Disclaimer: I don't own Ranma 1/2.
Author's foreword: Donny Cheng, you awesome author of Ranma ½ pairings, I'm sending my love, wherever you are.
Love at First Bite Chapter 2
'I've found her!' The thought entered him, filled him, and marinated his every cell in sweet and spicy jubilation.
As he watched the timid girl's shock, he felt a tiny pang of guilt at performing the technique on her the way he had. On the other hand, she was right there! How could he resist sampling her to the fullest extent of his ability? Food was meant to be eaten, and talent appreciated.
Ranma, self-proclaimed gourmet of culinary skill, tried to adjust so that his voice was gentle. "My name's Ranma, what's yours?"
"Kasumi," she blurted out, and then covered her mouth with a hand, then realized where the hand had been, and hurriedly held the offending digits as far from her as possible.
An overwhelming need to break into embarrassed incoherence gripped him when he noticed the action, but he fought it down. This was an opportunity that wouldn't come in another million years.
For a wandering martial artist, these meetings were gossamer strands of spun sugar, plentiful yet evanescent, easily disappearing beneath the summer rains. Since as far back as he could remember, he and his father were always moving, never stopping anywhere for long enough to lay down roots. Ranma had met many people during his travels- a lot of them with homes and families. There seemed to be a correlation between their ability and how much they took their lives for granted. For his art the pigtailed boy would sacrifice much.
It was lonely, but he had been fine up until now. The woman in front of him was perhaps different. Of the hundreds of names and faces he'd encountered, and the various places he'd seen, he found in her something special. For the first time he felt as though he'd met a potential peer, and with her… the possibility of a home.
"Kasumi," he sounded it out, rolling it around his tongue like a strawberry drop. Steeling his nerves, he took a long breath then called, "Mr. Tendo!"
The man, who had been prone on the floor shedding buckets of tears from being at the receiving end of his youngest daughter's violence, was suddenly seated with spine ramrod straight. "Y-yes, Ranma!"
A paralyzing terror struck when he realized that he hadn't planned this far in advance. In his addled state, he arbitrarily decided that it was a good idea to say something to break the tension. His mind groped frantically for something to fulfill his intent, and bubbles of Soun's words floated up from his subconscious. What was that about picking one of his daughters? An engagement?!
He'd only ever been friends with a handful of girls. How the heck was he supposed to jump all the way to fiancée? He looked at Kasumi once more. She was cute even when she was frazzled, and more importantly unattached. How long would she stay that way? No, Ranma Saotome would not hesitate. He grinned internally. If the early bird got the worm, then he fully intended to snap her up. Martialing his bravado, he said the first words that came to mind.
"I choose this one."
Ironically, his words did nothing to break the tension.
'This one?' his words hit like a spray of cold water. Kasumi's right eye twitched. For a split second, she had seen his neck and imagined a dirty rag. Maybe if she wrung it out, she'd be able to squeeze some manners out of him.
Unfortunately, that wouldn't be proper. The weight in her other hand caught her attention, a pitcher of barley tea.
'He does look like he needs to cool off, and it would be impolite not to return the favor…'
"Now why ever did I do that?" Kasumi said aloud, blinking with wide innocence. The sound of the tea as it hit the boy's face had been quite satisfying.
After the second or third blink, the blinking suddenly stopped, and her mouth went dry.
Inner-Nabiki, the Nabiki that largely believed the world was sane and logical, took one long look at reality as it stood and curled into a quivering ball. Really, she couldn't blame it. This wasn't something you ran into every day. One moment, there was Ranma, and the next….
The white cotton tunic formerly worn by the pigtailed food vendor had gone from well-fitted to baggy in an instant. Nabiki was trying hard to make sense of how the body beneath shrank and went from sculpted to smooth. 'Maybe he learned some magic tricks for his food vending act,' she thought, reaching very hard for an explanation.
"Nihao!" The redheaded girl who resembled Ranma called out with a hand raised in greeting.
Genma was already up on one knee, "Boy, what do you think you're-"
"Ben xiong mao, gei wo an jing!" The redhead was a blur of motion, dashing through the intervening space like a hummingbird. A silky metallic sound emanated from the sheath as she drew the giant blade off her back, and batted the bald martial artist towards the garden wall where his head met the stone with a crack before splashing into the koi pond.
The pigtailed girl smiled at Nabiki before she slipped a book into her hand.
Looking down, she saw that it was a Chinese to Japanese dictionary. Not knowing what else to do, she played along.
"Stupid panda, give me silence," she translated.
The redhead winked at her, and Nabiki found a smile forming on her lips as the girl turned to Kasumi. The middle Tendo daughter watched in amazement as the perky young girl let one shoulder of the tunic slip, transforming herself into a hot little vixen.
"Wo de xiao tao hua," said the girl huskily as she slunk towards Kasumi, who was looking like a frightened woodland creature.
"My little peach blossom," Nabiki followed.
The girl put her hands on Kasumi's cheek. "Wo ai ni."
"I love you."
Kasumi turned her head from one direction to the next in an attempt to find an escape route, but her efforts were futile. "Um… miss? I appreciate your feelings—that is, but you're a—and I don't-" Unable to deal with the rapid series of events, the eldest Tendo's legs gave out and her back slid against the wall.
The redhead looked down at Kasumi with a smoldering gaze before cracking into a crooked grin. "Pfft, Hahahahahaha!"
Nabiki was confused until the girl reached into her tunic and pulled out a thermos. A quick pour later, and Ranma was back to being male again.
"Ah, priceless." He chuckled a little more.
"Sorry, I just couldn't resist… sometimes I have to laugh this curse off to keep from crying," he said, holding out a hand to Nabiki's shell-shocked elder sister. "Let's all get back to the table and I'll explain. It'll be a little hard to believe, but please listen until the end."
"W-what are you?" Nabiki heard Kasumi ask, dumfounded.
The pigtailed boy winced, but smiled despite the sting. "I deserved that. My name is Ranma Saotome. Sorry about this."
Genma, transformed and steaming thanks to a kettle from his friend, settled next to his son at the table. Closing his eyes, he tried to delay the inevitable. He'd been dreading this, but he supposed they'd find out sooner or later. He could have done with more ideal circumstances, however.
It would help if his audience were all so drunk that they wouldn't be able to see in a straight line, let alone walk one.
As it was, Soun's eldest was taking furtive glances at the boy when she thought Ranma wasn't looking, the middle one was munching on a rice cracker, waiting to pass judgment, and the youngest was quietly reflective.
'I may as well break the news. The boy's already guaranteed that they couldn't have gotten a worse impression, so it's all uphill from here!' he thought with a grim optimism.
"Let me tell the tale, Boy," he said to his son. "I don't think they'd be very receptive to anything you have to say, all things considered."
Ranma snorted. "Fine, it's not like it'll make much of a difference," he said, and crossed his arms.
Soun, who had passed out while seated with his eyes wide open, suddenly came back. He shook himself like a wet dog in an attempt to wake from a nightmare. "Genma, I… I thought I saw your son turn into your daughter, and you, you turned into a panda!"
"You saw correctly, Old Friend. Had I not informed you earlier that we stumbled across many dangers in our quest to perfect the art, and that among those dangers was magic?"
Soun was poleaxed. "Yes, but I hadn't dreamed-"
"There are more things in heaven and earth, my friend, than are dreamt of in the minds of humble men. Have we not seen together similar arcane terrors under the tutelage of the Dreaded Master?"
At that question, the Tendo patriarch paled visibly. "Of course, of course, how foolish of me! Please, continue."
"Thank you, Soun." Genma took a deep breath, and began his tale. "Deep in the Bayankala mountain ranges of China, there lies a training ground so remote and so dangerous, that the only way to reach this place is by hiking three days across dense forests filled with all manner of beasts."
"The training ground was called Jusenkyou, and it was the legendary training ground of cursed springs. At first glance, the place seemed rather harmless. Bamboo poles were mounted in more than one hundred springs in order to train balance. The loser would inevitably receive a dunking and, I assumed, would be no worse for wear."
Tears streamed slowly down his cheeks. "However, what I hadn't been aware of was that each spring had a tragic story of drowning. Sometimes it was a person, while at others, an animal- each tale more heart wrenching than the last! Perhaps tragedy begets tragedy, the pools of innocent seeming water, took on a malevolent nature, for you see…"
"Yes?" Soun asked, at the edge of his seat.
Genma turned away, his fingers covering his eyes as though the additional darkness could make the tragedy disappear. "Oh, I can't bear to say it!"
Soun clasped his hands together, "Have strength my friend!"
Genma raised his head, looking up at Soun in deep and profound adoration. "Tendo, you have my gratitude. Thanks to you, I can go on."
Ranma rolled his eyes. "Oh brother."
Nabiki, meanwhile, was hiding a smirk behind an upraised teacup.
Ignoring the comments, he continued, "The great danger of those cursed springs lies in contact with the water. For whosoever falls into those springs turns into what had drowned there!"
Soun reared back. "Oh what tragedy! Then…"
Genma nodded sadly, "During our sparring, I fell in the Spring of Drowned Panda, and my son, my pride and joy, fell in—Oh the disgrace!" he splashed his son with a cup of chilled tea.
"Aiyah! Ranma fall in the Spring of Drowned Chinese Amazon Warrior! Almost make Panda Man fill new spring!" the boy turned girl said sweetly in a thick Chinese accent.
Genma's face paled, and quickly struck his son's head. "Would you cut that out, Boy! What if that girl actually comes?!" He visibly shuddered. "You know that wherever that bubblehead is, She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named is soon to follow!"
"Ow!" Ranma said before punching Genma in the mouth, staggering him long enough for her to get inside his guard and throw him bodily into the koi pond. "Stupid panda, it's your fault we got cursed to begin with!"
'Source of ultimate soup stock, my foot!' Ranma thought grumpily. What had been more galling was that Jusenkyo spring water really did make better soup.
After making sure his father wasn't going to counter attack, Ranma sat down cross legged, and addressed the Tendo family.
She noticed that they were looking a little too startled, and sighed. "Okay, the spring I actually fell into was Spring of Drowned Girl. But it's not that big a deal, okay? I'm still me in here." Ranma pounded his chest to emphasize that he had the heart of a man, completely unaware of how the action set her rather generous endowments to bouncing.
She leaned back. "And do you have any idea how much a cute girl saves when she goes to the market? It's obscene!"
