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A Ranma fan fiction story
by Jeffrey Vasquez

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ was created by Takahashi Rumiko, and is licensed to Shogakukan Inc.


  • Fact: Every big thing is made up of a bunch of little things.
  • Probability: Little things, when grouped together just right, tend to come together incredibly fast.
  • Possibility: Little things are often bound by the Cascade Principle; a.k.a. the Butterfly and Hurricane Metaphor.

 

Kasumi Tendo had never really believed in the cosmic wrongness of Mondays. Even after knowing Ranma for almost two full years, she had somehow managed to keep her optimism alive. Sadly, all good things must come to an end in order to make room for even better things.

BOOM!

The house shook, causing dishes to clatter noisily. Water splashed in the sink, and a few cabinet doors banged lightly against the shockwave. This wasn't an unusual occurrence for the eldest Tendo. Normally, she would simply smile and try to put a positive spin on the whole situation. Nothing had been broken yet, and the noise wasn't too bad…

The words sounded so hollow. She sighed heavily as she pulled down a stack of plates.

"Sorry, Mother." Her voice was tired and depressed. She had made a promise long ago, to always look for the good in bad situations — to smile when everyone else frowned, so that peace and hope would prevail.

But there were days, like today, that this tactic just wasn't possible.

No matter what excuse she used, Kasumi just couldn't find the peace that she needed to make it through the daily grind. And it was getting harder and harder to do. The whole weekend had been taxing, and from the looks of things, the new week wasn't shaping up to be any better.

Akane, bless her heart, had tried washing a load of laundry. Half of Ranma's wardrobe had shrunk to ridiculous sizes, and two of Kasumi's favorite blouses were nothing more than rags. She didn't even want to think about the pair of slacks that Nabiki lost. They had been expensive, and no doubt Anake was going to paying for them through the nose.

A part of the eldest Tendo daughter felt sorry for Akane, while a smaller part hoped that the spoiled brat got milked for every last penny. People would have been shocked to hear those thoughts coming from sweet, docile Kasumi; but after her weekend, she felt that she deserved time to vent.

Not that she ever got any…. She shook her head as she pulled some vegetables from the refrigerator.

The laundry incident was only the beginning. Ryouga had destroyed the outer wall, Shampoo had made yet another hole on the south side of the house in her search for Ranma, and then the contractor told her that he was going to raise his rates in spite of the constant business that the Tendos offered him. Ryouga was nowhere to be found, Cologne had promised to reimburse her for the damage with her usual chuckle and wrinkled grin, and the contractor had yet to say how much he was raising his rates.

Then of course there had been the newest fiancée. Who in their right mind could forget her? Kasumi swore that if one more girl even so much as popped up claiming to be Ranma's fiancée, Genma Saotome was going to become a rug for her bedroom! The very idea that a man could be so irresponsible made her blood boil!

As for the new fiancée, Akia Soroban had introduced Ranma to the finer points of Martial Arts Accounting and Bookkeeping. Kasumi could still see the gleam in Nabiki's eyes when she'd heard that one. The good news was that Ranma's interest in math looked promising, and Kasumi had even seen Nabiki practicing in the dojo with Ranma in preparation for a rematch. If nothing else, Ranma's grades would rise, and Nabiki would get more exercise.

Unfortunately, the price that had accompanied Akia's arrival had been steep. Ranma had been blown through Kasumi's window rather violently, and while the damage hadn't been too severe, Kasumi had lost quite a few delicate knick-knacks.

She couldn't blame Ranma. The poor boy had trouble dropping out of the sky right and left — sometimes literally. Yet it hurt to see her collection of vases become yet another casualty to the insanity. Her one sanctuary had been violated, and… and… Kasumi felt her throat start to clench with emotion, and she swallowed reflexively.

She couldn't afford to break down. The weekend had been the worst of it — so bad that it didn't even faze her when she woke this morning and all of her unmentionables were missing.

Deep breath…. Deep cleansing breath. She could handle this; she'd made it through worse… right? She would weather this storm, just like all the rest.

Really. Somehow, she would make it through intact.

BOOM!

Kasumi jumped and screamed as a chair toppled and a pot of boiling water turned over, spilling its contents all over the floor. With her hand over her heart, she sighed and looked out the kitchen window at the small war playing out in the yard.

She smiled at the fact that, for once, Ranma wasn't at the center of the conflict.

Grandfather Happosai cackled madly as he bounced away from the angry crowd of girls. The white blouses of their school uniforms made it apparent that the lecherous martial artist had struck yet again. Kasumi blushed and shook her head in shame.

Yet another reason for the neighborhood to shun her family… and ultimately her.

Oh, to be sure, they never said anything to her face, but Kasumi could easily read the pity in their eyes. And on more than one occasion she had come upon whispered conversations that she was never invited to share. She shook her head sadly, feeling at odds with the absurdity of her thoughts.

"Kasumi-chan…" she whispered softly. "You must really be desperate if you want to be counted among the gossipmongers…" What was she thinking? It would be much more satisfying to find Happosai's stash and burn it than to stand in front of a shop and spread lies about people. She sniffed derisively as she grabbed a potholder from a nearby drawer. She could just imagine Happosai's face as his private collection went up in smoke. Maybe he'd learn a lesson from the ordeal.

Kasumi shook her head. No. The old lecher would blame Ranma, and Kasumi couldn't bring herself to add more to the boy's plate than he already had. She bent down and reached for the toppled pot, only to hiss in pain as the small quilted square of cloth slipped.

Pain ran through Kasumi's delicate fingers as they wrapped around the searing hot metal handle. She bit back her cry of agony, only half crying out, and dropped the pot with a loud CLANG! Instinct took over and she immediately plunged her hand under the cold water flowing from the faucet. Tears welled up at the corners of her eyes, as she wondered what else could possibly go wrong. She held back a rather nasty curse behind finely pursed lips, as the cool water soothed the throbbing burn.

Control. Everything was a matter of control. She had to control her temper, she had to control her environment the best she could… if she didn't, then the chaos would sweep her away, and her family would fall apart.

She bit her lip against the raw ache of her burnt fingers and felt disgusted. She was so tired of being everyone's glue. She was tired of sacrificing. She had dreams too. Her disgust slowly changed to despair.

Who was she kidding? If she didn't make the sacrifices, who would? Her father? Nabiki? That thought alone made her want to laugh. Akane would gladly step up to the challenge, but would end up killing everyone in the first week. Kasumi was the only one capable of doing what needed to be done… so that was what she would do.

BOOM!

Happosai's cackling grew louder, as did his taunts. New voices were added to the mob: Shampoo, Ukyo, Ryouga, Akane…. Kasumi tried to catch the plates as they tumbled from the counter, but she was no Ranma, and it showed. One after another they toppled and shattered on the floor. After her third failed attempt to save the dishware, Kasumi simply let the rest fall. It was the twelfth set, after all… one more and she'd be at lucky thirteen. Happosai and the mob out to lynch him dwindled into the distance, leaving an eerie silence in their wake.

She wanted to cry, but for some reason she could only just stare at the pile of broken plates numbly. It was almost as if she had stepped out of her body, and was feeling everything remotely.

She could hear running feet coming throughout the house, pounding their way from the dojo with a sense of urgency — bordering on panic. Ranma arrived in a huff, with a look of genuine concern on his handsome young face.

Ranma. Ever the hero, bless him.

He was the only one that seemed to truly care. He simply strode forward, ignoring the plates, to inspect Kasumi's hand. He frowned at her tears, and even went so far as to glare out the window in the direction that Happosai's mob had gone.

"You okay?" He asked as he tenderly examined her red and slightly swollen fingers. She hissed at his light touch and bit her lip. She was amazed at how quickly Ranma let go of her hand, and the guilt that showed on his face. He opened his mouth to apologize, but she cut him off with a grateful smile that made him blush and fidget.

He was so adorable when he was flustered! It was little wonder he had so many young women competing for him. She started to turn to get the first-aid kit, when Ranma gently took her wrist in hand halting her. After a moment of examining the burn he looked up at her and smiled worriedly.

"Sorry. Why don't ya sit down?" He motioned to the seat next to the kitchen table, and quickly retrieved the first-aid kit. Kasumi did as he asked; there seemed little else she could do. Ranma had that look in his eyes, the one that wasn't about to take no for an answer. She knew that she could easily shoo him out of the kitchen, but for some reason she didn't. She felt a little ashamed, but it was nice that someone cared enough to take care of her for a change.

She watched him close the cabinet guiltily, yet made no move of protest when his foot scooped up the fallen chair and settled it next to her. She couldn't deny the fact that it was nice to be pampered, and Ranma was such a nice young man…. She found herself smiling at the genuine concern she saw in his eyes as he set the white metal box down on the table.

Ranma blushed under her scrutiny and quickly busied himself with the first-aid kit.

It took him a moment to find the burn cream, which gave Kasumi ample time to study the young man before her. In all the time that he had been here, this was the very first time that they had been truly alone together. At least, alone and in the same room without the influence of some magical concoction or artifact. The thought boggled her.

Could it really be true? Had she neglected him that much?

