Adamantine Mist
By M. Zephyr

Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is a trademark of Rumiko Takahashi and VIZ Communications, and its characters have been borrowed without permission. This story was written for non-commercial purposes only.

Akane and Ranma call off the engagement, and Kasumi decides it's time to take matters into her own hands.

Chapter 7. The Wedding

With the threats to her well-being removed, Kasumi was once more free to venture forth alone from her house, and she needed to do so frequently. The wedding was now just three days away, yet there were still a great many details to be dealt with, and - although everyone was helping - there were some things which Kasumi just had to handle herself. The errand at hand was one such. More, it was one which she was not looking forward to, for it promised to be painful.

Nonetheless, she did not allow her inner dread to show in her expression. Kasumi bestowed upon every person she passed the same gentle smile and cheerful greeting as always, and all of them replied in kind. Only she was aware that her pace was slowing, as though she could draw out the journey, her destination forever just out of reach. Not that it was possible to do so. In fact, the young woman looked up to see that she was already there, gazing with a heavy heart upon the words printed on the front window: "Ono Clinic."

Firmly grasping the preserved shard of pottery in her hand, Kasumi advanced upon the door. She opened it slowly, entered, stepped out of her shoes and into slippers, then crossed the room. Every act seemed to stretch out, as though she were moving in slow motion. Feeling quite improper, she glided silently down the hall, slipping past the examination room without drawing notice from the doctor or his patient. Relieved at reaching Doctor Tofu's office unseen, Kasumi released the breath she was unaware she'd been holding. Once there, she prepared tea for two people, seated herself in the visitor's chair and settled herself to wait.

It wasn't truly very long before Kasumi heard voices out in the hall. Several seconds later the door opened and Doctor Tofu Ono strolled briskly into the room. He was already turning the corner around his desk when he finally realized that the room was not unoccupied. Kasumi wasted no time sliding her chair over a meter, placing it in front of the door.

"Hello, Tofu-sensei."

Tofu swallowed heavily, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down. "Ka-Ka-Kasumi-san!" he choked out. His stumbling steps backed him into the corner of the office.

"I have come to return these books." The young woman removed two books from her bag and placed them on the desk. "I'm sorry that I kept them for so long."

"Qui-Quite all right," Tofu replied with a chuckle, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and using it to dust the telephone. "Wh-what brings you here?"

"I believe I just told you I was returning two books," Kasumi said sternly. "Now please sit down." The last two words were not given as an order, precisely, but certainly carried the suggestion that the speaker could not conceive that you would not do as she asked.

Tofu sat. He tried to loosen his necktie, only to remember he wasn't wearing one.

"This behavior of yours has gone on quite long enough," Kasumi said severely. Or at least what passed for severely when coming from Kasumi Tendo. "At one time it was amusing. However, I am due to be married soon, and I believe it is time you cease trying to amuse me with your antics, and start behaving more respectfully."

Tofu swallowed heavily again, wincing in pain at this reminder. At a further sensation of pain from his leg, he looked down to find that he had jabbed his thigh with no fewer than five acupuncture needles. He pulled them free and carefully laid them in a row on his desk. Tensing his muscles to try to hold himself still, the young doctor replied, "Of ... of course. You're quite right." Sweat beaded his brow at the effort he was making.

Kasumi cast a critical eye over him, noting the perspiration, the fidgeting hands, the tremors, the eyes darting back and forth. Her lips thinned. For this conversation, she wanted his entire attention.

"Tofu-sensei, you appear to be distracted to an unwarranted degree. Is something wrong? Is there perhaps a dose of some medicine you could take to calm your nerves, without damaging your judgment or wit?"

Tofu's mind irresistibly followed this train of thought, passing along the pharmacopoeia in his cabinets. After a moment he paused at the thought of something which might indeed give him peace for a short space of time. It had never occurred to him to try before, probably because these encounters always seemed to be unplanned. Or at least, unplanned by himself.

With a nod, the doctor shakily rose to his feet. From a shelf he pulled down a jar, containing fragments of leaves, and examined it carefully. This would not be the time to mistakenly choose the wrong substance. He clumsily managed to grind a bit of leaf with a pestle he had present, spilling a considerable quantity more, then spooned a small amount into his tea. After this he spent a few moments staring at the cup in confusion, not having remembered pouring himself any tea. Shaking his head, he sat down on the edge of his chair and managed to sip from his cup without spilling it all over himself.

Unable to remain sitting after he finished, Tofu stood quickly, banging his chair back against a shelf. He walked over to the table at the side of the room. There he went through rapid motions, preparing tea for both himself and his guest.

"Er, Tofu-sensei? I already made tea for both of us. You put the medicine in yours and drank it. Remember?"

Tofu paused in his movements, cursing himself silently for acting the fool. He clutched the edge of the table to keep his hands still. He remained in that position for five minutes, at the end of which time a tingling sensation at his extremities suggested that the potion was taking effect. He returned to his chair and lowered himself into it, again sitting near the front edge.

Fixing his gaze politely on his guest, Tofu said, "Thank you for returning the books, although of course you're welcome to keep them for as long as you like. It's, ah ... very nice to see you."

Kasumi tilted her head slightly. "You're welcome. And thank you. Now, I hope you will forgive me for asking, but why did you send your regrets in response to the invitation to my wedding?"

Tofu looked pained. "I'm afraid that I'll be busy that day."

Kasumi raised her eyebrows. "On a Sunday? It would be most impolite for me to suggest any prevarication on your part. Almost as impolite as it would be for you to prevaricate."