Nabiki's snort brought Ranma out of her rambling. They seemed like a decent lot though, and she really didn't want them to hate her, especially Kasumi.
Distracted by her own thoughts, she didn't notice Soun nearing until searing agony hit the top of her head.
"I see, hot water changes you back," he said, lowering a kettle.
"Hot, not boiling!" Ranma growled.
He felt Soun put a hand on his shoulder. "Your problem's not so bad. The engagement stands!"
When Akane saw the boy turn into a girl, the anger disappeared like a puff of smoke.
Ever since their mother had passed, her big sister had become her safe place, a fortress of security where she could run whenever the world turned topsy-turvy. However, it was also those same unassailable walls whose height daunted Akane as she grew into a woman. She was hopeless in the kitchen, could barely do housework, and merely tomboyish at the best of times. Living with Kasumi as a teenaged girl was paradoxically difficult.
She wouldn't admit it to anyone else, but beneath the hurt and betrayal that sprang from the collective actions of Kuno and his band of merry men, she thought she had found evidence of her femininity in their misguided attentions, and then this jerk had shown up.
The pigtailed boy had taken Kuno down in one blow. Akane had been so tongue-tied by his casual show of raw martial ability that she hadn't been able to speak when he bore into her soul with some unidentifiable need. She had thought that it was her charms that had called him, but nothing had been further from the truth. He'd been entranced by the siren's song of Kasumi's cooking.
Akane found herself once again looking up from the base of those fortress walls, their barely visible peaks towering ever higher.
So when she found those walls cracking under the relentless siege that was Ranma Saotome, and felt a silent glee fill her heart. Akane finally understood that she wasn't a very good sister, and was also most likely a very horrible person- especially after what she was about to do.
Kneeling on one side of her eldest sister, she said, "Then it's settled. Kasumi will be his new fiancée!"
This was for the best, now that Akane really thought about it. In the darkest pits of her soul, she knew having a fiancé who was cuter than she was would have caused her to snap, and no one would want that. Level-headed Kasumi was definitely the right person for the job.
Nabiki joined in flanking their sister after Akane's declaration. Patting Kasumi on the back, she said, "Definitely, I couldn't agree more."
"W-What? You must be kidding! Why would I want to-" Kasumi said, her face reddening.
Like an unseen fishbone, Akane's next words lodged for the choke. "I'm sure you'll be very happy together, Kasumi," her tone saccharine, "I mean, he did choose you, didn't he?"
"You said you don't like younger men so you're in luck- he isn't even one half the time!" Nabiki said, unable to resist the jab.
She laughed off the look of disbelief on her normally unflappable sister's face. Kasumi would probably thank her one day. She did have her reasons, which partly had to do with how little their worlds intersected.
Saying Nabiki had no patience for housework was like saying water was wet. She had thought that accompanying Kasumi to the market would be a hassle-free way of spending time with her big sis.
That hadn't quite been how the trip played out.
Her elder sister seemed to know everyone. By the time they got back home, Nabiki's cheeks were sore. She'd never had to fake so many smiles in her life. Kasumi, on the other hand, was fresh as a daisy. They were both loaded with enough produce to last a week for prices that even Nabiki, in her limited experience, could tell were far below average. The most impressive part was that Kasumi never had to ask.
Sure, Nabiki herself was no slouch. She'd wrapped many a retailer around her little finger on her clothes hunting trips to Shibuya, but the people at the market gave Kasumi extra service as a matter of course.
Seeing how her sister maintained relationships with people outside the family had been an eye-opening and humbling experience. She'd assumed for quite some time now that Kasumi was special, though not in the 'grand destiny' kind of way.
Kasumi was special because only she, out of the three of them, found the strength to stand and pick up the pieces after their mother's passing. Had Kasumi forged herself to become the woman she was, or did she have those qualities all along? Whichever the case, Nabiki lacked the ability to walk beside her sister because she hadn't had the strength to make an equal sacrifice.
Kasumi had effectively left her childhood behind, a decision that inevitably led to isolation. Her former high school friends had moved on, and the people at the market were acquaintances at best, and that bothered the middle Tendo daughter on a fundamental level.
Then this Ranma shows up with his strange, err, taste for judging culinary talent, and completely put Kasumi off her game. Her elder sister even got mad! Nabiki had seen her upset, but actually enraged enough to splash someone in the face with tea? A week ago, Nabiki would have given very long odds of that happening.
Nabiki still wasn't sure if she wanted the pigtailed chef. He was a breath of fresh air, not to mention fresh… other parts. All those delicious bits aside, she was intrigued by how easily Ranma had pierced through Kasumi's nearly solid field of isolation. She would let him work on big sister for now. Besides, it's not like there wasn't time to have her fun later.
Maybe a young man was exactly what Kasumi needed to reclaim what she had willingly set aside years ago.
The way they dipped down, almost inviting one to trace them to the expanse of skin and flesh below was oddly disturbing to Kasumi. The pigtailed boy had since changed back to his original gender… or the gender he claimed was his original gender.
Ranma had already straightened out his clothes, yet the image had clung persistently to the back of her eyes, distracting her long enough for her sisters to make their move.
Before she could gather her wits to protest, the pigtailed boy had shuffled on his knees so that he was facing her and then touched his forehead to the tatami.
"Wha-What do you think you're doing, Boy?!" Genma stood, rearing away from his son. "Remember your pride!"
"Shut up, Stupid Pop!" he shot back, raising his head before lowering it again, and in a voice so humble that Kasumi could have sworn he were a different person, he said, "I may be inexperienced, but please take care of me."
Nabiki quirked an eyebrow at Ranma's bridal-style declaration. "Didn't see that coming."
Kasumi's sense of self-preservation locked horns with her sense of propriety. No one should be lowering their head to her in this manner. She wanted to tell him to get back up, but showing kindness could get her engaged! The mental pressure building in her skull finally reached terminal, and the paralyzing indecision that held her so strongly finally shattered.
'There's no choice,' she thought in her moment of clarity. 'At this rate, I'll be in a wedding gown by tomorrow.'
There was a violent rustling of skirts as the air whooshed to fill the Kasumi-shaped hole in space she had left behind.
"Hey, wait up!" Ranma said, giving chase.
Genma scratched his head contemplatively. "Hey Tendo, I thought you said that it was your youngest who had training in the art."
"Yes, Akane is the one who practices the art among my daughters. Why do you ask?" Soun turned to him, wondering where this was going.
"Because that demonstration of the Saotome Ultimate Technique was most impressive."
Soun rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Kasumi is a bit on the shy side… wait, are you saying she has potential, Saotome?"
"I am. Ranma made a wonderful choice! I approve!" Genma confirmed, slapping his meaty thigh.
"Well then, how about another cup to celebrate?!"
"You read my mind, Tendo!"
One big difference between her room and the kitchen was that the kitchen had no door. Kasumi frowned as she rested against the inner frame. Why hadn't anyone mentioned this important fact to her before?
She hadn't run very far, and berated herself for going on auto-pilot. This was around the time when she'd be preparing dinner and found herself in the kitchen out of habit.
"Kasumi!" called the pigtailed boy, his voice sending a chill down her body. After taking a deep breath, more coherent thoughts flowed and her brows furrowed.
Why was she running? Wasn't he younger? This was HER house and, darn it, she made the rules here! Screwing up her courage, and adjusting her breasts for good measure, Kasumi briskly turned and stepped out into the hallway with hand upraised. "Stop!" she commanded.
"Whoa!" Ranma backpedaled.
"Who do you think you are?" She demanded.
"U-uh- well…" Ranma stuttered at her rapid shift in demeanor. 'Good,' she thought, 'it's about time he was on the defensive.'
"You've barged in, ruined my peace, and forced your way into my family, but here is where I draw the line!" she told him firmly. "Fiancé or not, this kitchen is the heart of the house, and I have no intention of letting you in. Now if you'll excuse me, I have dinner to make." She whirled about to get the rice started.
Ranma did not follow.
As she ran the tap to wash the grains, Kasumi tried to still her racing heart. When was the last time she had taken charge like that? It felt…good. Maybe she should do that more often. Tomorrow, she was going to give Father a piece of her mind.
Dinner that night was a tense affair, Soun decided. Kasumi had prepared the evening meal and set the table as usual, and therein laid the problem- she had set a table for four.
"Uh, Kasumi…" he tried his best to point out the two missing seats for the fifth time, but his eldest daughter had remained steadfastly reticent about her choice of table arrangement. Akane and Nabiki were keeping their heads down, knowing that any misstep could cause them to go hungry.
Shortly after Ranma had chased after Kasumi, he'd come back in a bad mood. He and Genma were now in the yard, preparing a separate dinner.
He eyed his friend nervously, who answered back with a silent glance at his boy saying that he was working on it.
Ranma was aggressively prodding at the cheery little fire he'd started in the Tendo yard when his father crouched beside him. Bubbling away above the fire were two black tin canisters.
"What happened back there, Boy?" Genma leaned close to avoid getting overheard.
The savory scent of tempura wafted in the air. Ranma did his best to ignore what the Tendos were going to have and glared. "What do you think happened, Genius? Do you see any place on that table for us?"
Genma was silent for a moment, and then, much to his irritation, sidled even closer. "I warned you that technique was trouble. Real men admit when they're wrong. Why don't you apologize to your fiancée? Maybe she'll let us have some dinner."
In a monumental demonstration of self-control, Ranma suppressed the urge to inflict bodily harm on his father. Why did the Stupid Panda have to choose now to be so darn sharp? He knew that The Tasting of Hearts messed with his judgment, but the thought of sealing the technique away gave him a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Ranma hadn't met many special people so the ones he did meet were all the more precious. Quite by accident, he'd discovered that The Tasting of Hearts let him remember those people in a way far more vivid and lasting than ones generated by his more mundane senses. More importantly, cooking talent didn't lie—in Kasumi's hands, he tasted hints of the temper she displayed but normally kept hidden along with other faults, but the flavor that overwhelmed everything else was the patience and love she demonstrated in every meal she cooked for her family. Whenever he was out on the open road, with only the stars and crickets to keep him company, similar memories he'd acquired by using the technique kept the world from feeling so large and cold.
He knew he had screwed up in his irrational rush to taste his mystery cook. She didn't have to flip out and ban him from her kitchen though.
No, there would be no reasoning with the girl tonight. He hoped that giving her a chance to cool off would make her more approachable tomorrow. Forcing a smile, he said, "C'mon, Pop! It's not that bad. Remember what you taught me?"
