Tsukiyono Akiko sat primly at the table, hands folded neatly atop the reflective surface. Her mother fretted around the room, making last minute changes to the décor, straightening the tablecloth, or fussing over her daughter's hair. Akiko sat still, allowing the older woman to rearrange her hair for the fifth time in the last hour.
"Mother," she said firmly. "I do believe that my hair was fine the first time you fixed it."
Tsukiyono-san shook her head fiercely. "A proper presentation will strengthen your chances of Touya-san proposing," she maintained.
Akiko sighed and nodded, allowing her mother to burn off her nervous energy. The clock ticked quietly, adding to the nervous concerto that had been playing since she'd arrived home from classes. A glance at her wrist told her that there was still ten minutes before Touya-san was scheduled to arrive, and she stood.
"Where are you going?" Tsukiyono-san asked, a hint of panic coloring her voice. "He'll be here any minute."
"I'm going to start the tea, Mother," Akiko replied reassuringly, smiling softly. "I will be right back."
When she returned, a somber looking man sat at the table, conversing with her mother in hushed tones. She approached the table and placed the tray carefully on it.
"I apologize for keeping you waiting, Touya-san," she apologized, bowing her head, even though he was really five minutes early. She didn't think her mother would appreciate the comment.
"I've not been waiting long," Touya-san replied with a smile, standing to pull a chair out for her. "I do believe I'm even a bit early."
Akiko smiled as she took her seat. "Would you like some tea?"
The goban stared up at her, and she sighed. "I'm afraid I just can't see the appeal, Ichihara-san," Akiko sighed. "It's just a silly board game to me, but this is how Touya-san makes a living."
Ichihara rolled her eyes and popped another piece of fudge in her mouth. Maru and Moro danced around them, refilling the teacups and bringing more snacks. "Touya-san is very good at what he does," she mused. "You need not worry about the future."
Heat spread across Akiko cheeks, and Ichihara's laughter danced in the air. "Ichihara-san!" she exclaimed. "That's not what I meant."
"I know," her friend replied, rolling her eyes. "But it's truth all the same. Which reminds me, have you given an answer yet?'
Akiko averted her eyes, concentrating instead on her reflection in the goban. "No, but I'm supposed to see him tomorrow night. I was thinking of giving him my answer then."
The other woman nodded in approval. "I'll be invited the wedding, right?" she teased, idly picking out an acceptable piece of chocolate from the pile between them. "After all, I am your best friend."
She smiled and shook her head. "Of course you'll be invited Ichihara-san, but first, I have to give Touya-san my answer."
Ichihara waved off Akiko's answer, leaning forward and placing a finger on her chin. "Your destiny was decided the moment the question was answered," she whispered, slowly dragging the tip of her finger to rest on Akiko's lips. "There is only one important question left: What type of alcohol will you be serving?"
The dress was hideous. There were frills were there should have been lace, and the entire gown was hedged with satin. It sat proudly on mannequin, mocking her. She turned to Ichihara.
"I see," the other woman remarked blandly, curiously poking at the dress. The crinoline crinkled and the chiffon swished. Ichihara winced. "It will cost you."
Akiko wiped her eyes. "How much?" she asked, already grabbing her purse to see how much she had on her.
Ichihara's hand grabbed her arm gently, and the other woman shook her head. "Not money," Ichihara said slowly.
"Then what?" Akiko asked, clutching her bag to her chest.
"Hmm," Ichihara murmured, walking back to the dress to circle it. She picked at the fabric a bit before turning to stare Akiko straight in the eyes. "It will cost you 'Touya-san'."
She blinked rapidly and stepped back. "Excuse me?" she stammered.
Ichihara smirked. "I don't mean the man. Your price is the formality," she clarified. "You're marrying this man in less than an hour, and you still call him by his family name."
"Oh," she breathed, clutching the cloth above her heart. "I apologize, Ichihara-san."
"Don't apologize, Akiko-chan. Do you agree to my terms or not?" Ichihara pressed, daintily plucking the fabric of the dress and lifting it for Akiko to see. "Or do you want to wear this?"
Akiko shook her head quickly. "I agree."
"Good," Ichihara replied, letting the fabric drop from her fingers. "Now, I'll be right back with a replacement dress."
She watched her friend saunter out of the room, only to return a moment later holding a large garment bag.
Ichihara held it out to her, and Akiko took it gratefully. Carefully, she unzipped the bag, revealing the most gorgeous dress she'd ever laid eyes on.
"It's beautiful," she breathed. "Are you sure I can wear it?"
"It's yours," Ichihara shrugged. "You paid for it."
Akiko turned and hugged Ichihara. "Thank you," she whispered.
The other woman patted Akiko on the back awkwardly for a moment before pulling away. "Get dressed. Wouldn't want to keep Touya waiting, would you?"
She watched Ichihara exit the room before turning back to the dress. The dress lay peacefully on the sofa, radiating beauty, and Akiko smiled as she got ready.
Kouyo entered the kitchen, Akira gurgling happily in his arms. "Ogata-kun and the others will be here soon," he said softly as she bustled around the kitchen.
"I'm finishing up the snacks, Kouyo-san," she replied. Akira blinked curiously and raised his chubby fist.
Akiko walked over and raised her finger above her son's face, smiling as tiny fingers grabbed it and shook it up and down. She stared into her son's face in the protective arms of her husband, and she smiled.