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A Ranma ½ story
by DB Sommer

Any and all C&C is appreciated. You can contact me at sommer@3rdm.net

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.

Preface: What's happened before: Akane got her hands on a wish and used it to wish her mother had never been in a car accident and was alive in the present. Well, her mother wasn't in an accident and is with them in the present. There's only a slight complication; Kachiko had been in two accidents, the first occurring when she was the ripe old age of seventeen…

Foreword: You can blame Abenobashi Magical District fully for this dead serious Interlude. For those that don't know AMD, it started out as a series that parodied many different genres of anime and other styles of storytelling (from mecha shows to noir to Bruce Lee chop-socky movies). However, after five episodes of pure comedy, they suddenly dropped a dead serious flashback episode with the sixth one. It explained much of what was going on in the previous episodes, but the tone was as different as night is to day. I also quickly came to the conclusion that such would be good here, at this part of the "Things". So don't expect much in the way of humor in this one…

Interlude 2

Kachiko Tendou lay on her stomach, prostrate across her bed as she pored over a sprawl of textbooks in an effort to finish a couple of reports due in school tomorrow. While everything else in the world might have changed, homework remained the same. Boring, boring, and more boring. By now they should have developed pills that could grant a person knowledge rather than forcing them to go through the hassle of actually learning the material. What good was the future if they didn't make useful things?

As Kachiko stared at the books, the text began to blur together, forming an endless, monotonous chain of words. Inexorably, she felt her neurons begin to shut down one by one. Just as her eyes started to roll into the back of her head, there was a knock on the door. The noise made her head snap up, and she welcomed the interruption. "Come in."

The door opened and Kasumi poked her head into the room. "Good news, Mother. I have a gift for you." She waved a rectangular object wrapped in shiny red paper and tied with a huge green bow that had a peacock-like fan of loops on top in Kachiko's direction.

"No thanks," Kachiko said. The last excursion into the realm of cursed magical objects was more than enough for her, and knowing this girl, she had probably stumbled upon "The Cuisinart From Hell" or some other demonic household appliance. She swiveled her head away from Kasumi and back to the open textbook that lay in front of her. The words seemed to blur the instant Kachiko's eyes focused upon them, and her head lolled back and forth.

She fought off the effects and held out her hand. "Give me it!" Her voice held a hint of panic. It no longer mattered if the present was magical. Anything was acceptable, so long as it delivered her from the drowsiness-inducing objects in front of her.

Kasumi crossed the floor and sat down next to her mother, blissful smile in place as she handed her the gift.

Kachiko could tell from the weight and feel that it was a box of some kind. She shook it once. "Clothing?" she asked.

"You're very good," Kasumi said.

"Ah. Much better than crappy cooking or cleaning utensils. You're learning." She affectionately patted Kasumi on the head. Then the wrapping was gone in a flash and the box opened.

"Oooo!" Kachiko goggled at the dress. It was a small number, fire engine red with spaghetti straps at the shoulders and a hemline that stopped before reaching halfway down her thighs. Kachiko's top and shorts were quickly discarded in favor of the new apparel.

Kachiko turned to the full length mirror and admired herself. "Fits great. I like it."

Kasumi gave a small clap of her hands in approval. "Are you hungry?"

She rubbed her stomach. "I can use something to eat." And it would serve to keep her away from the books.

Kasumi's delight doubled. "I have a dinner prepared. It's your favorite: Steak Teriyaki."

Saliva nearly drooled from Kachiko's mouth in Pavlovian reflex. Obviously Kasumi was trying to apologize for the broom incident. Kachiko Tendou was more than woman enough to eat the apology. "An outstanding selection of food. Lead on."

Kasumi did so. The pair went down the stairs far too slowly for Kachiko's taste, with her appetite doubling as the smell of cooked steak filtered up the stairway. Her stomach rumbled as her nose basked in the scent of the rarely-offered fare.

Kasumi led Kachiko to the kitchen. "And here we are," she said in open satisfaction.

The room was cloaked in darkness, with only a pair of candles placed in the middle of the kitchen table providing illumination. The only other person in the room was Soun, who was already seated at the table. He was very formal in appearance, dressed in a black suit and tie. His mustache was neatly trimmed, and his long black hair was pulled behind his body in a stylish ponytail. He unleashed a dazzling smile to Kachiko.

The boundless enthusiasm Kachiko had been displaying disappeared in an instant. Her face scrunched up, as though she had discovered something unpleasant stuck to the bottom of her shoe and was told she's be cleaning it off barehanded. "Great, there goes my appetite." She turned to leave.

Kasumi placed a restraining hand on her shoulder. "But it's your favorite."

Kachiko waved her hand in the air. "The ambiance is killing the mood. Some things are more disturbing than hunger pains. Creepy old guys checking you out like you're going to be on the menu is one of them."

"But it's very romantic," Kasumi insisted.

"Only for those close to retirement," Kachiko snapped, and exited the room, heading for the front door rather than her room.

Kasumi and Soun heard the time-lost girl walk into the entryway. Rather than exiting, they heard Kachiko's voice called out, "Hey, Ranma! I'm going to grab something to eat. Want to come along? I'll pay for everything."

The clarion call of "Free Food" was answered with the sound of hurried footsteps starting from Ranma's bedroom and ending at the entryway in a handful of seconds. "Why are you dressed up?"

"It was a gift. Do you like it?"

"Ah, well, that is…."

"You do like it!"

"I didn't say that!"

"Ranma, there are only two types of guys that would hesitate to answer that question: those that don't like the dress and don't want to hurt a girl's feelings, and those that like the dress and are afraid saying so is some sort of commitment. You don't have the tact to be the former."

"I do too have tact. I got lots of tact. Just ask anyone."

Kachiko ignored the statement. "By unwittingly getting on my good side, I'll let you choose where we eat."

Shifting the conversation away from Ranma's current level of tact and back to food worked in making him drop the matter. "I'm in the mood for something ethnic. There's this neat Indian place that just opened over in the shopping district. I only had that style of food a couple of times traveling with Pop, but I liked it. I'll lead the way."

There was the sound of the front door opening and closing, then silence.

Kasumi sighed in depression at another plan failing. She turned in apology to her father. "I was so certain setting the mood like that would make mother see you in a better light. I can't believe she's so blind. And she's so stubborn. She refuses to see what's obvious to everyone else. You two are meant to be together. Why, with the way she's behaving, it's almost enough to make me believe she's not Mother at all."

Soun gave his eldest daughter a soft smile. "No, she's your mother, all right. That she's so resistant to everyone's attempts proves it beyond any doubt." There was a trace of sadness underlying the words.

"I don't remember her being that way at all," Kasumi insisted.

Soun pulled out a cigarette and lit up. "That's because she didn't behave the same way around you girls that she did around others. She always acted by a different standard for your sakes. She wanted to make sure you were raised happily, and she was always careful around you, almost like you were made of glass. She was afraid she'd earn your animosity the way her parents earned hers, and it would have devastated her if your relationship with her had turned out that way. So she was always extra patient and less… caustic, around you."

"She was?" Kasumi asked.

Soun nodded in confirmation. "You three were her pride and joy, so much so I think it surprised even her. There wasn't a thing in the world she wouldn't have done for you, although if you had told her that when we first met, I think she'd have reacted much the same way as she does now. Well, perhaps not as loudly, but the sentiment would be the same."

Soun's eyes took on a reflective cast as he took a long drag of his cigarette. He rose from the table and headed toward the backyard.

"What about dinner, Father?" Kasumi asked.

"I'm no longer hungry either," he informed her.

"Is there anything else you need?"

"I think I'd like to be alone now."

"We'll have better luck getting you back together next time," Kasumi assured him.

Soun didn't answer. Instead he went out onto the back porch, sliding the door shut behind him. Alone with only his thoughts, he sat on the edge of the porch, legs over the wooden edge so they rested on the ground. He inhaled deeply, savoring the flavor of the tobacco, then exhaled upward.

He gazed at the stars through the smoky haze, muting the twinkling effect they normally had. It was then that something occurred to him. With his wife returned, in a manner of speaking, Soun's thoughts had been in a similar state. It was a haze in which he saw things in their general form, but lost some of the details due to the murk. Talking with Kasumi about the way Kachiko used to be had momentarily cut through that. So he stared upward at the stars and reached back into the furthest recesses of his mind to a place he rarely bothered recalling. It wasn't the best of times, but he forced himself to remember….

Soun finished buttoning up his school uniform, paying extra attention that his collar was straight. He knew he was being overly self-conscious as he observed his image in the mirror, making certain not a hair was out of place or any unseemly pimples had appeared. Much to his relief, his face remained unblemished. He was as neatly groomed as he could manage. Not that he possessed features that would make any women that walked by peer closer for a second look even at the best of times, but no one regarded him as ugly or repulsive either. His looks were average, and he could easily blend into any crowd. It was both to his advantage and a liability, depending on the woman one was trying to catch. Sometimes standing out was good. Sometimes it was bad. In any case, at least he would look neat. No woman would be offended by good personal hygiene.

His friend, Saotome, probably would have laughed at Soun's sudden interest in grooming. One thing Genma was not known for was keeping up appearances. Soun had not been that way either, having only a casual interest in his looks, the way most youths his age did. But then, things changed. It seemed that in this senior year of his, everything in his life was changing.

Satisfied at his image, Soun turned away from the mirror. As he did so, his hand knocked over a tube of lipstick from the collection of make-up, perfumes, and assorted items women used to make themselves beautiful that decorated the dresser the mirror was attached to. Not that Minato needed any of them, in Soun's opinion. He felt she used too much, but she insisted on it, saying a body that had as much wear as hers needed something to mask its mileage.

Such a harsh self-assessment was beyond Soun's understanding. She was perfect to him. The one time he had stated such, and upon her realization he was being sincere, Minato had all but attacked him on the spot, ripping off his clothing and riding him like there was no tomorrow. It was one of their wilder sessions, to be certain. Wilder, and memorable.

Soun returned the lipstick to the top of the dresser, then shifted his gaze to something infinitely more appealing than his own average features. Minato lay on her side on the bed, staring at him as he dressed. She remained nude, though her bluish comforter was placed purposely over her lower body, giving a suggestive view of the voluptuous curves that lay underneath. Her upper body was free from any concealment, and Soun did take a moment to bask in the bountiful bosom he had snuggled against more times than could be easily counted. It took a great deal of willpower to not walk over and join her in bed once more, though this time with the purpose of merely lying against her body and relishing in its warmth instead of engaging in more energetic play.

No, Soun resisted the urge his siren had unintentionally released upon him. "I really do have to go."

"I'm not stopping you."

While Minato's mouth insisted one thing, one of her delicate hands did the opposite, traveling up her navel to the lower portion of her bared breasts. She might have been subconsciously scratching some faint itch, but the hand seemed to beckon a return to the comfort of bed. Soun found himself forced to shift in discomfort at his body's betrayal of the course his mind had already decided.

Minato seemed to sense the reaction. She gave a deep, throaty laugh. "Ah, Soun, you younger men are so singleminded. I think that's one of the things I adore about you." She rolled playfully on her back, her posture no longer as seductive as before and releasing the instinctive fixation Soun's eyes had upon her.

"I'll see you the day after tomorrow, same time," Soun promised. He went through his pocket, removed his wallet, and placed a wad of bills on the dresser.

Minato's eyes followed the course of his hand. An unreadable look crossed her features.

Seeing the change, Soun asked, "Is that enough, or do you need more? I know your time is valuable."

"Of course not. It's more than enough," she said just a touch too quickly. She rolled further still, giving her back to him.

Soun was uncertain of what the gesture meant. Two months, seeing her almost four days a week for hours at a time, and he still barely understood her. This was the part he hated about relationships (even if this was the first serious one he had ever been in). Why couldn't they be more like martial arts? That was easy. You could read an opponent's body language and know exactly what they were going to do. How unfortunate the same didn't apply when it came to women. One never knew what went on in their minds from one moment to the next. He doubted even they knew what they were thinking. Minato seemed even more unreadable than most.

Since Minato was a woman who spoke her mind, her refusal to mention something troubling her was for a good reason. He hoped it was anyway, and let the matter rest.

Soun turned away, choosing to give his back to hers as he didn't trust himself to look at her with what he was about to inquire. He knew he had no right to ask the question, yet he had to do it all the same. "Are you going to be working any more tonight?"

"No. I don't feel like it," she answered.

Soun's posture seemed to firm, as though a great weight had been removed from his shoulders. He turned and could not help unleashing a wide grin, showing his delight at the answer. "Wednesday, then. I'll be counting the minutes."

"I will too."

Simple words. She rarely used more than was necessary. It made Soun feel at ease. He wasn't the most dynamic of conversationalists, and usually had problems maintaining one for any length of time. Save when it came to Minato. Whether they spoke for hours about nothing of consequence, or were silent, he was always comfortable in her presence. She was the only woman who had made him feel that way.

Deciding it was an ideal opportunity to depart, Soun exited the small apartment, closing the door behind him and headed to the stairs. He hoped Minato remembered to lock up. The building wasn't located in the safest part of town. While the area fell short of an actual slum, it still wasn't a place people wanted to dwell in unless they had no other choice. Seediness permeated the very air, but then much of the area near the Kabukicho district was like that. He wished Minato would move somewhere safer and put his mind at ease. Of course, she had lived on her own and taken care of herself for years long before he came along, a fact she reminded him with a touch of irritation whenever he became protective, but he couldn't help himself. He wanted to know she was safe. It wasn't an unreasonable desire to be free from worrying about the one you loved, was it?

