~~~~~ Chapter 3: Exercise ~~~~~

Many would-be equestrians fail to realize that it is not enough to see that the horse receives regular exercise. The physical conditioning of the rider is also important, and must not be neglected... disturbances in the rider's mental and emotional state often affect the attitude of the mount, sometimes in surprising ways.

The Taming of the Horse: An Equestrian's Guide

Akane was walking home from school by herself for the first time in weeks. Ranma had been detained by some silly plot Principal Kuno and Miss Hinako had cooked up, and Akane had gotten impatient and started for home without him. She watched the fence pass the setting sun and tried not to think about the boy who wasn't there.

"Tendo Akane."

Akane turned around and there was Shampoo. The Chinese girl set her box on the ground and stepped forward. "Nobody around. Feel like little challenge?"

Akane didn't, but she couldn't make herself decline it. It didn't occur to her how many times she'd berated Ranma for the same reflex as she tossed her bag clear, set her feet, and cocked her fists. "Any time you're ready."

Shampoo smiled briefly and darted in. Akane saw the strike of Shampoo's open hand, blocked it, and countered, but Shampoo was already airborne and her heels were rising out of Akane's reach. She spun and ducked the strikes she knew were coming from above, but her arm was seized and twisted and then the world was revolving sideways.

Akane slid to a stop and rolled to her feet, spitting dust. Shampoo was standing well out of reach, looking amused. "You out of practice." She examined the fingernails on one hand. "Ranma need stronger wife. Why you not just give up now, before you hurt?"

"Why don't you give up?" Akane spat before she could stop herself. "Why do you want Ranma so much, anyway?"

Shampoo's gaze turned serious. "You know Joketsuzoku law, so you asking other question, eh?" She paused and started circling Akane. Akane turned to keep facing her. "What not to want? Ranma fast, strong, brave, smart— oh yes, you laugh, but he smart."

She gazed over Akane's head. "Ranma beautiful. Ranma most beautiful boy I ever see. See him, want him," her eyes swung down to pin Akane, "take him." She smiled at Akane's inarticulate response and resumed her slow circling. "Could be nicer, but if I want nice husband, plenty of nice men at home. No want them. Want Ranma."

She stopped again and regarded Akane thoughtfully. "Tell you thing no-charge, thing you should know long time, but I think you not know. Ranma not so grown-up in head as body look. Not really like girls yet. Soon. Very soon, he want woman. Shampoo waiting." She favored Akane with a wicked smile and drew her hands down her sides. "Ranma not resist this body then, eh?"

Akane was dimly aware of a grinding noise coming from her teeth. Her aura burst out around her as she charged Shampoo. "KYAAAA!" Shampoo didn't leap into the air this time. She swirled around Akane's wild swing and struck. Fists and feet slammed into Akane's body with astonishing force, and Akane realized too late that she'd let Shampoo goad her into attacking into the setting sun, and that Shampoo's taunts had made her too mad to think, too mad to see, too mad to hit... too mad to win. She lashed out on instinct, scored a glancing blow against something, and struggled to get clear long enough to rebuild her defense. Shampoo wasn't letting her. Fingertips hit her head in dull flashes of pain. Shampoo was too fast, too strong, too skilled for her to beat... too pretty, too bold, too sexy. She could never beat Shampoo. Not in a fight, not for a boy's heart. Never, never, never....

Just before she blacked out, there was a sudden wave of intense cold, a pulse of weight, and then she was falling. Funny, it wasn't like this the last time I died....


Akane woke up on her own bed, looking up at Kasumi's worried face. "Akane? Are you all right?"

Akane thought about it. "I think so. Ow. I feel like I got run over by a herd of Chinese elephants, though."

Kasumi smiled in relief and adjusted the ice-pack on Akane's head. "Do you remember what happened?" Akane became aware that it was one of several ice packs strategically deployed around her body.

"Um, I think so." I remember being awfully stupid. Please, please let that part be Chinese mind-control.... "The last part is a little fuzzy, though. How did I get home?"

"Oh, the way you'd suppose."

"Ranma," Akane snorted disgustedly. "Eep!"

"Oh, dear, I must have missed that one.... Yes, Ranma-kun came bouncing over the wall a couple of hours ago, carrying you in his arms and calling for help." Kasumi sat back and fanned herself with a booklet. "Goodness, things were quite exciting for a few minutes, until we saw that you were only bruised and scraped."

