl so that its front faced him again.

He placed it in front of him and went through the ritual of admiring the bowl before returning it to Kasumi.

Kasumi went through another long process of ritually cleaning the implements of the tea ceremony. Tofu stopped paying attention to the details, instead watching Kasumi. Her face was serious and serene. Her eyes were focused on what she was doing, never glancing his way. It was all so peaceful. Tofu realized he could spend hours just watching her and never be bored.

Finally, she reached the part of the ceremony where she was to begin taking the implements out of the room. Instead, in a slight violation of the ceremony, Kasumi put her hands on her thighs and looked over at Tofu.

Kasumi smiled, and the warmth that showed in her eyes made Tofu tingle all over. "It is good to see you, Tofu-san."

Tofu found his head remarkably clear. The tea ceremony had both focused his mind and relaxed him, as Kasumi had no doubt intended. He smiled back at her. "I am, as always, overjoyed to see you, Kasumi. You have produced a beautiful ceremony."

Kasumi bowed her head. "I am not worthy, but I thank you."

Tofu raised his eyebrows. "Don't ever say that, Kasumi. You are worthy of... of..." he faltered, unsure how to finish. "...of everything." He finished lamely.

Kasumi raised one of her eyebrows. "Am I worthy of you, Tofu-san?"

Tofu rocked back on his heels. "You... worthy of me? Kasumi!" He trembled slightly. "Quite the opposite. It is my humblest hope to be worthy of you someday." He bowed to her.

He heard a quick rustle of cloth. Straightening, he found Kasumi had risen and moved closer to him. She knelt in front of him, her knees almost touching his, a very serious look on her face.

"Let us not speak of worthiness again, Tofu-san." She took his hand. "Tofu, my family no longer holds me here. I am free to choose other opportunities."

Tofu looked at her. She stared back at him, her face calm, her eyes searching his. He looked down at her hand, clutching his. He remembered all the good things he had seen her do, remembered how warm he felt inside whenever he saw her. He loved her with every fiber of his being.

And it appeared that Kasumi loved him as well. That was the most incredible thing of all.

He took her hand with his other hand. "Kasumi, I think I can offer you something. I just... you really would... accept an offer from me?"

Kasumi smiled tenderly. She took her free hand and touched his cheek. "Oh, Tofu...."

They looked at each other for a while longer. Tofu wasn't sure if he started leaning towards her before she started leaning towards him. Perhaps they moved together. No matter. They kissed for a long time. Tofu felt the daze descending on him again, but he didn't care, as long as it went on for the rest of his life.

***

Ryoga suddenly realized it was dark. He looked up from the statue, still undecided. He heard voices coming from the Tendo home. Quite clearly, he heard Akane call, "Good night, Auntie!".

Akane. Getting ready to go to bed.

Ryoga struggled with himself. What about Akari? Could he really go to bed with Akane and stay faithful to Akari? Could he continue to date Akari and stay faithful to Akane? It was all so confusing.

In such instances, he usually just gave up thinking and went with his instincts. He jumped up, found a conveniently large puddle, and splashed himself liberally.

***

Ranma walked into his room with his father. Tonight had been a good night for the Tendo family. Nabiki was evidently having the time of her life. Kasumi had greeted them at the door, a very big silly smile on her face. She had announced that she was now engaged to Tofu-sensei, who had gone home to call his mother.

Ranma smiled, thinking of how Uncle Tendo had carried on and on. Kasumi had tried to control him, but her efforts were marred by her own tears. Fortunately, Mother had been there to help calm everyone.

There was so much that was changing in the Tendo household, it sent Ranma's head spinning. Real life was catching up to the family. It was quite frightening, in a way. Part of him wanted things to stay the same forever.

The sound of a squeal came from the hallway. He heard Akane open her door and cry out in delight, "P-chan!"

Ranma clenched his jaw. Then again, there were some things that needed to change.

Ryoga had been gone for a long time. Ranma had hoped that, with Akari becoming his girlfriend, Ryoga was above these silly games now. Obviously not.

He stalked out of the room and to Akane's door. She was closing it; he put his hand on the door and forced it back open. She turned to him in surprise, Ryoga clutched to her breast. "Ranma, what are you doing?" There was anger in her voice.

Ranma didn't care. He glared at Ryoga, who glared back at him. Ryoga was shamelessly taking advantage of Ranma's promise not to tell Akane about his curse. Ranma decided that it had gone on too long.

He opened his mouth and froze. He couldn't do it, couldn't break his word. Akane was looking at him, her anger somewhat replaced by curiosity over his behavior.

Ranma smiled wickedly. There was more than one way to deal with Ryoga.

He stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. "Akane, isn't it great about Kasumi? Getting engaged and all, I mean."

Akane blinked at him. "Yes it is great. We've already talked about that."

Ranma took Akane's hand, holding her engagement ring in front of Ryoga. "She's engaged; we're engaged. So many Tendo daughters getting married." Ryoga's eyes got very wide as he stared at the ring.