He'd grown up so much in the short time that he'd been with them; both physically and emotionally, Kasumi noted. A few more years and he was sure to make Akane a wonderful husband. That thought alone made her smile droop a bit. Her baby sister was going to be married before she was. And if things continued as they were, then Kasumi was going to be an old spinster.

She smiled to herself. Maybe I should have taken up the engagement instead….

Kasumi felt a light tingle, as Ranma's fingertip delicately applied the cream to her wound. She suddenly felt oddly uncomfortable, yet, at the same time, pleasantly surprised at the young man's concern. She wondered at the reasons behind it, and came to realize that she knew next to nothing about the boy outside of his favorite dishes. Well, that wasn't exactly true. She knew that he loved his Art, was bored with school, and was terribly shy in spite of his macho façade. But beyond that…?

She wondered if those were his only motivations. Their worlds seldom crossed. She would see him at meals, or when the family would have an outing, and after school briefly. Toss in a smile or two, and a swaggering, "Hey Kasumi-san! How're ya doin'?", and that was the real extent of their relationship. But even in that limited interaction, he seemed attentive to her welfare.

She stared down at his hands and had to smile. How many times had she seen these calloused hands pulverize brick and mortar? How many times had she watched them deliver devastating blows? And yet, here and now, they cupped her hand so carefully. It was as if he was afraid she might break. She shifted her gaze to look at his handsome face.

The way he was biting his lip, the furrowed brow, and the tenseness of his posture… she could almost imagine that he was disarming a bomb or carving fragile crystal instead of tending to her burn. No one had ever cared to treat her so delicately. It was such an odd and wonderful feeling! And dear, sweet, ignorant Ranma had not a clue!

She was seeing him for the first time all over again. But instead of the gender-switching boy she had so carelessly tossed aside, she saw a dynamic, selfless young man with a heart of gold… not to mention a body to die for!

The thoughts made her laugh. Something that she had feared would never happen again. Ranma looked up at her sudden outburst with wide, fearful eyes… and a bit of confusion tossed in for good measure. Kasumi laughed all the more.


Ranma wasn't sure what to make of the situation.

Okay… from the top….

Kasumi got burned, her dishes broke… again, and she had been crying. Dinner was going to be late, and if Akane found out about Kasumi's hand…! He snorted mentally; like he was going to let the Meltdown Queen anywhere near the kitchen tonight!

Add it all up and… well….

Poor Kasumi. She's finally cracked. Ranma shook his head sadly. This seemed to fuel Kasumi's laughter more. So much, in fact, that she was fighting back tears and holding her sides with her good hand.

Ranma wasn't a fool. He could readily admit that he didn't understand women at all. He had long ago given up hope of ever coming to terms with the fairer sex. After all, if having as many fiancées as he did and being cursed to turn into a girl didn't help him understand women — well, it was definitely a lost cause.

Best to just go with the flow, and let them have their moments. It hurt less that way.

He let Kasumi wind down, smiling and hoping for all that he was worth that she was still sane. If she lost it, then Ranma knew that he was doomed. The thought chilled him as he watched Kasumi giggle.

He was glad that she seemed so happy, especially after he had trashed her room. Guilt and remorse welled inside of him, not so much at all her vases being broken, but because he had made her sad. That look alone would haunt him for the rest of his days.

A new bout of laughter surged through Kasumi, drawing Ranma from his guilt and coaxing a smile to his lips. Man, her laughter made him feel warm inside! He caught himself chuckling with her for a few moments.

"Oh my!" giggle "That felt wonderful!" Kasumi sighed, wiping away a tear. "I haven't laughed like that since…" When was the last time she had laughed like that?

Ranma frowned slightly, and absently handed her a napkin as he lifted her hand again. He tried his best not to think about what she had just said, but her words seemed to burrow deep into his heart. Focus on the now. He had to focus on the now. Worry about what she said later.

"Glad to hear it,"he said, carefully picking up where he left off. Kasumi giggled a few more times, causing Ranma's mind to wander. He cast back into the dusty confines of his memory, looking for a time when Kasumi had really laughed in his presence, or at all, for that matter… and found nothing. He frowned and tried to ignore the wrongness of that fact.

Yet, as much as he tried to ignore the truth of his discovery, he couldn't escape it. It just wasn't right. She was the nicest person that he knew, and he couldn't remember the last time that she'd really been happy about something.

Content? Yes.

Happy? No.

He looked up at her serene face as she watched him work and winced. She had such a beautiful smile, one that lit up a room when she walked into it. With that smile alone, she had made heartache disappear and soothed many a raging beast. And what had he done to keep her smiling?

More memories started coming to the forefront then, and Ranma started to realize just how much like his father he had become: a freeloading, no good, selfish jerk. This woman had made a place for him in her home, and he hadn't even said thank you. He felt absolutely rotten.

Kasumi shifted slightly causing Ranma to look up.

"You don't have to do this, Ranma-kun,"she said quietly. "I can finish up just fine."

He shrugged awkwardly and went back to his work.

"How long have you been takin' care of me?"he asked with a chuckle. "I figure that it's time someone took care of you…"he trailed off, looking guiltily around at the decimated kitchen. Something needed to be done, something to make her smile and laugh, something to make her really happy. A smile slowly started to grow on his face, as the plans started coming together.

Kasumi blushed awkwardly, and her heart started to beat wildly. It was as if he had looked into her heart and seen her need! She tried to gently pull her hand out of Ranma's grip.

"Don't be silly Ranma-kun. There's no need…." She fell silent when Ranma held his finger up, effectively cutting her off. His smirk was positively roguish, if not outright smug. Was the room getting warmer?

"Seriously," she protested.

"Uh!" Ranma's eyes grew wide and his right eyebrow rose independently. His finger came up, effectively silencing her again. She couldn't help but smile at his posturing.

"But, there's n—"

"UH!" His eyes got wider, and his eyebrow climbed a little further up his forehead.

"But…" She chuckled when he started wagging his finger.

"Uh-uh." The mischievousness twinkling in his eyes was so playful and inviting…. She sighed and playfully pouted as Ranma finished wrapping her fingers with a loose gauze bandage.

He gathered up his trash economically and moved over to the broom closet, where he collected the broom and dustpan. Ranma tried his best to ignore how utterly cute Kasumi looked with her bottom lip pushed out, and with the mock frown on her delicate face.

How could he have not noticed her?

Well, that was simple: he had, but given the number of girl problems on his plate, it was easy to gloss over. Besides, this was Kasumi! She was two years and seven months older than he was and had Doc Tofu — not that the poor sap had been around lately. She had already dismissed Ranma as a little kid, and looking at his life, the pigtailed martial artist knew that she was right. She was the only one in his life that didn't pressure him, and he owed her big time.

"Ranma. I can clean up just fine." She started to stand, but found herself pinned beneath his stormy gray eyes. He looked at her with mock indignation, as he slowly raised his hand and wagged his finger at her again. She stifled a giggle and lowered herself back into the chair. The young martial artist didn't seem to trust her intentions, and so he never took his eye off of her the entire time that he was sweeping.

Kasumi watched in awe as Ranma smoothly cleaned the floor, sweeping and mopping without missing so much as a sliver of glass. It was like watching a carefully choreographed dance as he glided throughout the room with the mop in one hand and the broom in the other, while working the dustpan with his feet. He ended with a flourish that left her laughing gaily.

Ranma bowed deeply at the waist as he returned the broom and the mop to their closet.

"Encore! Encore!" Kasumi brought her good fingers to her lips and whistled enthusiastically, taking Ranma completely off guard. It seemed like such an uncharacteristic display for the reserved and serene Kasumi. It struck Ranma then, just how very little that he knew about the woman seated before him.

He bowed to her again and began looking around the kitchen. Upon spotting the vegetables, a wide, roguish grin danced on his face. He held up his finger for quiet, and set about preparing his next act.


Kasumi felt a pang of guilt as Ranma started gathering the vegetables that she had selected for dinner. She started to fidget when he filled the pot again and set it to boiling; and was on the edge of her chair when he brought out the chopping block. Every once in a while, Ranma would toss her a glance to make sure that she wasn't moving to help, and Kasumi would be forced to bite her lip in order to keep her protests silent.

When Ranma put on a spare apron, Kasumi actually started to push the chair out. The scrape of the wooden legs against the tiled floor caused Ranma's head to whip around and stopped her halfway out of the chair. His look was so intense, half-pleading and half-scolding; Kasumi slowly lowered herself back down.

"Can I at least help?" she begged.

Ranma simply shook his head, and of all things winked. "Maybe next time." That, combined with the way that Ranma spun the knife in his hand, caught her off guard. The open-ended promise warmed her heart, and made her giddy with excitement.

The next thirty minutes was like watching a culinary circus. Vegetables flipped through the air, where Ranma sliced them at Amaguriken speeds. The sautéed fish swam in their butter sauce, and the decorative fruit…! Ranma made everything dance!

Every so often he would flip her a taste just to satisfy her curiosity and get her approval. And she had to admit that the food wasn't half bad either. In fact, the entire spectacle was magical!

She watched as Ranma garnished the dishes, and couldn't hold the question in any longer. "Where did you learn?"