"I was?"

"Oh, yes. No broken bones, no deep cuts, no..." Kasumi paused to peer doubtfully at her sister, "...apparent concussion. Shampoo must have been quite careful."

"Careful? Why would she be careful? Ow! She tried to kill me!"

"Now, now, don't get excited." Kasumi retrieved and replaced an icepack. "No, I don't think so. If she had, you'd be hurt worse, and differently. As to why... well, perhaps she remembers what happened to Saffron."

The thought sent a chill through Akane. Saffron. Ranma would die for me. Ranma would kill for me. If he thought I was dead, he might do anything. Shampoo was there; she has to know that. The notion that Shampoo had been going easy on her because Shampoo feared what Ranma might do made her feel even worse.

"There! All done." Kasumi closed the first-aid kit, stood up, and turned to go.

"Kasumi? Where is he?"

Kasumi turned back, smiled, and pointed up. "Where else? He got tired of being shouted at by Father and Saotome-no-ojisama about an hour ago and has been up there ever since. I think he's sulking because I wouldn't let him stay here while I had your clothes off to dress your scrapes. He even offered to turn into a girl, but I didn't think you'd like that."

"Just like that pervert," Akane began, but then Shampoo's "free advice" resurfaced. 'Ranma not really like girls yet.' "Would you call him for me, please?"

"Of course." Kasumi went to the window and slid it open. "Oh, Ranma-kun! You can come in now!" She stepped back to avoid Ranma's customary swing from the eaves and through the window. His eyes traced quickly over Akane's sheet-covered form, examined her face, swung to check Kasumi's unworried expression, and returned to her face. He blew out a breath and relaxed.

"I'll just leave you two alone, shall I?" Kasumi said, picking up the first aid kit again.

Ranma waited for the door to close behind Kasumi before speaking. "Are you all right? You remember me this time?"

"Of course, baka."

Ranma relaxed a little more. "So what the hell happened?" His voice was challenging.

"Shampoo and I had a little match. I, um, lost."

"Well, of course ya lost! Moron! Shampoo's better'n you! On your best day—"

"I know that." Her flat voice was clearly not what Ranma was expecting, because it cut him off in mid-rant. "She told me that several different ways, and she was obviously right."

Ranma started looking concerned again. "You sure you're all right?"

"I'll be fine in a couple of days." She turned her face away from him. "Just go away." She heard him sigh. The window slid shut. The light went out. The door opened and closed quietly. As usual, she couldn't hear his footsteps. As usual, he couldn't hear her tears.


Akane didn't come to school with Ranma the next day.

"Saotome, thou accursed villain! What nefarious means hast thou employed to sequester the fair Tendo Akane?!"

"Aw, put a sock in it, Kuno."


Ranma hung from the eaves outside Akane's window and peered in. He could see Akane curled up in bed, but she didn't move when he tapped on the glass. He frowned and dropped to the ground, then went inside.

"Hello, Kasumi."

Kasumi turned. "Oh, Ranma-kun! I wasn't expecting you until this afternoon."

Ranma shuffled his feet. "Well, they give us an hour for lunch, and it only takes a few minutes ta get here..."

...if you run like the wind, Kasumi thought. "I'm sure Akane will be glad to see you," she said.

"I, um, knocked on the window, but I guess she was asleep or somethin'." Ranma fidgeted, then blurted, "Are you sure she's all right? This ain't like her."

Kasumi's smile faded. "Her bruises and scrapes are healing well," she said. "She's not her usual self, though. She seems unusually depressed."

Ranma's fist smacked into his palm. "I knew it," he hissed. "Shampoo did somethin' to her mind again." He looked sharply at Kasumi. "Didja notice any herbal smells on her head?" Kasumi shook her head. "Little bruises around the head or neck?"

Kasumi's eyes widened. "Oh! Now that you mention it...."

"Damn." Ranma paced a quick circle and stopped. "I wish Tofu-sensei was still around."

"So do I," Kasumi said. Their eyes met and dropped.

Ranma thumped himself on the forehead. "Gaah. I didn't mean...."

"I know," Kasumi said, and sighed. "So, about Akane?"