Such thoughts so dominated Soun's mind that he jumped when a hand fell hard on his shoulder. Reflexively he spun out from under the grasp and brought a fist up to the face of the person who had violated his personal space so abruptly. The fist never came close as it was blocked in a blindingly fluid motion by the bearer of the hand.

"Hey, easy there, Arisugawa."

"Saotome." Soun breathed out a sigh of relief. Genma, his best friend in the world, had been complaining lately about not having a chance to hang around together and wanted to meet. Soun had told his friend to meet him in front of Minato's place about now. He hoped Genma hadn't been forced to wait too long. The "rendezvous" between Soun and his lover had gone on longer than he expected… Not that he would have hurried, even if he had paid closer attention to the time. Genma might have been his best friend, but that was all he was.

Genma relaxed. "What's got you so tense?"

"Just worried about Minato," Soun said, looking up at the window of her apartment. He hoped to catch one last glimpse of her, but the shades were drawn.

Genma rolled his eyes. It was becoming a frequent gesture around Soun. "You really need to get a grip."

Soun glared at Genma suspiciously. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just that you're taking her too seriously," Genma elaborated in as blunt a fashion as humanly possible. "I mean, I'm sure she's great in the sack; she must be, since you visit her every day of the week."

"It's only four days a week," Soun defended. "And sometimes only three."

"You're only proving my point," Genma said. "She's a prostitute. Arisugawa, old buddy, remember; I'm the one that introduced you to her when I decided to treat you and help you become a real man. Now I'm beginning to regret that."

Soun felt his temper fraying. "What the hell are you talking about? How does this involve you?"

"You're spending all your time and money on her," Genma accused in an uncharacteristically hurt voice. "We never hang around together. We hardly ever train. We never have fun. And when we do hang out, all you do is moon over her. You're acting like she's your girlfriend or something. Since I'm your friend, it's my duty to set you back on reality. She is not your girlfriend. You pay her money to sleep with her."

"Her time is valuable," Soun said uneasily.

Genma shook his head. "All I'm saying is, she's just a hooker and not exactly a young one either. You're showing an unhealthy fascination with her. You need to take a step back and look at the situation objectively and realize you're obsessing about her. "

"And you didn't with Ritsuko?"

Genma reacted as though he had been punched. "That was a cheap shot."

"And so was that crack about Minato being 'just a hooker'," Soun snapped.

Just as it seemed tempers would reach a boil, Soun's shoulders slumped slightly as the anger that had been building trickled out. He could never stay angry with Genma for long. They were too close and been through too much. "I'm sorry, Saotome. I know how much she meant to you. But you have to understand, Minato means just as much to me. It's not about the sex. Sometimes we don't even sleep together. It's more than that. We spend a lot of time just talking. And when we're together, it's like there's nothing that's off limits. We'll spend hours enjoying each other's company. I've never felt so at ease with someone before. And she feels the same way. She's smiling more and more often when we're together, and she's obviously sad when I have to leave. She knows I don't care about what she does. I like her for who she is."

"But you still pay her money?"

"Only when we have sex." It wasn't like she had an "official" job, and she had to eat.

Genma held up his hands in defeat. "Fine, be that way. I'm only trying to give you some solid advice, and I'm the only one that's man enough to do it. You've got your head in the clouds and don't have a grip on the situation. As your friend, I have to warn you and try to keep things from getting messy, like the Yukari matter. Remember? I warned you about that too, but did you listen? No. And look at what happened."

Soun stared embarrassingly at the ground. "That was two years ago. I fully admit to being young and foolish back then. Besides, some good came of it. It was a learning experience on what not to do with a woman. I'd recognize it if it was happening again. This is different from that situation in every way."

"If you say so," Genma said, without even pretending it was more than lip service. "So, now that we finally have a chance to hang out together, what do you want to do?"

Soun laughed embarrassingly. "I'm afraid I don't have time to do anything. There's a family meeting with my parents tonight. They want to talk to me about something 'important'." He emphasized the last word as though the meaning behind it was the opposite of the definition.

Genma grimaced. "Okay. That I can accept as a reason for why you don't have the time to hang out. Any idea what horrors they're planning to unleash upon you this time?"

Soun found himself irritated at Genma's attitude. Not that he was wrong about the fate Soun's parents undoubtedly had planned for him, just that his friend would blurt it out. "No, but I heard my brother's name mentioned a few times last night." The name of Ryuunsuke never slipped past his parents' lips unless it was about something serious. And "serious" usually meant "terrible" for Soun on a personal level.

"Ooo, that is bad," Genma agreed. "I'll steer clear for the next couple of days. No point in adding fuel to the fire."

Soun was relieved. His parents didn't approve of Genma, claiming he was a bad influence and too lowborn to be seen with — as though the Arisugawa bloodline had any great lineage itself. They might have at one time, but Soun's maternal grandfather had gambled and drank away the family fortune. Since then, Kentaro and Michiru Arisugawa held a very unhealthy preoccupation with increasing their family's prominence, which is what made Ryuunsuke's actions so unacceptable. Sometime Soun envied his older brother. Shamed or not, at least he had made it out of that damned household and away from his parents' suffocating control.

Noting Soun's onset of depression, Genma took on a more jovial attitude in an attempt to cheer his friend. "I have some news which might brighten your day."


"You know that mysterious master that everyone talks about? The one I've been trying to find? I uncovered some more information about him."

"Are you talking about the one that always seems to be in trouble with the law?" Soun asked with a decided lack of enthusiasm.

"Bah. It's all rumor and innuendo," Genma scoffed. "I'll bet he hasn't done half the things he's been accused of. I mean really, a serial panty thief? It's preposterous."

"True," Soun admitted. There was no way someone reputed to be as powerful and knowledgeable of the martial arts as this mysterious figure could possibly be so perverted.

Genma continued, "Anyhow, I was hanging around this bar, listening to people talk, and I heard his name mentioned. I asked this guy that dropped the name about it, and after pumping a few drinks into him, he confessed that he had heard a couple of fellows claiming to have been this master's students. Apparently they had just escaped from him, and were getting drunk in celebration. The guy I was talking to managed to share a few drinks with them."


"A fancy way of saying they ran out on him, probably because his techniques are so powerful they couldn't endure the training required to learn them," Genma stated contemptuously.

Soun shook his head worriedly. "I don't know, Saotome. The more I hear about this master, the more I don't like about it. Maybe we should just forget about seeking him out and asking him to teach us."

Now it was Genma's turn to look askance at his comrade. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that. You know you've been just as frustrated as me. We've hit the wall. Sensei Tanaka said he taught us all he could, and he doesn't know anyone around here that's a better teacher than him. We have to improve in the art. It's the path a true martial artist must take!"

"That is true," Soun admitted. Genma had a point. Sensei Tanaka had said that he and Genma were prodigies and had learned everything the old man had to teach in record time. Without someone to press them, neither he nor Saotome was getting any better. The only way to improve was to find a better teacher than the one they had, which had led to Saotome's quest for this mysterious figure, who was said to be one of the most powerful martial artists in Japan.

There was a time when improving in martial arts was all Soun had wanted. It was the only truly bright point in his dismal life, besides his friendship with Saotome. But now there were other considerations. Something that made the martial arts seem like a black hole next to the nova-like glow it possessed. Something that made the art seem almost silly by comparison.

Genma had an uncharacteristically determined look on his features. "You're still in this with me, right, Arisugawa? You still want to hook up with this guy and have us taken on as his disciples?"

"Of course," Soun said, mostly to placate his friend rather than out of any burning desire of commitment. Besides, Soun doubted this "Happosai" character really existed; or if he did, that he as good as the rumors claimed. Even if he were, there was no guarantee he was looking for students. No, the odds of this dream of Genma's panning out were like most of the other plans the man had: a hundred to one at best.

Missing the undertones of Soun's lip service, Genma slapped his friend on the back. "All right. I'll keep searching for this guy. You have good luck with those folks of yours. Maybe they're going to get off your back and let you live a little for a change."

Soun accepted his friend's well wishes. It was more likely he would end up becoming a "serial panty thief" than his parents allowing him to live his life in peace.

Soun traveled up the stairs to his family's modest apartment. It was the third move-down in their standard of living. The small reserve of cash his mother had inherited had dwindled down to nothing, and they had to live solely on the income the pair generated.

It was not always that way. In the beginning, the Arisugawas had lived relatively well. Soun vaguely remembered the house they had owned when he was a youth. Last year he was in a nostalgic mood and had hunted it down, only to discover it was nowhere near as large as it appeared in his memories. Still, to a child of five, the structure had seemed enormous. And it had a yard. That, he had remembered in excruciating detail. He and his brother had played in it for hours at a time, and only reluctantly conceded to coming indoors when it was time for meals. No weather was too adverse for playing outside. That was probably the thing he missed the most; having a yard. When he made it big as a teacher, with a dojo of his own, he'd buy a house with a yard. Even if he was too old to frolic in it as he had in his youth, he'd still sit out in the back and gaze outside, enjoying the open area and greenery while his children had a chance to enjoy their childhood with some space they could call their own.

The people that had suffered the most under the Arisugawa family's loss of status were Soun's parents. Neither of them had jobs that paid very well, and neither was talented enough to ever rise through the ranks of their respective businesses. In many ways they were the opposite of Soun and his martial arts. He had gone as far as others could teach him; his parents had learned as much as they could, despite there being more to be taught.

Once it became obvious the couple would never manage to live in the affluence they had been raised in, they shifted their attention to preparing for a comfortable retirement. The only way they would accomplish that goal was to see to it their children gained that money somehow, and then naturally take care of their parents once they became older. Oh, they contended what they were really doing was looking out for their offspring's welfare, but Soun and his brother had learned the truth of the matter long ago. It was so low. If Soun ever had children, he would never try to leach off them that way. He would truly look out for their well-being and try to set them up solely for their own good, rather than his. Of course, he needed to settle down before he could have children. And to do that, he would need a good woman whom he loved, and who loved him in return.

Such thoughts, as well as the reluctance to return home, made Soun take twice as long to traverse the stairs to the fourth floor and his apartment. Seeing he had arrived, he took a deep breath and turned the handle. The door opened. That meant his parents were home, and the fantasy he had for missing the meeting died a painful death.

"I'm home!" Soun announced.

"Come here, Son," his father's voice boomed.

Soun removed his shoes and headed to the living room/kitchen. Cozy was one way to describe the apartment. Cramped was another, more accurate one. The place was so small, and packed tight with so many objects, that it looked more like a flea market run amuck than a place where people could live. At least Soun had a room to himself, thanks to his brother's departure.

Entering the living room, Soun felt his guts twist in a knot at the pleasant smiles his parents wore. When they smiled like that, with their toothy, feline grins, it usually meant there was some scheme they had in store for him.

"Sit." His mother indicated across the table from where she sat next to her husband.

As Soun obeyed, he noticed a manila folder placed midway between his parents. The edge of a large photograph poked out from the corner. The knot in his stomach tightened. "What is it you wanted to discuss?" he said as formally as he could manage, his eyes not quite able to leave the folder.

"We have good news, Son," his mother answered.

That was an ominous sign. Usually his father spoke first. When his mother did, it meant she had been the primary force behind whatever plan they had cooked up. Her schemes tended to be the worse of the pair's.

"Yes?" Soun got out.

Michiru opened the folder and pulled out the picture, sliding it across the table and turning it so it was pointed correctly in Soun's direction. The photo was a close-up of the face of a teenager, probably around Soun's age, with curly brown hair. She was pretty, rather than beautiful, even with the dour expression she wore. Easy on the eyes, but not the sort that if he had walked past her, he would have taken a second glance. The photograph ended right above the chest area, and he could tell she wore a formal, if somewhat sedate, kimono. Besides that, there was nothing notable about the girl, nor did he recognize her.

It was obviously a formal photograph, one that had clearly been taken by a professional and was intended to show off to others, rather than one that had been shot on the spur of the moment. Presumably it was meant to show a happy person, but Soun could tell the girl was dour, and that this wan smile was the best she could manage when the photo had been taken. He suspected that had a photographer suddenly appeared in the room and plopped down in front of him to take such a snapshot, he would have an identical expression.

Still mystified at the purpose behind showing him the photograph, Soun looked at his mother curiously, waiting for an explanation.

"So, what do you think of her?"

This was bad. When his mother played the question game instead of explaining things, it was always very, very bad. "She seems nice." That was neutral enough. Obviously his mother was happy with the girl for some reason, and stating something negative would have been an unwise choice. But Soun wasn't foolish enough to say anything extravagant that could be used against him later.

His mother gave a small clap of her hands, and his father nodded approvingly.

Michiru said, "Excellent. I'm so pleased she meets with your approval. We'll have a formal meeting the day after tomorrow and finalize the arrangement between the two of you."

The fear in his stomach relocated to his voice. "What? What arrangement is this?"

"Your betrothal arrangement, of course," Michiru answered delightedly.