Akane's puzzlement increased. "Ranma, what's your point?"

Ranma was well on his way to proving his point, even if Akane didn't realize it. He stepped closer to her, putting his hands on her face. "The point is, I love you, Akane." He looked at her, willing her to say the words.

She didn't disappoint him. Her face softened, and her voice grew slightly tremulous. "I love you too, Ranma." She reached up with her free hand and brought him down for a kiss, Ryoga between them.

They kissed for a while, but Ranma wasn't really into it. He was waiting for Ryoga to do something. For some reason, the pig was keeping absolutely still.

Ranma eventually broke off the kiss. Akane was smiling tenderly at him, and Ranma would have drunk in the sight of her, but instead he glanced down at Ryoga. Ryoga's eyes were very, very wide. It looked like he would be crying if he were human. He looked back and forth between Ranma and Akane.

Suddenly, with a convulsive movement, Ryoga squirmed out of Akane's arm and fell to the floor. He scrambled about for a while, then jumped out the window.

Akane looked after him with alarm. "What's the matter with P-chan?"

Ranma went to the window and looked outside. He didn't see Ryoga.

Sorry, buddy, he thought to himself. I hated to do that to you, but I can't let you take advantage of Akane any more.

He turned back to Akane and, for the first time, realized how cute she looked in her nightgown. He smiled, and decided that he wanted to go back to the kissing. Akane cooperated willingly.

***

Ryoga ran through the streets blindly. He didn't know where he was and didn't care. Akane... and Ranma. Akane loved Ranma. She had said it. Akane was engaged, wore an engagement ring. Akane loved Ranma.

She didn't love Ryoga.

Stop this, the rational part of his mind told him. You knew she didn't love you. You've got Akari, after all. Akari loves you. Stop this.

Ryoga had long experience ignoring the rational side of his mind. He just kept running.

***

Akane was wakened by the sound of horses pulling up to the front door. She looked blearily at her clock: almost five in the morning. She waited until she heard the horses pull away, then opened her door.

Nabiki was walking down the hallway, humming slightly to herself. It was difficult to tell in the darkness, but she looked slightly disheveled.

Akane called out to her softly. "Nabiki, how was the prom?"

Nabiki answered dreamily. "A little disappointing. I understand it gets better, though."

Akane gaped at her. "What?"

Nabiki started. "Uh, it was fine, the prom was fine."

Akane came up to Nabiki, bringing her hands to her mouth. "You didn't!"

Nabiki affected a look of innocence. "What are you talking about, Akane?"

Akane stared at her, scandalized. Then she began to giggle. "Do you have any tips I could use with Ranma?"

Nabiki gasped. Giggling with Akane, she pushed her into the bedroom. She kept the lights off. Nabiki turned her back to Akane. "Help me get this off."

Akane began undoing the clasps. She noticed that some of them had been clasped incorrectly.

"You'd better not tell Kasumi," Akane whispered. "She'll want you to get married tomorrow."

Nabiki stepped out of the dress as it fell around her feet. She grabbed one of her big sleeping shirts and thrust it over her head as she spoke. "Tatewaki would have gone along with it. You should have seen him, after. He carried on about how we should get married right away." She turned to face Akane and giggled again. "You should have heard some of the poetry he spouted."

It was easy to imagine. Akane started laughing, and Nabiki shushed her, trying to control her own laughter.

"What did you tell him, Nabiki?"

Nabiki tossed her head. "I told him I'm not getting married. Ever."

Akane drew a sharp breath. "Do you mean that?"

Nabiki smiled. "No, not really. It's going to be fun fighting him off for a while. After I graduate from college and have a good job, I'll let him wear me down."

Akane looked at her curiously. "Why wait so long?"

Nabiki raised her chin. "I'm going to make a name for myself. Me. Tendo Nabiki. Not Kuno Tatewaki's wife. After I've established myself, he can be known as my husband."

Akane tilted her head. "Will he still want to... you know... do it if he thinks you won't ever get married?"

Nabiki stretched languorously. "I think I can find ways to... persuade him."

Akane began giggling again, and Nabiki soon joined her. They covered their mouths, trying not to wake anyone up. Nabiki ended up laughing into a pillow, tears streaming from her eyes.

Eventually they settled down, Nabiki putting the pillow back on the bed. They sat on the bed together, leaning into each other, their foreheads touching.

There was a silence as they looked at each other. They both felt the weight of the knowledge that moments like these were coming to an end. Events were going to force them farther apart, no matter how much they desired to stay together. They would see each other as often as they could, and they would always love each other, but they would never be this close again.

Finally, Nabiki pushed Akane off her. "Go away, I'm tired beyond belief." She flopped into her bed. "Tell everyone that if anyone tries to wake me before noon, I will double the interest rates on their loans."

Akane giggled and went back to her room. She got into her bed, and wondered what it would be like to have Ranma join her there.

She smiled into the darkness. She had a feeling she'd be finding out soon enough.

~*~

Back to Main