He drew in a quick but soft breath, not used to hearing such things from the young maiden before him. "Nonetheless, I fear I will be unable to attend. For ... for personal reasons, if you must have some other answer."

"Well, I'm sorry to say, but I think I must have some answer beyond that," Kasumi said as politely as she could. She stiffened her resolve, refusing to take the easy path, determined to give him the necessary extra push to do the right thing. "You have been not only our family doctor, but a dear friend for many years now. To fail to join us to celebrate this occasion - the idea is inconceivable. You must come, really you must. Or at least, you must provide some much better excuse."

Tofu dropped his eyes, pasting a small smile on his lips. "Where is the Kasumi I have known all of these years? The young lady who never forgets even the least trifle of etiquette? Hearing you set aside the proprieties like this makes me wonder if the end of the world draws near. Or perhaps I am dreaming."

Kasumi folded her hands in her lap, pursing her lips to avoid their involuntary tremor, for indeed this was coming hard to her. "If it helps you to believe that you are in a dream, then do so. As long as you answer."

Tofu sighed regretfully, knowing that he would have to answer. He could refuse the woman before him nothing if she insisted. He spoke bluntly, the herb he'd ingested cushioning some of his pain. "I do not wish to come because of the pain it would bring me. To see you marry Ranma Saotome."

Kasumi gave a small nod in acknowledgment at finally receiving some small measure of honesty. Her eyes were burning with unshed tears and for a short while, she did not trust herself to speak. Then she replied with, "May I ask what problem you have with my fiancé? He is a few years younger than myself, and granted a trifle impulsive and ill mannered, yet he has a good heart withal. I believe that he will make a good husband."

The doctor turned away for a moment, wishing there were some way out of this conversation. He turned back, forging ahead resolutely. "The problem is not with Ranma. At least not directly. In fact, I quite wish that I could hate him over this. It would make it easier, somehow. But I can't. You're right, he is a good man once you get past his rough exterior. If only he were marrying someone else. Someone like your sister."

Kasumi asked quietly, "You do not believe that I have the right to marry a good man?"

Tofu's jaw dropped. "Of ... of course you do! But I always hoped that I could ... I mean ..."

The young woman across the desk inquired gently, "Could what?"

Tofu's eyes dropped, resigning himself to his doom. He whispered, "I hoped that I could be the one to marry you."

At his words, Kasumi's heart took flight like a bird in the spring, singing with joy. For a few wonderful moments she treasured the feeling. Then she squeezed hard on the piece of porcelain resting under her palm, biting her lip softly at the pain. She wrapped Tofu's words in silk cloth and tucked them away in a corner of her mind. Shutting a door carefully on the memory, she hardened herself to keep to the course she had set.

"Why have you never said this before?" she asked quietly, trying, not entirely successfully, to keep her voice calm.

"You ... you were too young. Much too young," Tofu replied tearfully. "Still in middle school. Day after day I had to remind myself of how young you were."

Kasumi pressed her lips together tightly. Taking a deep breath, she responded acerbically, "I have not been in middle school for many years. I came of age over a year ago. A year ago! For that matter, my father would have been delighted to give his consent even before that, at least after Akane was chosen as Ranma's original fiancée. Why? Why did you wait until it was too late to tell me this?"

Tofu could not help but drop his face into his hands. Hoarsely, he told her, "That is a question with which I have been torturing myself daily for nearly a month. I believe ... I had been reminding myself of your youth for so long, it had become a ... a habit. A habit I could not break. Yet somehow I always dreamed ..." He shook his head, then lifted his face, moisture evident at the corners of his eyes. "But do you not understand? I can't bear the thought of standing there and watching you marry Ranma."

Kasumi steeled herself for what she must do. "I understand that you are a coward."

Tofu fell back in his chair as if he were shot.

The young woman went on, unstoppably. "You are a close friend of the Tendo family. You have been a friend to Ranma as well. All of our neighbors know this. You have been invited to our wedding, and everyone will expect to see you there. If you do not appear, they will all wonder, and will speculate as to the reason. I understand that it will be painful. Are you not man enough to do your social duty and see it through, regardless? Or do the bonds of honor only apply when they are easy to satisfy?"

She watched with careful dispassion as the man sitting across from her worked his mouth, no sound emerging. She gave him a couple of minutes. When there was no sign of improvement, she asked impatiently, "Well?"

For Tofu it felt as if the pull of gravity upon his body had doubled. He had collapsed, and only the support of the chair kept him off the floor. For the first time in his memory, the sweet girl he had known all of these years had revealed something more stern, and he could not stop the thought that it only made him love her all the more. Yet she was still looking at him, waiting, demanding an answer. Demanding that he prove himself a man after all.

He closed his eyes, drawing strength up from somewhere deep inside himself. "I ... I'll be there, Kasumi-san."

"Thank you, Tofu-sensei." She rose to her feet and bestowed upon him a brilliant smile. Then she turned and walked out through the door.

Tofu did not move from that spot for half an hour, until a nervous tap came upon the door, looking for the doctor. Ignoring his aching joints, he pulled himself to his feet and greeted the patient, taking the elderly man to the examination room. The quiet routine of his job was wholly unable to banish memories of the earlier conversation.

The bell rang signaling the end of the final day of class for the first term. Students streamed out of the building, laughing and ready to begin their summer break. Two additional figures emerged slowly, well after all the rest. Neither Ranma nor Akane particularly felt like running anywhere.