"What?!" Soun cried out. This time his parents had ambushed him but good. He had never seen a marriage plan in the works. They had always been pushy in the past, but never to this degree.

His father's pleased face suddenly became merciless stone. Kentaro was a wide, tall man with a booming voice. Even when seated, he could be an imposing figure. "Your mother and I have been busy planning for your future, since you seem reluctant to do it. We have found a suitable woman for you to marry. You'll be out of high school in a couple of months. It'll be time to get on with your life by settling down and starting a family."

His mother interjected herself, cutting off Soun's attempt at a reply. She held up the photo and some papers. "Kachiko comes from a very well-bred family and has an impeccable background. She'd make a wonderful wife and mother to your children."

Kentaro nodded. "We checked her out thoroughly. Like us, her parents are looking out for their child's welfare. They were trying to find a prospective husband, and they chose you. That means they already find you acceptable. We were really quite fortunate they came to us, rather than the other way around. All you have to do is not screw up, and your future will be assured."

Soun wanted to ask how this mysterious family had found his name to choose from, but then realized his parents had been responsible. Most likely they had placed his name with every matchmaker in Tokyo in the hopes of bartering him off to someone with some money.

Michiru filled the pause in the conversation with more facts. "Her father is a martial arts teacher. He's getting on in years, and Kachiko is his only child. He wants someone to carry on his family's art. Since you've indicated you want to become a teacher yourself, it's a perfect match. He even has a dojo."

Kentaro said, "Since they are quite prominent, she's his only offspring, and it is his family's art, you'll have to take on their name. But that's a small price to pay for this sort of deal."

"We're all so very fortunate," Michiru agreed.

That was all Soun can take. This went far beyond anything they had previously attempted. They weren't merely trying to influence his life, like when they tried to persuade him to become a doctor, they were dictating it. Worse, it wasn't ending with a mere career; they were planning out the course his entire existence would take.

In times past Soun would have caved in and grimly accepted their judgment, bawling about it over drinks with Genma afterwards. He was willing to admit he didn't have much of a spine. But that was before there was something important in his life. No, something more important than his life.


Drawing on the memory of her and everything they had experienced, he found the courage to stand up to his parents for the first time in his life.

Soun slammed his hand down on the table, nearly splitting it in two with the force behind the blow. "Stop behaving as though I'm not here! I am not marrying some girl I've never even met!"

"That's what the meeting the day after tomorrow is for, Son," Michiru explained, a hint of iron already in her voice. Obviously resistance had been anticipated and prepared for.

"I don't give a damn! I refuse to partake of this absurdity!"

Kentaro straightened up as he leaned forward. In a firm unyielding voice, he said, "Listen to me, Son. I will make myself clear to you. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for you. You don't even have to do anything. Oh, you'll have to teach martial arts, which is what you want to do anyway, so this is all you could possibly want in life. Everything is being handed to you. All you have to do is accept it."

"And marry some girl I don't even know!" Soun bellowed.

"She's a good girl. Your mother and I looked into that, since it did seem that things were too good to be true. But it's not. Obviously this is a move on the Tendous' part to secure their future. They're both over sixty now, and want to ensure their family honor is taken care of before they pass on."

"And it's a house you can move into once they're dead," Soun said acidly.

Michiru's eyes bulged in disbelief, while Kentaro's reaction was to slam his own fist down on the table, making it jump as high as Soun had. "Listen to me, boy. Your brother has already failed this family. Your mother and I will not allow you to disgrace it as well."

Soun looked upon his father in contempt. "Oh yes, how disgraceful that he should marry a poor woman. That he loved her had nothing to do with it."

"Her grandfather was Korean!" Michiru spat.

"If she had money, you would have been more than happy to hug her to your bosom," Soun retorted. "You're transparent. You're not worried about lineage; you're worried about who will take care of you after you retire. Ryuunsuke sure as hell can't afford it, so you're going to make sure I can. But I am not your puppet. I will not marry this girl!"

Kentaro drew himself up to his full height, towering over the still seated Soun. "You will marry this girl or else you will never darken this doorway again! Do you hear me?! I'll remove your name from the family register myself!"

Soun shot to his feet, meeting his father's burning glare. "I would consider it a blessing if you did so."

Soun turned away then, not trusting his ability to quell the urge to pummel his father into unconsciousness. As large as Kentaro was, he had no fighting skills whatsoever. He was all bark and no bite. Soun had taken down men even larger in the course of his life, and could easily have dispatched his father if he so chose. But under these circumstances, that would not change his father's mind. Stubbornness to the point of stupidity was a trait that ran through both parents, and Soun only hoped it had somehow bypassed him. He rose to his feet and walked away, not even bothering to head toward his room. Instead he went directly toward the front door and walked out of the apartment and into the world beyond.

For the first time in his life, Soun felt free.

"Wow, I'm impressed, Arisugawa. I didn't think you had it in you." Genma whistled appreciatively.

"I couldn't allow it, Saotome. Not this time," Soun said, reconfirming his belief that he had made the right choice. Now that he had a chance to cool down, he took a moment to consider what he had done. He hadn't been the only one firm in his beliefs. Both of his parents had a look in their eyes that suggested they were deadly serious this time, and there would be no relenting. Casting him out of the family had been no idle threat; it was an admission of their desperation.

As much as Soun hated them and their manipulations, he still loved his parents deeply. There were happier times, earlier in their lives. His parents hadn't always been so eager to exploit their children. It was only as their money dwindled that they became increasingly frantic for some way out that the desperation seeped in. In their own perverse way, his parents did care about him, and Soun had no doubt they really were considering his own well-being in their plans as well. He knew they still missed Ryuunsuke, and cared about him. But that damned stubborn streak would never allow him back in their lives unless he abandoned his wife, and Soun knew his brother would sooner die than ever consider that. His parents knew that too, which was why the stalemate would probably continue until one side was dead. That stubbornness also meant they would do exactly what they threatened if Soun didn't cave into their demands.

And once Soun cooled off, he realized that under different circumstances, he would have done just that. Being all alone on his own would have been too much for him to bear. His brother would be willing to take him in, but Ryuunsuke had no money, and Soun swore he would never be a burden to a man who had sacrificed so much for his ideals. There was no way out there.

Only one thing gave Soun the courage to go on, the nerve to risk everything to stand on his own. Alone, he would be unable to do it, but with her at his side, he became a man greater than he could ever have on his own.

"Are you sure you want to do this, Arisugawa?"

Soun sighed. His friend was not being entirely supportive — not counting the fact he was letting Soun stay with him until the matter was resolved. It wasn't out of any lack of friendship; he had no doubt Genma would risk his life for his friend's welfare, if he was ever pressed about it and had no other recourse. Rather, it was Genma couldn't quite seem to grasp the concept of why Soun was doing it.

"I am certain," Soun assured him.

"But it does sound like a cushy deal," Genma reminded him. "I mean, your own dojo. And you said she was sort of cute. You'd be set for life. I know I'd take them up on it."

"What if you had a choice between her and Ritsuko?"

That made Genma reconsider, which alone was a testament to his feelings for the girl from his past. "No, but I'd have seriously considered it. I probably would have dumped any other girl I dated for the opportunity."

"Well, at least you're honest with yourself," Soun said. Genma Saotome was many things. Having a high level of integrity might not have been one of them, but admitting to the ease that he could be tempted by material things, he could manage.

"But it's not exactly like that with you," Genma pointed out. "It's not as if there's someone you're involved with."

Soun scowled at him.

The light came on in Genma's head. "Oh, come on. You can't be serious. She's a prostitute."

"I don't care what she did, Saotome. And don't make it sound so dirty. It's not like you haven't slept with a few. Doesn't that make you just as bad?"

"Sleeping with a hooker is one thing; bringing them home to show off to mother is another."

"I love her," Soun reaffirmed.

"You're going to have to mooch off her. You have no money. You've been spending it all on her, which means she has it. Actually, that might be something in your favor, now that I think about it. You'll be getting it back, in a roundabout way," Genma admitted.

Soun looked conspiratorially around Genma's bedroom. Ascertaining no one else was present, he leaned in close and whispered in his friend's ear. "Actually, I have some money saved up."

"Money? Where did you get it?"

"From that job I had as a towel boy at the 'Blue Oyster Bathhouse' last year."

"The gay bathhouse?!"

Soun made a hushing motion with his hand. His employment there was not something that was common knowledge, nor did he want it to be.

"You were just a towel boy there, weren't you?" Genma asked, suddenly uneasy around his friend.

"Of course!" Soun snapped. "It's just a lot of the gentleman there were very good tippers."

Genma pinched Soun's cheek. "And no doubt they showered you with money because you're so adorable."

Soun swatted the hand away. "I had that deposited in my own private account. There's a tidy sum of money there. Enough to help two people get by until they get on their feet. All I have to do is withdraw it tomorrow, then ask Minato to come with me. Between the two of us, I'm sure we'll have enough to start a new life together."

Genma shook his head pitifully. "It sounds to me like you have your head in the clouds, but what the heck. It's obvious you want this, and if it's what will make you happy, you have my full support." He slapped Soun affectionately on the back.

"Thanks," Soun said sincerely. At least someone was backing him. Even if it was only for moral support, it was a big help. It would help bolster Soun's courage to face a very uncertain future. It was great to have a friend like Genma.

"Hey, Arisugawa?"


"Do you think this Tendou girl is still available?"

Soun rolled his eyes. At least he could count on one thing: Saotome would never change.

Soun took a deep intake of breath as he paused in front of the door to Minato's apartment. This was the moment of truth. It had taken the better part of the day to do all the smaller steps necessary to prepare the way for what he was about to propose to her. Most of them probably could have been skipped over, but he had used them as a delaying tactic. Soun was genuinely frightened. After today, everything changed. He would no longer be the man he was before stepping foot in his parents' apartment for what had been the last time. Nor could he ever go back to the somewhat carefree youth of yesterday. Now he took on the responsibilities of a man, and everything it entailed. It was a sobering thought, and more than a little terrifying. It had taken all day to firm his resolve to travel to Minato's building and force his feet to carry him up the flight of steps and to her door.

There were no more excuses now. No more delays. Such would be cowardice in the face of the one person to whom he would never appear cowardly. He brought his hand up to the door and knocked. "Minato, it's me."

There was no response. That was unusual. Minato always stayed in on Tuesdays. It was her night off. In all her years, she had never forced herself to work that day. He supposed she could have gone out to a restaurant, but usually she ate in. It was always possible a friend had dropped by and invited her somewhere, but in the past she admitted to him that she had few of those. Acquaintances, perhaps, but not true friends, like Soun was. And even then he made it a point to never bother her on Tuesday's, leaving her to her own devices and giving her some space rather than smothering her in his attention. Besides, if he kept their contact to the days she usually worked, he wouldn't have to worry about her being with other men.

He rapped on the door a second time, more forcefully than before. Again there was no response.

Soun placed his hand next to the door. Underneath the sealed wood, he swore he could somehow feel her presence in the room. It wasn't a martial arts technique; it was from the link that was formed between two people who shared everything together.

"Minato, please open the door," Soun all but pleaded.

For a moment, all was silent. Then a voice called out, "Come in. It's unlocked"

Soun breathed a sigh of relief and opened the door. He would reproach her later about leaving it unlocked. But that was unimportant, at least for now.

His eyes fell on her as he entered the room. She was sitting in a chair next to a desk that was set against the far wall, her back to him. An empty bottle of sake was lying on its side, and a glass that contained a tiny trace of the clear fluid along its bottom sat next to her hand.

As Soun watched her sit motionlessly, he breathed a sigh of relief. Every nagging doubt, wondering if this was the best thing for both of them, was laid to rest. He was taking the right course of action. They were meant to be together for the rest of their lives.

It was time to use speech he had spent hours mentally preparing. "Sorry to trouble you on your day off, but something important has come up. I had been considering this for some time, but only recently found the resolve to do it, even if I knew it was the right thing to do." He was starting to babble. He hadn't meant to do that. It made him sound childish and stupid.

Minato remained quiet. Soun felt that was for the best. He could finish his speech uninterrupted.

"In the short time we've known each other, you've come to mean to me more than any person I have ever met. I'm not talking about the sex, which is great, mind you, it's the talks we have, sharing our dreams and thoughts with one another. It's the quiet moments, where we simply enjoy the presence of one another and a sort of peace settles over us. It's when we eat, or when we laugh, or when we lay together after having made love. It's everything. You make me see the world like it's a new, wonderful place I never noticed before. When I'm not with you, everything feels dark, and pointless, like there's a light missing from my life. The emotions I have when we're together, it's like nothing I've ever felt before, and I can't help but think you feel the same way I do.

"We belong together. I want to take you away from all of this. I want to take care of you for the rest of our lives. Let's do it. Let's leave this place and go where no one knows us. We'll start a new life together, just you and I."

Minato didn't move through the entire conversation. She remained seated where she was, back to Soun, not a whisper passing from her lips.

Soun glanced at her worriedly. He was certain she would have accepted his proposition by now. She had to understand how he felt. She had every other time they had talked, and never before had he bared his heart and soul so openly. Not to anyone in his eighteen years of life. It was only the feelings she evoked that gave him the ability to speak the words.

Still she remained unmoving. Silent.