"I dunno." Ranma looked troubled. "It's not like her to give up like that, though. Last night she didn't come back at me like always, either."

"Hmm. She wasn't this bad last night, before she talked to you...." Kasumi trailed off and looked at Ranma. "Just what did you say to her, Ranma-kun?"

Ranma paled. 'Well, of course ya lost! Moron! Shampoo's better'n you!' "Uh...."

Kasumi read his expression, put her hand over her eyes, and shook her head. "Oh, Ranma. You didn't."

"I was... I was worried," Ranma muttered. "I didn't mean ta...."

"Well, Akane's not the most confident girl in the world, you know, Ranma-kun." Kasumi's gaze held his.

"I guess." Ranma fidgeted. "Ya got any ideas?"

"Well, since you mention it, there is something you might do. She really cares what you think of her. You could help make her feel good about herself again. Just be nice to her."

Ranma looked horrified. "Hey, I'm a martial artist, not a shrink," he said defensively. He cringed at Kasumi's tiny frown. "Look! Even when I try to do that, she just thinks I'm bein' weird! I never get that right with her!"

Kasumi relented. "All right, Ranma-kun. I'll give her sympathy, of course. But you know that it will mean more coming from you, don't you?"

Ranma nodded rapidly. "I'll go to the Nekohanten after school and see what I can wring out of Shampoo."

"All right. I'll expect you this evening, then."

Ranma sketched a salute and departed hastily. Jeez, I hate it when Kasumi goes all fearsome.


The first person Ranma saw when he trotted into the Nekohanten was Mousse. Mousse didn't see him, of course. "Hey, Mousse!"

"Saotome." Mousse addressed a potted plant with a disgusted expression. "Aren't the bowls of ramen Shampoo delivers to you enough to satisfy your appetite? Must you plague me by coming here for more? Argh! Get off!"

"Cool it, duck-face," Ranma advised from his perch atop Mousse's head. "I'm here to see Shampoo or Cologne. There ain't nothin' you can do for me."

"Curse you! Why won't you just marry Akane and get out of my life?!" Mousse produced a poleaxe from his sleeve and swiped half-heartedly at Ranma as Ranma hopped off his head.

"You talking silly, Mousse. Airen no marry Akane. Airen marry Shampoo!" Shampoo came out of the kitchen carrying three steaming bowls, set them before customers, and turned to smile dazzlingly at Ranma.

Ranma looked uncomfortable and changed the subject. "What'd ya do to Akane?"

Shampoo's eyes flashed. "Forget other girl. You in my place now, you think about me." She skipped to Ranma's side and twirled. "You like new dress?" The customers sure do, they're coming in just to get a good look... when will you?

Ranma carefully kept his eyes out of Shampoo's spectacular cleavage and persisted. "I wanna know what ya did to Akane!"

Shampoo sighed and shook her head. "Fine, we talk, but not here. Come kitchen." She grabbed his arm and led him to the doorway, sticking close. Even if he doesn't want my body yet, I can still enjoy his....

"Hello, son-in-law," Cologne said from her perch by the cauldrons. "Hungry?"

In fact, the smell of the Nekohanten had been making Ranma salivate since before he'd walked in, but the question made him mad. "No! I don't want your ramen, and I don't want your great- grand-daughter!"

Shampoo promptly hit him over the head with a ladle. Clong! "You walk in, you want thing, you insult, you stupid!" Clong!

"Gah!" Ranma felt the lumps and glared at Shampoo. "Cut it out!"

"So, if it's not food or Shampoo, it must be Amazon lore. Those are the only things you kids ever come in here for," Cologne cackled. "'Tell me the ancient secret, Cologne!' 'Teach me the fighting art, Cologne!' 'Give me the antidote, Cologne!' Hahahah!" She grinned and deftly scooped noodles into bowls. Her hands blurred and toppings fell into place. "Mousse! Order up!" she called over the counter. "Make yourself useful, boy, and be quick about it."

Cologne turned back to Ranma. "What was it you wanted?"

Ranma gritted his teeth. "Shampoo attacked Akane."

"So?" Cologne shrugged and looked at Shampoo.

"I bored," Shampoo explained. "No fight, get soft. I see Akane, I challenge. No kiss-of-death, just little match."

"Which you won, of course," Cologne completed. She looked at Ranma. "I fail to see the problem."