Taking a newspaper, Ranma began fanning the fire, and recited the only piece of cooking-related lore he learned from his father.
"When you cook camp rice, high heat is quite nice."
Unexpectedly, Soun joined them and recited the second line, "Count from ten to one, then your rice is done."
Ranma took one of the tins from the fire and handed it to his father. "Here is yours, Moron."
"That brings back old memories!" Soun said. "You actually taught your son our camp rice rhyme!" He regarded Ranma. "May I join you two, Son?"
"Sure, Mr. Tendo," Ranma said with a sidelong glance at Kasumi, "my campfire is open to everyone." The upturned nose he received from her was all the sign he needed that she had heard his snipe. Why couldn't he resist tweaking her so much?
Genma looked pitifully at his tin of rice. "Uh… Ranma, is this all?"
"Sorry, Pop. Yattai's locked up. This is all I've got," he said, pulling out a large round mass the size of a bowling ball.
"Ranma, that's a head of cabbage."
"Hah!" Soun laughed. "That takes me back. Remember when we used to eat camp rice and cabbage, Old Friend? That was the height of luxury!"
"You're really not helping my case here, Tendo."
"Father?" Kasumi's said sweetly.
"Yes, Kasumi," Soun answered, happy that Kasumi was talking again. Ranma unconsciously shivered at the mild killing intent the girl was emitting.
"If you're having dinner with the Saotomes, I suppose you won't be eating with us." She said, clearing his spot.
Soun paled. "K-Kasumi! Wait..." he said too late as his eldest daughter left to return his dishes to the kitchen.
Ranma sighed and reached into his tunic to pull out a plastic squeeze bottle. "I'd been saving this for a real emergency, but here Mr. Tendo, I'll split the rice, and we can have some of this mayonnaise with our cabbage."
Soun could only nod and sniffle as Genma wordlessly passed him a bowl of rice.
They sat in a circle, their chopsticks rhythmically tapping the edge of their bowls to shovel food down their gullets. Ranma hadn't quite prepared the meal without art though. Cabbage was a fundamental of cooking, showcasing the talent of the chef. For such a common ingredient, it had the temperament of a queen, sweetening unbelievably with just the right application of heat, but turning sulfurous and bitter when overcooked. He watched Soun pick a leaf into his mouth.
The Tendo patriarch's mouth widened into a smile. "This cabbage is delicious! It's so wonderfully sweet and savory with the mayonnaise. I feel like I'm 20 years younger, breathing the air of the open road and feeling the dirt in my sandals."
Genma put down his bowl. "While I understand your sentiment, Tendo. My manly soul is left unsatisfied by such a passionless meal. I'm disappointed in you, Ranma- the yattai being locked up is no reason to slack! Is this the limit of your school?"
Ranma felt his hackles rise. He knew that his father was hamming it up, but he couldn't help responding to the challenge. "Who do you think you're talking to, Old Man? I may not have my cart, but the world is my pantry. Wait here and I'll give your taste buds the ass kicking it deserves!"
Kasumi and her sisters had finished their meal by the time Ranma came back. She had felt a stab of jealousy at how favorably her father had reacted to mere steamed cabbage.
The pigtailed boy dropped a cloth bundle on the grass, and untied the knot to reveal his haul.
Nabiki and Akane had stepped into the garden to have a closer look.
Her middle sister examined the collection of roots and vegetables. "That's a respectable amount. I'm impressed, Ranma, but what are they?"
Ranma picked up some brown, almond-shaped pods. I found this growing by the walkway, and crushed them in his hands to reveal tiny black seeds. "These are wild poppy seeds." He placed them to one side and indicated some pointy roots, "These are baby bamboo shoots," Then his fingers picked at some broad leaves, "and this is purple shiso."
Akane held up a pale egg-shaped nut. "Hey, isn't this ginkgo?"
Nabiki brought a bundle of small yellow buds to her nose, and gave them a tentative sniff. "Hmm, are these edible?"
"Yup," Ranma said proudly. "They're linden tree flowers."
With those ingredients and a wok, Ranma improvised fried rice with mayonnaise, cabbage, shiso, and bamboo shoots.
For desert, he cut and peeled the ginkgo nuts, taking special care to clean out the maturing seedling inside, which Kasumi knew was bitter. He then tossed them into boiling water with crushed linden flowers, and toasted poppy seeds.
Akane tentatively sipped at the sweet soup, "This is… surprisingly refreshing."
Soun nodded in agreement. "Yes, Ranma, I do believe that this represents the very essence of fall."
"There's a lot you can find if you know where to look. In the spring, I could go hunting for some wild greens, which are great for-"
"While this is all quite interesting," Nabiki broke in. "Couldn't you just as easily have gone to the convenience store down the street?"
The pigtailed boy was stuck oddly frozen in mid-explanation.
"The thought never even occurred to you, did it?" Nabiki asked.
Genma's stared down at his bowl, and somehow wordlessly communicated a deep regret that his fried rice did not contain any form of meat.
"I… I was treating this meal as a challenge, okay?" Ranma said, petulantly crossing his arms.
"Riiiiight," Nabiki responded, sparing him a knowing glance.
"Hey, where do you think you're going?!" Ranma said as he caught both Soun and Genma tiptoeing to the gate.
"As the saying goes, 'No man will feed on herbs when meat is to be had'," Genma solemnly quoted before running hurriedly out the door.
"Why you! Whatever happened to your manly challenge?! If you want meat, we can hunt some crows!" Ranma said, chasing after them.
Kasumi giggled at the young man's antics, but realized what she was doing and stopped. She hoped her father hadn't seen that. Staying upset really took more effort than she was used to. Nonetheless, her freedom from the altar was on the line.
Soft morning light filtered in from the opened window, piercing the comfortable darkness behind the middle Tendo daughter's eyelids. Roughly grabbing her pillow, she buried her head beneath it.
"Nabiki," an insistent voice prodded.
"Murgle…." She groped blearily for the alarm clock by her bed. Pulling off her blanket, she ignored the one responsible for waking her in favor of heading to the washroom.
In hindsight, she should have seen this coming, and in truth, she had, but the difference between resolving to sleep early and reading just one more manga may as well have been the difference between wealth and poverty.
That didn't mean she wasn't supremely irritated.
After tromping downstairs for a quick rinse, she was back in her room where Kasumi was failing miserably to attain any sort of properly feminine seating arrangement on a beanbag chair.
"Alright, what's up?" She asked, unable to supress the edge in her tone.
"I'm really sorry for waking you so early," Kasumi said, entirely too contrite, "I know how badly you need your sleep."
At the obvious guilt her elder sister was displaying, Nabiki's temper was a candle to the wind. "It's okay." She relaxed. "I figured you'd want to talk."
Kasumi unconsciously began to play with her skirt. "I won't ask why you and Akane put the engagement on me. I think your reasons are pretty obvious."
Nabiki tilted her head, but chose to say nothing.
"He's so… strange. Since you met him at school, I was hoping you could-" Kasumi covered her face in frustration. "I'm not sure what to ask! I don't want this engagement!"
The outburst caught Nabiki by surprise, waking her up the rest of the way. She considered coming to her sister's rescue by offering to transfer the engagement to herself. Doing so would technically mean a win-win situation. No, if she were honest, the decision would ultimately be selfish.
"There's what happened at the courtyard yesterday, and I also got to talk to him a little after," Nabiki said. She should have told her about the events, but Kasumi had been very difficult to approach last night.
"What happened at school?" Kasumi asked, a small frown forming. "I wish I'd thought to ask you sooner."
"Kuno went back to challenging Akane, Ranma interrupted their duel and licked her," she summarized.
Kasumi reddened. "D-did you find out why he did that?"
Nabiki shook her head. "Not really. He told me that it's a martial arts technique to taste a person's cooking skill." She paused. "He wanted to find out who made the onigiri. In his words, they tasted like 'heaven'."
Kasumi's mouth made an O-shape as she remembered their previous exchange in the guestroom "So that's why you-" she interrupted herself, her expression hardening. "He could have asked instead of doing something so inappropriate to a young woman."
Nabiki was a little disappointed in how badly she was reading Kasumi. She had hoped letting slip how highly the pigtailed boy regarded her cooking would help their relationship.
"I'm not really sure," she said. "Akane wasn't too clear when I tried to get the details. He did try getting her to talk right after he took Kuno down without breaking a sweat. She may have been too tongue-tied to get anything out." Nabiki regarded her elder sister shiftily, "You probably know how that feels."
Kasumi suppressed a fluster. "He could have waited instead of giving into his impulses!"
With a sigh, Nabiki rubbed her temples. "From what you saw of last night's urban scavenging, I can't disagree. Then again, is a little spontaneity so bad?" She let herself tip over before rolling to face the wall. "Now if I'm not mistaken, I still have half an hour of precious sleep left."
Nabiki waited until she was alone to dose off. She could lead a horse to water, but this one may need stronger drink.
Kasumi climbed down the stairs with one hand clasping an arm. What had Nabiki been thinking?
If she was reading between the lines right, her sister didn't think that being engaged was so bad, which confused the eldest Tendo daughter. Sure, he wasn't ugly, but he was just so immature, and could turn into a girl, which while interesting was also unnerving. She knew intellectually that judging a person by their outward qualities wasn't very nice, but it was hard to ignore the large, glaring craters in the pigtailed boy's personality.
Opening the fridge door as soon as she entered the kitchen, she searched inside for something to make for breakfast, and found a bowl covered by saran wrap. Since she didn't remember putting it there, she took the bowl and opened it. Contained was the desert ginkgo soup from last night. Since she had been upset at the time, she had stubbornly refused to try it.
"Well, I am a little curious…" she said, opening a drawer for a spoon.
After taking a sip, she put her hand up to her cheek in surprise. "Oh my!" she exclaimed. While it wasn't incredible, the soup was earthy yet pleasant, which was impressive considering that the ingredients had been foraged.
'Was spontaneity so bad?' She recalled Nabiki's question and found that maybe the answer wasn't as straightforward as she had always believed.
After obtaining his transcripts from a barely conscious Genma, Ranma went to Furinkan High. While he didn't like studying, preferring the lessons he'd learned on his own, a high school diploma was the minimum level of education needed to be considered a full-fledged practitioner of the food-based martial arts. Why this was the case despite how few of the subjects could be directly applicable to running a successful yattai or restaurant, he didn't know. Maybe it was tradition? Either way, the world had many mysteries that were best dealt with instead of pondered.