On arriving home they found that there would be no martial arts practice that day, nor could there be until after the wedding. At least not within the dojo. The inside of the building had been transformed, tables lined along the walls, chairs arranged in rows between, and an aisle running up the middle. Even if the dojo had been available, there was no time, as everyone was busy with final preparations. Akane was immediately pressed into helping, although Nodoka had the presence of mind to choose tasks for her which lay outside the kitchen.

Ranma escaped to the dojo where Soun Tendo and his own father were putting up decorations. He knew that he should offer to help, but couldn't bring himself to do so. He might not try to stop what was coming, but it was growing increasingly difficult to force himself to do anything which served to bring it closer. He stepped back out of the doorway before the two men could see him, then jumped over the wall, heading for the park on the south side of town where he hoped to meditate on absolutely nothing for a while.

Two pairs of eyes in the kitchen watched him go - Kasumi and Nodoka. The two women exchanged worried glances. They had conferred previously regarding Ranma's recent behavior, his mother expressing a concern that he might try to run off before Sunday to escape the pressure, Kasumi certain that he would not. In the end, Nodoka didn't need much persuading to convince her that her son would do the manly thing and be present for the ceremony.

The main cause of their worry was the knowledge that Ranma would have to return well before dinner today to meet with the priest. Thinking that perhaps he and Akane were ready to clear the air between themselves, at least a little, regarding the upcoming wedding, Kasumi decided to send Akane out later to retrieve him. However, after a considerable time passed Akane still had not reappeared, even though she must have completed her current chore.

A little concerned, Kasumi set out to find her baby sister. After looking in a couple of other places, she knocked on the closed door of Akane's bedroom. "Wh-who is it?" came a quavery voice from inside.

"It's Kasumi," the older sister said as cheerfully as she could. "I need you to do me a favor."

"J-just a minute, oneechan."

After several long seconds Akane opened her door, smiling brightly. For her part, Kasumi carefully made no show of noticing the red streaks below Akane's eyes.

"Sorry," Akane said. "I got a bit of a headache and decided to lie down for a few minutes."

"I hope you're feeling better now," Kasumi replied tenderly. "You see, I was hoping you could do something for me. Do you think you could go and find Ranma? He's wandered off again, and I'm afraid he might forget that the priest is coming later to go over the ceremony with us. There's no real hurry, so take your time. Perhaps the fresh air will even help with your headache."

"Okay," Akane said, less gloomily. The idea of getting out of the house for an hour or so did seem rather appealing at the moment. "I'll find the baka for you."

Kasumi smiled. "There's no need to call him that. Just remind him to be back in time. That's all."

Ranma was in the second place Akane looked, at one of the local parks, somewhat off the walking path sitting on a bench by a wall. He was apparently watching a family who were feeding ducks at a pond some distance away. For a few minutes Akane just stood there, drinking in the sight of him, remembering how he had come into her life and everything they had been through together. Then some sixth sense alerted him to her presence, for he turned his head her way, catching her watching him. Gathering her courage Akane walked over and sat beside him.

Ranma made room on the bench for her, wondering why she had come to join him. He'd been meditating on the crying he heard from her room each night, asking himself if maybe, just maybe, it might mean she wanted him after all. The notion was hard to believe, but if there were any possibility it could be true, hadn't he better try to find out soon? That was why, before Akane's unexpected appearance, he'd been sitting there trying to work up the courage to ask her, to learn the truth. Now, almost as if Fate had sent her there, she'd just walked up and sat down at his side. Perhaps Akane had decided to broach the subject herself?

"Looking for me?" he asked hopefully, keeping his eyes fixed on the family he'd been watching, afraid that if he looked at her he'd betray himself.

"Yeah," she said. "Kasumi sent me to find you. To remind you that the priest is coming over to review everything." She sat beside him, yet not too closely, and focused on the same family group which seemed to hold his attention.

Ranma sighed, bitterly disappointed that her reason was so mundane, so different from his hope. He looked up at the sun to gauge the time. "Got an hour, or more, before that. Suppose I had forgotten though. Thanks."

Akane glanced sidelong at him. "Something wrong?" she asked, curious about the sigh, willing to spin this little time together out for a while longer.

Ranma shrugged disconsolately. "I just wish ..." He trailed off.

"What?" Akane asked, tilting her head to the side, wondering what was going through his head.

The words were almost whispered. "It's stupid, I know, but ... for a moment I thought, maybe, you were looking for me for yourself. Not for Kasumi."

"Oh." Akane turned her eyes down to her lap. After a moment she felt compelled to ask, "Why? It's not like, you know ... well, you never seemed to want my attention before."

Words rose up in Ranma's throat, words formed out of habit, preparing to tell her that he didn't want her attention now. But he couldn't bring himself to release those words. They burned on his tongue, and then all the way back down as he swallowed them. They were the same words he had said too many times, using them like weapons to keep her at a distance. He found himself wishing he could take them all back, every stupid claim of disinterest he had ever made.

He looked at the family in the distance again. Would that be Kasumi and himself some day? With their children? Had there ever been a chance it could be Akane and him? Was it wrong for him to wish he could have had that future?

Why did Akane cry herself to sleep at night? Was there a chance that she really wanted him? Unfortunately, even if she did, his wish for an easy answer wasn't to be granted - she hadn't come here to speak of it. Which left only one person to bring it up.

And she had given him the opening, if he had the courage to take it. She had asked - he could answer, tell her why he was hoping she had come looking for him. This was his chance to learn the truth. Maybe the last chance he'd have. If he was ever going to do this, then he'd better do it now, because time had almost run out.