He merely shrugged. "Some guy at school was talking about 'Iron Chef'. At first I thought he was talking about a guy, but the more I listened, the more it sounded like some martial arts competition." He grinned at her from across the table. "Knowin' my luck, I knew that someday I'd probably meet some wacko and have to face off against him in some weird cookin' contest."

"So you watched the show, and…" Kasumi prompted, earning her yet another of Ranma's trademarked grins.

"And I thought it was kind of cool. I saw all of these guys cookin' up a storm, and thought 'Shoot! If they're competing, then eventually some nutcase really is going to develop a style based around it. I mean, look at Ukyou!" He sighed heavily and shook his head. "Not that Ucchan's a nutball, mind you. Still, I figured it'd be best ta develop something before someone came along." He looked at Kasumi thoughtfully as he carved a radish into a carnation. "You know, beat 'em to the punch for a change."

Kasumi was impressed. Ranma thinking ahead… what was the world coming to?

He flipped an apple high into the air and his hands blurred. Kasumi watch enthralled as the small apple seemed to hang in mid air for a moment, and then it suddenly fell apart in nice even slices that Ranma plucked out of the air one by one. He carefully laid out the pieces around a small Jell-O mold, until there was only one left.

Kasumi was surprised when he held it out to her expectantly. She went to take it from him, but just when her fingers almost had it, Ranma snatched it away. She made two more attempts before she changed tactics and leaned forward and opened her mouth slightly.

Ranma blinked twice before nervously catching on. He dangled the apple before her mouth, and felt his pulse quicken. He didn't understand why he was feeling so flushed, but really didn't care either. It felt like the rush of battle, and that's all that mattered.

Kasumi did her best to imitate his grin, distracting Ranma long enough to pluck the apple slice out of his fingers. That she nipped his fingers in the process caused Ranma to blink at her in shock. She grinned at him irreverently, wrinkling her nose in a way that made her look incredibly cute.

"Serves you right for teasing." Both laughed for a moment, but soon Ranma's chuckles died off. The happy grin seemed to die, and with it much of the happy spirit in the room. Kasumi wasn't sure what to say. She could see the guilt and the pain etched on the surface, but there was something hidden deeper; something that she could readily identify with. Resentment.

"I'm sorry, Ranma." The moment that the words flew from her lips, she knew that she had erred. The wall that hid his pain was back up in an instant, and the mask of bravado was firmly in place. He smiled cheerfully and retrieved a stack of bowls.

"Nothin' ta be sorry about, Kasumi-chan!" He started to move out to set the table, but found his path blocked by the eldest Tendo daughter. Ranma didn't want to talk about it, she could tell. The fiancée situation was just one more reminder of the lack of control that he had over his life.

"Of course there is," she said softly, taking the bowls from him and setting them aside. "It was a thoughtless thing to say."

She wanted to heal the pain that she had seen buried in his eyes. The poor young man was in a no-win situation, all because of a senseless father. She hated seeing him suffer, especially when he wanted nothing more to satisfy everyone's needs. Including hers.

"Tell me, Ranma. Honestly. If you could choose…" She watched him frown, and saw that another part of him was shutting her out. She scrambled to put him at ease. "…without hurting anyone's feelings, or compromising your honor in any way… who would you pick?"

She could easily read the look he gave her: If wishes were fishes…. Ranma looked back at the kitchen for a moment, and then his impish grin returned full force.

"That's easy. I'd pick you."

Five little words. Just five words, spoken in jest… and Kasumi's world was thrown into turmoil.


Dinner was well-received. Everyone thanked Kasumi for the delicious meal, especially in light of her injury. She had wanted to refute them, and direct their praise back to Ranma, but the pigtailed martial artist simply grinned and shook his head.

His humility, combined with that happy grin, further threw Kasumi into a tailspin. His words continued to haunt her throughout the rest of the night, distracting her from the meal, and her subsequent routine. She couldn't understand why he had said it.

Surely it was a thoughtless joke, meant to flatter her and deflect her attention away from the topic she was forcing on him. But there was something else there… something that she wasn't sure should be pursued. Her head was telling her that it was wrong, while her heart was urging her to learn more. She tried to put it out of her mind, but everywhere that she turned she would see a hint of his presence.

She looked around the guestroom — her room until repairs were completed — and discovered so many little things about the young man. The worn backpack that stuck ever so slightly out of the closet was a reminder of a harsh life on the road. She could almost imagine it speaking to Ranma, telling him that this was just another temporary stay in his long journey. It made her feel lonely just looking at it.

Then, of course, there was the waterstains on the floorboards; testament to the constant struggle that he had with his identity. She couldn't imagine what it must have been like, to switch bodies like he did. How did he cope?

The pictures on one wall were sparse, mostly depicting him fighting with Ryouga or Mousse. Some had Ukyou and Shampoo latched onto Ranma's arm, while there were many pictures of the whole group centered around Ranma and Akane. Kasumi was surprised, to say the least, to see a rather candid picture of herself mounted right next to Ranma's mother.

Kasumi was astounded at how similar she and Nodoka smiled. The placement of the photos left much open to question in Kasumi's mind; questions that she wasn't sure she wanted answers to.

She turned to the full-length mirror on the door and examined her reflection. Dressed only in her underwear, she could tell that she had gained several pounds around her hips, and her belly was starting to get a little "poochy".

She found her mind wandering over Ranma's words again and again. Then her thoughts drifted back to the picture on the wall. Did he find her attractive? Surely not. She was so plain next to all of the other young women that threw themselves at him. She rolled her eyes at the thought.

What was she thinking?

She snorted derisively and slipped out of her bra before pulling her nightgown on. There was no way that she was even in the running! He was too young for her, and promised to Akane, no less! Guilt nagged at the corners of her heart, attempting to overwhelm the sudden insanity that had taken hold of her.

How could she even think about him in that way? Just the idea alone would crush Akane, not to mention sending Ranma over the edge! The poor boy would probably crack if another woman threw herself at him.

Besides, they had nothing in common!

She tried to ignore the small list that was suddenly growing in her mind: lonely, likes to cook — even if it is based in the Art — tends to be selfless toward those he cares for, has a sweet smile, has a lot of hidden pain….

Kasumi shook her head and pulled down her bedcovers, and then slid beneath the sheets. Her bed felt cold, and decidedly lonely. And despite how hard she fought against it, her imagination immediately started to run wild. A strong arm would quietly and gently drape over her waist, and his warm body would draw close to her protectively. She could almost feel his breath against her neck, and his strong heartbeat playing against her back.

She couldn't keep the smile from her face as she sleepily ran with the dream. What could it hurt? It was only a dream!

She would wake up to his roguish grin every morning and help him braid his hair. They would go down to the kitchen together, and simply talk before the children would wake.

"Hmmm." She clutched her pillow close and giggled.

The children would go off to school and she would watch him workout in the dojo for a time… maybe even practicing with him… then they would get cleaned up….

Kasumi drifted off into her fantasy, reveling in the beauty of five little words.


Dawn brought a surprise for Kasumi as she woke to the start of a new day. The bed was deliciously warm, and the blissful images of her dreams yet danced in her mind's eye. The smell of breakfast serendipitously drifted up through the floorboards, causing her to smile. In her dreams Ranma had made her breakfast in bed. She hugged herself at the memory, but then slowly realized that she was no longer dreaming.

Fear gripped Kasumi at the thought of Akane in her kitchen. The girl had been known to try and surprise everyone from time to time, which often led to an impromptu fire drill or a forced fast.

She quickly threw on her robe, belting it loosely on her way out of the room and shuffled downstairs, preparing herself for the worst. What she found was an image from the previous night's fantasy playing out before her.

Ranma stood in front of the stove, gingerly tasting the miso soup that he was making. He smiled and waved at her brightly, turning just enough to catch the first rays of the sun on his left shoulder.

"Mornin', Kasumi,"he said quietly. "How's your hand?"

She couldn't help but blush, and prayed that the sun light on her face masked it.

Don't stare, Kasumi! She bit her lip unconsciously and tightened her robe a bit more securely.

"It feels fine, Ranma. Thank you." She wished that her voice didn't sound so weak!

She moved into the kitchen and drew closer to the stove. Ranma was so focused on his cooking that he didn't even seem to mind how close she had come. Kasumi took a deep breath and smiled at the scent of… muffins? Ranma had baked muffins? She blinked and turned to stare at the young man beside her.

"Smells good, don' it?" He puffed his chest out with pride, and winked conspiratorially at Kasumi. "I made 'em special… you know, ta say thanks for not tellin' everyone that I cooked last night."

Kasumi looked at him quizzically, unable to understand why he would want to keep it a secret. Ranma seemed to recognize the expression and sighed.

"The old man would be kickin' me around this morning if he knew that I had made all that stuff. Cookin' out in the wild is one thing, but doin' all that chef stuff…" He shrugged."Pops thinks guys that cook're pansies."

"That is absurd." Kasumi couldn't stop herself; the words just tumbled out. She blushed and hid her mouth behind her hand. "I'm sorry, Ranma. I shouldn't have said that."

He actually laughed at her embarrassment, causing Kasumi's blush to deepen. "You don' need ta apologize, Kasumi. Most of the stuff that Pops says is stupid!" He chuckled some more and shook his head. "You're the only one that I know that actually respects the old fart."