Upon arrival he took a half-hour to do all the prep work for a special breakfast okonomiyaki topped with eggs, cured pork, and his own sauce blend primarily flavored with a paste of tamarind and dates.
From his experience at other schools, Ranma had observed that many teachers preferred coming early to get their day in order. That meant very few had the time to cook breakfast before heading off. Imagine having a reasonably priced and hearty breakfast waiting for you after a moderate trek.
Judging from the slowly forming line of customers, the morning rush was going to be profitable.
By 8:00, the morning rush was complete. Sales weren't as much as he had expected, but he did get to make small talk with some of his potential teachers, and giving them a little bit extra would help smooth his acceptance.
Ranma was busy wiping down his counter when he felt a presence focus upon him. From the front gate, which was strangely clear of other students, a lone figure walked, the sun rising from behind serving to cast his visage in shadow. Held openly in one hand was a wooden blade.
He halted a few paces from the stall, before arranging himself in a sideways stance to narrow his profile. "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant taste of death but once." He raised the blade towards Ranma. "I ask, art thou the cur who sought to come between mine Fierce Tigress the day hence passed?"
Ranma blinked. "Fierce Tigress?"
"I speak of none other than Akane Tendo, whose beauty shames even that of angels! I ask thee again, art thou the cur who interrupted our spar of courtship?"
"Akane?" Ranma took a moment before pounding a fist into an open palm. 'So that's what I bumped into yesterday. Man, what a weirdo.' he thought, vaguely recalling that there had indeed been someone between him and the short-tempered girl when they first met.
"That was you? Hey man, how's it going?"
Ranma's jovial tone caused the older boy to mentally stumble before rallying. "What trickery is this? Thou art craven enough to attack me from behind, and now offer the olive branch of friendship? I will not be so easily swayed!"
"Uh listen, Buddy, I'm sorry. It was an accident, I swear! Why don't you let me make things right between us?" he asked, already behind the stove. "I really do feel bad about getting in the middle of a fight."
"Silence! Before I smite thee in honorable combat for thy transgressions, Trickster Sprite, declare thy name?"
Wait, was he supposed to be quiet or introduce himself? He was saved from deciding when his opponent made the choice for him.
"But soft! Is it not the custom to give one's own name first? Fine then, mine I shall give. I am the undefeated captain of this school's kendo club, the rising new star of the high school kendo world. The very mention of me strikes fear into the hearts of many." He raised his blade to the heavens, and lightning crashed. "My peers call me the Blue Thunder of Furinkan High! Tatewaki Kuno, age seventeen."
Ranma looked up at the sky that had gone cloudy upon the older boy's entrance. It was probably just coincidence. "Wow, that was pretty good. Well, I'm Ranma Saotome, practitioner of the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts Indiscriminate Cooking."
Kuno nodded, "Well then, Saotome," he said, raising his blade for an overhead strike, "Prepare thyself!" He charged around the yattai.
"Hey!" Ranma cried, a bowl of batter still in his hands as he hoped backwards, his mixing with a spoon not missing a beat. "I." He rolled into a retreating ball while holding out the bowl so it wouldn't spill. "Don't." He jumped over a horizontal sweep. "Want to fight!"
Batter ready, Ranma continued to dodge while flinging a dollop onto a waiting griddle. With a swing of his shoulders, the heavy apron at his back pivoted around his neck, forcing the wooden-blade swordsman to dodge.
"There is no retreat in honorable combat, now fight!" Kuno launched a succession of rapid strikes. Ranma left afterimages as he dodged through the endless stream of attacks. 'This guy's been holding out on me.' Ranma thought. 'He'd probably make a good sparring partner once I get all this sorted out.' His nostrils flared at the scent in the air and the side of his lips tilted ever so slightly. 'And the first step to doing that is…'
Doubling his speed, he danced around his opponent, and in one fluid motion used a pair of chopsticks to snatch up the fresh okonomiyaki.
Kuno, already facing him again, charged while bellowing a mighty, "HAAAAAAA!"
Ranma couldn't have asked for a wider target as he readied the chopsticks for his final attack. At the last moment, he and Kuno both simultaneously put on another burst of speed. Two streaks of light slashed the scene as they passed each other.
A small tear appeared at the front of Ranma's tunic, his chopsticks empty. "Mphm" Behind him, Kuno reflexively chewed as he turned. After swallowing, the older boy's expression shifted into a blush and a stupid looking grin before he caught himself and schooled his face into stoicism.
"Such sincerity in flavor!" Kuno cried before clearing his throat. "It seems that we may have had a misunderstanding."
Ranma put a hand on his waist and thumbed his cart. "C'mon Kuno, we can discuss this over some more okonomiyaki."
Five minutes later, the pigtailed food vendor had another okonomiyaki frying away. Kuno was seated on a stool in front of the cart, munching on his breakfast.
"So…" he said tentatively, "you like Akane, huh?"
Kuno paused, the contents in his mouth almost exploding outwards as he tried to express the depths of his passion while it was full. With an audible gulping sound, he vacated it so he could speak. "Verily, Saotome. My Fierce Tigress is my muse of battle. Even Valkyries envy her martial prowess."
"That's great…" Ranma said. "I don't really like violent chicks so her older sister is more my type."
At that statement, Kuno slowly faced him, a look of abject horror etched plainly on his features. "You don't mean, that vile wench, Nabiki?"
Ranma was taken aback. "What? No!" He denied, waving his hands frantically. "I like Kasumi!" he said. Pressing his two fingers together, he lowered his voice, "She doesn't seem to like me back though. My brain gets all tied up whenever she's around, and I can't help messing with her."
Kuno stroked his chin. "Ah, the eldest Tendo daughter, she doth possess a bevy of mature charms." He studied Ranma carefully. "You do seem a capable sort. Very well, Future-Brother-In-Law, I acknowledge your claim!"
Ranma sighed at his hopeless situation. "That's nice and all, but I still don't know what to do."
"Ah," Kuno nodded sagely. "What thee describe are the signs of sweet malady, my comrade in passion. For even I, the scion of discipline, can barely contain my ardour towards Akane Tendo!" He clenched a fist to the sky.
Ranma perked up, "Really? So I'm getting all messed up like this because I like her?"
Kuno stared at him before he smiled crookedly, and covered the blush across the bridge of his nose. "Thou art an adorable swain, Saotome. Could it be that she is thy first love?"
"L-love?! Uh.." Ranma panicked before crossing his arms. "So what if she is?" He looked away.
"Forgive me, Friend," Kuno placated. "I hath forgotten how youth intercedes in the road of affection."
"You're not that much older, you know." Ranma deadpanned.
"Be that as it may, perhaps a peace offering may earn you the woman's favor. Gift her something a woman fancies."
"Uh… woman fancies. You mean what a woman wants? What's that?"
Several minutes passed in complete and neuron crushing contemplation. The bell rang, signaling the start of the school day.
"I heard…" Kuno said hesitantly, his earlier pomp absent, "that girls like dollies?"
Akane walked to school with a bounce in her step. The events of yesterday had lightened a burden that she didn't know she had been carrying. She ran a finger at the base of her neck and wondered why it felt the same as when she had cut her hair.
Months after the event, she still felt off, as though she were suffering phantom discomfort from the missing weight. On the other hand, being less concerned with her appearance was quite liberating. Sayuri and Yuka went the extra mile, telling her that having it shorter actually made her cuter, which unexpectedly helped quite a bit.
Nearing Furinkan High, her muscles clenched. Kuno had resumed challenging her for dates, which might lead the rest to jump back onto the bandwagon. She glanced at her watch- it was 8:15, so she had fifteen minutes before the first bell rang to finish beating down the hentai horde if she needed to.
She was pleasantly surprised when there wasn't a mob waiting for her. "I guess they're smarter than I thought," she said smiling as she gazed upon the courtyard, only to have her blood turn to ice at the scene beside the tennis court.
There, in plain sight, was Ranma and Kuno chatting amiably at a yattai. But how? She'd have thought Kuno would be after him for knocking him out, yet they were there, and Ranma was…blushing?! What could they be talking about?
Akane gained a little insight about why Nabiki, who she often accused of being a snoop and gossip, kept on with her privacy invading activities. The temptation to eavesdrop was intoxicatingly strong. So much so that she had to gather every scrap of willpower to pry herself away and force herself to march towards her classroom.
"It's probably something perverted," Akane muttered. "I'm only saving myself from getting angry." She punctuated each step into the building with a stomp, her curiosity gnawing at her all the way.
Instead of arriving at her own classroom, the youngest Tendo found herself in Nabiki's instead.
Her sister had her arm propped on the window sill, languidly observing the two boys.
Figuring she had nothing to lose, Akane decided to ask. "Do you have any idea what they're talking about?"
Nabiki turned to give her sister a smirk and shrugged, "We're too far away. They did get into a fight, but Ranma convinced Kuno to talk."
"Talk? How?" she asked skeptically.
"He fed him breakfast, I think."
She slapped her forehead. 'Of course!' she thought. They did say that the way to a man's heart was his stomach. She could have saved herself a lot of pain by making Kuno lunch so he'd listen to her. Why couldn't she have thought of something so simple?
"At times like this, there's a little game I like to play," Nabiki said, interrupting Akane's self-recrimination.
"Oh?" Akane eyed her sister wearily. "What kind of game?"
"It's called guess what they're saying. It's easy. Watch."
Ranma was pressing his fingers together, and Nabiki lowered her voice a few octaves. "So you see, my plan is to have all sorts of naked fun with all three Tendo sisters."
Kuno stroked his chin and Nabiki's voice took on a goofy lilt, "Eh duuuuuhh, yar really dink dey game?"
Ranma sighed, "I think Nabiki and Kasumi are okay, but Akane is just so repressed."
"D' broad is a tuff cookie." Kuno raised his fist towards the sky. "But I like dem feisty!"
Ranma perked up. "Really, well maybe you can convince her to join us."
Kuno covered his blush. "Wow, Saotome, you hard core!"
"Akane?" Nabiki asked, returning to her usual mode of speech when a chunk of what she had been leaning on had been gouged out.
"Ngrrk!" came Akane's strangled reply at her sister's entirely inappropriate antics. Repressed?! She was aware that Nabiki was only teasing, but the sketch's contents sounded eerily accurate to her ears. That was it, she was going back to her classroom and she wasn't talking to any other idiot for the rest of the day.