Clearing his throat, Ranma tried to explain. "I was thinking, maybe, you'd come looking for me, 'cause ... you see, I was hoping ..."

He paused. Something about that felt wrong. He realized after a few seconds what it was - he wanted Akane to tell him first, if she felt that way, to spare him from maybe making a fool of himself. The insight came to him in that moment that he was being a coward, and there was no more time for that. If he wanted the truth, he had to start by confessing himself.

Taking a deep breath, Ranma started speaking again. "I think I screwed up, back when Kasumi took over the engagement. Hell, a lot further back than that. I ... it ain't easy to say this, but ... I've been a bit of an idiot."

Akane almost snapped back with, "so what else is new?" She stopped herself, however. There had been too many times when she had said things like that to him. Times she had avoided saying anything serious by seeking safety in quips or insults instead. The idea of going down that road again was more than she could bear.

Akane turned her own thoughts back to when the engagement was changed. When she might have spoken up, chosen a different course. Her reply was quiet instead of scornful, introspective instead of thoughtless. "I guess ... I was a bit of an idiot myself. So, um ... what were you an idiot about, exactly?" She was honestly curious, thinking wistfully it was too bad he wouldn't say something like he had wanted to marry her instead of Kasumi.

Ranma gestured toward the family he'd been watching. A father, wearing a western suit. A mother, in a summer dress. A boy, age three or thereabouts, running around with boundless energy. A baby of indeterminate gender, currently in its mother's arms instead of the stroller at her side.

"Look at 'em," he said softly. "That's what I wanted ... want. I ain't just a martial artist, the guy that beats up monsters and whatever else. I want what other people want, when they think about the future. Married, a wife, kids. Yeah, doesn't sound like me at all, does it? But it's true. Only ... not Kasumi. I never saw her in that picture."

Ranma clenched his fist as he looked off into the distance. "That's why I said I was an idiot. I should've never got engaged to Kasumi." He sighed. "The moment it happened, I should've spoke up. Should've stopped it. Somehow. Should've told them who I really wanted."

Akane looked over at the family again, seeing herself in the mother. She felt a moment of hope, then crushed it. It was too late. Besides, just because he hadn't wanted to be engaged to Kasumi was no reason to fool herself into thinking he had wanted her. "So you finally decided? After all this time? Now that you're about to marry my sister?" She sighed. "May I ask who it was? Not that it matters any more. I bet ... I bet it was Ukyo, wasn't it?"

Ranma turned toward her, fire in his eyes. All of the pent up emotions poured themselves into his voice, the words unstoppable. "Ukyo?! Don't you understand?! The one I wanted to marry was you! You, dammit! Not Ukyo. Not Shampoo. Not Kasumi. It was ..." He ran down, slumping forward, hands dangling between his knees. "It was always you."

Akane's hand flew up to her throat. She couldn't breathe. There wasn't enough air in the park. She couldn't have heard right. It was impossible that Ranma had really wanted to be engaged to her. But she had heard. The words were still echoing inside her skull. Words that were undeniable.

Still trying to convince herself she had heard correctly, still trying to breathe properly, she gasped out, "Why? Why didn't you say that a month ago? Ever? Why wait until now?"

He snorted, bitterness tinging his words. "You made your own feelings plain enough."

Akane felt her breath taken away again, this time by the sheer magnitude of folly in the situation. She almost responded in anger, but the pain she felt swallowed the anger, and instead her words came out quietly, sadly. "I promise you, Ranma, I made my feelings as plain as you made yours."

He turned his face toward her, puzzled. "What's that supposed to mean? I thought I just told you. I, well, I never admitted how I really felt. Not till now. That means I didn't make my feelings plain at all."

"That's what I mean," Akane confirmed sadly. "If you think I ... I didn't want the engagement, then ... I'm afraid you were wrong."

Ranma stared at her, his bitter air of defeat giving way to the first glimmers of hope. "What? You ... you wanted our engagement? I thought ... I thought you were happy to hand me over to Kasumi."

Akane shook her head from side to side. She whispered, barely breathing the words, "I didn't really want to break our engagement. I ... I wanted to marry you. Someday. If you wanted it."

It was like a breeze lifted Ranma's spirit. A light appeared, offering a path out of the darkness. "I'm sorry." He struggled to find words to express how he felt. "Gods, 'sorry' doesn't begin to cover it. I can't believe how big an idiot I've been. Listen, we can ..."

"No." The quiet word was said firmly.

"What do you mean 'no'?" Ranma asked, both arms raised. "You ain't even heard what I was gonna say."

"There's nothing we can do," Akane said implacably. "Your wedding is in two days. Kasumi has her heart set on marrying you."

"How d'you know she's got her heart set on it?" Ranma demanded. "Maybe she don't want it either."

Akane shook her head. Her voice remained even, lacking in emotion. "She's been planning this for a month. Invitations, dresses, florist, and on and on. Now you want to leave her at the altar? And make me responsible?"

"What if I refuse to marry her anyway?" Ranma asked. "It wouldn't be your fault."

Akane turned angry eyes on him. "Do you have any idea what that would do to her? If you did that, I really would hate you."

Ranma turned away, his face flushed. After a minute he said, "Sorry. I didn't mean that. I wouldn't ... I don't wanna hurt Kasumi. I won't. But I wanna marry you, not her. I mean, I mean, eventually. I always expected to. I ... I ..."