"Say something," Soun begged.

There was no reaction, as though she had not heard the words. Then she shifted slightly, her body tensing. Her arm came up across her face, then settled back down to her side. Finally, she turned to look at the man who had opened his heart to her.

Soun was taken aback by the look of amusement on her features. She wore a smile that was closer to a sneer with the way her lip curled. And in her eyes, an emotion he had never seen before, at least from her. It took him a moment to recognize it as contempt.

Minato laughed. Laughed at him. "Oh lord, I should have seen this one coming."

"What do you mean?" Soun was barely able to ask.

"You." Minato indicated with rude, waving gesture. "I should have known this was happening. I've never had it happen to me before, but some of the other girls warned me about guys like you. I guess I shouldn't be surprised at missing it. None of my regulars have ever been as young as you, so I didn't recognize the signs."

Soun shifted uncomfortably at the casual mention of the other men she slept with. It was a topic she had never broached with him, and he had no desire to learn about. "What do you mean?"

Minato waved her glass in his direction. "Some young kid starts getting a regular piece of ass for the first time in his life and right away mistakes it for that 'true love' crap. I mean, you were still coughing up the cash without trying to get discounts or something, so I figured you were okay with it. I had no idea you had it this bad."

Soun couldn't believe his ears. How could she be so casual about all they had shared, like it meant nothing? "It is love. I've had crushes before, girls I thought I was in love with. But not like this. It was never like this. You've shown me what it means to truly care about someone."

Minato rolled her eyes. "And you've shown me the inside of your wallet, and I was happy to take what was there. That is what we were doing, you know? It was a business transaction, Soun. That's all it ever was. I mean sure, I laid on the charm, and listened to your rambling and stuff. I like going that extra distance for the customer so he really enjoys things. It also keeps them coming back, let me tell you, and a regular that doesn't stiff you is always a guy to be treasured."

"Y… You can't mean, you c… can't think of me like…" His throat constricted, choking him up and leaving him unable to finish the sentence.

Minato did it for him. "See you as just another customer? I'm afraid so. A nice guy, one of the nicest ones I met. Real sweet, in an innocent teenager sort of way. But if you're looking for some sort of deep emotional attachment, sorry. That ain't the way I play the game."

"But everything we talked about. You told me so much about yourself."

"I made it up," she snapped, though more at the dresser than at Soun, as her head shifted slightly. It took several seconds for her former, casual (if somewhat contemptuous) demeanor to return. "Look, you were running off at the mouth. I told you what you wanted to hear."


"Save it," she snapped again. "I'm telling it like it is. You don't want to believe it, that's your fault, not mine.

"You mean—"

"It was all an act. You just bought into it more than you were supposed to. If I had realized it, I would have gone easier on you," Minato interrupted before he could continue. As she looked at him, her countenance softened, becoming one of compassion. "Look, I'm going to do you a favor. You're a sweet guy, and really deserve something nice to come along. I'm not going to string you along like a lot of other girls would do in my position. I'm cutting you off. No more sex. No more contact. We'll put this behind us as serious miscommunication and leave it at that. Trust me, it's for the best."

"A… miscommunication," Soun repeated, still not quite believing his ears.

"Yeah, that's for the best," she repeated.. "Look, I'm sorry to cut things short, but you got to get out of here."

Still in shock, Soun stared at her mutely.

"I got to work."

"It's Tuesday," he said, his voice as emotionless as though he was reading lines from a script.

She hesitated a moment before explaining, "I'm making an exception today for an out-of-towner that's come by for a couple of days. I'm going to take Friday off instead. Now you go on, get out of here," she insisted as she grabbed him by the hand and tugged him toward the door.

Soun could have resisted, could have stayed and forced her to explain herself further, but he had no energy left. The emotional turmoil he had been in the throes of since yesterday, the lack of any sleep, the fear of the unknown future, had eaten away at him until Minato's confession devoured everything. He barely had enough energy to allow himself to be led out the door. Once out in the hall, Minato slammed the door shut behind him. He heard the tumbler of the lock click into place. Somewhere in a distant corner of his mind, he noted that now he didn't have to remind her to lock her door as he had originally planned.

It was over. Just like that. All of his hopes, his dreams of a lifetime of happiness were washed away in a span of less than five minutes. How could he have been so wrong? How could he have misread the signs so badly? He was so certain they had shared something special, something that only came along once in a lifetime, if that. But instead it was all a lie. A fantasy. Minato was correct. He was a gullible, lovestruck teenager who had wanted to believe in something greater than himself so badly that he had gouged his own eyes out to blind himself from the reality.

Despite that knowledge, even when he went over everything in his mind, Soun couldn't point to a single moment where he should have seen through Minato's deception. How could she have woven a tapestry of illusion so flawlessly that even in hindsight he couldn't see past it? Was he as stubborn as his parents, refusing to accept an obvious truth?

And even if all she had said was true, he couldn't understand her callous disregard for his feelings. Even if they weren't reciprocated, why had she been so casual in all but destroying him? She was a caring woman, somewhat cynical, but he had seen her go out of her way to be kind to others, even total strangers. She could have let him down more gently. Certainly, it would have taken longer to convince him he was wrong, and perhaps he would have had an opportunity to make her see things his way, but no. It was almost as though she had always planned to crush his heart savagely, and was merely waiting for the right opportunity. It contradicted everything he knew about her.

Soun couldn't understand the why of things, and had no strength left to ponder the matter. He was tired. Tired beyond anything he had ever experienced before in his life. All the martial arts training in the world combined could not drain him so completely. He was so exhausted, he feared he would never feel alive again. He wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. He couldn't think. He couldn't even summon enough emotion to have more recriminations. She was correct. He needed to leave. Maybe he'd go home. Or maybe he'd step in front of a bus. Nothing mattered anymore. Not really.

As Soun started down the stairs, there was a loud noise behind him, originating from Minato's apartment. It sounded like glass breaking as it was hurled against something hard. For a moment, Soun instinctively turned to investigate, but then he stopped. Minato had made her feelings clear. She felt nothing for him, and wanted him out of her life. And he lacked the heart to see her again. It would break him as surely as falling off Mount Fuji would. He just knew it.

And so he left the building, leaving the first true love of his life behind forever.

It was a defeated shell of a man, once known as Soun Arisugawa, that returned to his apartment around two in the morning. As he entered the living room, he saw his parents were still up, obviously waiting for him. He wasn't surprised. Surprise required emotion, and he had none left.

"I'll meet the girl tomorrow."

And he went to bed, collapsing exhausted into a dreamless limbo.

Soun found himself impressed with the house. While not truly old, it had the feel of a place that had seen generations of family that called it "home". It was constructed professionally, appealing to the eye, and expansive, far larger than the house Soun had grown up in. It made him feel at ease, as though it was a glove that fit his hand comfortably. It was the first time in the last twenty-four hours that anything had allowed his soul to feel the slightest bit of serenity.

The pain was still enormous. It had been a grueling day from the moment his eyes had opened. Upon awakening, Soun wondered why he should bother rising from bed. The world held nothing for him. It was a vast wasteland filled only with emptiness lacking any meaning. He lived. He still breathed. People were still out there. Everything was the same on the outside. It was the inside that was dead. He was no longer a thing that was alive, he merely existed.

He lay there until his parents prodded and urged him to prepare for the meeting with his future wife. He could offer no protest. Marry the Tendou girl or not marry her; it was the same thing. So, without enthusiasm or hesitation, he went through the motions that he was instructed to do. By the late afternoon, he and his family had arrived at the Tendou residence, and the meeting began.

As Soun sat at the table before the Tendous, he found himself wanting to shift in discomfort at the traditional kimono his parents had insisted he wear. It was new, having been purchased by his parents the day before, since they wanted to make a good first impression with their potential moneymakers. The material itched, and it took employing strict martial arts' discipline to keep from squirming in his seat. Fidgeting was bad for the meeting, or so his parents had harped on up until their arrival at the home.

Staring across the expanse of the stern wooden table, Soun finally took a moment to carefully look over the two older members of the Tendou family who, hypothetically, were going to become his in-laws. He tried recalling their names and failed. He just hadn't paid any attention to his parents when they briefed him on the details of the situation. What difference did it make, anyway?

The couple were obviously older, their hair long since having turned gray with only the man having a few remaining strands of black that were fighting a losing battle with time. The woman appeared even older, thin and frail despite the beautiful kimono she wore. Their advanced age made the youth of their daughter a surprise.

Seated directly across from Soun was the girl, Kachiko. He estimated her to be around his age. Her hair was cut short, though in a feminine manner. A part of his mind marked her appearance as cute, though she paled to the beauty that was Minato. Kachiko was also of a far more slender build, whereas Minato was voluptuous. She was youth where Minato was maturity. The one time she had spoken during the introductions, Soun found she had a high-pitched voice, while Minato's held a husky, sensual purr in every word. She was the exact opposite of Minato in every way. Soun couldn't decide if that was a good or bad thing.

Like her mother, Kachiko wore a lovely kimono that fit her demure frame nicely. Despite Soun's depressed state, his martial arts skills were too finely honed to have disappeared entirely. Automatically, he noted that the girl shifted frequently, as though she was as uncomfortable in her outfit as he was in his. Or perhaps it was the situation that was the cause of her discomfort. He couldn't tell. He didn't care enough to think about it. What was going to be, was going to be. Judging by the way the conversation between the families was proceeding, matters would be decided soon.

In the beginning, the conversation had been stilted and formal, with the Tendous asking many questions (actually, the parents asked, while Kachiko remained quietly sitting next to her mother as a "proper" girl would). They had expressed some reservations early on, but then the tone of the meeting changed as the Tendou woman (Soun felt a prick of irritation at still not remembering the name) had suffered through a hard coughing fit. Her husband was openly concerned while tending to her to the point of almost overreacting. It had interrupted the meeting for several minutes, until the woman caught her wind.

To Soun, in the dour mood he was in, the old woman reeked of decay, like many her age. He wagered by the lack of surprise, in relation to the concern, that it was unlikely this was the first coughing fit she had suffered through, nor would it be the last. Or perhaps it was merely his depression coloring everything black. It was hard to tell, and even more difficult to care.

The discussion had taken a sense of urgency from the Tendou side after that. Whatever wariness they had displayed upon examining Soun disappeared shortly after, and matters flowed along more smoothly, much to the delight of his own parents.

An elbow in the side jostled Soun out of his reverie. His mother had delivered it. It took him a moment to realize she had been talking to him.

"I said, why don't you get better acquainted with Kachiko while we continue talking?"

Though posed as a question, Soun knew better. He nodded.

"An excellent idea," said Kachiko's mother.

Soun thought he noticed a scowl of anger flash Kachiko's features. It was so fleeting, he was uncertain as to whether he actually saw it or if it was imagination. It did pique his curiosity ever so slightly. Why would the girl be angry at spending time with what was to be her future husband?

Kachiko rose to her feet. She held her hand out to Soun and stated in cold tones, "They're right. Once we've been dismissed, they can finish plotting the rest of our lives for us in ease."

Both Tendou parents reacted not in shock at the tone, but with warning glares directed at their daughter. If Kachiko noticed, she expressed no concern.

Soun rose as well. Both bowed as a matter more of reflex than formality.

As Kachiko began walking toward the back door of the house that led to the yard, she moved with a pronounced limp.

Both the Arisugawas looked in surprise at the girl, then to the Tendous.

The Tendou woman made a placating gesture. "There is no need for alarm. Kachiko was in an accident a while ago. However, the doctors assured us her leg will heal enough that she will be able to walk normally."

"It will never heal enough for things to return to normal," Kachiko said bitterly as she headed to the back porch.

A low growl issued forth from the Tendou father. Again, Kachiko took no notice as she continued limping away.

Soun followed, mostly because he was ordered to, but partially because the girl had awakened that small part of his nature that was connected to curiosity. It was probably the first non-negative emotion that made him react since the horrible events of yesterday.

Upon arriving at the backyard, Soun found himself staring at it in appreciation. Now the little child in him was roused as it joined his curiosity. The yard was beautiful, with far more space than he had seen in some time. It even had a small pond filled with koi. It was very appealing to his senses. He wished it was his, then realized that if the people inside had their way, it soon would be.

Kachiko led the way, despite her bad leg. It was her home, after all. Soun followed, uncertain of what to say. In truth, he would have preferred to remain silent. Though some emotion had been awakened in him, it also served to stir up other emotions and remind him of the loss he had suffered so recently.

Kachiko limped over to the edge of the pond and looked down into it. Soun stood beside her. From the angle the sun's rays struck the surface, it reflected their images rather than revealing what lurked below.

Silence reigned between the two. No gesture was made. No sound uttered. They were like two residents of a statuary, though they lacked the serenity associated with such a place

Finally, the stillness was broken by Kachiko as she continued staring at the pond. "So, you're damaged goods, too."

"I beg your pardon," Soun asked, startled by the bizarre nature of the comment.

Kachiko finally looked at him as she spoke, the first time she had focused on him since they had been introduced. "You've been busted up inside so bad it's showing. I know. I've seen that face every time I look in the mirror."

For a moment, Soun almost shouted that she didn't know how he felt, that whatever misery she thought she had was nothing compared to the torment he was suffering from every excruciating moment. Then he realized that she wasn't offering sympathy, but stating cold hard fact. And that she was correct.