"You can do this, Kasumi," she cheered herself on. Nabiki and Akane were at school, and Mr. Saotome had gone out for a morning jog, which left her father. There couldn't be a more ideal time to talk to him.
"Ah, Kasumi!" Soun lowered his newspaper.
"I hope you're feeling well this morning. All that excitement must have been a lot," he said, his tone warm.
"About that…" Kasumi trailed off as she looked into her father's eyes, and began to break down further. Where was the resolve she had used to chase Ranma away from her kitchen?
"I'm sorry for being so disrespectful last night," she apologized.
Soun laughed. "If that's the extent of what I have to worry about, then I consider myself truly blessed!"
Folding his newspaper, he set it on the table and took in the garden with a faraway look. "You girls are well on your way to becoming fine young women," he said with a trace of wistfulness. "Why," he chuckled, "I remember the early days when you were as fiery as Akane!"
"Father!" Kasumi said, scandalized. She hadn't wanted to recall how she had been as a child. She tried to force down her embarrassment. Referring to a time when Mother was still alive was a good sign- even if he was only doing so in a roundabout manner.
Her happiness at his improvement gave her pause as it clashed against her reason for this confrontation. She was supposed to be giving him a piece of her mind, darnit!
But… Kasumi bit her lower lip, how could she? On top of forgiving her disrespect, he was also giving her a way to excuse her behavior. As the head of their family, he could have brow-beaten her into compliance. He didn't because Soun Tendo was far too kind.
Kasumi bowed. "Thank you, Father."
"Think nothing of it," he replied.
She stood. Life would go on- there was laundry to be done.
"Having this engagement come out of the blue must be really hard. I should have discussed this with you and your sisters beforehand. Nevertheless, I hope you know that I'd never keep supporting something that would leave you girls unhappy." He smiled sadly. "Though, it would be nice to fill the halls with laughter once more."
"I know, Father." Kasumi watched as Soun stared into her eyes, searching for confirmation that matched her spoken words. He eventually relented with a nod that she returned with a deep bow before heading out to the hallway.
However badly he handled this engagement, Kasumi was aware just how much her Father cared for them. The last thing he said was a safety net built specifically for her, implying that no matter how much face Soun would lose to the Saotome family, no matter how lonely he'd end up if no one inherited the dojo, the engagement would be called off if she asked because he trusted her.
Was she worthy of that trust? Kasumi couldn't say.
There exist items that are so replete with femininity, so steeped in girliness, that they make any man within their presence sweat from their eyeballs. One such item was in the possession of Ranma Saotome who was waffling in front of Kasumi's room, his feet squeaking against the hardwood floor as he shuffled in place. Was that wood creaking?! He ducked while craning his neck to check behind him for the umpteenth time.
Kuno had led him to a shop, which the pigtailed food vendor had discovered to be an antique store. Inside, he found a doll. The shop keeper told him that it was a replica of a design created more than a hundred years ago by a German Count. The doll's name was 'Kleine Beere' or 'Little Strawberry'. Like its namesake, the doll had rosy blonde ringlets like spun sunlight, pale green eyes, and a pink dress the color of strawberry Pocky with white ruffles at the trims.
Even for a replica, the doll had been crafted by a master, which was fully reflected in its price tag. Ranma lowered his head to lament the sting to his pocketbook.
At least the doll included a nice, nondescript leather case. He didn't think he could live down the embarrassment of being seen holding it.
Ranma breathed heavily. "Pathetic, you're Pathetic, Ranma! Why are you getting all worked up about dropping something off at a girl's room?"
Kuno seemed like an okay guy, but Ranma had to doubt the wisdom of someone who'd been chasing Akane to the point that the girl had developed an active animosity towards him. Then again, he considered, he was facing the exact same situation. If the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, how would you define doing something different over and over, but not expecting anything to change?
Clenching his jaw, he took his fist and inched it towards the door, his wrist bending to initiate a knocking maneuver. Was it not the erring party's duty to make amends? Nay, it was a fiancé's Duty to his betrothed! He was taking responsibility as the one who chose Kasumi, and no obstacle was going to hinder him! A small drop glimmered at the corner of his eyes. Truly, he was a man!
They'd only really been introduced today, but Ranma considered the possibility that he might need to cut down on talking with his stick swinging senior.
He froze in place, his knuckles just short of following through with his first rap when he heard an ominous 'DUN' ring out in his mind, and the door began to loom over him like a gigantic, beastly maw.
There was a fluttering of cardboard as his spine folded like a cheap house.
"Idiot!" Ranma cried, not knowing to whom he was directing the insult as his form streaked down the second floor corridor.
The peace offering probably wasn't even gonna work. It was bound to backfire on him! He was better off hiding the offending case, returning the doll, and then thinking up another plan. What was this called again? Yes, a tactical retreat in order to gather is scattered forces. These were all good reasons that sounded very sensible to his firing grey matter.
Vision blurred by manly tears, Ranma blindly vaulted over the guard rails. Unfortunately, the stairway wasn't clear.
"Hiiiiiiii!" came a high-pitched shriek.
'Kasumi?! Aw no!' Ranma threw his arms back in a desperate effort to stop himself. Unfortunately, the added mass of the giant knife strapped at his back and the largish leather case he was holding screwed up his balance, and he ended up draped all over Kasumi before they both fell. Instinctively, he adjusted their position in mid-air so he'd be the one taking the brunt of the impact.
She hit the bottom of the staircase with enough force to knock her senses for a loop. Reaching out for some form of support, Kasumi noticed that she was pushing against something fleshy yet firm. Further exploration told her that she was groping at a well chiseled male chest.
She was lying on top of Ranma.
"Kya!" Kasumi scrambled away, desperately ignoring the warmth threatening to rush to her cheeks as she disengaged the one arm that Ranma had wrapped protectively around her waist.
Unfortunately, her efforts to extricate herself put weight on her left leg, and pain flooded her senses.
'My ankle!' she ended up on her rear. 'I'd better get this looked at," she thought, and nearly felt her heart stop when she realized just who she'd end up visiting.
'It's okay, I can still fix this,' Kasumi did her best to take stock of her situation. There were bandages tucked in the first aid kit, and she had practice patching Akane up.
The rapid footsteps from the family room may as well have been machinegun fire considering how badly it had shot down her plans.
"I heard a noise," Soun asked concern coloring his voice. "Is everyone alright?!"
"We're fine, Father," Kasumi said, sitting upright. Her trademark smile was out in full force. "We had a little tumble, that's all." She almost succeeded in maintaining her façade until fingers lightly prodded her leg and an involuntary whimper escaped her.
"She's not fine," Ranma interjected, staring intensely at the already swelling area. "It looks like she twisted her ankle."
Kasumi nearly jumped away in fright. When had he gotten there?!
"My… my little girl." Her father's eyes were beginning to glisten, but the pigtailed boy headed him off.
"It's my fault!" Ranma said while prostrated, gaining everyone's attention. "I wasn't looking where I was going. Please give me the chance to redeem myself."
"Dad?" Akane came part way down the steps. "What's wrong?" She looked down at them. "Kasumi?! Why are you sitting there? Are you hurt?!" She asked, rushing to help.
Meanwhile, Soun had lowered himself to clasp Ranma's hands. "You'd do that? For my little girl?"
Kasumi opened her mouth, but no sound was forthcoming. She was once again cast adrift in the rapidly unfolding events, unable to gain any control over the situation.
"Of course," Ranma said while pulling away from the uncomfortably close mustache that was threatening to make contact. "I'll do anything."
"Well then," the Tendo patriarch said, suddenly far too cheerful. "Doctor Tofu's our family physician. He runs a small clinic not too far from here-"
Akane squeaked, diverting Soun's attention. "Akane?"
"Ah." The youngest Tendo shook her head. "Nothing, Dad. I thought I saw a cockroach, but I guess it was just a shadow." Kasumi hadn't missed her sister's sidelong glance.
She could tell she was doomed, but decided to go down fighting. "Father, there's not much pain. I think I'll be able to take care of this myself."
Tears trickled down Soun's face. "My little girl is so brave," he said before shaking his head. "While your healing skills are excellent, we shouldn't be taking chances with your wellbeing." He turned to his youngest daughter. "Akane, since Ranma's new here, could you guide them to the clinic?"
Akane fidgeted a moment before assenting, "Alright, Dad."
"Okay," Soun said, dusting off his pants. "Since that's settled. Ranma, make sure to bring Kasumi there safely. I'm counting on you, Son."
The pigtailed boy saluted. "I won't let you down!"
"Hahaha, that's the spirit!" Soun said as he returned to the TV.
An awkward silence settled upon the three of them when Ranma realized that Kasumi didn't look as though she was ready to go, and neither did Akane.
"Err, shouldn't we be going to see this Tofu guy?"
'Oh no!' Kasumi thought, and then turned to Akane who seemed to be in the midst of indecision. Was she going to tell him?
Akane flinched. "Well you see…" she trailed off before whispering something in Ranma's ear.
The pigtailed boy's eyes widened and he turned to Kasumi who palmed her face. 'Could this get any more embarrassing?'
For the second time that day, Ranma found himself outside of Kasumi's room- the difference being he had company. Akane was by the opposing doorframe. The eldest Tendo daughter had agreed to go to the clinic, but requested that she be allowed to change into more suitable clothes.
Akane had asked if she needed help, but was rejected with a single pained look.
He felt like a man drowning. Never had he experienced anything remotely similar. "So, um…" Ranma began, "he dumped her?"
The girl cringed before snapping back quietly so she couldn't be heard through the door, "Don't you have any delicacy?" She looked down at her feet. "I'm in the dark about most of what happened," she hedged, then her temper flared and she grabbed him by the collar of his tunic. "I'm only telling you this so that you don't cause Kasumi any more trouble by doing something stupid. If any of this gets out to Father, you'll wish you were never born, got it?!"
"Got it! Got it! I swear!" Ranma nodded eagerly, trying to placate the irate girl as quickly as possible. Dealing with Akane was like pouring water into hot oil.
Seemingly satisfied with his response, Akane let go. "We've known Doctor Tofu ever since I was in grade school. Kasumi would take me to him whenever I got injured training."
"I was a bit of a crybaby when I was little." A light blush appeared on Akane as she smiled, striking Ranma with how cute the youngest Tendo could be sometimes before he realized what was happening and reduced the idea into a battered, bleeding lump.