He paused to take a deep breath, forcing himself to speak calmly. "Sometimes I'd think about it. Imagine it. What it would be like if you were willing. Spending time together, not 'cause we had to, but 'cause we wanted to. Teaching in the dojo. Having kids. Watching 'em grow up. Teaching 'em martial arts. The girls would be beautiful, o'course, 'cause they'd look like you." He jerked to a stop, embarrassed at having said too much.

Akane, with a catch in her throat, said, "What, no red-haired girls with pigtails in the lot? I suppose the boys would look like you?"

Ranma shrugged, still embarrassed. "Well, yeah."

She looked over at the family group again, the father and mother now sitting in the grass, the little boy in his father's lap, the mother still holding the baby. Her eyes blurred and for a moment, she could see herself and Ranma there, with their children around them.

"What about you?" Ranma asked. "You ever think about it? You and me? You ever imagine what it would be like?"

Blinking her vision clear, Akane took a deep breath and nodded. "Sometimes," she admitted. "I'd think about ... you and me ... together. Sometimes ..." She couldn't go on, lost opportunities and regrets stifled her voice.

Plaintively, Ranma tried to suggest, "We could ..."

"No," Akane said quietly, interrupting him. She clenched her hands together tightly, her eyes growing damp. A tear broke free and rolled down her cheek. "No, we can't, Ranma," she told him, struggling to keep her voice under control. "We just can't. Please, don't tempt me."

"But I love you!"

"Oh God!" He'd said it, plainly, without denial, the words she had wanted to hear from him for so long. That simple phrase, more than anything else he had said, threatened to overwhelm her defenses. Akane jumped up, holding her hands over her ears, shaking her head violently from side to side. Tears were running down her face. "No! Don't say that! Please, don't say that! You're engaged to Kasumi. Everyone is coming to see her get married. I won't betray my sister. I won't!"

Ranma leapt to his feet in front of her and forced her hands away from her head. "But you want me!" he yelled. "And I want you! And I will say it! I love you!"

"Stop it!" Akane screamed, pulling against his hands holding hers. "It's too late. You're going to marry Kasumi. I won't break her heart. I won't. I won't!"

She broke down sobbing and Ranma pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her, embracing her. He sought to comfort her, while taking comfort himself, stroking her hair and rocking her a little. His own eyes were shut tightly. Why? Why must it be this way?

Eventually Akane quieted down to sniffles and pulled back. Looking at him but not meeting his eyes, chin quivering, she smiled slightly and said, "I'm afraid I've gotten your shirt all wet."

"Akane, I ..."

She lifted a finger and pressed it against his lips, silencing him. "Ranma, I'll treasure the things you said. Always. And for what it's worth, I wish we could have had that future. But it's too late. You're Kasumi's now."

Mumbling around her finger, Ranma said, "It ain't too late until after Sunday."

Akane's teeth bit into her lip, and her eyes grew moist again. "Please. Don't. It's hard enough."

She leaned forward, and for just a moment Ranma thought she planned to kiss him. But Akane moved to the side, and rested her cheek against his. Her mouth beside his ear, in the softest of whispers she said, "I love you, Ranma. Take care of Kasumi for me."

She then turned and left, without letting him see her face again. Ranma sat down on the bench helplessly, watching her from the back as she walked away. Almost he jumped up and ran after her. But he held back, something inside telling him that he was only going to cause her more pain. So he sat there and watched Akane disappear from sight, while wondering how the bright summer day could seem to have had all of the light sucked out of it.

Sunday morning arrived. The two youngest members of the household closed their eyes again immediately upon awakening, trying to pretend, if only for a few more minutes, that this day still was not here. Time marched on relentlessly, however, and soon enough they were forced to arise from their beds, to bathe, to eat their breakfasts, to help with the last minute preparations.

Guests began to arrive. The fathers and Nabiki were left to the duty of collecting the gifts, and showing everyone to their seats in the dojo. After Akane donned her own bridesmaid dress, she joined Nodoka to help Kasumi into her wedding gown.

Ranma had likewise gone to his room to put on his tuxedo. His movements were sharp, almost angry, and he paced back and forth in quick, jerky strides. He felt like a spring which had been wound too tightly, and wondered absently if he might somehow "break." From time to time he almost put a fist through a wall, only to stop himself at the last moment, telling himself yet again that he had to get control before the ceremony.

It might have amused Ranma to know that Doctor Tofu was also donning a tuxedo at that very moment, and that the older man's movements and behavior were almost a perfect mirror image of Ranma's. Then again, it might not.

In Kasumi's room, the dress was finally arranged to the women's satisfaction. Nodoka took up a brush and started drawing it through Kasumi's long locks, while Akane stood near, holding a spray of flowers which would be pinned in her sister's hair. With grave determination, Akane kept a smile on her face, but inside she kept harking back to another wedding day, one in which she had worn the dress, before it all went crashing down in disaster. Her muscles were tensed so rigidly that she feared she might shatter.

"You look lovely, oneechan," Akane said, and this at least was the truth.

"Thank you, Akane," Kasumi replied sweetly. "Of course, wedding dresses are reputed to have that effect."

Akane shook her head slightly. "You'd look lovely without the dress." Then she blushed furiously. "I ... I mean ... I didn't mean ..."

Kasumi giggled, while Nodoka chuckled. With a mischievous air and a flicker of her eyes toward Akane, Nodoka turned to the older girl and said, "That reminds me. I don't believe we've ever discussed the honeymoon. Have you given any thought to where you'll go?"

Akane froze, not wanting to hear the answer. Wishing that she dared put her hands to her ears to shut out all sound.