Kasumi didn't know if she respected Uncle Genma, but she at least tried to be polite. "It wasn't something that I should have said."

Ranma laid his warm hand on her shoulder and shook his head. The gesture sent chills down her spine. "In my book, Kasumi, someone needs ta say it more often! If he hears it enough, maybe it'll sink in." He snorted and shook his head. "Like that'd ever happen."

She looked at the young man from the corner of her eyes, and saw a weariness there that spoke of a thousand hardships, each more taxing than the last. All the stories of Genma's training regime came to the fore: the Nekoken, swimming to China, Jusenkyo…

"How do you do it?" She didn't realize until too late that the words had slipped out. She watched as Ranma's head turned to regard her, those stormy blue eyes of his almost glowing in the pinkish orange like of the dawn.

"Do what?"he asked innocently. She didn't respond for a moment; weighing the consequences of what her curiosity might uncover. He looked at her expectantly… no, hopefully.

"How do you manage?"she asked with a smile.

To his credit, Ranma shrugged. It was a perfect moment to boast, to stoke his ego some more. He could have said anything at that moment to bask in his own glory… After all, he was the great Ranma Saotome.

But he didn't.

"I can't do anything about the past, and the future's pretty far off yet. So I take everything one day at a time."

The answer nearly bowled Kasumi over. How many times had she said the exact same thing to herself? Mother was dead; there was nothing that could change that. School and marriage were pretty far off, and would come to her in their own time. All that she could do was live for the moment.

The oven's timer went off, buzzing loudly. Ranma gently nudged her out of the way with his hip, as he opened the oven door and pulled out a pan of large muffins. Kasumi shuffled away from the stove and allowed Ranma to work; finally settling down in the chair that she had occupied the night before.

She watched Ranma's back for a very long time, pondering the simple words that had echoed so much in her own heart. It was so easy to identify with his plight, because she saw so much of it in her very own life. The façade that he wore was easily stripped away, and in its place was left a very lonely young man; lonely, just like her.

"Here ya go." His smile popped up out of nowhere, and the plate with a very large blueberry muffin materialized in front of her. "Orange juice or milk?"

She blinked, trying to organize her thoughts. "I'm sorry?" His smile never faltered.

"Orange juice or milk?"he repeated cheerfully.

"Orange juice, please." He nodded and retrieved the carton of juice from the refrigerator, along with the jug of milk for himself. His smile took on a playful tone as he started juggling both containers one-handed.

Kasumi was drawn from her thoughts by the performance, as he added to glasses to the mix. The looping objects danced in front, then behind the young man. The rhythm never faltered, nor did he slip once. By the time he had made his way over to the table, Kasumi's smile was in full bloom.

The loop became a weave, and the weave became a dance. It was like watching a Chinese circus act, or a magician! She clapped lightly, avoiding her burnt fingers, as he set her glass before her. The other items continued their rhythmic loop as he poured her orange juice.

Never once did he spill a drop.

The orange juice returned to the mix as he set his own glass down. Only then did he pause, pouring himself a tall glass of milk. Soon after though, the containers were again tossed back into the air joyfully, until he had finally returned both to their cool storage. Kasumi laughed quietly and applauded again, to which Ranma simply bowed.

She sighed and shook her head as he retrieved the first aid kit from the cabinet before allowing himself to settle at the table again.

"You are something else, Ranma." She picked up her muffin, missing the slight frown that flashed across his face. She pulled a chunk of the pastry apart and dropped it into her mouth. "Mmmmm. Delicious."

Ranma smiled gratefully and nibbled at his breakfast.

"How did you know?"she asked between bites. Ranma swallowed the large bite that he had taken and took a swig of his milk.

"Huh?"he said finally.

"How did you know that blueberry muffins were my favorite?" She smiled at his flushed face.

"I guessed,"he said simply. "You had drawn all of these little stars and hearts around the recipe in your cookbook. So, I took a gamble." He grinned impishly and shrugged.

Kasumi simply shook her head and laughed quietly. "You're amazing, Ranma-kun."

His grin nearly split his face. "So I'm told."

Kasumi rolled her eyes and shook her head. "And humble, too."

"Yeah, that too." He nodded solemnly.

Kasumi wrinkled her nose at the young man, and then tossed a small bite-sized chunk of muffin at him. She was surprised to see him snag it out of the air with his mouth just before it hit him in the face.

He wiggled his eyebrows at her with a smug smile, hoping that she would send more his way. To his disappointment, she ignored him and continued eating. Silence settled between them for a time. Kasumi seemed happy to sit and enjoy the quiet time, while Ranma seemed to be trying to work his way up to say something.

"So… um…" Kasumi turned her gaze to the young man sitting across from her, as she sipped her juice. "I was wonderin' if there was something that I could help out with around the house." Kasumi blinked, unsure of what to think about that. Ranma, volunteering to help out around the house? First dinner, and then breakfast, and now this?

"Who are you, and what have you done with Ranma?" Kasumi leaned forward and put her hand on Ranma's forehead. He blushed and gently removed her hand.

"Ha. Ha. I didn't think you knew how to be sarcastic,"he grumbled.

Kasumi merely smirked behind her muffin. "We all have hidden depths, Ranma-kun. Who do you think taught Nabiki?"

Ranma squirmed under the suddenly calculating gaze that Kasumi was giving him. He blinked once, and then stared. The eldest Tendo started to giggle helplessly at the vacant expression on the young man's face.

"Who are you, and what have you done with my Kasumi?" Kasumi's giggles ended abruptly, as she turned to face Ranma. The shocked look on her face caused Ranma to grin, earning him a playful kick under the table. He couldn't understand why she was blushing, though.

He shrugged mentally and took another bite of his muffin, giving the woman a chance to regain her composure before picking up where he had left off.

"Seriously. I got ta thinkin' last night, and you know… me and Pops, we ain't done much ta repay you guys for lettin' us stay here and all." He sighed and began looking anywhere but at Kasumi. "I just wanna pull my weight, is all."

Kasumi smiled, amused at his gruff request. She wasn't sure how to take his playful banter, but out of all the people in the house, he didn't need to be worried about chores. Nabiki's scams alone had more than paid for Ranma's lodging, in Kasumi's book.

"There's no need, Ranma. You're a guest here. I couldn't possibly ask you to do my chores."

Ranma shook his head adamantly. "Guests stay for three days. Me and Pops, we've been here almost two years. I hate seein' you do all the work alone. It ain't right."

It was hard for Kasumi not to blush, or to cry for that matter. Since her mother had died, she couldn't remember a time when anyone had willingly volunteered to help her around the house. She'd always had to ask or browbeat her sisters and father to help. And here was this young man, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, offering to help her with the laundry and dusting!

I will not cry! I will not! Those words seemed so weak against the gratitude that was rapidly overwhelming her. She sniffed, and could feel a tickle in her nose that heralded the tears. They started to well up and she frowned trying to keep them in.

"Aw, man." Ranma's voice was filled with self-rebuke. He pushed his chair back and quickly rounded the table in agitation. "Kasumi, I didn't mean it! Whatever it was that I said to hurt you, I'm sorry." She wanted to laugh at his desperate confusion. She could see him going back over his words carefully, trying to see where he screwed up.

She sniffled and smiled. Such a big heart!

Kasumi picked up her napkin and dabbed her nose, then turned to face Ranma. He was truly surprised when she grabbed his hands, and more than a little uncomfortable as she pulled him closer to her. Despite that, he squatted down next to her, with concern etched clearly in his face. She had never seen that look directed at her before. Akane, yes. Ukyou and Shampoo, once or twice, but never her!

It was so easy to see why these girls fought so hard over this young man! She dabbed her nose again, then reached out and cupped Ranma's cheek. His skin was soft and warm.

"You are such a sweet man, Ranma." She smiled at his further confusion. "Thank you."

Ranma started to respond, but froze where he was when Kasumi's lips brushed his cheek.

She laughed through her tears. "I don't care what Akane thinks. To me, you're a very considerate gentleman."

Ranma blinked at Kasumi, then reached up to lightly touch his cheek.

"Thank you. I would love to have your help around the house."

Ranma nodded and blinked. She watched him as he casually stood and moved back to his chair in a daze. He looked back at her once, and then sat down… missing his chair completely. Every ounce of grace fled him, and Kasumi couldn't contain her laughter. Her tears were quickly forgotten, as poor Ranma slowly picked himself up off the floor. The playful scowl on his face made Kasumi snort as she desperately tried to check her laughter.

Ranma couldn't contain his own laughter at the noise, and soon joined Kasumi. They shared the joy of the moment, one of the few that they had known.

It was to be the beginning of a perfect day.


Ranma walked to school along his normal venue. The sky was a cheerful blue, with a warm breeze that made the clouds and treetops dance. His merry whistle and graceful step annoyed the young woman walking below him to no end.

"Do you mind?" she growled. To her relief, Ranma paused and looked down at her. His grin was insufferable, and grated on her nerves. She could almost predict his smug response.

"Nope. Don't mind at all."

Akane cringed as the whistling started up again. "Please. Stop."