"Doctor Tofu has a skeleton named Betty, and he'd act all silly with her to distract me from the pain while he worked."
"A skeleton?" Ranma scratched his head. He wasn't much of an expert on girls, but wouldn't bones and stuff normally be considered creepy?
Luckily, Akane hadn't paid his comment any mind as she continued her story. One hand reached unconsciously to play with a lock of hair by her ear. "Even though I didn't know back then, I think the way Doctor Tofu treated me was why Kasumi got interested in the first place."
She bit her lip, and the skin between her brows wrinkled. "She loves us, Ranma. Sometimes I take that for granted, but a lot of who she is comes from how much she cares. It's not hard to fall for someone who's always nice to you and the people closest to you."
"And I guess it's no surprise that Tofu began to like Kasumi too. I mean, what's not to like? She's so pretty and perfect in every way. He began to act even funnier when she was around, like he couldn't even control his thoughts properly because he liked her so much."
Ranma had caught the hint of bitterness in Akane's voice, but was at a loss for an explanation. "Then how come…?" He trailed off, realizing that asking the question straight out was in bad form.
Akane smiled wryly at his miniscule demonstration of sense. "I'm not sure," she said, hugging herself. "Even though I've lived with her all my life, Kasumi has kept a lot to herself. I suppose she had to since Mom died. She's the only one of us who can talk about Mom without showing any hurt. Every so often, when Dad isn't around, Kasumi would tell us about her… so we wouldn't forget."
Ranma scuffed the ball of his foot against the floor, and suppressed the unreasonable surge of envy that he felt. All he had was a vaguely woman-shaped blur in his memories.
"Anyway, she'd ask us to bring him dinner that she just so happened to make too much of or she'd say that the food was repayment for books he'd let her borrow. We only got denials every time Nabiki and I tried to get a confession out of her."
"Then one night about three months ago, she came home wearing makeup and a beautiful formal nightgown. Nabiki and I had thought she'd gone to visit a friend, but that wouldn't explain her dress. She was crying, and said that it was over. It turns out she had been on a date with Doctor Tofu."
Akane hugged herself tighter. "He had ended their relationship. You should have seen Nabiki, she was ready to tear him apart. I think seeing all that rage on her behalf was what pulled Kasumi back from her sadness. She assured us that he'd been a perfect gentleman, and broke it to her in the nicest way possible."
"We didn't push for the details, and Kasumi never talked about it after. She's been avoiding him ever since. I won't lie- not being able to share Big Sister's troubles hurts, but she doesn't like burdening others. I think that's why she's kept Dad in the dark too."
Ranma rubbed the back of his neck. "This is a lot to take in," he said nervously.
Akane rested her head against the doorframe. Closing her eyes, she said, "I know."
Luck was with the trio as they set off. There were few people on the streets as the sun cast orange in the hours before twilight. Mercifully, none of the people around were people who Kasumi recognized.
'I'm glad Father asked Akane to accompany us,' Kasumi thought from her position hanging on her little sister's back, 'even though she told him about my secret.' She pointedly refused to glance at the boy walking a few paces behind as she considered what alternative transportation arrangements could have been made. The medium length denim skirt over legging shorts served well to preserve her modesty, but there were still limits.
In truth, she couldn't blame her youngest sister. What else could she have done? Part of her was relieved. Keeping secrets was one thing, but she wouldn't be able to live with herself if Akane had lied to protect her. Conscience aside, the prospect of seeing Doctor Tofu tied her insides into a jumbled mess.
Finding no other distractions, she watched the pigtailed boy who met her eyes for a split second before bringing his head down. He had been strangely reticent since she'd finished changing, speaking only when spoken to.
The boy was a maddening study in contrast; boisterous yet sometimes quiet, proud yet fleetingly humble, a stranger yet often more familiar with her than many of their neighbors.
"I have a suggestion," he said meekly.
When Kasumi didn't acknowledge him, Akane stepped in and threw the pigtailed boy a bone. "Go ahead, Ranma."
The boy looked up with hope in his eyes as the words tumbled out all at once, "We could call for a taxi to get to the hospital, if you want. I mean, they have x-ray machines there. It's my fault anyways- I'll pay for the ride and the treatment, and the medicine. I think I saw a police box, and I bet they'd let us borrow the phone if we…" he trailed off, fidgeting with the handle of a leather case that he was carrying. Kasumi idly wondered what it was and why he had brought it along.
Her faithful sister glanced back at her. "Kasumi?" she asked, implying that she was okay with whatever she would decide.
Kasumi stared at him in surprise. He was trying to protect her like Akane had- albeit in a clumsy, bumbling manner at odds with the grace he showed while cooking. Granted, he was responsible for injuring her, but the sentiment allowed a bud of warmth to bloom in her chest, which spread to the smile she gave him.
"I'll be fine," she said, "Doctor Tofu is very capable." She giggled. "I suppose I was being a silly little girl, avoiding a good friend just because of my own insecurities."
Ranma sharply switched his attentions to the houses around them. "O-okay," he stuttered. Kasumi tilted her head in curiosity at his reaction, but was unable to guess at the cause.
Akane lowered her chin so she touched Kasumi's arm. "You sure?"
Squeezing her little sister tenderly, Kasumi found that the knot in her stomach had untied itself. "I can't run forever," she said as much for her own benefit as her sister's.
Akane paused at the sign post marking the small, cube-like building as a place for bone setting and medicinal services. A tremor of trepidation passed through her. In hindsight, it may not have been a good idea to visit this particular doctor considering her sister's presence, but Kasumi had made a choice and she had to respect that.
Doctor Tofu was a talented physician. His most loyal patients were in the older age bracket, and his expertise in the workings of the body's joints, muscles, and bones enabled many a geriatric to live independent and fulfilling lives. Many would attest to his fine healing skill. However, there was also a dark side to his reputation, a warning that everyone who frequented the Good Doctor whispered in hushed and desperate tones to the uninitiated. It was that one had to be wary of Kasumi Tendo. For when the Doctor and his crush were in the same general vicinity, "accidents" were soon to follow.
All things considered, this wasn't Kasumi's first time going to the doctor's. She'd gone before, and in none of those instances had she ended up a mangled wreck. Kasumi had also come back physically unharmed from the date. While it was mostly conjecture, recalling these two things did settle Akane's nerves… somewhat.
"Why so nervous?" Ranma grinned with a confidence that could only be born of ignorance and feigned nonchalance. "Let's go."
Akane felt Kasumi's grip tighten and mentally shrugged. Worse came to worst, she could probably trip him for a sacrifice and escape.
Ranma slid the glass doors open for them. "Anyone in?" he called.
"Ah, welcome to my clinic," A well-built man around thirty said. He was wearing a brown gi, and was in the middle of drying his hands with a small towel when he looked to see who it was, and stopped.
"Kasumi," he said surprise evident. Akane noticed his round rim glasses fog for a split second and she was ready to bolt, but then the lenses cleared and she let her guard down slowly. She was curious though, how had he taken control of himself?
He blinked, regaining the rest of his composure. "Ah, Akane! It's been a while," he directed his attention to the room's last occupant, "and this is-"
"Ranma Saotome," he said, boldly blocking the doctor's path to her, "heir to the Saotome School of Anything Goes Indiscriminate Grappling and Kasumi's fiancé."
Akane mentally groaned when the woman on her back let out a strangled cry. '…should have seen that coming.'
Tofu Ono folded the towel he had been using. With slow, deliberate movements, he gracefully hid how badly the news had unsettled him. 'Fiance?!' his inner-voice screamed before he exerted his hard-earned control. Adjusting his glasses, the doctor coaxed his mental path towards sober second thought, 'Got to think about this logically, Tofu.'
The boy confronting him seemed to be younger than Kasumi by a couple of years. Had she found someone else so soon? He glanced at the eldest Tendo Sister who was hovering between meeting his gaze and hiding behind Akane. This didn't look at all like she wanted to show off her fiancé to him.
Tofu mentally kicked himself as soon as he caught what he had been thinking. Kasumi was far above such pettiness. He shifted his attention back to something Ranma said.
'Anything Goes? Isn't that the same style that Akane practices?' His eyes narrowed imperceptibly as he put the puzzle together.
Tofu smiled his broadest professional smile. "Is that so?" From the fierce protectiveness the pigtailed boy was exuding, he was fairly certain that someone had informed Ranma of what happened between him and Kasumi.
"Yeah…" the boy said, probably hesitating at the lack of expected conflict. Pops and Mr. Tendo had a pact to join the Schools." As though remembering something, he frowned. "Forget that, Doc, Kasumi's ankle is sprained, could you make sure it ain't anything serious?"
"Her ankle?" he asked, suddenly more alert. While it was Ranma who had caused the distraction, mere posturing shouldn't have stopped him from fulfilling his oath as a doctor. "I apologize. I've been negligent in my duty. Akane, would you be so good as to lay down your sister at the back? Any bed should be fine."
"Okay, Doctor," Akane said, hurrying towards the examination room.
After delivering her passenger to the bed, the youngest Tendo daughter had immediately taken her leave, citing that she wouldn't be much use by staying since Ranma was already there and they could borrow a wheelchair for the way back.
Tofu gingerly prodded and pressed Kasumi's foot, taking special care to watch her expression for any sign of discomfort.
"How bad is it, Doc?" Ranma asked worriedly.
He hadn't missed the concern in the pigtailed boy's voice, and was relieved- pact aside, the boy seemed to have genuine feelings for Kasumi.
"The outer ligament is partially torn and swollen," he answered, "This should help with the pain." He tapped a series of pressure points before gently placing her foot on the bed. Rolling on the stool he was sitting on, he grabbed bandages and a plastic brace from a nearby cabinet.
"I'm putting the joint under compression to prevent fluid from collecting further, and this gauntlet brace should help guard against aggravating the sprain. She'll be good as new in three to four weeks," he said, getting to work with bandaging and bracing Kasumi's foot.
"T-thank you, Doctor Tofu," his patient managed weakly. Even though he was the one who had ended it, Tofu felt some of his control slip. He still had feelings for her, and this was in fact part of the reason for the request he was about to make.
"Think nothing of it," he replied with a smile. "I would like to have a word with your fiancé though, if it's alright with you?"
She turned away, but nodded.
He stood before bowing lightly from the waist, "I'm grateful, Kasumi." Tofu couldn't begin to imagine what was going through the young woman's mind at the moment. Anyone else in her situation would have done everything in their power to prevent their recent X from conversing with their even more recent fiancé. It was a testament to the eldest Tendo daughter's faith in people that allowed her to say yes.