"She shouldn't do that! Akane might get hurt!"

Shampoo frowned. "You, Ranma, stop thinking woman break like china." She shattered a plate over his head to illustrate her point, ignored his yelp, and continued. "Akane all time say she martial artist, so I treat like martial artist. Is respect. She strong girl. See?" Shampoo hiked her dress up and displayed a fine bruise on a finer thigh.

Ranma was too angry to be distracted by the view. "Ya did something to her head! She's all depressed now, and I just know ya did some kinda Chinese tsubo thing to make her that way!"

Shampoo smoothed her dress back into place and huffed. "I not put anything in Akane mind that not there before. She fine. Just know place now."

Ranma turned to Cologne. "Is there a tsubo technique that makes people depressed, Granny?"

Cologne put on her best inscrutable look. "Could be." Her eyes twinkled suddenly. "What's the answer worth to you, son-in- law?"

"Old bat," Ranma growled, and left.

Cologne glanced at Shampoo. "I told you he'd figure it out." Shampoo looked worried.


Ranma's first thought when he entered the Tendo main room was that Akane had been replaced by Gosunkugi pretending to be Akane. "Jeez, Akane, ya look like ya got trampled," he said, sitting just around the corner of the table from her. "Thanks, Kasumi." He took a cracker from the bowl Kasumi offered.

Akane's eyes dropped. "Thanks so much." She paused. "I hear you went to the Nekohanten."

"Hm? Oh, yeah," Ranma said casually.

"You should have just stayed there. The food's better, and I'm sure the company's better." Akane's voice wasn't angry at all.

"Now, now, Akane, if Ranma-kun wanted to be at the Nekohanten, I'm sure he would be," Kasumi said soothingly. "But he's here, instead. Doesn't that say something?"

"I guess," Akane said, looking at her lap.

Ranma couldn't stand it any more. "Dammit, Akane, snap out of it!" he said forcefully. "This isn't you! Shampoo used a tsubo technique to beat you in your own head!"

Akane's head lifted slowly. "She said that?"

"Not exactly." Ranma fidgeted. "They said she didn't, sorta, but I know she did."

"Oh." Akane's head lowered again. "Well, it doesn't really matter. Shampoo's better than I am anyway."

"Dammit, Akane!" Ranma started to reach for her, stopped, made a helpless gesture, and looked at Kasumi. Kasumi looked disappointed.

"Say, Kasumi, last time she snapped out of it when I insul— ah, commented about her. D'ya suppose...."

Kasumi shook her head. "No, I'm quite sure that that wouldn't be appropriate at all, this time." She considered. "Would you mind staying for supper, though?"

"Huh? Uh, yeah... I mean no... I mean, sure, I'll stay."

"Oh, good. I'll just go call your mother and tell her, shall I?" Kasumi got up and left the room.

Ranma eyed Akane, gulped, and reached for her hand. Akane looked down at his hand. Her gaze followed Ranma's arm up to his eyes. He shifted his grip to her forearm and slapped himself across the cheek with her hand.

Akane tore her arm out of his hand and stared at him. "Why did you do that?"

"Hell, I'd rather ya hit me than sit around mopin'," Ranma said. "You can hit me some more if ya like...."

Akane shook her head, but she seemed a bit less down.

Ranma frowned impatiently. "Listen, Akane, just because Shampoo got ya once doesn't mean you should just quit. You're not a quitter. You can beat Shampoo if ya train hard enough. Besides," he continued, "she cheated. That mind-control stuff is just nasty."

"But you cheat to win all the time, Ranma," Akane pointed out.

"I don't cheat! I just fight so's ta make the other guy's strengths useless and hit his weak spots! That ain't cheatin', that's just good sense!"

Akane shook her head. "Well, I guess Shampoo found my weak spot." She touched her temple.

Ranma snorted. "Yeah, you're weak in the head, all right." For a moment, Akane seemed about to hit him, but she didn't— so he seized her arm again and slapped himself with it.

Akane stared at him, and a giggle escaped her. Ranma smiled in relief. Akane started laughing— and then suddenly she fell against him and grabbed handfuls of his shirt and was crying. Ranma froze. Kasumi came back in and stopped. Ranma looked at her desperately, but Kasumi just smiled and nodded at him, then left silently. Dammit. What the hell am I supposed to do now?