Ranma blinked down at her and after a moment shrugged. The whistling tapered off into silence, and after a moment of quiet… he started to hum.

"Ranma!"

"What?" he shouted innocently.

"Will you please knock it off?" Couldn't he see that she was having a bad morning? Waking up late, and feeling all of the aches and pains associated with Happosai's "training"… it didn't make for a pleasant morning.

"Why?" he asked. His voice drew out the word, making her cringe.

"Ranma…" She tried to fill her voice with as much warning as she could. Maybe this time he would see how mad she was.

"What?"

She gritted her teeth and tried counting to ten… just like Kasumi had suggested.

One.

"Look. I don't know what's got you so pissed off this mornin'."

Two. Three.

"But I for one think that it's a great day ta be alive."

Four. Five. Six.

"So, whatever's got yer panties all twisted, just forget it and enjoy the rest of the day."

Seveneightnine… TEN!

WHAM!

"Yoooou're soooo uncuuuuuuute…!"

She heaved a disgusted sigh and marched on towards the school.

Panties twisted indeed!

"Pervert."


"…stupid tomboy!" Ranma hobbled into the yard, supporting himself with a long broomhandle.

"…stupid Ryouga."

Aggravation led him by the nose to the one place that he could normally find peace:the dojo.

"…stupid old lech!"

As he neared the doors, he heard movement inside the building. The pace was slow, and steady, with a light shuffling that spoke of grace. And yet, every once in a while, he would hear a sharp snap of cloth that was powerfully decisive.

He tried to place the person on the other side of the door, but couldn't. It sure as hell wasn't his dad. He knew Genma's steps intimately. It couldn't be Mr. Tendo either; not enough weight and power. Which only left one person.

The thought of Kasumi practicing the forms was just plain weird. But in light of all the little things that Ranma had learned about her last night and this morning, he couldn't readily dismiss the idea. Curiosity gripped him, and refused to let go until sated. Maybe it was to compare the eldest with the youngest, or perhaps it was just the idea that this was a part of Kasumi that few people saw; whichever the reason, Ranma had to see how good she was.

He moved like a ghost, cracking the door ever so slightly. The sight that greeted him was rather breathtaking. Kasumi had her hair braided and coiled atop her head, leaving her long neck bare, and the dogi that she wore was white as snow. She had paused in a loose kicking stance, with her arms up to block, and her eyes were closed… as if she were trying to remember the next step.

Ranma took the opportunity to enter the dojo, and silently slid the door shut behind him. Kasumi made no move to open her eyes, so the young martial artist crept over to a stack of tatami in a shadowy corner of the room and settled himself down to watch.

A fine sheen of perspiration coated her skin as she started up again. Each step was measured, and every strike well-placed. Yet, to Ranma's trained eye, her form was weak in two or three places. She seemed to correct these instinctually as she repeated the kata a second and third time, but there was one step that she continued to miss with every pass.

Ranma shook his head each time she came up to the kick. Her feet were slightly askew, leaving her unbalanced and out of sync with the rest of the kata. He knew first-hand that if the rhythm was off, even a fraction, in any one step, then the rest of the kata was going to be off.

After her fourth pass, Ranma couldn't hold it in any more. She was so close to perfecting the set, and yet kept butchering it on the same lead in. He silently moved in close behind her, in order to get a better perspective on where she was doing wrong, without breaking her concentration. Each step was timed exactly with hers, shadowing her movements and her mistakes so that there was no doubt in where she was going wrong. Nodding to himself he continued to move with her until at last she came to the flawed step.

"No. You're …"

WHAM!

FLIP!

SLAM!

CRUNCH!

"Ouchie," Ranma whispered. His face was firmly pinned to the mats by a strong hand, and his arm was twisted and locked behind him painfully. Kasumi's knee was buried in the center of his back, making it hard to breath. All in all, it was a perfectly executed maneuver.

"Ranma?" Her breathing was fast, and he could tell that her adrenaline was pumping.

"Hi." He groaned once and then smiled. To his surprise she pushed her knee a little further into his back, frowning.

"Why aren't you in school?" The frostiness in her voice chilled him.

"Her wenchiness clobbered me on the way to school." Deep breath. "On my way back, I ran into Ryouga and Happosai."

Kasumi's face softened a bit at the frustration in his voice, but she didn't loosen her hold. "Contrary to what your mother would say, it is not polite to spy on a woman."

Ranma sighed, and with surprising dexterity, rolled his body, toppling Kasumi. She tumbled with the young man, but somehow found that he had switched places with her. The only difference was that his hold seemed infinitely more secure.

"Who says I was spying?" he asked smugly. "I just came to work off some steam, and you happened to be here."

"You didn't announce yourself!" she countered breathlessly.

"I didn't want to disturb your rhythm. You were so lost in the kata…" He shrugged from his perch on her back. "I couldn't bring myself to stop you. Besides, I hate it when people interrupt me when I'm trying to work through a problem."

"How polite of you." Her tone was even more frigid than before, and she was pleased to feel Ranma shiver slightly. "Are you going to let me up?"

"Promise not to hit me?" he asked hopefully.

"No." The statement stunned him enough that Kasumi was able to duplicate Ranma's earlier roll. The pigtailed boy rolled, and in a breathtaking display of acrobatics, landed with his feet firmly planted. Kasumi sat up and straightened her dogi, then turned her attention to her hair. Ranma waited for her to acknowledge him, but Kasumi simply ignored the pigtailed boy.

"Aw, come on, Kasumi," he placated. "Don't be mad at me." She made no move to acknowledge him as he came closer. "I'm sorry."

Out of all the women in his life, no one in Kasumi's mind had ever truly earned an apology from Ranma Saotome. She absently wondered about that, and what it meant about her. She felt so confused, and yet in the same breath charged. Her dreams were starting to come true…

She opened her eyes to see Ranma kneeling before her, with a goofy, childish grin plastered on his face. The grin turned into a puppy dog frown, complete with sad eyes that made her chuckle. At the sight of her smile, Ranma's grin returned.

"You're incorrigible!" She rolled her eyes and held her hand out to be helped up. Ranma scratched the back of his head and pursed his lips.

"Thanks… I think." He grabbed her hand and started to pull her up, but she reversed her momentum and threw him. She watched in awe as he twisted in midair and landed lightly on the balls of his feet. The catty grin of his never seemed to leave his face.

"You're welcome." Her voice was playful, and uncharacteristically sarcastic.

"Do you forgive me?"

Her eyes narrowed impishly, and it was her turn to wear the Cheshire grin. "For a price."

Ranma actually stepped back, his eyes wide in shock. When he was able to speak again, his voice was barely a whisper. "You really did teach Nabiki, didn't you?"

All Kasumi could do was laugh — long, loud, and free.


"These are folded, Kasumi-chan. What's next?" Kasumi smiled as Ranma appeared out of nowhere with a basket full of clothes firmly under his arm, and a stack of towels perfectly balanced atop his head.

"Thank you, Ranma-kun. Could you take the basket to my room, please? The towels can just be set inside the changing room." Ranma saluted crisply, without disturbing the towels, and then jumped to a second story window.

"How did you do it?" Nabiki lounged in a lawn chair, clad in a burgundy bikini top and a pair of shorts, sipping lemonade while she watched Kasumi pin up clothes on the line. The sun seemed to worship her where she lay.

"Do what, Nabiki?"

"Come on, sis. You know exactly what I mean." She sat her glass down on a small table, and then tipped her sunglasses to regard Kasumi over their rims. "Boy Wonder has been doing this religiously for two months now. How did you manage to convince him to help?"

Kasumi's smile was enigmatic, which caused Nabiki to blink and stare for a moment.

"Oh, now you've got to tell me!"

Kasumi bent down to retrieve one of Ranma's shirts, and mimicked his catty grin. As she finished pinning it up, she turned to her sister and gave her most radiant smile.

"Two thousand yen, please."

Nabiki's facefault was drowned out by a series of crashes and explosions. She heard Ranma scream and Akane yelling angrily. More explosive crashes followed, and then Ranma could be heard taunting the youngest Tendo.

"How dare you peep at me, you pervert!"

"Why would I want to look at your flat chest, Balloon Butt?" Kasumi winced and shook her head.

"Don't do it, Ranma," she whispered. "Just walk away."

"WHAT DID YOU SAY?"

"You heard me! If you don't want people walking in on ya, then put up the sign!"

Kasumi could almost hear the next words coming, and winced.

"It's almost like ya want me ta walk in on ya!"

The compound went silent. The noise of birds became hushed, and even the wind seemed to hold its breath. Kasumi looked over to Nabiki who simply shook her head and went back to sipping her lemonade.

"Who's the perv…"

WHAM!

Ranma was off like a missile, trailing towels behind in his wake. Kasumi shook her head and went back to pinning up clothes. After a few minutes of silence, Nabiki smirked.

"Two to one that he comes back female."

Kasumi frowned at her little sister out of the corner of her eye. "I'll take that bet."


"Insensitive JERK!" Akane slumped to the floor of the dojo, next to the pile of rubble that she had created, and fumed. No matter how many times they clashed, it always came down to moments like this. Her heart hurt, and she couldn't rid herself of the anger. All that she could do was vent and cry. She hated crying over his stupidity, and yet more often than not, that's exactly what she would find herself doing.

