By Joseph Palmer
The rake pulled smoothly through the grass, the leaves bunching and spilling past the sides. The tines hissed through the grass, the leaves crackling with each stroke.
“Every year?” Ranma called across the yard.
“Every year.” Akane replied, pausing to remove some leaves that had stuck in her rake.
Ranma returned to the beginning of the line of leaves he was working. His pile, now nearly knee high and twice as wide stretched from the back wall up to the side of the doujo. He began to pull the row towards the back of the doujo, three strokes with the rake then a step to the right.
“Are there always this many leaves?” He paused and called across the yard.
“There seem to be a lot more than normal this year.” She replied.
“Oh.” he said dejectedly.
The leaves were dry and cracking, there had been no rain since the early frost had turned green to red, gold, and yellow. He pulled the leaves in smooth strokes, trying to turn the mundane yard work into a sort of martial arts exercise. He concentrated on each stroke, feeling his muscles work. His heart was not in it.
“So... where is everyone?” He called out.
“Nabiki said she had a lot of homework, Kasumi went shopping for dinner, and our dads went on that training trip early this morning.”
“Training trip!” Ranma scoffed, pulling his rake vigorously. “They... picked... TODAY... to... go on... a... TRAINING... trip...!” He stomped back to attack the beginning of the row. He shook his rake at the sky. “Without me!”
“Haven’t you ever raked leaves before?”
“No, never. This time of year dad always took me on training...” He trailed off.
“Hee hee, sounds like your dad doesn’t like raking leaves.”
“It runs in the family.” Ranma returned to the leaves with new vigor.
“I kind of like it.” Akane said.
Ranma stopped and watched Akane. She was calmly coaxing her leaves, holding her rake very upright, sweeping them more than raking them. She looked more grown up somehow. He had a strange feeling he was seeing her as she would be in a few years.
“What are you looking at?” She asked.
“Oh... ah... nothing”. He didn’t mention her skirt or tights, or the sweater that suited her so perfectly. “Just resting.”
“You’re falling behind.”
He finished his row and sneaking another look, he returned to the end.
“We’re almost to the wall, what do we do with the leaves then?”
“Just pile them up under that tree, behind the doujo. We’re going to compost them.”
“Why don’t we just burn them?”
“Can you imagine if everyone did that? You wouldn’t be able to breathe anywhere in Tokyo for weeks!”
Ranma sniffed the brisk air. “Well, someone must be burning them nearby.”
“Mmm. A little smoke smells so good, doesn’t it?” Akane paused and took a deep breath.
The smoke reminded Ranma of training trips in the country, walking with his dad on trials through the mountains, and on paths between rice fields. In the fall there was always the smell of burning leaves and ribbons of gray-blue smoke in the air.
They piled their leaves under the tree, working the pile until it was nearly as tall as Akane.
“There’s too many to fit the compost box.” Ranma measured the pile against the box in the corner of the yard.
“We have to prepare them first, you know.”
“Mmm like this!” Akane smiled sweetly at Ranma, then taking his arm, she twisted, stepped and threw him toward the pile of leaves.
“Waaaah!” Ranma flew through the air upside down, arms wildly waving, but with no effect. He fell softly into the leaves with a crunching noise. “What...” he asked “was that about?”
She stood at his head, his view of her upside down.
“Have to break up the leaves you know.” She bent over him. “It’s the best way I can think of.”
The sun shone through her hair, picking up dark brown highlights. The orange and yellow leaves in the tree above her made a perfect background. ‘I wish I had a photo of her like this.’ He thought. ‘There are times that she is really cute. ‘
“Akane, I... I...” he said softly.
“Mmmm?” she leaned closer.
He reached his arms out over his head, and slipping his fingers under her feet, flipped her high into the air. She shrieked in surprise and with legs and arms flailing, landed in the pile next to Ranma.
“Th.. That’s not fair!” she stammered.
“Best way I could think of to break up the leaves.” he responded. he placed his hands behind his head and whistled tunelessly.
They lay together in the leaves, the breeze occasionally freeing a leaf from the tree above them.
Akane broke the silence. “When we were little my mom and dad would make these huge piles of leaves, and Kasumi, Nabiki and I would jump in them. When we were a little older dad taught us our first judo throws into the leaves.”
“Us? You mean Nabiki and Kasumi too?”
“Yup, and for a while, father thought that Kasumi might become the real martial artist in the family.”
“Kasumi?, our sweet, innocent, Kasumi?” Ranma asked incredulously.
“She was really good, she’s out of practice now, but I bet she would surprise even you if she tried.”
“Kasumi, a martial artist. I still don’t believe it.” Ranma shook his head, rustling the leaves.
“Mmm. Nabiki had some pretty good moves too.”
“Nabiki,” Ranma paused dramatically, “still has her moves. Mostly from my wallet to her purse.” He pantomimed the removal of money from his back pocket, and the placement into an apparently already full purse, concluding by snapping it shut with a flourish.
Akane giggled and sighed. “This is the part of raking leaves that I like best.” She scooped up some leaves and tossed them in the air. “ You’re really lucky, you know, some years it rains and the leaves are all icky, and some years it’s just too cold on the weekends to really enjoy the leaves.”