Now that Soun looked at her, he saw that she too was in pain too, though she projected far more rage simmering beneath the surface than him. He was still too numb to feel that, and anger was never his true forte.

"It was a girl," Kachiko said plainly. There was no judgment in her voice. It was another statement of fact.

Soun was struck with a sudden urge to speak, as though somewhere deep inside he became aware of a burden he had been shouldering without even realizing it.

Soun began talking, not so much courting sympathy as much as releasing something that had been bottled up with the pressure building ever so slowly. "Yes. It was someone who I thought loved me. Someone I intended to spend the rest of my life with. But," his voice choked. "It was over before it began."

"Did your best friend steal her away?" Kachiko laced the accusation with so much venom that the words themselves sounded poisonous.

The unexpected outburst made Soun stare at her in shock. The very idea that Saotome would attempt such a thing, or that Minato would accept it, would have been laughable, had the result not been so tragic. "No. Nothing like that. She just didn't want me. I was a fool thinking she was in love with me."

Soun wasn't certain why he felt like speaking so openly to someone who was a complete stranger until an hour ago. Perhaps it was because he didn't care what she thought. Or perhaps it was the sort of pain that was shared by two people. Like strangers meeting in a bar, and spilling all of their problems to one another in drunken sympathy.

That seemed to mollify Kachiko's anger. "I'm sorry for you. Losing someone you love, for whatever reason, hurts like nothing else anyone can imagine. Except maybe losing your dreams." She stopped speaking.

Soun saw the twisting emotions etched on her face. She was obviously reliving some horrible memory. Seeing her in such a state, he now understood her earlier comment about perceiving him as "damaged goods". Her mask had been cast aside, and he saw that what lay beneath was the same thing in his own anguished soul.

Fleetingly, Soun almost asked what Kachiko meant by her statement, wondering if the girl would open up to him the way he had to her. Then he thought better of it. Inexperienced with women or not, even he knew better than to risk her ire by asking such a troubling question. Besides, as self-centered as it sounded, the truth was he was too concerned about himself and his own misery, and lacked the interest to wonder about hers.

Again, no words were exchanged and all was quiet between them again. Soun had never understood how people could refer to silence as deafening until this moment. Now it echoed through his ears, hanging between them and driving him to distraction. Still, he had no idea of what to say.

Once again Kachiko took the initiative. "You don't really want this engagement thing, do you?"

Soun considered lying, then wondered why he should bother. Let the girl know the truth. It made no difference. "Not really. I mean, it's all my parents' idea, not mine. I'm just going along with it. Sorry."

Kachiko shook her head. "I'm not really looking forward to it either. My parents are insisting on it. Until recently, I would have dismissed it out of hand. But now, things have changed." Her eyes took on a distant cast, and her eyes shimmered as they teared up slightly. "Everything has changed."

Again Soun refrained from asking anything about the girl, sensing that trying to pry her open would just end up breaking the lever he employed and resulted in a backlash on him. For all her sorrow and anger, there was a sense of steel about her. He was content to allow her to volunteer the information, like he had his own.

It took a moment for her to regain her composure. Soun was taken aback by the shift in her emotions. Where before she had displayed anger, distance, or distaste, she now possessed what could only be described as a conspiratory gleam in her eyes.

"I have a proposition for you."

Now she was reminding him of Saotome. That was not a good thing. Best friend or not, Genma tended to get Soun into as much trouble as he helped him get out of, if not more. Still, the idea that he was finally being given a choice appealed to him, since fate and his parents had denied him that basic desire for the majority of his life.

"Go on," he finally said.

"Look, neither of us really want to get married, but our families are insisting on it. If we reject each other now, which is what we'd have to do since we aren't the least bit interested in each other, they'd just try to hook us up with someone else. So why don't we fool them by openly accepting the engagement to get them off our backs? We'll insist we have to get to know each other first and act like we're genuinely interested in one another in front of them so they aren't suspicious. We'll drag the pretend engagement out as long as we can until they make us break it off. That should buy us plenty of time and make them leave us alone until we have a chance to decide what we really want to do. What do you say?"

Soun was surprised by the girl's attitude. He had gone into the situation assuming she actually wanted to get married. That she was in a similar predicament as him was reassuring, in a fashion. It was interesting for him to note that until this moment, she had not made an impression upon him, largely because he had been in a state of not caring. However, their talk had opened him up and brought him back to life, the shock of Minato's rejection finally starting to pass, though the pain was still real, stabbing at his heart even when he didn't think about it. But it least it was making him start to cope with his feelings.

Now Soun looked upon his "fiancée", and his true first impression of her was favorable. It was a fairly devious scheme, and should have a high probability of success since it played into both sets of parents' desires. It would give Soun the time to figure a way to remove himself from his family's schemes without them constantly trying to use him. Even if the plan failed and their deception was discovered, he and Kachiko would be no worse off than if they refused the arrangement outright.

Soun held out his hand. "I accept."

Kachiko shook it. He was surprised by how firm her grip was.

Her hand remained affixed to his, shifting into a more comfortable posture. "Let's stay out here and keep holding hands until they call us back in. Remember to smile a lot and act pleased."

Soun smiled and did as she suggested. The smile was not entirely forced. It felt nice to have someone on his side for a change. Although he had to admit, it was a perverse sort of irony. The cause of his woes was rejection from a girl. Now he was eased from that pain somewhat by the rejection (in a roundabout way) from another.

There was something else that made him take notice of the girl. When he first agreed to her proposal, she smiled slightly. It made her look cute.

"It's a nice day. Why don't we skip the shopping and take a walk in the park?" Kachiko asked.

"It sounds all right to me." Soun said as the couple changed direction to their new destination while continuing to hold hands, smiling at one another.

It was a clear spring day as they headed toward the familiar territory of the park near Kachiko's home. The sun shone through a handful of clouds. A light breeze kept the air from being too hot, and served to tousle Kachiko's hair slightly, as though it was a thing alive that was slowly rousing itself from a slumber.

The effect the beautiful weather had on Kachiko was obvious by her smile. Soun had been around her long enough to recognize the difference between the ones that were genuine and the ones that were forced. Her pleasant mood was infectious, and Soun found himself grinning broadly was well.

Others passed by, some looking at the pair. Soun caught an elderly woman mention what a 'cute couple' they were. Soun was about to take pride in their act when he realized something. Everything he had done today was automatic. All of the hand holding and smiling with Kachiko had happened without a thought of trying to look romantic for others' benefit. It was… peculiar, considering the painstaking steps he used to take at showing the outward appearance of happiness with the girl. Now it was happening as though it was second nature. He wondered exactly what that might portend.

For close to five months now, he and his fiancée (in name, if not in heart) had been carrying on their pretense of a happily engaged couple. In the first few weeks, anxiety was Soun's constant companion, gnawing away at his gut and threatening to give him an ulcer. He was certain everyone would see through their facade and his parents would again try to set him up with a wealthy family that had a nice dowry to bestow upon any boy who was willing to marry their daughter. But the accusations never came. No one saw through their act. Instead, he and Kachiko were left to their own devices, each set of parents openly delighted at how their respective children took to one another without the resistance that had been anticipated.

Without being dogged about his future every minute, Soun had the opportunity to relax and deal with his heartbreak. Not that he had fully dealt with it yet, there was still pain every time he thought about Minato and her rejection, but it didn't seem to hurt quite as much as it did in those early days, and the ache didn't linger like before. He didn't even think about her as often. He supposed he was healing. Perhaps someday the memory of her wouldn't have pain connected to it at all. He could only pray that would be so. At the moment, she no longer haunted him the way she used to, and Soun was grateful for the chance at peace.

Turning his thoughts back to the present, Soun took a moment to look at himself and his companion. Yes, they did appear the happy couple, and on his part, none of his pleasant demeanor was an act. His smile was genuine. He enjoyed spending time with Kachiko. She was a smart girl, though prone to exaggeration, especially when it came to things she did. And though she was smart, almost certainly brighter than him, she wasn't as smart as she liked to think she was. She had gaping blind spots whose existence she was unaware of, and would probably deny if they were pointed out to her.

What had also quickly become evident was that the girl had a temper. It was an impatient thing, appearing with little warning and a terrible thing to behold. Though at the same time she rarely held on to it for very long. How did the saying go? "Quick to anger, quick to forgive"? It was as though the parable had been created with Kachiko Tendou in mind.

Yes, Kachiko was constantly proving herself an interesting girl. Every time they met, he learned something else about her, though it was like drawing near an iceberg. In the beginning, at a distance, one might think everything above the surface is all there is to see. But once they draw close, they can see into the water and realize there's even more hidden beneath the surface. The more he learned about his "fiancée", the less he knew, he realized.

There was one thing that vexed him somewhat; Kachiko never talked about her past. Her parents informed him she had graduated from a local school called Furinkan, and that she had been in some sort of car accident toward the end of her senior year, which had damaged her leg. While it would heal enough to walk on it and do simple tasks, she could never put any real stress on it, or the knee would give out, perhaps being damaged worse than before. With the time that had passed, the injury had healed enough so that they would have to walk for over an hour before the strain on it began to make her limp. Now he made excuses to pause during their time together so that she didn't strain it beyond its limits.

Aside from those two things, he knew nothing about her. It was almost as through the girl had never existed before he met her.

Soun cast those thoughts aside. He would rather enjoy himself than dwell on the matter, especially with Kachiko at his side. There was something about being around her that was only rivaled by the time spent with Genma. And even then, the feelings of camaraderie weren't exactly the same as they were with Kachiko. He was uncertain of how to define them, only that she did not fill the same role in his life that Genma did.

They hadn't spoken since entering the park. While Soun was almost unnaturally comfortable in Kachiko's presence, there were times when he liked talking to her and eliciting a smile. Those were hard things to come by. She seemed melancholy much of the time. Thankfully, for Soun's peace of mind, he discovered early on he was not the source of it, though he still hadn't figured out what was. His best guess was that it had something to do with the mysterious past she wouldn't talk about.

Taking the initiative, Soun said, "Kachiko—"

The girl sighed. "How many times do I have to tell you to call me Kachi?"

Again Soun smiled. Just last week she had insisted that he call her by that pet nickname. It made him feel happy, almost unnaturally so.

He continued, "Kachi, you'll have to remind me to thank your father. I learned a new martial arts move yesterday. I did it while sparring with Saotome," He puffed his chest out slightly as he bragged about his prowess. "It was truly inspired. Saotome was getting lucky and had the upper hand, but I suddenly realized how I could harness my chi and unleash this demon head—"

"I don't want to hear about that !#$!" Kachiko snapped.

Soun shut his mouth with an audible click. That was unexpected. She hadn't been in a bad mood. She had seemed exceptionally happy. But something had set her off. If it was something he said, he was unsure of what it was.

He tried thinking about what it might be. It wasn't about her father. She spoke of him well enough, at least when it wasn't in reference to Kachiko being a "proper girl". And learning a new move hadn't had anything to do with her.

It shouldn't have been Genma. She had met him, and had been amused by his antics. Genma liked her as well. It had been something of a relief that the pair got along. Had they disliked one another, it would have been difficult for Soun to balance his friendship with whatever it was he had with Kachiko. So if mentioning Genma hadn't set her off, what else could it have been?

The only other thing he mentioned in the inconspicuous sentence was his new move. Now that he thought about it, this was the first time the subject of martial arts had come up between them, despite the fact her father was a teacher. During his high school years, Soun had learned the hard way that girls weren't interested in martial arts, to the point that when he brought them up, they would sniff and walk off. He had just continued in the same vein with Kachiko, never talking about them save in a roundabout way. This was the first time he had broached the subject with her… And upon eliciting that sort of response, it would be the last time as well.

All trace of her pleasant mood was gone. A pall of anger, similar to the one surrounding her when they had first met, replaced it. Soun tried lightening the mood. "Your leg is much better now."

She looked at him and her brow furrowed even more than before. Soun was under the impression he had just made the matter worse.

He was considering halting his breathing, just to ensure that didn't set her off, when a male voice behind him inquired. "Kachi? Kachi Tendou? Is that you?"

Kachiko stared past Soun, and her eyes widened. "Bosatsu?"

Soun turned to see a man about his age had walked up the path behind him. Despite a decided lack of interest in men, Soun could tell the newcomer was handsome, in a painfully bishonen manner. It was a look that all too many girls seemed to go for. This "Bosatsu" had a bright, pleasant smile, and radiated an aura of kindness that spoke of the joy of helping his fellow man without a thought to himself.

Soun took an instinctive dislike to the newcomer.

Kachiko remained staring at him with a sort of open-mouthed gaze of wonder. "Bosatsu, I never thought I'd see you again."

"It has been a while," he said warmly, making Kachiko almost gush at the attention.

Soun's dislike doubled.

Somewhere behind Bosatsu, a feminine voice called out, "Bosa-chan, who is that?"

At his side appeared a girl about the same age as him. Her face was incredibly attractive. She could easily have graced the cover of a magazine.

Kachiko's gushing ended as quickly as it arrived. In a flat voice, she stated. "Oh, if it isn't the bimb—" she stopped abruptly as she stared at the young woman's stomach. "Whoa! You got seriously fat."