"Penny for your thoughts."

Akane didn't look up from where she sat. "Go away, Nabiki."

The middle Tendo daughter sauntered into view with an exaggerated look of disappointment on her face. "Ouch. I just want to talk."

Akane curled into a ball and pressed her forehead against her knees. "I'd rather not."

"Too bad." Nabiki settled herself down next to her sister and wrapped her arm around Akane's shoulders. "Now then, why are you mad?"

Akane's head shot up, and she sent a glare Nabiki's way that promised pain. The Ice Queen of Furinkan simply quirked an eyebrow at her little sister, and waited for an answer.

"Isn't it obvious?" Akane growled.

"Not really." Nabiki examined her fingernails with mock boredom. "Explain it to me."

"The pervert walked in on me while I was getting dressed!"

"And this is bad because…?" Nabiki tilted her head and rolled her hand, prompting her sister to continue.

Akane snorted and pushed Nabiki away. "I'm surrounded by perverts."

"Oh, give it a rest!" Nabiki said in exasperation. "You're engaged to be married! Someday he's going to be your husband!" Nabiki threw up her hands. "He's eventually going to see you in all your feminine glory."

"You are such a pig, Nabiki!"

"So says the girl who sleeps with a piglet." Nabiki grinned. Akane stuck her tongue out at her sister. Nabiki jabbed Akane in the ribs sharply. "Pig lover!"

"Mercenary!" Akane countered.

"Thank you. But don't change the subject. Why are you really mad?"

Akane sighed, seeming to deflate. "I'm just sick of all the craziness. I'm sick of perverts like Happosai. I'm sick of new fiancées." She paused and settled her chin on her knees. "Most of all, I'm tired of having to compete for Ranma's attention."

Nabiki mimicked her sister, and rested her chin on her knees. "So what you're saying is that you want out."

"Yes." Akane shook her head. "No!" Her frustration was evident. Nabiki smirked. "I don't know!"

"You want the prize, but you're tired of playing the game. Is that it?"

Akane nodded silently.

Nabiki turned her head, so that her cheek was resting on her knees. Her large brown eyes seemed to envelop Akane. "Is he worth it?"

"Sometimes." Her voice was so small. "Sometimes he can be so sweet. Then there are times when he's so arrogant and smug."

Nabiki shrugged. "What guy isn't?"

Akane shrugged as well. "I've met a couple."

"So marry one of them."

Akane barked a harsh laugh. "Yeah, right! What about Daddy and Mr. Saotome?"

"Screw 'em."

The youngest Tendo threw her head back and laughed. It was a bitter sound, filled with all the irritation and disappointment of almost two years of pain.

"After all that I've been through, you just want me to flip them the bird and walk away?"

Nabiki shrugged. "If it makes you happy, yeah. Why not?"

"What about Ranma?"

"You think Ranma's happy with all of this?" Nabiki sniffed derisively and shook her head. "That poor kid is trying to make everyone come out on top, without hurting anyone's feelings." Nabiki leaned back against the wall and shook her head. "Of course, I think that he's an idiot for even attempting it, but you really can't blame the guy for trying."

"He does have a big heart." Akane conceded.

"And a big mouth." Nabiki chuckled. Akane snorted and grinned.

"So what do I do, Nabiki?" She squeezed her knees tightly and looked at her sister helplessly. Nabiki laid her head on Akane's back and sighed.

"What does your heart say?"

Akane sighed and shook her head. "I've no idea. No idea at all."


"That's IT!" Ranma's male voice rumbled throughout the house, causing everyone within a block to cringe. The entire neighborhood had been waiting for the day when the Saotome boy snapped.

Apparently that day was today.

Kasumi ran into the house in time to see Ranma stalk up the stairs. His clothes were in tatters, and he was liberally bruised. She started to follow him up the stairs when she heard Uncle Genma's voice drift down to her.

"What's the meaning of this, boy?"

Kasumi winced at the sounds of violence and the pleas for mercy that echoed from the hallway. She blinked when Ranma's father came bouncing down the stairs, very much unconscious.

"Ranma! What's the meaning of this?" Kasumi winced at her father's disapproving tone, but more so at Ranma's quiet response.

"It's over, Mr. Tendo. I'm done."

"What are you saying, Son?"

Kasumi put her hands to her lips and leaned against the wall for support.

"I'm saying that I ain't marrying your daughter!" She heard the door open, and then it slammed shut with enough force to feel the vibration where she stood.

"What about the agreement? What about your family's honor?"

Kasumi winced at Ranma's bitter laugh.

Akane and Nabiki chose that moment to arrive. All three sisters looked at each other for a moment, before Akane hung her head. Nabiki sighed and wrapped her arm around the girl's shoulder. She shrugged free and started up the stairs, only to have Kasumi cut her off. The last thing that the situation needed was more fuel; Kasumi knew it, Nabiki knew it, and Akane knew it.

She glared at her older sister for a moment, then frowned and hung her head.

"Give him a chance to cool down, Akane." Kasumi smiled gently. "Then come up and talk to him." Akane nodded and drifted back towards the dojo. When both sisters were sure that she was well out of earshot, Nabiki turned her attention to Kasumi.

"She's not sure what she wants."

Kasumi simply nodded and looked up the stairs. "Then maybe it's time for the burden to pass to someone else."

Nabiki snorted. "Been there, done that."

Kasumi looked down at her sister with a raised eyebrow. "Who said I was talking about you?" She wished that she could have had a camera to capture Nabiki's shocked expression.

Nabiki shook her head and watched as Kasumi purposefully climbed the stairs. The sounds of their father wailing about honor drifted down to them.

"I thought younger men bored you!"

"Since when has Ranma ever been boring?"

Nabiki's jaw nearly hit the floor at her sister's reply. She blinked and shook her head.

"Kasumi!" The older woman turned back to Nabiki with a raised eyebrow. "What in the hell's going on?"

Kasumi frowned. "Watch your language, Nabiki."

The middle daughter scowled. "Answer the damn question!"

Kasumi frowned further at the demand. "Nothing improper."

"'Nothing improper'! What's that supposed to mean?"

Kasumi sighed in exasperation and whirled on her younger sister. Nabiki was amazed to see aggravation plainly etched on her sister's face.

"You have used him." She pointed in the general direction of the dojo. "She has abused him. The others have coveted him, and I have listened to him. He is my friend." Nabiki actually took a step back from her sister's angry accusations. "Is there a problem?"

Nabiki shook her head and watched as Kasumi climbed the stairs. Her expression was shell-shocked, but it came nowhere near describing how she was feeling inside. She dumbly watched her father stumble down the stairs, lamenting over Ranma breaking the engagement. She wanted to slap him, and to yell at him; but she couldn't. He had lost so much, and had never found a way to deal with the pain.

For that reason, and that reason alone, Kasumi kept from confronting the man. That didn't mean that she could keep it all bottled up.

In a sudden fit of frustration, her hands grabbed two fists full of hair, she clenched her jaw and screamed. It was what was commonly known in the juku as a "tension breaker". It didn't really solve anything, but she sure felt better afterwards.


He heard old man Tendo's weeping fade away, presumably moving downstairs, as he stuffed rolled up shirts into his backpack. He was so sick of being treated like crap! He was a man! He wasn't some flamin' prize! He had feelings too! Another shirt was brutally shoved into the pack. Then another, and another, and another.

So what if she thought he was a pervert! He was tired of caring! He was tired of doing what everyone else wanted. He was sick to death of being their scapegoat! To hell with them all!

Ranma was so lost in his packing that he didn't hear the door open and close. He quickly rolled a pair of pants up and started to shove them into the bottom of the pack, when a slender pair of hands lightly touched his shoulders. He stiffened immediately, but relaxed when he saw Kasumi's reflection in the tall mirror on the closet door.

"It ain't fair." His voice was taut. "It ain't fair, and I'm tired of putting up with it." She simply nodded, accepting his words with her understanding smile.

"She ain't got a right ta blame for peepin', when she doesn't even put up the flamin' sign!" Another nod, and that magnificent smile.

"I'm sick of being a punchin' bag. I'm sick of being everyone else's prize! I'm tired of being used! I can't carry all these people's dreams! I'm a person, damn it! I got feelings too!" Ranma looked up at Kasumi, and saw tears in her eyes; the tears that Ranma could not bring himself to cry. His brow furrowed as she wept for him, trying his best to understand.

It wasn't until she smiled and wrapped her arms around him in a fierce hug that he realized that he had just said the words that she never could. He held her tight, and for the third time that he could remember… he wept.


Kasumi held his trembling body close, letting the invincible Ranma Saotome break down. His head rested over her heart as she silently smoothed his hair with one hand. Every so often she would kiss the top of his head and whisper soothing words; but in the end, she let him cleanse his soul through his tears.

Genma made the mistake of opening the door at one point, but Kasumi shot him such a terrifying glare, that the man was sent running. Ranma had tried to pull away, but she refused to let go. She needed this just as much as he did.

After a time the tears quieted, and his breath no longer shuddered; it was in a quiet moment that Ranma finally eased himself out of her arms and made a weak attempt at a smile.