“Looks like we’ll have to rake again next weekend.” Ranma pointed to the leaves in the tree over their head.
“Sometimes I wish they could all fall at once”
Ranma smiled and slowly held his hands out, palms facing the tree above them.
At the last second he opened his hands to spread the energy. The ball of ‘Ki’ passed up through the tree, freeing half the remaining leaves.
“Kiyaaaa” Akane screamed and buried her face in Ranma’s shoulder.
The leaves began to fall softly around them. Akane opened her eyes and looked up into the storm of leaves gently swirling over their heads. The sun shone through the leaves revealing their vibrant colors set off by the darker stems and veins against the blue of the mid morning sky. The colors were so bright, so surreal, she’d never seen anything like this before. The leaves tumbled and floated around them, some diving for the ground, others rocking up and back as if to stay a little longer in the air. Her breath caught and she felt light headed, the sight was so improbably beautiful. She watched transfixed until the last of the leaves fell around them, not wanting it to end, but not knowing if she could watch any more without fainting.
She sighed and lay her head back on his shoulder. Ranma gently picked a couple of leaves from her hair. She turned her face up to him, her eyes meeting then holding his.
They began to laugh together, just from the joy of the moment. Akane watched Ranma. This was a side of him she so rarely saw. He was always so, so cool. He hardly ever let his defenses down and just laughed like this. After a time they quieted and took deep breaths together, simultaneously letting out satisfied sighs, which started another round of giggling.
She lay her head in his shoulder again, he wrapped his arm around her and held her gently. She listened to the beat of his heart and felt the rising of his chest with each breath. The dusty smell of the leaves mixed with the smell of his shirt and him.
“It’s been a good year...” he said.
She buried her face in his shoulder and nodded in agreement.
“...I’ve never felt like... like I’ve really had a home before.”
“No surprise, what with your father dragging you all over Japan.”
“It was pretty fun sometimes too, you know. We saw a lot of the country side, met a lot of people. But this is different, to have a place to call home.” He paused, picked up some leaves and rolled them between his hands. Crushed bits of leaf fell from his hands onto his shirt, he brushed them off into the pile.
“Ranma, what’s wrong?”
“Oh I was just thinking.”
“About my mom.”
“What about her?”
“Well if I can finally manage to tell her everything, and keep my head, she’ll probably want Dad and me to move back to her house.”
Akane’s heart sank, “I... I hadn’t thought of that.” She said. Her mind spun, she couldn’t even imagine life without him around, how dull and... empty. Empty was the word she had been looking for, but once she found it, it stabbed at her.
She often thought of her mother, little things around the house would remind her of her, the taste of certain foods, or sometimes she would just sit in the same place in the yard she had sat as a child, and enjoy a flood of pleasant memories.
Later, after the hurt had healed, there were other good memories. Her father stayed home to look after them, he always tried so hard to be in charge, but the girls really ran the house.
Between those times there was a hidden pool of darkness which she avoided, but she was drowning in it now.
She rolled away from Ranma and curled up on the leaves, quivering, trying to hold back the tears.
“Akane,” Ranma touched her shoulder. “Akane, are you O.K.?”
“Ranma,” She turned over and faced him. “Don’t you ever leave me.” Her chin quivered and tears welled in her eyes. She buried her face in his arm and began sobbing softly.
“Eh-?” Ranma was overcome with confusion. What did I do? What should I do now? he thought. His first option, picking a fight, didn’t seem to have much merit in the present circumstance, his second option, well he never much got around to needing a second option with Akane before. He needed time to think. He put his arms around her and tried to think of something to say. Akane only began to cry harder.
“Eee, w-wrong thing!” he said out loud, surprising himself. He released her quickly.
“BAKA!” Akane sobbed. She grabbed his wrist and pulled his arm back around her.
Ranma hugged her again. He could feel the warmth of her body pressing against his, he could smell the scent of her hair, a mix of shampoo, leaves and girl. He rocked her softly, the leaves crunching beneath them. He was still mystified about what was going on, his sides ached from laughing just moments ago, and now Akane was crying in his arms. He felt helpless, something was hurting Akane, and there was nothing he could do about it. He wished irrationally for a visible opponent, someone he could fight for her.
She cried for a time, then her breathing became smoother. She took one last stuttering deep breath and let it out.
“It’s o.k., it’s o.k.” Ranma repeated over and over, smoothing her hair.
“Sorry.” she finally said quietly.
“It’s o.k., really.” Ranma continued to stroke her hair, occasionally combing his fingers through from underneath.
Akane sniffled a little. “I’m sorry, its just when I think back to when mom...” She took a stuttering breath and blinked back her tears. She studied Ranma a moment, then a look of resolve came over her. She took a deep breath and the words began to tumble out.
“When mom died, relatives were in and out for weeks. Then one by one they all left, until one morning I got up and it was just dad and my sisters at he breakfast table. I kept looking for mom to come in. For weeks I kept thinking she was still going to come into breakfast like she always had. For the longest time I hardly talked to anyone, I stayed in my room and cried because I felt so empty and it was so unfair that my mom was gone. Thinking back, it must have been so hard on the others.”