Be that as it may, Tofu decided that he should say something to relieve potential anxiety. "Don't worry, Kasumi. We're only going to have a short man-to-man talk, nothing bad, I promise."
Turning his attention to Ranma he said, "Now if you would accompany me in my office."
The pigtailed boy crossed his arms, his gaze flickering to Kasumi for the briefest moment. "Alright," he said, "lead the way."
The office was small with only enough space available to house a tiny desk and two chairs. The older man had taken a seat and offered Ranma the same courtesy, but the pigtailed boy had opted to remain standing. He tried to bleed off at least some of his restlessness by shifting weight from one foot to the other as he took in the charts plastered on the wall. A pungent mix of medicinal herbs hung in the air.
Ranma bit his lower lip. He had planned to stay out of Kasumi's business, letting her work out her problems on her own terms, but he hadn't been able to control himself. It was so stupid- he'd completely forgotten that Kasumi was hurt. Did he even deserve to be with her if he lost all perspective upon feeling threatened?
"I don't want to keep her waiting long, so I'll get straight to the point," the doctor said, meeting his eyes. "Do you love Kasumi?"
The directness of the question hit Ranma with all the force of a freight train. "Huh?" he said, going slack jawed. He grappled with his indecision. What did he really have to lose? At the very least, Tofu was facing him honorably, man to man.
"I only met her yesterday, and I won't use the word love that easily. But I like her. Being with her, even for a little while, makes me happy," he neglected to mention that he hadn't really succeeded in doing anything other than annoy the eldest Tendo daughter, but that wasn't any of the doctor's business.
Tofu nodded. "I guess that's a good enough answer."
Ranma prickled. The jerk was testing him! "Who died and made you Emperor?! Whether or not Kasumi and I get along ain't none of your concern!" he said, swiping one hand at the air.
In response, the doctor lowered his head. "You're right," he said, "I have no business getting involved, but I still have feelings for her."
"W-what?" Ranma stuttered. "Then why the heck did you dump her?"
"I didn't dump her. It ended, but I didn't dump her," he said, irritated, before breathing in deeply through the mouth. "How much do you know? It's obvious you're at least aware that Kasumi and I had been seeing each other until recently."
What was this guy on? He didn't dump her but he still had feelings for her? This guy was nuttier than a trail ration!
Ranma tapped a finger on his arm as he thought. 'Well, it doesn't seem like he's going to declare me a love rival or something silly like that…' he thought.
Figuring the best way to get to the bottom of things was to play along, Ranma considered the question. "Kasumi's been tight-lipped about the whole breakup. Akane's only told me that she came home crying after a date."
A sad smile formed on Tofu's face. "I suppose that's to be expected. Sometimes, I wish she weren't so nice. She could have at least called me names." Shaking his head, Tofu addressed Ranma, "Kasumi probably won't want what I'm about to tell you to get out. I doubt she would even allow you to hear this if she were in here to stop me. Nonetheless, even if things don't work out between you and her, you seem like a decent sort." He swiveled on his chair to plug in an electric kettle. "Could you take a seat, please? This is going to be hard enough without having to look up at you while I'm speaking."
Ranma shrugged, his earlier restlessness had faded. Turning the chair so he could put his chest against the backrest, he took a seat.
Tofu opened a drawer, lifting out a tea set. "Kasumi regards me as a kind man… and I suppose I am. The quality she overlooked, however, is that I'm also an incurable coward. Do you know how long I let my feelings for Kasumi wait before I finally acted on them?"
Ranma looked at the doctor, a little annoyed. Was he trying to lord his familiarity with Kasumi over him? "How the heck am I supposed to know?"
Sensing his mood, the doctor smiled. "Please don't be angry. I'm only trying to make you understand why I'm speaking with you right now, and it's complicated so I want to go through it in a way that avoids misunderstanding."
"Okay," the pigtailed boy said. "So how long?"
"Three years and five months," Tofu said abashedly. "And it would have been even longer had my mother not come to visit."
"Since she was in high school?!" Ranma goggled.
"Like I said, I'm a coward. I was attracted by how well Kasumi took care of her family and her gentleness. She's so young, and yet she was able to become the pillar that kept her family from crashing down. Every day, I said to myself that I would finally confess, but the day I followed through didn't come until my hand was forced."
The electric kettle buzzed. "Excuse me for a moment," Tofu said, unplugging the appliance. A steaming cup was offered to Ranma. "I'd like to serve Kasumi some tea as well."
Ranma nodded silently. It took Tofu a couple of minutes to serve Kasumi tea before he was back at his desk. He heard them exchange a few muffled words, but couldn't make out anything intelligible.
"Thank you for your patience, where were we?" Tofu asked.
"You were saying your hand was forced or somethin'," Ranma said.
"Oh, right. As strong as my mother is in spirit, she doesn't have unlimited time in this world. After fifteen years of waiting, my mother visited to make it clear that she wasn't going to be around forever. She was going to arrange a marriage between me and last year's winner of Ms. All-Japan Pelvis." Tofu shuddered involuntarily at the memory. "The matchmaking photos alone are enough to make a man go celibate."
Ranma winced. "I guess I can't blame ya."
Tofu cleared his throat. "Under the twin barrels of such an arrangement, I overcame my fear of confessing. Did Akane tell you that even Kasumi's mere presence drove me to incoherence?"
Ranma looked away. "Uh… yeah, something like that."
Tofu gave him a wry grin. "I had to close the clinic for a month-long training trip to get over my condition. It was something I should have done years ago, yet it was only the threat of greater duress that got me to crawl out of my hole. It was hard, but I finally managed to get myself to a point where I could actually confess."
"She accepted my interest without the slightest hesitation. I had been delirious with happiness. I learned more about her as we dated. Don't get me wrong, Kasumi is a truly remarkable woman, Ranma. But as I fell deeper and deeper in love, I noticed that she could be so much more."
"So why didn't you help her?" he asked, furrowing his brows, "If you thought she has so much potential."
"I tried!" Tofu said, not fully able to conceal his frustration. "Kasumi was very young when Mrs. Tendo died, and she had to shoulder all that responsibility herself." The doctors squeezed his fists together so tightly Ranma heard the strain.
The doctor straightened in his seat and rubbed his shoulder. "People don't change that easily. They get an idea and defend it with all they have- even if the idea isn't beneficial."
"Do you know what Kasumi said when I asked her what she wanted for her future, Ranma? She said that all she wanted was a faithful husband who would come home to her and her children every day!"
A single tear trailed down the doctor's cheek, and he lifted his glasses to scrub the drop away.
"I never thought I could hate anyone so much until that day. Soun Tendo let himself wallow in his own grief instead of living for his daughters. That was when I decided that I couldn't marry her. I could provide her with everything she ever wanted- it would have been so easy, but that's not what she needs. Kasumi is strong, Ranma. No one who's gone through what she has and come out as well as she has could be anything else. However, that doesn't change the fact that the walls she's built in order to survive her ordeal has also become a prison of her own creation."
"She's only nineteen, but can't be bothered to have interests or hobbies that aren't related to making a home. I did my best to convince her that she had to broaden her horizons. She would read any medical text I gave her, and listen attentively when I shared my healer's art, but she did so only to please me."
"Even with all her study, not once had she shown any drive to put her own hard work to use. I thought that perhaps she wasn't interested in medicine, but the same happened with everything else I tried. She would learn and experience something only in so far as she thought it would make her worthy as my partner, yet she herself would never strive to grow for her own sake."
"Whenever I tried to explain this to her, she'd retreat even further into her cage. She'd simply smile and do what needed to be done with neither complaint nor satisfaction. Do you have any idea how terrible it is to speak to someone you love dearly and yet never truly be heard?"
Tofu slumped in his chair. "I'm powerless, Ranma. I can't reach where Kasumi hides, and as such, I can't marry her. How could I when even asking for her hand is impossible?"
Ranma closed his eyes at some point during Tofu's speech. There was something not quite right about the whole argument. It took him some time to realize the course of the problem, and when he did the vein on his forehead began to throb visibly. When he finally opened them, the dead glare that he was directing at the doctor could have frozen helium. "You're a fool, Tofu."
The doctor's eyes narrowed and the room's temperature seemed to lower around the both of them. "What do you mean?" he asked, his voice taking a dangerous edge that Ranma contemptuously ignored.
Ranma cast his chair aside, climbed over the desk and grabbed the doctor by the front of his gi, bringing their faces so close that he could feel the man's breath. "You couldn't get through to her so you gave up? What sort of garbage is that?! You're damn right you're a coward. If you really love her, then keep trying to find another way to reach her! And if you're the problem, then why not change yourself so you can accept her the way she is? Fight for your ideals or leave them, but don't try to pass them off to someone else!"
He roughly shoved the doctor into his seat. "Thanks, Doc. I know what kind of man I have to be now for Kasumi, and it sure as hell ain't you."
The pigtailed martial artist whirled around, stalked towards his fiancée's bed, and lifted her princess style.
The woman in his arms seemed like she was about to protest, but one look at his countenance stymied any attempt. "C'mon, Kasumi. We're done here," he said and made his way out of the building, pausing only to kneel down and get the leather case he had brought.
Kasumi felt like a hotpot stuffed overfull without being given the chance to be emptied. One moment, Tofu was inviting Ranma to his office, saying that they were going to have a talk and that there was nothing to worry about, and the next Ranma was screaming, accusing Tofu of being a fool, and…
She wanted to disappear, but considering she was currently being carried like a damsel, the only conceivable option was to disappear further into Ranma's arms.
An annoyingly insistent part of her suggested that wasn't such a bad idea.
In any case, this wouldn't do. They'd walked in silence long enough. She wasn't ready to face what had happened at the clinic just yet.
She was looking for something to talk about, when a dull rattle brought the leather case back to her attention.
"Um… Ranma?" she ventured.
"Yeah?" the pigtailed boy replied, pointedly avoiding her gaze.
"What's in the case?"
She felt Ranma's squeeze on the handle before he began to waffle, "Uh… it's a- it was…. That's a-" He grimaced, and then a look of determination before he met her eyes and asked, "Do you want to see?"
Kasumi's cheeks flushed mysteriously, and she nodded.
They walked a little more until Ranma found a streetlamp along a nice, clear section of concrete divider. He set her down carefully before crossing his legs in a seating position beside her and setting the leather case on his lap.