"Thanks." His voice was husky as he drew the back of his hands roughly across his cheeks.

"Thank you." Kasumi smiled.

Ranma sighed and pulled a handkerchief out of his pack. After examining it for a moment he handed it to Kasumi. She accepted it gracefully, but made no move to dry her wet cheeks. He fidgeted aimlessly, trying to fill the uncomfortable silence.

Kasumi wanted to laugh, but he looked so lost that the mirth died on her lips. After a few moments of his restlessness, she took hold of his hands. Without thinking she gently reached out with the handkerchief and began to dry the tears that he had missed.

Ranma sat still and watched her face, unable to come to terms with what he saw there. More time passed, and suddenly Ranma's eyes grew wide. She wished that she could look into his mind for just a moment and see through his eyes.

"What do you see?" she asked, quietly taking his hands again. A part of her cheered at Ranma's blush, while another part of her feared to hope.

"I can't say," he whispered hoarsely.

"Why not?" He cast about helplessly, looking for a safe answer and possibly even escape. In the end there was nowhere for him to go, and the only answer he seemed to find was a truth he didn't want to admit. "Why not, Ranma?" she prodded gently.

He mumbled something under his breath and turned away. Kasumi shifted slightly, but did not say anything. After a very long minute, Ranma raised his head and looked her dead in the eye. It was the bravest thing that she had ever seen him do. She smiled and gently caressed his cheek. He bowed his head and sighed.

"I can't say 'cause it scares me."

"It shouldn't."

He shook his head. "It does, though."

"I don't want to scare you, Ranma." She picked up his hand again and held it, more for her comfort than for his. "You've broken the engagement. As far as I'm concerned, you're free to live your own life." She tried to ease his fears by making her voice warm and soothing, but something told her that it wasn't working. The weight and the fear were still there.

"What about honor?" Kasumi actually laughed at that, causing Ranma to scowl at her. "It ain't funny!"

She sobered immediately and sighed. "I'm not laughing at your honor, Ranma."

"Why'd you laugh, then?" he demanded.

Kasumi looked over at the pictures that were pinned to the wall and frowned. "I'm laughing at the stupidity of your father, and your audacity in trying to make everything turn out perfectly."

Ranma blinked at Kasumi then pulled his hands away from her. After a moment he turned away angrily. She had to be making fun of him. Nothing else made sense.

"You really think that you can satisfy everyone's honor, don't you?"

Her words grated on Ranma sore nerves. "You bet I do! I don't give up, and I don't lose! Someday, somehow, I'll find a way to satisfy everyone's honor."

Kasumi smiled at his bravado. "Is that so?" Ranma nodded and turned away in a huff. "Then how do you explain breaking off the engagement with Akane?"

Ranma opened his mouth, and then paused. He made a second attempt, but nothing came forth. Kasumi raised an eyebrow at him and smiled triumphantly. He narrowed his eyes for a moment and then smirked.

"Well, I said that the engagement was off with her. I didn't say that I wouldn't marry you or Nabiki."

Kasumi smiled impishly. "Who said that we would take up the engagement? I distinctly remember Nabiki saying that she had already had her turn with you. If we don't want this engagement, how will you satisfy the terms of pact?" Ranma looked hurt, and opened his mouth to protest, but Kasumi laid her finger over his lips.

She wasn't ready to lay her cards on the table yet, and she knew that if he said anything, she would buckle.

"Please. Think before you speak, Ranma." She bit her lip and looked into his icy blue eyes and sighed. "Can you satisfy everyone's honor, and still be happy yourself?"

After five seriously strained minutes, Ranma exploded.

"WHAT THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?"

Kasumi weathered the outburst with a serene smile. "You choose."

Ranma deflated. "Choose?"

Kasumi nodded and smoothed out her dress as Ranma stewed over her solution.

"How?"

She shrugged. "I can't tell you what the right choice is, Ranma-kun. How do you know when to throw a punch versus a kick?"

"I follow my gut?"

Kasumi nodded and shrugged. "What is your gut telling you? Which out of all the engagements will bring you the most happiness?"

Ranma laid himself down next to Kasumi, so that he could look up at her. He threaded his fingers together and pillowed his head in his hands. After a few moments of silence, Kasumi began to absently play with his bangs.

It was a weird, yet somehow natural act that Ranma welcomed. The house had become silent around them, and the natural light streaming in through the open window framed the moment perfectly. A set of chimes sounded at the window, heralding the light breeze that ruffled Kasumi's hair. Ranma watched as the strands blew free of the white bow, and drifted lazily in front of her face.

Her hand came up unconsciously and tucked the bothersome strands behind her ear. He silently envied her control, and the quiet wisdom that she projected. She always seemed to manage the chaos, no matter how insane things got. If he had half the patience that she had… Well, he was sure to have come up with a solution to this mess a long time ago.

Yeah. Right.

"Who would you pick?" he finally asked.

Kasumi smirked at him and shook her head. "Nice try."

"Come on!" he protested, pushing himself up on his elbows. "I got ta have some place ta start!" He gave her his best puppy-dog eyes. She sighed and poked him in the middle of the forehead. He fell back with a thump and stared helplessly at the ceiling.

"Let's see, what are the choices again?" He didn't think that he would ever get used to Kasumi being sarcastic. "…an Amazon, a chef, an accountant, or one of three beautiful daughters…"

Kasumi paused, causing Ranma to look up at her. She wore a loving smile; not a covetous, hungry, "you'd-better-love-me-or-else" smile, but a genuine, heartfelt, caring smile. Ranma felt his heart quicken a beat, and felt himself blush unconsciously.

"That's easy. I'd pick you."


Akane and Soun paced, while Nabiki irritably flipped through the channels on the television. Genma sat in a corner and simply zoned. Everyone could feel the change in the air, but no one was certain how the situation was going to turn out. When Kasumi finally made her appearance, it seemed as though the world had stopped.

"Well?" Soun and Genma spoke in unison. Kasumi turned to her sisters and started to speak when Ranma started down the stairs. He smiled at her, and she quietly moved to sit next to Nabiki. Akane shuffled her feet and bowed her head under his intense blue eyes.

"Well, boy?" Genma stood next to Soun to present a unified front. "Are you going to apologize to your fiancée?"

Ranma's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Shut up and listen, Pops. I ain't gonna say this twice." Genma bristled with outrage, but a simple glance from Kasumi shut him up quick. "Things can't go on like they have been. I can't take it, and neither can anyone else. It's past time to make a clear-cut choice, so that's what I'm gonna do."

Nabiki quirked an eyebrow at Kasumi, but her attention was riveted to Ranma.

"As far as I can tell, the Tendo claim has the most validity."

"HURRAH!"

Ranma scowled at the two celebrating fathers; who, upon seeing the rather dangerous red-and-blue aura that limned Ranma's body, quickly silenced themselves. He cleared his throat and shook his head.

"Akane, let's go for a walk."

Nabiki watched the pair walk out to the koi pond, and then looked up at her sister, hoping to gather more information about Ranma's intentions. She was surprised to see her older sister biting her lip nervously.

"Okay, spill," she hissed. Kasumi blinked and tore her gaze away from Ranma. "Come on, out with it!"

Kasumi stared at her hands for a time before answering. "He's giving Akane a choice."

Nabiki waited for her to continue, but she was silent. "And?"

Kasumi began biting her lip again and watched Akane intently. Nabiki pinched Kasumi's leg in her frustration, earning her a scathing look from the young woman.

"And???" Nabiki said through clenched teeth.

"And what?" Kasumi whispered in exasperation. "If she says no, then it's between you and me!"

"He's all yours, then," Nabiki smirked.

"Are you sure?" Kasumi's voice was so serious that Nabiki did a double-take.

"What's gotten into you? Do you have any idea what being tied to that guy means?"

Kasumi didn't answer.

"You might as well paint a big target on your back and say 'Here I am! Kidnap me!'"

Kasumi still refused to answer.

"What do you think will happen to you once Cologne and Shampoo find out? Have you forgotten that 'obstacles are for killing'?"

Kasumi turned and glared at Nabiki.

"What?" The middle Tendo daughter demanded. "You think that just because he's made a choice, that automatically makes everything hunky-dory?" Nabiki shook her head and looked back at the couple by the pond. "Sorry to burst your bubble, Kasumi, but those two don't give up…" She snapped her fingers dramatically to emphasize her point. "…just like that."

"There are ways around them," Kasumi said confidently. That statement alone made Nabiki shake her head in wonder.

"How long?" Kasumi frowned, unsure of what Nabiki was hinting at. "Don't play dumb with me Sis. When did you fall for him?"

Kasumi ignored the question, nodding instead at Ranma and Akane.

"Here they come." Her heart sank at the way that the pair was holding hands.


Akane watched the dragonflies dance over the surface of the pond. Every once in a while a koi would break the surface and grab an insect, pulling it under the water. She could really empathize with the poor bugs. She felt that Ranma had done the exact same thing the day that he had entered her life.

"I'm sorry about walking in on you earlier."

She was amazed at how quiet his voice was. The fact that he had apologized so easily told her just how serious this moment was. "I'm sorry for getting so upset."