"Pregnant," the girl corrected as she patted her midsection affectionately. Bosatsu did the same, and stared lovingly into the girl's eyes.

"Oh," Kachiko said, her voice lacking any sort of emotion. "So you and Miko are married?"

"Right after graduation," Bosatsu said, blushing slightly.

A large portion of Soun's dislike for the man passed. First impressions were sometimes wrong, after all. This Bosatsu was an all right guy, if a bit on the bishonen side. Real men, like Soun, weren't girly.

Now that Soun had a chance to look at Miko more closely, he saw that despite the large waistline, she was still a very attractive girl. She seemed to have an air of serenity and peace about her that rivaled that of Bosatsu. Soun felt a pang of envy at the closeness the couple shared. They possessed something no sane person could possibly not long for. It made him feel alone.

"I'm sorry you couldn't be there," Miko said sincerely.

"Things happen," Kachiko said quickly. She pointed at the clothing. "Not exactly the designer duds you're used to, eh?"

Soun noticed that Miko's clothing, a baggy sweatsuit, did appear a bit threadbare, as well as having a few purplish stains along the right leg. Obviously it has had seen some use.

Miko fingered the clothing, as though noticing it for the first time. "Well, I'm afraid I don't have access to those sorts of things anymore."

"Oh?" Kachiko asked, some emotion returning to her voice.

Miko nodded, her smile fading slightly. It was bolstered as Bosatsu placed an arm affectionately around her shoulders, drawing her close.

Miko said, "My parents didn't approve of Bosatsu and I marrying. They felt I should marry someone more prominent and rich. I refused. They threatened to cut me out of the family's inheritance. I married Bosatsu. They cut me out and allowed my younger sister to take over my role in the business."

"I'm sorry," Kachiko said sincerely. Soun found himself nodding in agreement. He could appreciate such parental manipulating like few others. Why couldn't parents stay out of their children's affairs and let them live their lives as they would?

Bosatsu held his wife close and rubbed her shoulder.

Miko continued. "I'm not sorry, though. I'm far happier now married to the man I love than I ever was with the money."

Kachiko looked at her incredulously. "You used to go around on a divan with a host of burly guys to tote you around."

Miko gave a dismissive wave of her hand. "A silly teenage phase I went through. I grew up a lot after that." She reached out and grasped Kachiko's hand. "I'm sorry I treated you so poorly then."

Kachiko seemed taken aback by both the gesture and the sincerity behind it. "Yes, well, like you said, it was during the recklessness of our youth. I don't hold it against you."

"I have a job with a bank. We get by. And we have each other," Bosatsu said as he stared lovingly at his wife.

Miko added, "And lots of friends. Bosatsu's one of the nicest people around, and helps out lots of others. It's amazing how often people go out of their way to help us. I'm grateful for every one."

"It sounds like you're really happy," Kachiko said. "I'm glad for you."

Bosatsu seemed to notice Soun for the first time. "I'm sorry. How rude of me. Here I've been talking all this time with Kachi, and I neglected to introduce myself to you. I'm Bosatsu Kanamura, and this is my wife, Miko." The two bowed.

Soun did likewise. "I'm Soun Arisugawa. I'm Kachi's fiancé." He made a point of bringing his arm around her shoulder and bringing her close, like Bosatsu did with his wife.

Kachiko seemed surprised by the familiarity of the gesture, though she didn't resist. It took but a second to find herself comfortably cradled in his arm.

Miko stared at Kachiko in shock. It passed quickly. "Congratulations! And here you always used to brag about how you'd never marry young."

"Yes, well, sometimes things change and you play the cards you're dealt. It's either that or fold, and that never sat well with me," Kachiko said.

Soun thought he detected a note of strain in the statement, but did not comment upon it. Now was not the time.

Neither Miko nor Bosatsu knew what to make of the response.

Kachiko said, "Soun's a wonderful guy. He's made me happier than I thought possible."

"I feel the same way," Soun added. He wasn't certain how much of his answer was said to look good, and how much was genuine. Mostly the latter, he thought. He wondered how much of Kachiko's was genuine as well. He found himself eager to know, even if there was no way of discovering the truth. Today was holding many revelations for him, as well as more important questions that begged to be answered.

After the introductions were over, the couples exchanged small pleasantries, as frequently happened between people that were casual acquaintances in their past. Nothing of importance was said, and the couples made token phrases about getting together sometime, though neither took any steps towards making it a reality, such as exchanging phone numbers or addresses.

Once they were finished, the couples continued on their way in the opposite directions.

Kachiko remained unusually silent, leaving Soun to consider the unexpected encounter. He was uncomfortable with the fact that two people Kachiko hadn't met in years knew more about her past than her own fiancé did. There was something wrong with it on some unspoken basic level. They had been together long enough that she should have said something by now. She knew all about his past, save the Minato situation. Had she asked, he might have even told her, though she never did.

Soun decided he needed to know more. What if they met another couple Kachiko knew, and Soun ended up humiliated by having to admit his lack of knowledge about his fiancée's past?

"Were you close to either of them?" Soun asked.

"I don't want to talk about it," Kachiko said in a tone that considered the matter closed.

An errant thought occurred to Soun, something Kachiko said the first day he had met her. "You didn't seem to like that Miko girl. Was she the best friend that stole your lover away?"

"I said I don't want to talk about it!"

Under different circumstances, Soun probably would have taken his usual spineless route and remained silent. But in a surprising show of determination, he insisted, "Why is it you refuse to talk about your past with me?"

There was a bleak look on Kachiko's face. "Because the past is over. There's only the present and future to consider." She turned away, refusing to face him as she spat out, "I want to go home now."

Tired of the games, and figuring he wasn't asking too much, he responded with, "Fine. Walk yourself back!" And immediately headed toward the train station that would return him to his home.

"Fine, I will!" Kachiko shouted, then hurried as quickly as she could toward her home in the opposite direction.

It was only after she was out of sight that Soun slowed down, still too angry to truly feel regret over his actions. He was in the right. He knew it. She just had to accept that he should be allowed to know more about her.

It was as he took a more leisurely pace that he realized something. If they really were a couple, than that meant they had just experienced their first real fight.

He just hoped it wasn't their last.

The shrill ring of the phone echoed throughout the Arisugawa household, making Soun groan. Sleep had only seduced him recently, thoughts and concerns of the fight troubling him so much that he had almost called Kachiko to apologize. He probably would have, save that when he had sought Genma's opinion on the matter, his friend assured him he was doing the right thing. It was a man's duty to call the shots and tell women how things were going to be. If that meant being firm when it came time to remind them who the master of the relationship was, then that was a price that had to be paid. At least that was what Genma said.

Of course, Genma didn't really have any steady girlfriends either.

"Oh, I should have apologized," Soun moaned aloud through his drowsiness.

Through his door, he heard his mother stomp through the home until the phone stopped in the middle of a ring. Loudly, the woman reprimanded, "Do you know what time it is?!" There was a pause, then in a congenial voice, "Oh, Daughter-in-Law, it's you… No, it's not too late for you to call… Of course, I'll get Soun up."

As footsteps drew close, Soun looked at the clock on his nightstand. 1:30? It was late. Or early, depending on how one looked at it.

The door to Soun's room was thrust open without the courtesy of a knock. His mother stood in the doorway, gazing upon him like an avenging angel come to mete out divine justice. "You'd better not have done anything to make her angry. If you blow this arrangement, nothing you've gone through will compare to what I'll do to you."

Not wanting to put up with a lecture about responsibility at this hour, Soun pointed out, "She is on the other end of that phone out there, the one that's off the hook," he emphasized.

That made Michiru realize her error. She immediately shut up.

With no further impediment, Soun walked to the phone and picked it up. He had wanted to apologize. Now was a golden opportunity, even if it was at an ungodly hour.

"Kachi," Soun said into the receiver.

"Soun." The voice sounded relieved. "There's something I need to talk to you about."

"First, let me apologize."

"Not now. Meet me downstairs."

That confused him. For a moment it sounded like she was talking about meeting him now. Sleep deprivation was giving him auditory hallucinations. "Downstairs?" he said on the offhand chance he had heard correctly.


"It'll take you an hour to get here."

"I'm already outside your apartment. I'm calling from at the corner pay phone. Just come downstairs."

"I'll be right down." Soun hung up the phone and returned to his room to throw on one of his brown gi. It was something that could be donned quickly, and on the chance some of the less civilized elements in the neighborhood were prowling about, would identify him as a person not to be trifled with. One of the advantages to being a martial arts prodigy was that after a few of the local thugs twice your size went down from a couple of casual blows, no one went out of their way to trouble you. In fact, people tended to be outright polite.

Michiru watched her son get dressed. "Why on earth did she call you at this hour? Did you knock her up? You'll have to take responsibility and get married immediately."

"It's nothing like that!" Soun snapped, disgusted with how eager the woman was to believe the worst. He didn't bother lowering his voice. He wasn't worried about waking his father. Kentaro Arisugawa could sleep through a war and not even roll over from the disturbance.

"Treat her nicely," Michiru called out as Soun raced out of his apartment and downstairs.

Kachiko was exactly where she said, waiting anxiously for him. He was relieved to see she was fine.

"What's wrong?" he gasped out.

Kachiko didn't answer right away, instead opting to bite her lower lip. Soun was beginning to recognize it as a sign that she was about to do something that troubled her.

He remained silent, giving her the opportunity to start when she was comfortable. It took almost a full minute before she said, "During my senior year, I met this guy, Hayato. He wasn't handsome; you're way better looking than him. He was actually kind of unattractive. Even had that unibrow thing going. He wasn't in good shape… Well, he was a bit paunchy. He wasn't really funny, though occasionally he had a good joke or two. There wasn't anything remarkable about him. He was normal. But despite that, we hit it off real well. I mean, way better than I had any other guy I dated. And he liked me too. It was one of those inconspicuous things that started out as friends, but became something else. Before I knew it, things had taken a life of their own, and we began dating. It wasn't long after that that I woke up one day and I realized I was in love with him, and he felt the same way about me."

"You don't have to do this," Soun said before she could continue.

"Yes, I do," she assured him, then continued quickly, as though she was afraid she'd lose her nerve. "Anyway, things were going great for the first five months. They went so well, we started planning a life together after we graduated school. It was that serious. But it was shortly after that things changed, although I didn't realize it at the time. He started to seem a little distant, but with entrance exams coming up, I just figured that was distracting him. So I put it in the back of my mind and ignored it, thinking everything was normal.

"And than I had my…" her voice caught for a second. "I had my accident. It was bad. Real bad. My knee was permanently messed up. All my plans for what I was going to do for a career after graduating were over. Just like that. In a split second, it was all over for me and my entire life changed. You can't know what it's like, having fate take away the only thing you've wanted your entire life. No one can, unless it happens to them, and I wouldn't wish that on my worst foe.

"Anyway, I was a real mess. About the only thing that kept me together was Hayato. As long as I had him at my side, I'd make it through, somehow. No matter how bad it was, I had him to help me through it. With him, everything would be all right. It had to be, because he'd be there, and love conquers all, right?

"Only it wasn't love, at least not on his part. Not the lasting kind. Right after the accident, when I was still in bed with my screwed-up leg, he tells me he's in love with someone else. That was why he was so distant lately. He had tried to fight it, but he couldn't. It just happened naturally, like it had with me. When he realized it was hopeless, he gave in. He was going to tell me about it right before the accident occurred, but obviously it was too late. After it happened, he knew he had to do it right then, since if he didn't, I would latch onto him worse than ever, like taking up the slack for what I couldn't do, and insist we get married right away. He said he had to end it before things got to that point. The idiot. Any other time, I might have been able to handle it, but not then. Not like that.

"And then came the absolute crowning moment. It turned out he was in love with my best friend, Sakura, and she was in love with him just as much. I never saw it coming. We were lifelong best friends. We were like sisters, if not closer. We were inseparable since we met in kindergarten. I mean, we did everything together. Shared all our hopes and dreams. All our laughs and tears. We always counted on each other for anything we needed, and nothing could keep us apart. There was nothing I wouldn't have trusted her with, and she was the same way. I even saved her life a couple of times. Whenever either of us needed something, the other would be there. It was the kind of friendship that would last a lifetime.

"Or so I thought. And then she did that to me. At the absolute lowest point in my life, she stabbed me in the back at the worst possible moment. Oh, she tried making excuses like Hayato. She said she had tried to fight it when she realized what was happening. She even tried to stay away from us, but was so miserable she kept coming back. And then things happened, and she 'knew' she couldn't ignore her feelings, or him. So she gave in to her feelings, and he gave in to his. Just like that.

"She got all teary-eyed and tried apologizing, but it was worthless. I hated her. No, I still hate her. I hate her more than every person I ever hated rolled into one. I'll never forgive her, not so long as there's breath in my body. When she's dead, I'll piss on her grave and dance on it afterwards. I can't even say that name anymore without wanting to scream and cry and break things. If I was to see her again, I don't know what I'd do, but it wouldn't be pretty.

"Other friends tried to cheer me up, but in my anger, I lashed out at them over and over again until I drove them all away, truly making myself alone. Like I said, I was messed up. I didn't even attend graduation. I couldn't stand to see any of them. All the people I knew were reduced to nothing more than painful reminders of all I had lost and would never get back.