Kasumi glanced at Akane and then back to Nodoka so quickly that the younger girl never noticed. Taking a deep breath, she gently said, "As skittish as Ranma has been about the whole affair, I've been afraid to bring the subject up with him. Best that we worry about the wedding first. We can plan on a honeymoon in a week or two, after he's grown accustomed to being married. My own bedroom will do perfectly well for the wedding night."

A helpless gasp instantly focused the attention of the two women upon the youngest. Akane's mouth was open, her lips moving up and down silently, her body swaying ever so slightly.

Nodoka moved forward, taking hold of Akane's hand. "Careful dear. You'll crush those flowers."

Akane looked down at the flowers absently, allowing Nodoka to pry them from her fingers. Her eyes tracked after them, unthinking, as they were laid on a small table. She was trying desperately not to think about anything at all.

"Akane? Are you all right?" Kasumi asked gently. But there was something firm about her as well.

Her voice drew Akane's attention back around. "I'll be fine, Kasumi. I ... I ..." She choked. The sight of her sister was a forceful reminder that in a few hours Ranma would be bound forever to another person. Her eyes closed tightly, pushing tears out, trailing mascara in their wakes. The young woman turned around, not wanting to face the other two, gulping air to keep from breaking down.

Kasumi stood up from her chair. She rested her hands on Akane's shoulders. "Are you sure you're all right?"

Akane gave a jerky nod, wishing that her sister would give her a moment of peace. She was so tightly strung that any sympathy or soft words might easily send her over the edge.

Softly, choosing her words and tone very precisely, Kasumi asked, "Is it about Ranma? Is there something troubling you, something you need to tell me?"

The threatened tears burst forth. "I'm sorry, oneechan! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

Kasumi leaned against her sister's back, pressing one hand to Akane's forehead. She placed a gentle kiss on the side of her head. "You have nothing to be sorry for, Akane."

"But I love him!" the girl wailed. "I want him so badly. It's killing me. I know he's yours, but ... but I ..."

Nodoka came over and pulled Akane into a hug. The three of them stood there together while Akane slowly fought to stop what she perceived as her foolishness.

Finally pulling back, Kasumi gently turned Akane around and inspected her. "Now there. We're going to have quite a job repairing your makeup."

"I'm sorry, oneechan," Akane said again in a very small, tremulous voice. She tried and failed to raise her lips back into a smile.

"It was only to be expected," Kasumi said. "Now if you'll only be patient, I believe that ..." She paused, cocking her head to the side. A small smile touched her lips. "Aah yes." Her smile widened as she looked at Akane. "Ranma's coming. If you don't want him to see you like that, perhaps you should step into the closet for a minute."

Aghast at the sight she surely presented and filled with reluctance to let Ranma see her like that, Akane practically flew into the closet. She had no sooner shut herself in when the bedroom door flew open.

A minute earlier, back in his bedroom, Ranma had finally reached his breaking point. He had frozen stock still, and snarled. There was no way that Ranma Saotome was going to give in without a fight! Now he strode into his bride-to-be's room, resplendent in his tuxedo, quivering with energy. "Kasumi, I gotta talk to you!" he declared loudly.

Nodoka spoke first. "Ranma, what is the meaning of this! You're not supposed to see the bride before the wedding! You certainly shouldn't come barging into a lady's room without knocking, especially when you know she's supposed to be dressing."

Ranma was clearly at the end of his rope. "Mom, with all due respect, shut ..." He paused. Gulped down his words. Went on a shade more quietly. "Mom, for once will you please let me say my mind?" He paused again, clenching his fists and then painstakingly unclenching them. "If it weren't for you, and pop, and Tendo-san, all telling me what I got to do, maybe I ..." He paused yet again.

He sagged a little. "No, that ain't fair. I've never stood up for what I wanted before, why should anyone have ever expected any different? I just did what I was told. And I am so ... bloody ... sick of it. Why can't I, for once, have what I want?"

"What do you want, Ranma-kun?" Kasumi asked pleasantly. Curiously.

The young man let a breath out slowly. He searched for words. "Kasumi? You're a very special person. I can't tell you how much you mean to me. I never known anyone nicer, or sweeter, or ... You deserve the best. You really do." He looked down. "And I don't think I'm it."

He looked up again, and there was something agonized in his expression. "If I marry you, I promise I'll try to be the best husband I can be. I'll always take care of you. I'll never betray you. I'll always treat you as good as I can."

His eyes dropped once more, and his voice was quieter when it continued. "But I also gotta be honest. And the truth is, I'll never be able to love you. Not the way a husband should. Because I ... because there's someone else that I love. That I'll always love. I can't give you my heart when someone else owns it."

A sob broke out from inside the closet.

Kasumi asked, quite peacefully all in all, "Who?"

Ranma turned toward the closet. "Akane ...?" he both answered and asked. He slowly walked over and opened the door, looking down at the crying girl kneeling on the floor. Without saying anything more he stepped into the closet and knelt beside her, pulling Akane into his arms. She buried her face into Ranma's shoulder, as he placed one hand behind her head, the other across her back.

"Well, well," Nodoka commented, giving Kasumi a nod.

A sudden pounding of footsteps came from the stairs outside.

"Act three," Kasumi said mysteriously. She was breathing rapidly, as if at the end of a long race, stressed but confident. Nodoka nodded and stepped over to the closet, closing the door. Akane had quieted somewhat, clutching Ranma tightly, and no sound could be heard through the door.