“Then one night, I dreamed about her. It was so real. We were in the doujo, sparring together, which was funny because I wasn’t very interested in martial arts then. It’s not like she said anything that I can remember, it was just a feeling I got that I should let her go, and that she loved me and that she was proud of me.” Akane let out a sigh and laid back in the leaves.
“Before dawn I put on a gi and went into the doujo. I sat and looked at the ‘HA RO I’ sign until the sun came up, then I started to do all the exercises I always saw dad doing. All wrong, of course. He came in a while later and saw me practicing, and he showed me the right way to do the easy exercises. I think that was the first time I saw him smile again.”
“Later, Kasumi came running out calling for Dad saying that I was missing. You should have seen the look on her face!” Akane giggled a bit.
Ranma didn’t know what to say. Thrust into a strange house, engaged to a strange girl, It seemed like that had happened to someone else, a long time ago. Slowly, day by day, Akane had become a stable, comfortable part of his too often scrambled life, but until now he hadn’t thought about it.
He thought about life away from Akane. He’d no longer see her at breakfast, he’d be walking to school alone. He might not even be in the same school with her.
Akane looked at him, concern etched on her face.
“Sorry to dump that all on you Ranma. It’s strange, but It doesn’t hurt so much to think about it now that I’ve finally told someone.”
Strange feelings gripped Ranma, he felt buoyed by Akane’s trust in confiding in him, but the very thought of being away from her was also gnawing at him. He felt protective of her, but at the same time he liked how strong and independent she was. He wanted to say he would never leave, but somehow he knew his duty to his mother could get in the way of keeping that promise. Even though they were engaged, it wasn’t time yet to make their parents’ wishes their own, at least not out loud. There was a word for what he was feeling, but he wasn’t ready for it.
He reached out his hand and touched her cheek. Her skin was warm and soft against his hand. She looked a little surprised, then she smiled at him. His heart skipped a beat, he suddenly knew that they were about to kiss, and the panic he had always felt before was missing. In its place was a feeling stronger than he’d known before.
She felt his touch on her cheek, his fingers and palm rough from years of training. It caught her by surprise, Ranma wasn’t very affectionate and he’d been so quiet for the last few minutes. There was something in his look, a peaceful confidence that was often missing when they were alone together. ‘We’re finally going to kiss’ she thought, half in relief, and half trying to psychically plant the suggestion in his mind.
He paused to look at her, really look. She has really nice eyes, he thought. With the sun shining in them he could see brown and black streaks in the pupils. She has very thick long lashes, like a model, but her brows were thin and elegant. Her nose, cute. It turned up the tinniest bit at the end. Almost like a child’s. Her bottom lip pushed out a little, giving her smile a touch of sweetness.
He’s really taking his time, she thought. And I probably look a fright just now, all puffy from crying and my hair is all mussed up.
He moved closer, he could taste her sweet breath and feel its warmth on his face. He held his breath and closed his eyes and let his lips touch hers. He wanted to remember this moment, to etch it in his mind, he felt the warmth of her lips on his, the perfume of her scent mixed with the dusty leaves. He heard the leaves crunching beneath them, and in the trees above them. They kissed for a heartbeat, then another and another. Slowly he broke the kiss, then opened his eyes. Her eyes opened and fluttered left and right, pausing an instant in each of his.
She hugged him tightly, and smiled secretly against his chest. ‘Thank goodness’ she thought. We finally kissed and no....
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of crunching leaves as Kasumi and Nabiki both landed in the leaves with them.
“Sugoi* Akane! Not bad for a first effort!” Nabiki chimed. A huge smile glowed on her face. [*Wow]
“It’s about time, too. I can’t hold lunch forever you know.” Kasumi scolded. Then she smiled at them and threw handfuls of leaves into the air. They fell like confetti around them.
“I’d give it, ummm... about an ‘8’.” Nabiki intoned.
“Stingy.” Kasumi sniffed.
A wooden sign bearing “10” appeared from the leaves. Ranma reached in and pulled out a smiling panda.
“Ha ha ha, Tendou kun!.” Soun surfaced from the leaves with rivers of tears streaming from his eyes. “We were finally successful!” Soun and Genma-panda threw leaves into the air. They were joined by Nabiki and Kasumi. In seconds the air was full of leaves and the laughs of the fathers and sisters. When the leaves finally fell, Ranma and Akane were nowhere to be seen.
In the covered walkway between the doujo and the house Akane turned to a still blushing Ranma.
“Ne, Ranma, wait a second.”
“This.” Akane stood on her toes and kissed Ranma firmly. She broke the kiss, winked at him and skipped off to the house.
Ranma watched her go, his head swimming. It really has been a very good year he thought. His fingers touched his lips, a very good year.
November 12, 1995
“Autumn” 1995 Joseph Palmer
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Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it. This is the final story in the seasons series; Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn.
Sorry it's taken a bit of time to get this one out, I've been more than a bit busy at work, (Check out www.be.com to find out why...)
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