"I had lost my dreams, my lover, and my friend all at once. Forever. I had nothing left. I just wanted to die. I was as close to losing my mind and killing myself as a person can get without actually doing it. I almost did it a hundred times, but never made it past picking up the blade. Something inside of me refused to let go, no matter how much I want to. I guess I was always a glutton for punishment. So I stuck it out, even though I was completely broken. It was like I was moving on automatic. I don't even remember many of those days. I was in a daze. One day blended into another. They were all the same. Nothing happened in them.

"That's why I didn't resist my parents' urging to get married. I didn't have a future of my own. So, broken as I was, I surrendered to their wishes and started to become the prim and proper girl they always wanted. It's not that it was bad, it just wasn't something I was interested in. It wasn't me; not really. But I couldn't be what I wanted anymore, and I had to do something. So I did this." She held her arms out helplessly at her side.

Words unbidden came to Soun lips. "It's enough for me."

Kachiko smiled, tears glistening in her eyes. She sniffled and wiped them away. "Anyhow, shortly after I met you, things started to change. Inside me, I mean. After a while, waking up didn't seem like an exercise in pain. I wouldn't say I was happy. It was more like I was less miserable than I used to be. I guess I was healing, though it was a slow process. After a couple of months, I guess things became sort of normal, or at least what passes for normal in my life. I mean, I still get resentful over all that was taken from me, but I can look forward to things as well. And it gets better every day." She looked meaningfully at Soun.

Soun nodded. It wasn't quite that bad for him. While his heart had been really and truly broken, he still had his dreams, and Saotome, to help console him. "I feel the same way. I used to not want to get out of bed either. But now, I have something to look forward to when I wake up as well."

"As well you should," Kachiko said in deadly earnest. The facade broke down quickly, and she laughed. There was a bit of sorrow in it, but it was the sort that was being released, rather than being bottled up and allowed to fester like an infected wound. "Anyway, that's why I don't like to talk about my past. There's nothing good in it, not anymore. One thing I've always been good at was blowing off stuff that happens to me and moving on beyond them. That's what I had to do, and that's what I've done. I've left everything behind in order to go forward. Those that cannot let go of the past will be consumed by it, and I won't let that happen to me." Determination was set her features now. Despite the pain that was still present, it was obvious she was looking past that, and toward hope for the future.

The heartrending confession made Soun feel like crying himself, but his pride would not let him. He did not want to appear weak in front of a woman who was obviously so much stronger than him, at least in the ways that mattered. "Thank you for sharing that with me. It means a lot."

"Yeah, well, I had to let go of it and tell someone," Kachiko said. "And you're the only person I can really talk to about it. You're the only person in my life that I really trust."

Soun wiped his eyes so she wouldn't suspect the tears that were there, but he was certain she knew. Even in the poor light of the street lamp, she knew.

So, their first fight was over. Their relationship had turned out stronger because of the fires it had been thrust into. That was better news than he had dared dream of. It raised his spirits so much, that when a risky idea entered his mind, he decided to give voice to it rather than ignore it.

Soun cleared his throat, then said in a firm, commanding tone, "I want to go out with you tomorrow. And not just because we're supposed to be engaged. I want it to be an official date because we want to be with each other, and not part of some scheme to fool others."

Kachiko's eyes widened in surprise. She turned away, interlocking her hands behind her head. She stared up at the stars above, as though seriously considering the proposition.

When she turned back toward him, she wore a smirk. It was one Soun was rapidly growing accustomed to. "I accept. Of course, that means you pay for everything and have to go to extraordinary lengths to impress me if you want me to try for a second. This is our first official date, after all, and I don't impress easy."

Even as relief flooded him, Soun decided two could play her game. "No, hold on a second. I'll have to wait until after the date before I can decide if I it was good enough to want a second."

That clearly caught Kachiko off-guard, badly enough that it took several long moments for her to regain her composure. Then she said in a voice that was half-playful, half-serious. "Oh ho, someone thinks pretty highly of themselves. We'll see if you're good enough to reach first base tomorrow. Until then." She blew him a kiss, then turned around and headed back toward her home.

Soun was left staring at her behind. It was then he really stared at it for the first time. It was on the small side, like her chest, but he'd wager it was firm. He was fairly certain he wouldn't be able to confirm that for a while, Kachiko was consistent as well as rigid about what boundaries could be crossed, but he was willing to take the chance it would be worth the wait.

Soun squeezed again, masking it under the guise of a caress. While being slightly soft on the surface, allowing one to gain a good handhold, there was a definite solidity hidden beneath that top layer. Firm in the flesh as well as appearance. It was everything one could hope for, or even dream about.

"What is this obsession with fondling my bottom? That's got to be the fifth time you've done it."

"Sorry," Soun apologized to his fiancée. Or, more precisely, to her derriere, since that was what he was sitting next to on the bed. Three months since that night when he and Kachiko went on their first official "date", their romance had culminated in the love motel room that they relaxed in now. Tacky to the extreme in a hot pink and tasseled decor, it was cheap. And more importantly, close by. Close was the most important thing, since their heavy petting session had finally persuaded Kachiko to let Soun finally "run home for the score".

The initial two times they had made love were as it tended to be, with first-time lovers after the end of a long courtship. Both were so nervous they had merely concentrated on basking in the reality what they had fantasized about for months, and made sure all the parts went in their proper places. After getting it right the first time, they had relaxed more by the second time, though they still concentrated on making a good impression and assuring their partner that the enjoyment elicited from the first joining wasn't a fluke. Once that was mutually confirmed, they moved on to the third. That was all about pleasure and enjoying themselves, as well as one another.

With the ending of the third conjoining, they relaxed after their most successful bout of lovemaking yet, each satisfied they had done a good enough job that there would be a next time, and were able to relax in the much appreciated afterglow.

"I didn't have you figured for an ass man," Kachiko said in reference to the hand still resting on her backside.

Despite dating for months, and getting to know each other better, Soun still found himself a bit taken aback by her raunchy statements, stated without a hint of shame. Still, it was nothing compared to her miserable sense of humor. As much as he loved her, he still couldn't pretend to like it. On the upside, according to Kachiko, no one in her entire life had ever appreciated it, which meant Soun was on even ground.

Once past the initial surprise, Soun joked back, "With an ass like yours, it's easy."

Kachiko glowed at the statement. "Yours ain't so bad either." She shifted enough to pinch one of his own cheeks, doing it a touch on the hard side to emphasis the statement.

Rather than lie back down and enjoy the comfort of her body, Soun rose to his feet and stretched, working a kink out of his back. After their first time, when they were more or less feeling each other out, Kachiko had taken the initiative in the lovemaking. She was definitely energetic in bed, which didn't surprise him in the slightest. He had her pegged as a wildcat once she decided to go all the way. Now he had the scratchmarks to prove it.

Kachiko was content to lie where she was, openly admiring his form. Soun resisted the urge to preen. He remembered doing that early on with Minato. All it had elicited was a laugh. Nothing could end a night's activities for a man quicker than a laugh at the wrong time.

"You sure knew what you were doing," Kachiko said as she relaxed, posing just a touch on the seductive side.

Soun barely kept from commenting that he had a good teacher. Women never wanted to hear about past lovers. He also wanted to avoid thinking about Minato now. While it would not spoil the mood (nothing could after that last session with Kachiko on top, nearly popping a couple of discs out with how hard she had ridden him) it would not help it either, and he wanted to enjoy things for as long as he could. Instead, Soun opted to shift the direction of the conversation. "That wasn't your first time either."

Kachiko blushed slightly, seeming to regard it as an accusation rather than a compliment. "I'll have you know there's only been one other guy I've been with. Although it was more than once, and he definitely knew what he was doing."

Soun found his mood darkening at that, wishing he had kept his mouth shut. He didn't want to hear about her past experiences either. What was it Saotome had once said in an unusually philosophical moment? Ah, yes. A man always wants to be a woman's first conquest, while a woman always wants to be a man's final conquest. Soun knew the wish wasn't realistic, but he didn't need the truth rubbed in his face either.

Kachiko stared at Soun pensively.

"What?" Soun asked, seeing something in her eyes that aroused his curiosity.

"You'd look good with a mustache. Not that you're not handsome now," she added. "It's just I think it would make you look sexy. Irresistibly sexy."

Soun rubbed his upper lip. He had considered growing one for a while now. Confirmation that it would only make him better-looking meant he'd stop shaving as of tomorrow.

The smile Kachiko wore was like a cat that had cornered its prey. It was almost as though she could read Soun's mind, he observed.

She continued talking. "You know, Arisugawa, you're damn lucky."


"Yep," Kachiko played with an errant strand of hair. "If you had gone about things in any other way, I'd have probably thrown you out on your ass after that first meeting."

"It's nice to know I'm a smooth operator," Soun kidded, especially since in his wildest fantasies he held no illusions of such. His imagination had limits.

"I'm serious," Kachiko insisted. "On that first day we met, it was only because we were so much alike right at that moment, two people nearly broken by what life threw at them, that I was willing to accept you hanging around. It was the only reason I trusted you, since I knew you weren't interested in me anymore than I was in you. It was only after a few months passed, and I healed up some inside, that I could accept you as a friend. And the more we hung around together, the more I realized you were actually a good guy that I might like as more than a friend. And then after we started dating, I knew you were a guy I could fall in love with, which I did, which is why we were doing the horizontal mambo tonight." She sighed. "Like I said, real lucky."

The sincerity of her speech made a lump form in Soun's throat. He only wished he was as eloquent and could say something equally as meaningful to her. Instead he let his body do the talking as he returned to sitting on the bed next to her still prone body. He ran his finger tips along her side, making her shiver at the contact. He continued doing it, allowing her to enjoy the toying with her flesh.

"Want another round?" she offered.

Soun thought he detected a slight hesitation in her voice. Sensing the offer was more of his benefit than hers, he declined. "It's getting late. I wouldn't want our parents to think we were up to no good."

She laughed and punched him lightly in the side. "I'm sure the old man would blow up at the idea of 'his little girl' rolling around with some guy and banging her brains out."

Sometimes Soun wondered how she could ever maintain the illusion of propriety with a mouth like hers. When he had first met her, in her placid kimono in the formal setting of her home, he automatically had her pegged as a proper Japanese girl, much like her mother was. It was only after several months of getting to know one another that Soun came to understand just how inaccurate that image was, in attitude as well as her verbal acumen.

Soun also realized her observation was probably correct. He would have to be discreet around the elder Tendou from now on. There was no sense in getting into an argument with the man over the matter, even if he and Kachiko were technically engaged. Despite his advanced age, the old man had a few tricky moves in his arsenal of techniques. One of the tenets of the Tendou school seemed to be misdirection bordering on the edge of outright dishonor. Soun and the old man had some vigorous training sessions, which Kachiko seemed to avoid for some reason. Probably because of a distinct lack of interest in the martial arts. She even went so far as to forbid him from talking about them in her presence. Soun did as she wished. He could still talk with Saotome over them, after all. The man was more obsessed about martial arts than Soun was. He really needed to get a woman.

Soun rose to his feet once again, this time with the intention of heading to the shower to clean off. He was tempted to ask Kachiko to join, but decided they would probably end up doing something that would defeat the purpose of trying to clean up. Besides, tiles were slippery, and most accidents did happen in the bath. Best to keep their gymnastics confined to the bed, or at least other soft surfaces. After tonight, it was clear there would be plenty of repeat performances.

As Soun once again stretched out to work on his back (he was going to have to get used to Kachiko's energetic nature) she suddenly said, "Let me warn you now, I'm only going to have one kid. No way am I staying fat and bloated being some kind of baby machine. And I don't care if it's a boy or a girl, so don't think we'll keep trying until we come up with a boy, then we stop. You want a boy, you'd better tell your balls to make only Y-chromosomes."

Soun froze. He hadn't seen that one coming. She hadn't even tried segueing into it. He imagined he did have something akin to a "deer caught in headlights" look in his eyes as he stammered out, "Y… you mean you want to get married?"

Kachiko's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Are you saying you don't want to get married to me?"

Their relationship had finally reached a point where Soun recognized some of his fiancée's behavioral patterns. When she heard a question she didn't like, she tended to rephrase it in such a way that giving the answer she did not want to hear would be very, very bad. He supposed he should have been grateful for the obvious nature of the delivery. Despite his lack of experience, he knew women could twist innocent statements around to make it sound like a man was insulting or rejecting them. Kachiko's way of doing it was almost more along the lines of an open challenge rather than a veiled implication.

Soun considered what she was saying (and she was saying, rather than asking, regardless of phrasing it like a question). He hadn't really given the matter much thought, thinking there was a ways to go before that came up. Kachiko was the one who defined where their relationship stood, and Soun followed without complaint. That was all right with him, as far as he was concerned. He made a much better follower than a leader, and Kachiko was remarkably straight forward in stating where she felt their relationship was and exactly how far she was willing to go. Now she was stating it again, asking him if he was ready for the next step. Did he want to make the arranged marriage into a real one?

The quickness of the answer, and the total certainty of it, surprised him. Before his mind cast doubts into his decision, he said, "Yes. More than anything in the world."

"Good," Kachiko said plainly and curled up with her pillow, watching Soun contently.