Tofu Ono stormed into the room, dressed in the tuxedo he had rented for the wedding. His hair, his clothes, everything about him was perfectly in place, utterly presentable. But at the same time he looked more than a little wild. Perhaps it was something in his eyes.

"I can't let you do it Kasumi!"

"You can't let me do what, Tofu-sensei?" she asked calmly.

"I can't let you marry Ranma, out of ... out of ... out of some sense of duty!" One arm was now waving in the air. "He's a fine young man! No question! But you know very well he doesn't love you. Not like ..." He paused, gathered himself. "Not like I do," he finished forcefully.

Kasumi smiled. "Could you please say that again, Tofu? Perhaps with fewer words?"

He drew himself together. "I love you, Kasumi Tendo. Will you please give up on this ... this notion of marrying Ranma Saotome and marry me instead?"

Kasumi studied the man before her. "I hope you will forgive me for changing the subject temporarily, but your behavior seems, shall we say, a trifle more rational than usual."

Tofu laughed grimly. "It's surprising what a man can do when he realizes that he's about to lose his heart's desire, forever." He went down on one knee. "Kasumi, please, I love you and promise to take care of you forever. Please say that you'll marry me."

Instead of answering, Kasumi turned and walked over to the closet. Opening the door, she gazed down upon the couple inside, who were still holding on to each other for dear life. "Okay you two," she said seriously, "come on out of there."

Tofu watched in confusion as Ranma and Akane emerged from Kasumi's closet, still holding on to each other.

Kasumi looked around the room, gathering everyone's eyes to herself, her own eye resting for a brief moment upon a small piece of porcelain on her desk. "On this all of you have my promise," she told them. "There will be a wedding today."

Kasumi walked up to Ranma and looked him straight in the eye. In a voice which would brook no foolishness, she said, "Understand clearly. I'm only going to ask this once. Do you love my little sister?"

"Yes," he said, almost pleading with her.

"And will you agree to marry Akane instead of me? Today? No last minute delays? No last minute quarrels? You will stand in front of the priest and say 'I do'? I warn you, this is truly the last chance I will grant."

Ranma swallowed hard. "Yes," he whispered. Akane was looking up at him almost in awe.

Kasumi turned toward Akane, who turned back to face her older sister. "And do you love Ranma?" Kasumi asked.

Akane nodded her head up and down, as frightened as prey before a predator.

"Do you want to marry Ranma?"

"More than anything," Akane whispered.

"Today?" Kasumi insisted. "Out there in the dojo? In front of everyone? You'll accept Ranma as your husband?"

"I ... I ..." Akane looked down helplessly at the bridesmaid dress she was wearing, knowing that Kasumi's gown certainly wouldn't fit. She strengthened her resolve, determined that she'd do it even if she had to get married in this dress.

At that moment, however, Nodoka stretched back to the furthest reaches of the closet, and pulled out ...

A wedding dress. No, not just any wedding dress, but the wedding dress. The one Akane had worn for the previous wedding, which had dissolved into chaos. It had obviously been cleaned, and looked as beautiful as it had the first moment she had laid eyes on it.

Akane's eyes filled with tears, but this time they were tears of happiness. "Oh yes. Yes. I promise. Thank you. Thank you, Kasumi."

Kasumi nodded, a large smile upon her lips. A wrinkle of worry, however, adorned her forehead as she turned back to the doctor who was observing all of this in shock. Kasumi walked over and stood before him, clasping her hands behind her back.

"I believe you asked me to marry you," Kasumi said.

Tofu licked dry lips. "Ah, so I did."

Kasumi's smile grew broader. "I appear to be in a wedding dress, and you seem to be in a tuxedo. We have wedding guests and a priest waiting. So ... did you mean it?"

Tofu almost fainted as the room grew bright and spun around him. Then something snarled within him and stomped a foot down. The room settled. Tofu stood straighter, pulling needlessly at the tails of his coat.

"Yes I did," he said firmly. "And if you wish it, I will be more than happy to marry you right now."

Kasumi looked joyfully around the room. "Then I believe that settles everything. Now if you two gentlemen will go down the hall and wait for a bit, I'm afraid that Aunt Nodoka and I must busy ourselves to get Akane ready for her wedding. Tofu, please make sure that Ranma doesn't bolt. Ranma, please make sure that Tofu doesn't bolt. Oh, and if he starts to dance around, feel free to knock him down."

The two men, both with completely bemused airs, left the room, shutting the door behind them. They went down the hall to Ranma's room and settled themselves in to wait. It had been rather apparent, after all, that more than a few minutes were going to be necessary.

"I got the weirdest feeling that I've been hoodwinked," Ranma commented to the other man. "If I didn't know better, I'd think that Kasumi planned for things to turn out this way."

Tofu nodded. "I know what you mean. But, do you know, I think I'll just let it drop. I certainly have no intention of complaining about the outcome. You?"

Ranma looked thoughtful. "I think I'm getting a little tired of feeling manipulated. But maybe just this once." He sighed. "Maybe it was the only way."

Tofu nodded, and the room grew quiet.

Some time later, but sooner than one might have expected, Nodoka walked into the dojo. As soon as she did, Nabiki spotted her and walked over.

"Are the happy couple ready?" she asked with a smirk. "I suppose that I should go and join Kasumi and Akane now."

"They'll be down in another couple of minutes," Nodoka said, looking around the crowded room in satisfaction. With a small, uninterpretable smile, she asked, "Haven't you passed out the wedding programs yet?"