He simply nodded, accepting the apology. They sat there for what seemed a small eternity, staring at the water and the fish lurking just below its surface.

"Moment of Truth," he sighed. He seemed so relaxed, but she couldn't seem to stop shaking.

"I guess so. Can I ask you a question first?"

Ranma sighed again and pulled a thin reed out of the water, and began tying it into knots. Akane bit her lip. "Sure. Knock yourself out."

She wasn't sure if she could ask the question, but she had to know. She started to speak but felt her throat close around the words. It took three full tries to force them out, but once free, she felt a weight lift from her shoulders. "Why did it take so long?"

His smile was soft. She had once lived for that smile.

"Honestly? I wanted to hear you say it."

Akane blinked, and then reprocessed what he had just said. She tried to place his logic, but for the life of her couldn't get past the young man's impudence. "What about you? Did ever occur to you that I might want to hear you say it too?"

Ranma shook his head and tossed his knotted reed into the grass on the far side of the pond. "You know I ain't good with words, Akane." He turned to her angrily and scowled at her. "I killed a man for you. What more do you want? How else can I say it?"

That statement threw her, and for a time she didn't know how to respond. She sighed heavily and picked up a pebble near the base of the rock she sat on.

"Do you still have…? I mean, do you still…?" She frowned at her inability to get the words out.

Ranma chuckled mirthlessly and took a deep breath before responding. "As a friend, yeah. But I got tired, you know?"

Akane frowned and nodded.

"Things never changed, it was the same old rat race. What about you?"

She nodded her head wearily. "I got tired too. It hurt trying to compete with Shampoo's sexiness and your past with Ukyou."

Ranma chuckled. "That's just the thing, Akane. You never had to compete with any of them! Your smile outshined them all." She felt the warmth of words that she had yearned to hear, but realized that they came too late.

"Idiot! Why didn't you say so?!" Akane smacked him upside the back of his head.

Ranma glared at her as he rubbed his head. "Because! Every time that I tried someone would interrupt, or you'd hit me, or that stupid pig would bite me!"

Akane's blood started to boil and she narrowed her eyes at Ranma. "You leave P-chan out of this!" Her antagonist shook his head and waved his hands, all the while grinning madly. "What's so funny?" she demanded.

"You. Me." He spread his arms wide. "This!"

She sighed and laughed with him. It was a silly thing to fight over. "Why do you hate him so much?"

Ranma looked at her, puzzled. "Who?"

"P-chan."

"Hate him?" He shook his head. "Nawww. Wanting to pound the little porker flat… that's a different story altogether."

"Why?" Akane couldn't hide her confusion.

He sat there for a moment staring deep into the pond, and then decided to give her one last clue. He cupped his hands and rapidly filled them with water. Akane looked at him in bewilderment as he splashed himself. The change was quick, as usual, and Ranma-chan smirked at Akane from beneath her dripping bangs. The red headed girl sighed in refreshment. "Ask him."

Akane's face drained of color. "You can't be serious!"

Ranma shrugged.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

The petite redhead looked into the waters of the pond forlornly and took a deep breath. "I was responsible for the curse. It became a serious weakness to him, and I couldn't just go around blabbering it to the world." Ranma-chan sagged. "The poor guy was constantly being added to everyone's menu. It made my curse look like a blessing. I owed him."

Akane's face was red from anger and embarrassment. "But he…! And I…! Damn it, Ranma, you could have stopped him!"

The redhead fixed Akane with an incredulous look. "I tried. Remember?"

Akane opened her mouth to refute the claim, but found that she couldn't. "That…! That…! I'll kill him!" Ranma-chan laughed and slapped her knee. "What are you laughing at?"

"You!" She continued to laugh and shake her head. "You're so dense!"

Akane slapped the boy-turned-girl gruffly on the back of her head.

"Well, you are! He's had a crush on you since day one, and you did nothing but encourage him!"

"I did not!" she cried indignantly.

"Yes, you did." Akane glared at the redheaded girl next to her, until Ranma finally threw up her hands in defeat. "Whatever. The fact is, when was the last time that you saw P-chan?"

"A couple of months ago, why?"

"Did he stay in your room?" Akane shook her head. "Well, it's because he's found someone else." Ranma wasn't prepared for Akane's face to fall. It was as if she was losing everyone that she really cared about, and Ranma could see it.

Both girls fell silent, and let the time stretch between them. After a moment Akane turned to Ranma and smiled hopefully. "Can we try again?"

Ranma grimaced, but looked her dead in the eye. "Promise me that we won't fight… no more hitting or yelling, or name calling… and I'll give it a go. Otherwise, I'd like to just like to be friends."

Akane thought for a long time, gauging the young boy-turned-girl before her and then smiled. Something unspoken passed between them, and then they took hands and stood. Akane nodded and the pair walked back to the house.


Kasumi returned with a kettle of warm water for Ranma, and handed it to the redhead the minute she and Akane entered the house. She stepped back and settled next to Nabiki, trying her best to keep her heart under control. Ranma nodded to Akane who in turn looked to Kasumi and Nabiki. Kasumi felt her stomach bottom out, when Akane turned to their father and bowed deeply.

"Father. Ranma and I have decided that it is best that we part ways." Soun and Genma were on their feet instantly yelling and browbeating the pair senseless, but Kasumi heard none of it. All that she felt was relief.

Soun rounded on Ranma, but was forced to back down at the cold white aura that the boy was giving off. It took Genma a little longer to turn away from Akane, but when he did Ranma's fist was there waiting. The rotund man arced gracefully over the yard and landed with a great splash in the pond. When the water settled a soggy, yet very unconscious panda floated amongst the koi.

Ranma motioned to Akane again, urging her to continue. She cast him a sidelong glance, and a smile before speaking again.

"I ask your forgiveness father, for not being able to fulfill your wishes. But I value Ranma's friendship too much to subject him to a marriage of hardship."

Ranma coughed and placed his hand on Akane's shoulder. "Look Mr. Tendo. Me and Akane, well… We make better friends than we do fiancés. If things had been different, maybe we coulda worked things out. The last thing I wanna do is make her sad." He looked at Akane and smiled warmly. "Life's hard enough as it is."

Soun nodded solemnly, and looked to Ranma. "How do you propose we settle this, son?"

Ranma shrugged. "I've made my choice, Mr. Tendo. I leave the rest up to your daughters. I won't force anyone to marry me if they don't want to." He paused to look at Nabiki, who in turn looked at Kasumi. Ranma was disappointed to see that the eldest daughter had her head bowed. "If neither of them want to fulfill the bargain, then the schools can be joined in the next generation through a marriage or training."

Soun pursed his lips and knuckled his mustache. He looked at Ranma and nodded. "So be it. Thank you for taking my daughters' happiness into consideration, Saotome-san." Ranma stood a little taller at Soun's words.

The Tendo patriarch turned to his daughters, and looked them over carefully. Akane sat at the end of the table, while Nabiki looked between Ranma and Kasumi expectantly. Kasumi however, still had her head bowed, and seemed unable to look up.

Soun frowned and decided to give his eldest a moment to compose her thoughts. "Nabiki. What do you say?"

The middle daughter smiled roguishly and shrugged. "No offense, Ranma-kun, but it was fun while it lasted. I love you and all, but I doubt that you could afford me." Ranma smirked and nodded.

Everyone turned to Kasumi expectantly. She did not lift her head, but instead kept her eyes to the floor. Ranma shifted slightly, and sighed. He started to walk from the room but pulled up short when Kasumi spoke.

"Father?" Her voice was barely a whisper. "May I speak with Ranma alone, please?"

Soun nodded and ushered the girls into the kitchen. As soon as the three were out of sight, each got a glass and pressed it against the door.

Kasumi raised her head slowly and smiled at Ranma. She patted the floor next to her. He blushed and took a deep breath before sitting down next to her. It took them a few uncomfortable moments to gather their thoughts, and it was Ranma that ended up speaking first.

"I chose." He wished that it hadn't come out so weakly.

"Yes. You did." Kasumi laid her hands on the table and licked her lips. "How does it feel?"

Ranma shrugged. "Weird. Scary. I don't know."

Kasumi smiled and nodded. "Thank you for giving them both a chance."

Ranma twiddled his fingers. The uncomfortable silence began to stretch between them again. He coughed once, and popped his neck a few times in his nervousness.

"Ranma-kun?" Kasumi felt suddenly numb all over her body, as if her spirit had detached itself and was watching from the outside in.

"Yeah?"

"Can you stand to be married to an older woman?" Kasumi watched as the Cheshire grin split Ranma's face.

"That depends."

She frowned skeptically.

"Can you stand to be married to half a man?"

He said it with such casual flippancy, that Kasumi almost dismissed the statement. There was something behind his eyes though, that made her pause and reconsider. He seemed to squirm, but never once did their eyes part from one another.

She smiled finally and leaned forward until their lips were almost touching. Ranma swallowed heavily, and breathed in her sweet perfume. He looked into her eyes again, and waited expectantly. Her breath was warm, and tickled his nose. He felt like he was going to explode, but couldn't allow himself to move.

Kasumi's hazel eyes twinkled and then closed.

"For a price."

Ranma leaned forward, and paid her in full.

 

 

A beginning…

 
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