On Soun's part, he was a bit stunned by the ease with which it had been decided. He would have imagined the whole situation regarding a formal proposal would have to be carefully set up, with lots of dinner and flowers, and choosing an expensive ring he would spend the rest of his life paying off, and carrying an ulcer in his stomach as he repeatedly let ideal opportunities to propose slip through his fingers due to his spinelessness. In some ways, he was relieved that Kachiko had taken the initiative and essentially proposed to him, allowing things to be decided so easily.

They'd have to discuss matters and make formal arrangements later. Both sets of parents would be thrilled with he and Kachiko's mutual acceptance of the situation. The length of the courtship had gone on for so long that Soun's parents had taken to constantly prodding him about when he and Kachiko would go forward with the marriage ceremony. Soun had remained adamant in his decision to wait and not be browbeaten into trying to move things along farther or faster than either he or Kachiko wanted.

His fiancée had that effect on him, increasing his resolve and bolstering his confidence in anything he dared to try. At his side, she made him a better, stronger person that he could ever be on his own. And he thought he had a similar effect on her. She smiled more often now, and the dark expressions that frequently clouded her in the early days had long since passed. Now they reveled in each other's company. There were still spats and fights, no relationship lacked them, but they were always quickly resolved, and the couple returned to normal afterwards. It was a level of happiness Soun had feared he would never experience again after that awful day at Minato's.

It was just as Kachiko always said. It was best to leave some things behind so that one could move forward and into the future. And that was what marriage with her represented: the future. And a bright one at that.

As Soun headed back to the table where Kachiko was waiting for him, yet another smile made its presence known. The wedding had been everything that could have been hoped for. There was a nice, formal ceremony in the traditional manner, which pleased the elder Tendous (Kachiko had wanted to elope just to irritate her parents, but Soun had convinced her otherwise, nearly throwing out his voice with how long and loudly he had to talk). All the people invited had shown up. Friends (of which there was a surprising number) and relatives (of which there were a surprising few) had gotten along well, with no incidents, death threats, or people passing out in the wedding cake. Even Saotome had behaved himself, though Soun figured he was on his best behavior to impress his date, that Nodoka woman he had been trying to woo for some time.

Deep inside, Soun held the unspoken fear that something would go wrong and the wedding would be ruined. It was the way his luck usually ran. A thousand different scenarios ran through his mind. The hall they rented would collapse. The guests would be stricken with food poisoning. The priest would fall over dead in the middle of the ceremony. The hand of God would strike Soun dead at the altar. Kachiko would refuse, claiming it was all a joke and she couldn't believe he had fallen for it. Yet none of those had happened. Everything went exactly as planned. It was as though he and Kachiko had been destined to be wed (not that he would ever say such aloud to her, given her cynical view of Destiny). And now they were. Husband and wife, till death did they part.

With the success of the wedding behind them, that left the reception in full swing. It had reached the stage where the noise level increased proportionally to the level of alcohol being consumed. Soon, he and his new bride would have to excuse themselves, as much to avoid a potential incident as for the desire for privacy. Others could deal with the aftermath that would be left behind in their departure. Soun had more important matters on mind.

He was just coming back from having to relive himself (not surprising, given the copious amounts of alcohol Saotome had been toasting to him) when he spotted his parents standing near the entrance to the reception hall. They were out of earshot, but Soun could tell by the animated gesturing of his father that something had him highly agitated. Kentaro only reserved hand gestures for the most trying of times.

Soun moved toward them, wondering what was wrong and hoping he could defuse the situation, lest it risk ruining what had otherwise been the happiest day of his life. As he drew near, what he saw froze him to the spot. Only his mouth worked as he whispered, "Minato."

Having come close enough to identify her meant he too had come within the woman's line of sight. She gave an overjoyed, "Soun!" momentarily drawing the attention of those within earshot, and proceeded to move toward him. Given her endowments, this was accompanied by a fair amount of jiggle as well.

With people now staring their way, Kentaro and Michiru could not dare to continue preventing the woman from entering for fear of causing the very incident they had tried to hide. They stood aside, remaining near the entryway and glaring at Minato's back.

Minato bowed. Soun responded automatically by doing the same. He noted Minato was wearing a business suit style outfit, unlike anything she had owned before. While it was formal, on her impressive frame it made her look sexier than he could ever remember. The way several male bystanders stared at her seemed to agree with Soun's assessment, despite what had happened between them, and all he had experienced since, he felt a pang of jealousy at the men.

"I'm surprised to see you here," Soun said. And he was. Over the months, he rarely thought of her, and when he did, the memories were no longer the bitter, pain-filled ones they started out as. Instead, they tended to be happy, remembering all of the kinder, gentler moments they had shared. It was surprising. Given how devastated he was at the time, he was certain he would never forget the pain. Now it was a secondary thing, barely with the effort to remember.

Minato's smile softened from a joyous one to a more sentimental thing. "I could hardly ignore one of my former favorite guys without giving him a present for his wedding."

"How did you know I was getting married?"

"I've been stalking you for the last year."

Soun's eyes goggled.

Minato ruffled his hair and laughed. "You always were gullible. Actually I came across a notice in the paper about you getting married, and decided to drop by. I'm not intruding, am I?"

"No, of course not. It's wonderful to see you." And it was. Soun was amazed. Before this moment, in his mind, he was certain that he would feel the heartbreak anew, or at least bitter memories if he happened to accidentally cross paths with Minato. But now, with her standing before, him, he felt privileged and honored that someone who had meant so much to him before was willing to wish him well, especially after how terribly things had gone. It was only then he realized that he was truly over her, that the relationship with Kachiko was no rebound effect. He loved his wife for who she was, and for no other reason.

Minato leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Anyway, I can't stay long. So I'll wish the two of you well in your future happiness, and give you a gift." She pulled an envelope from her outfit and handed it to him.

Soun looked at it. "Should I open it now?"

"I'd prefer you did. I want to see the look on your face."

Her bemused grin put Soun's guard up. He recognized the look as one that said Minato was doing this because she would be the one amused, and anything Soun got out of it would be coincidental. Kachiko had an identical look, one of the few physical traits the women shared. He wondered if all women had such a smile.

Bracing himself, Soun opened the envelope. His eyes goggled at what was within.

"I thought you might like it," Minato said in a throaty purr, obviously satisfied at the reaction.

"This much money?"

"It'll help you start a family."

"It's too much." Soun tried handing the envelope back.

Minato placed her hands on her hips and glared. "It's a gift."

"But you can't afford this," Soun insisted.

Minato crossed her arms under her bosom. "If you must know, it's from a job someone paid me to do. It was a legal one, so don't go thinking I did something outrageously kinky to get it. However, I didn't feel good about it. Legal or not, it was one of the worst things I ever did in my life to earn it. I felt terrible about it, and almost didn't do it. But I did. After some time passed, I realized that, as distasteful as it was, it was the right thing to do. Had I been thinking clearly, I would have done it for free. So I felt guilty about being given this large sum of money I had without really having earned it. Returning it wasn't an option, since I didn't like the people that hired me. So I was left pondering what to do.

"Then I saw you in the paper. Once I saw the announcement, it hit me. I thought maybe you could use it for something good, and my conscience will be clear. So if you accept it, you'll be doing me a favor as well."

The time spent with Minato told him of the heartfelt sincerity behind the words, and that despite the blatantly generic delivery hiding the exact details of the information, she was telling the truth. There was no denying the money would serve he and Kachiko well, especially since their 'rehearsals as a married couple', before they had the actual ceremony, had paid dividends. Luckily, Kachiko wasn't showing yet, or else there might have been a scandal.

Soun bowed more deeply than before. "Thank you."

"Oh, no need to be so formal." Minato reached forward and embraced Soun.

He felt the familiar sensation of her impressive bust flattening against his chest, which prodded him to remember part of their past life together. He felt guilty over it, but couldn't help himself. He hugged much more lightly back.

They broke off the embrace. Minato took a step back and looked Soun over with a critical eye. "That wife of yours is one lucky woman."

"Anyone marrying you will be a lucky man," Soun replied.

"Damn straight." Minato gave him a wink, then made a great production of looking at her watch. "I really have to go now. I just dropped by to give you that." She blew him a kiss, then turned on her heel and sauntered toward the exit, past a host of disappointed men and the glaring Arisugawas. She shot Soun's parents a knowing look, and shouted over her shoulder to him, "I hope you enjoy the money."

Soun noted both his parents turned red at the statement. In that moment, many things suddenly made sense as various questions that had plagued him suddenly became answered. Had it been any other day, things would have turned ugly. As it was, he would find a way to make them pay for their self-important meddling. But it would have to happen later. At the moment, Soun was happy, and intended to remain that way.

As Minato sauntered out, a more demure figure sidled up next to Soun and looped its arm through his own.

"So, who was that?" Kachiko asked as her grip tightened possessively upon his arm.

While her voice sounded pleasant on the surface, Soun could hear the mix of suspicion and ice that lay underneath. While his new wife was largely an enigma to him, her possessiveness he understood all too well.

"An old friend," Soun said simply. "She came to wish me luck."

Tartly, Kachiko said, "She was certainly—"

Soun cut her off, "Whatever you're about to say, don't."

The remark surprised Kachiko, particularly the almost alien, warning tone in it. However, one look into Soun's eyes made her sharp response die on her lips. Icily, she said, "So, is she going to be coming by again?"

Soun shook his head. "No. She just came by to wish us luck. And to give us this." Soun showed her the envelope.

Kachiko's eyes goggled at the sight as she snatched the money out of his hands. After flipping through the ream of bills, they disappeared into a fold of her kimono. Soun decided it was just as well. His wife had made it very clear she would be controlling the finances of the house. She had a certain appreciation for money, one that bordered on greed without actually going over it.

Kachiko said, "That was a very generous donation on her part. It'll help pay for the remodeling we're going to have to do to one of the rooms soon." She patted her stomach meaningfully.

Soun allowed himself to do the same. Marveling at the idea that his child was in there. It was a pity they would only have one. Already he could tell he would be a good father. But Kachiko had remained adamant about the one child limit. Soun would just have to lavish all of his paternal attention on one offspring instead of several.

"Let's get back to the others," Soun said, leading Kachiko back to the reception.

She made him lean down and whispered in his ear, "But not for much longer. I'm not so far along I don't still need servicing, Husband."

Soun actually blushed. They had been mixing company with others long enough. He would make certain to bid Saotome farewell, then they could head out to the hot springs vacation his new in-laws had purchased for the pair as a wedding gift. They hadn't really needed to, but they wanted the couple to be happy.

Surrounded by friends, family, and his new wife, and with a dangling loose end tied up at last, Soun knew life couldn't get better than that. He only wished it could last forever.

Twenty years later, Soun put out his cigarette and turned his eyes away from the stars, though he was looking to a place much farther away than the celestial bodies so many millions of miles away. Looking back on everything, it was really quite remarkable that the two of them had gotten together at all. They had been two strangers at the lowest point in their lives, pushed together unwillingly by others. Yet somehow, over the course of a year, they had gone from partners in crime, to friends, to lovers, to husband and wife, and then parents. That was why he still had faith that he could be reunited with his impossibly returned wife. They had beaten the long odds together once, and they could do it again.

Since Kachiko's return, there was something bothering him. Thinking of the past had sharpened his thoughts and returned some of his wits to him. While he and Kachiko had fallen truly and deeply in love, it was under a specific set of circumstances. Even she had admitted events had followed the only course they could have for things to work out so perfectly in the end. It was by chance that they ended up married together, for which he would be eternally grateful.

However, despite the fact they were essentially the same people on the inside, the circumstances were completely different. Kachiko was younger and more vibrant than ever, while he was no longer a young man in the spring of his youth. He was a father of three, approaching middle age. As much as he loathed it, perhaps circumstances in the past had played a much larger role in their relationship that he wanted to admit.

"Father, it's getting late."

Kasumi's voice distracted Soun, changing his line of thought instantly. His subconscious took the opportunity provided by that perfect excuse to return the unwanted ideas into the back of his mind.

Soun looked down at his watch, catching sight of the pile of stubs that had accumulated next to him. He had lost track of the time. He rose to his feet, brushing a handful of ashes that had fallen on his formal attire.

Kasumi said, "Mother returned a while ago, so you don't need to worry about her any longer."

The concern made Soun smile, misguided though it was. Kachiko was able to take care of herself at any age. What he needed now was to think about the matter in order to determine what he should do next. While his heart told him one thing, his mind seemed to pull in another direction. He wanted to follow his heart, like he had when he was younger, but experience countered youth, and he knew that sometimes the heart was wrong and the mind was correct, regardless of what poets and romantics contended.

It was too late in the evening to make any important decisions about his life, and there was no need to hurry things along. Soun decided it would be best to get some sleep, and tackle the problem tomorrow. His wife would be there. Thanks to the fickleness of Fate, she would always be there, even if she didn't love him the way he loved her. Above anything else, he could live with that. As long as she was safe and alive.

With that sobering thought, Soun entered his home and prepared for bed, content for the moment, if not truly happy.


To be continued.

Special thanks to:

  • The Apprentice
  • Chris Horton
  • Michael A. Chase
  • Eternal Lost Lurker
  • Max M.
  • David Tai
Chapter 11
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