The latches were flicked open, and Kasumi watched the lid slowly lift to reveal….
Kasumi blinked in puzzlement. "A doll?" she wondered. Why would Ranma be carrying one of these around of all things? She just couldn't figure him out.
Ranma turned away. "It was supposed to be a peace offering," he said in a small voice.
"For whom?" Kasumi tilted her head. Her brows knitted. "Ranma, were you picking on a little girl?"
"Gack!" The pigtailed boy clutched at his heart. "No! What kind of weirdo do you think I am?"
The look Kasumi gave him in response must have told him that it was a very bad sort of weirdo because there was a hint of irritation in his voice when he said, "It's for you, Dummy!"
The statement really didn't compute, and overflowed Kasumi's mental buffers so all she could output was a flat "Oh…" to his statement.
Ranma mussed his hair in frustration. "I haven't been the best fiancé. Always makin' you mad and stuff… and I don't know a lot about girls so I asked for help."
The warmth that she felt in her heart towards the pigtailed boy pulsed, growing ever so slightly. He really was trying wasn't he? A small smile formed on her lips.
Then Kasumi felt a morbid sense of curiosity building, and she couldn't help her next question. "Who did you ask for help?"
"…ki…no," he mumbled.
"I'm sorry, Ranma. I couldn't quite make that out."
"Ta…waki…no," he repeated.
"Tawake no?" Kasumi asked.
"Tatewaki Kuno!" Ranma finally yelled, and then began panting as though his admission had been the equivalent of a lap around the city. "He's the one who I got advice from! I'm new around here and he was the only one who was willing to talk, and he's not such a bad guy," he insisted, crossing his arms in defiance.
Tatewaki Kuno, the Blue Blunder of Furinkan High, and the progenitor of one of the most botched attempts to woo a woman in the history of human society had been asked by Ranma for advice?! Kasumi felt something inside snap, and she started to giggle. It was all too much. She had to let go.
Before long, Ranma had stopped feeling embarrassed and she heard him laughing along with her.
Kasumi didn't stop, laughing even harder, from the belly, and with an abandon that she hadn't felt since her mother was alive. She felt it cleanse her, washing away the emotional detritus that had built over a decade, and while she wasn't completely clean, it was a start.
They got underway with minimal fuss. Kasumi was now on his back with his inner elbows crooked under her thighs to prevent her from falling. He hadn't minded their original position, seeing as Kasumi was light enough that he could carry her in his sleep, and he told her as much, but she had insisted.
Kasumi's one the hand was looped through the handle of the leather case. She had accepted it with puzzlingly heartfelt thanks, gently rejecting his offer to exchange the gift for something better.
Either way, his bungled attempts at getting the eldest Tendo daughter to forgive him had worked, and Ranma wasn't the type to quibble over results. He could sense that she was more relaxed, and was glad for it.
"Ranma," she said, "What happened between you and doctor Tofu."
He grimaced. Maybe a little too relaxed. He wasn't good at emotional junk. Honestly, he'd just as soon forget the whole thing and get on with life, but keeping everything on one side was what Tofu had done, and look how well that had turned out.
"We talked about why he… decided you should both stop seeing each other," he carefully stated. "He claimed you could be more, but that he had failed to reach you and wasn't worthy of being your partner. I can't remember what he said exactly, but that's what I understood if I'm reading between the lines right." The arm around his neck tightened, and it felt like a knife twisting into his heart.
Regardless, he continued, "Look, Kasumi, I don't care about potential or any of that nonsense. Who you are now, I think that's plenty."
He heard her breath catch. "May I… May I ask another question?" She sounded so meek and defenseless. Ranma silently cursed- damn Tofu, and damn himself for causing all of this!
"Why do you go so far for me? We hardly even know each other and I haven't been very nice," there was a hint of apology in her voice, and Ranma took it for what it was.
He held his fingers out as far as he could without compromising his hold on Kasumi, and studied them solemnly. "I have a technique called the Tasting of Hearts. It's a mix of ki and a state of mind that gets channeled through to the tongue. It lets me appraise cooking talent. Sometimes, I get more than that, but the thing to remember is that the technique don't lie. I tried it on myself only once, and do you know what I tasted?"
He felt Kasumi shake her head. "I tasted a bitter, half-cooked flavor trying to stand on its own. It was petty, shallow, and a little fake. I learned too much of myself, and I've been trying to forget ever since," he said, walking around a dog who was busy marking its territory.
Ranma slowed his breathing in order to regain his center. "Then I find you, and you're warm, and genuine, a little sharp, but full bodied like really good miso soup, and I thought 'Hey, even being the way I am, maybe it won't be so bad if I were part of that.'"
"I think," Kasumi said, piercing through his building depression, "you might be too hard on yourself. Sometimes, I taste my own cooking and there seems to be something missing, but Father, Nabiki, and Akane smile and show me it's good anyway. I'm not perfect, Ranma. Do you know how many men I've liked?"
He tried to keep the jealousy out of his response. "No."
"Two. The first was when I was in my second year of high school. He was an upper classman. I watched him from afar, but never talked to him. A friend told me he had gone to his home town and would be returning on the last day of summer break. I don't remember why I decided then to confess, but I did. I wrote him a letter, and waited in the rain at the bus stop where he would be arriving."
"It was going to be perfect." Kasumi rested her head into the back of his. "He arrived at sunset, like an actor in a movie, he looked so handsome… and at his side was his sweetheart. I didn't know it at the time but she was his childhood friend who he'd been with since fifth grade. I hadn't been the only one who had eyes for him. If I had made even a little effort to find out more instead of daydreaming, the entire humiliating episode could have never happened."
"And the second," she struggled to say, "was a neighborhood doctor. This time, I thought I had learned. I made some discrete inquiries, and he didn't have a girlfriend or a childhood friend. This time, the one I was interested in would come to me. I did all that I could to subtly catch his eye, and be what I thought was the ideal woman. I succeeded in catching his attention but failed in keeping it. Please don't say you're fake, Ranma. Because if you are, then what would you call a woman living a failed ideal?"
'The heck?!' Ranma mentally screamed. How could she think of herself that way? He was about to defend her from herself when he was caught by the feel of her breasts brushing against his shoulder blades. "Besides…"
Before he could react, there was a swift movement.
Warm lips wrapped around his right earlobe, followed by a slight dental pressure. She had bitten him! He almost lost his footing and the veins in his nostrils struggled to hold the coming nosebleed at bay.
"Now I've tasted your heart too," Kasumi awkwardly said, clinging tightly to him so he couldn't turn around and see her face. "And you're sweet." She yelped as Ranma came dangerously close to a faceplanting the both of them. The skin on his ear still remembered the feel of her.
"Please be more careful!" She said in alarm.
"It's your fault, you know," he said in mock annoyance.
"Oh my! How do you suppose that, Ranma?" she asked, exuding nearly criminal levels of innocence.
He wasn't gonna win this was he? "Grr," he growled, unable to muster much heat behind the sound.
They spend the rest of the time walking in companionable silence until the Tendo Dojo came into view.
"…Ranma?" Kasumi said.
"Yeah?" he answered.
"If they haven't called for takeout yet, could you… cook dinner?"
"Sure," he said happily. It was great that Kasumi was starting to trust him enough to let him cook for her family. "The yattai's parked beside the dojo, so I should have everything I need."
"Not the yattai," she corrected.
Ranma's eyes widened, his heart nearly jumping out of his chest. "You mean-"
"Only temporarily," she said quickly. "It'll take at least a week before I get used to moving on one leg. Then I'm throwing you out again! It won't be that easy to get into my kitchen, humph!"
"I'll never understand you," he found himself mumbling.
"I would hope not," came the voice from behind him with an uncharacteristically smug and satisfied air.
This is the end of the first major arc. It could be better. I feel like it's missing enough warm and fuzzies, but I've always had rather contradicting views on how the dynamics would work between Kasumi and Ranma.
There's a lot I wish I could have covered. Please feel free to ask any questions you may have, and I'll try to answer what I can through the story.
Thanks to TFF and Spacebattles for their edits continued support.
Special thanks to Fallacy and Rai-kun for their editing, input, and restraint in not murdering me in my sleep.
As a bonus, here are some snippets written by Rai-kun to torture me.
"So…" Ranma essayed, "how do I give her the doll?"
Kuno nodded sagaciously. "Look her soulfully in the eyes, grab her by the shoulders, then get down on one knee-" he plays out his words by acting them out on a horrified Ranma.
"I'm just giving her a doll. Now get up you, kendo moron, or someone's going to see and think weird things!" Ranma said, trying to get his upper classman to stand.
Kuno paused then considered his position before nodding and releasing Ranma's hand. "I shall defer to your good judgment."
Akane walks around the corner, takes one look, and does a full 180 turn.
"...I conceive that your foresight hath much merit, Friend Saotome."
Instinctively, he adjusted their position in mid-air so he'd be the one taking the brunt of the impact.
A noseful of warm, perfumed softness greeted his heightened senses and Ranma couldn't help but let loose a small moan. It was echoed from above and followed with a sharp intake as a kidney punch bent him over and left him curling on the ground.
Kasumi closed the neckline of her top defensively as she worked herself in a circle to try and escape.
'Kasumi?! Aw no!' Ranma threw his arms back in a desperate effort to stop himself. Unfortunately, the added mass of the giant knife strapped at his back and the largish leather case he was holding screwed up his balance, and he ended up draped all over Kasumi before they both fell.
He took a split second to adjust their position and, with a thundering crash, it was over. He rolled off of the stunned girl who stared at him with wide eyes.
"Thanks for breaking my fall, Kasumi." He said while dusting himself off. "I might've damaged my knife, which would've sucked. Wouldn't want to scratch my precious little darling after all," Ranma added, patting his wrapped bundle affectionately.
"What happened, Boy?" Genma asked his son at the dinner table. "Love, apparently," he said, rubbing the band-aid on the bridge of his nose as he squinted at Kasumi with his lone unswollen eye. She refused to meet his gaze and humphed angrily.
"Why... Ranma, was it?" Tofu asked, garnering a stiff nod from the boy.
"It's certainly a pleasure to meet you." He took the boy's hand in his, dislocating fingers, a wrist, and an elbow in the process.
"Very nice indeed." He finished with a few shoulder pats that were the final nails on his target's coffin.
"Right this way to my office for a little chat," Tofu said as he closed the door to the Emergency Exit, "and off you go."