Nabiki snapped her fingers. "I meant to ask you about that. I couldn't find them."

Nodoka strolled over to one of the tables, where she bent down and lifted the tablecloth. With a little "ah" of satisfaction, she withdrew a box from underneath. Examining it for a moment, she shook her head and pushed it back. Then she pulled out another box, apparent twin to the first. Lifting the flaps, she signaled to her husband and Soun to join her. Pushing handfuls of the programs upon Nabiki and the two men, the four of them began distributing them among the guests.

Before long Nabiki grew aware of a buzz of aroused curiosity. Looking back, she saw people bending over the programs, pointing at them, speaking animatedly to one another. Puzzled, she opened one of the programs she held, wondering what had caught their eyes.

Nabiki almost dropped it in shock. There, right in front of her eyes, were the words, "The Wedding Celebration Uniting - Kasumi Tendo and Tofu Ono - Also Celebrating the Marriage of - Akane Tendo and Ranma Saotome."

"What?! But ...?" Could the printer have possibly made some ghastly mistake? But how could Kasumi have missed it?

Trying not to run, Nabiki left the dojo as quickly as her feet would carry her. Before she could even reach the house, the door opened. Kasumi walked out, stunning in her wedding gown, her arm linked with that of Doctor Tofu. Behind them were Ranma and Akane, blushing and holding hands, unable to take their eyes off of one another. Akane was also in a wedding gown, one which Nabiki recognized from the previously attempted wedding.

Nabiki ground to a halt, thinking that someone had made a colossal fool of her. How could she have missed the planning in which these four must have engaged? Aunt Nodoka was also in on it, she was sure. Their fathers? Perhaps. Could it possibly be that she was the only one in the family who hadn't known? The idea was more than humiliating.

When they met on the walk, Nabiki ground out, "I appear to have been under a misapprehension about who was marrying whom."

Tofu chuckled. "I'm afraid that you weren't the only one. But try not to be angry about it. I know that I'm certainly not."

Nabiki's eyebrows lifted at the suggestion that Doctor Tofu might not have known that he was scheduled to be one of the grooms today. With a start she heard the opening chords of music back in the dojo, and there was no more time for questions. Refusing to appear discommoded before the guests, Nabiki took herself in hand and joined the party. ‹I'm going to look awfully silly,› she told herself gloomily, ‹as the only bridesmaid, outnumbered by the brides.›

When the party entered the dojo, Nabiki saw with satisfaction that both fathers stumbled in shock. Her own father fell flat on his rump. Genma backed into one of the floral arrangements, shattering the vase and soaking himself in water. She reflected that a tuxedo-clad panda bear was a very strange sight. Luckily he was at the rear of the room, and Nodoka was standing near with hot water, so he was human once more before very many people saw what had happened.

Ukyo, standing at her seat, caught Akane's eye on the way up the aisle. The okonomiyaki chef gave her a sad smile and a thumbs up, and Akane only barely controlled her urge to rush over and give the other girl a hug.

Then she was standing at the front of the room, facing Ranma. People were saying things that Akane couldn't take in, but somehow she and Ranma must have made the right responses at the right times because the priest was suddenly saying something about pronouncing people husband and wife. Plus something about kissing the brides.

Akane thought she was going to faint. She was expected to kiss Ranma? In front of all of these people? But then his face was in front of her, and he seemed to be hesitating for a moment, his eyes searching her own, and Akane couldn't stand it for even one more second, and she leaned forward, and they were kissing, and she never wanted it to stop, and Oh God how could things have turned out so wonderfully after all of these weeks of horrible misery, and people were cheering, and ...

Finally it was necessary to breathe. Their eyes almost touching, Ranma and Akane whispered, simultaneously, "I love you."

Kasumi paused a moment in kissing her own husband to glance at her little sister and new brother-in-law out of the corner of her eye. With a feeling of immense satisfaction, she reflected that maybe, once in a while, there might perhaps be something to be gained after all from losing her temper. Not that Kasumi intended to let it happen very often.

Then Tofu was kissing her again, and she forgot all about everything else. She could finally release all of her plans, and schemes, and strategies of the last month. She could finally get on with her happily ever after, worrying about nothing more serious than enjoying life with her new husband.

At least, until the next time her family needed someone to do what needed to be done.


Author's note:

The reason for the title of this story, in case it isn't clear, is that Kasumi's name means "mist" and adamant refers to an unbreakably strong substance.

Now, it's time to announce a surprise I've been keeping up my sleeve. What you have just read is the official ending of Adamantine Mist. This is the final chapter, which makes the story complete.

However, somewhat as in the movie Clue, I have prepared two alternative endings for this story. Although unlike the way in which that movie is shown these days, I have chosen to present the "real" ending first. In the not too distant future I will be posting the other two chapters under a derivative story title, something like Adamantine Mist Divergent. These chapters will illustrate completely different ways in which events could have worked out, neither of them quite so happy as the above chapter. I do feel, though, that they provide dramatic, moving conclusions, or I wouldn't be bothering to post them.

And if, in the privacy of your own head, or in the files stored somewhere on your own hard drive, you wish to replace the above chapter with one of the two alternative chapters - that's your own personal choice to make.

Related sites on the web: Please visit my profile page for information on upcoming chapters or stories, by clicking on my name at the top of this chapter. My profile also has links to my web site, LiveJournal site and forum. The web site contains the official versions of my stories. The LiveJournal site provides updates on what I am working upon at any given time. The forum is a place to discuss my stories or Ranma 1/2 in general.