Soun and Genma came up the steps to the veranda and stopped. Soun's demon-head apparition burst forth. "Ranma-kun!" it hissed. "What have you done now to make my little girl cry?!"

Ranma jerked, but Akane was still firmly attached to him. "Nothin'! It ain't my fault!" His eyes rolled, seeking escape. Kasumi came back in, took in the situation, then produced something from her apron pocket and poked Soun's demon-head with it. POP! Soun looked stunned.

Kasumi put the thing back in her pocket. "Now, Father, be nice," she admonished. "Just this once, it's not Ranma-kun's fault. I'll call you when supper's ready." She slid the screens to the veranda shut, cutting off the astonished fathers, and sat across from Ranma and Akane. "Honestly, sometimes those two just...." She saw Ranma and Akane staring at her. "'Oh, my.' There, is that better?" She smiled.

Akane and Ranma decided independently and simultaneously not to press the issue. Then Ranma noticed that Akane had stopped crying. "Hey, ya feelin' better?" he asked cautiously.

Akane noticed that she was clamped onto Ranma's shirt, blushed, and hastily popped back to her side of the table corner. "I guess I am, a little," she admitted, surprised. "Not much, though."

Ranma nodded, disappointed. "Well, I'm sure whatever tsubo technique Shampoo used, the price for the cure is gonna be steeper than we wanna pay," he said. "I got that real clear at the Nekohanten. They want ya like this." His fist clenched. "Well, you're just gonna have to fight it."

Akane nodded. "I'll try."

Ranma reached out hesitantly and patted her on the shoulder. "That's my Akane." Both Akane and Kasumi looked at him in astonishment and he backpedaled instinctively: "Not that I'm implyin'—" He stopped just in time. "Oh, hell." He looked away. "Thing is, I don't know what ta do about your problem. I always know that if somethin' beats me, I can train a little harder, or get a little more serious, or come up with a new strategy, and come back and beat it. Not that I ever get beat," he added hastily.

"Of course not," Akane and Kasumi agreed in unison.

"Yeah... anyway." He gazed into Akane's eyes. "Just remember when ya feel beat, it ain't you, it's an enemy in your head. Believe me even if ya don't believe yourself."

Akane nodded and smiled a little. "Okay. Thanks, Ranma."

"And Nabiki and I may be able to come up with something that will help, too, since tomorrow is Sunday," Kasumi said, rising. She opened the screens, revealing Genma and Soun crouched outside. "Now you just leave them be," she told the two men in tones that anyone who didn't know Kasumi would have thought were sweet and gentle. "I'll just go get supper ready."


Ranma ran up to the Tendos' front gate, dressed in his best. He could still hear his mother's voice: "Kasumi called and said to make sure you're clean, neat, male, and well-dressed, and to send you to their house at noon. She said this is part of Akane's confidence cure, whatever that means. You will cooperate, won't you, Ranma?"

Ranma swallowed nervously. Damn right I'll cooperate. Between Kasumi and Momma.... He went in the gate and up to the front door. It opened as he approached, making him even more nervous. Kasumi was there. She inspected him carefully, then nodded.

"You'll do fine," Kasumi told Ranma as she led him up the stairs. She stopped him outside Akane's room. "Remember, Ranma- kun, this is very important. You must be nice to Akane." She waited for his nod, then indicated the door and retreated down the hall.

Ranma gulped and knocked on the door. It was unlatched and swung open at his knock. Akane was standing there. She was wearing a new dress, a very attractive one of soft blue and green fabric that hugged her torso but fell in folds from her hips to just past her knees. Her hair had been done with great care. Her makeup was invisible; Ranma only knew it was there because she looked even more like Akane than she usually did. Even... perfume? She smells just like she did before... before the wedding. She looked up at him hopefully and smiled. His brain froze, his jaw dropped slightly, and his cheeks reddened.

Akane read his reaction. She straightened slightly, her chin came up, and her eyes brightened. "How do I look?" she asked softly.

Ranma started. "Uh, you look, uh, pretty." He tried to pull his eyes away and couldn't.

Akane noticed that too, and blushed. She lowered her eyes. "Prettier than Shampoo?"

Ranma became aware that Kasumi had returned and was standing behind him. He didn't dare turn. "Uh, sure, yeah." The faint sense of impending doom eased.

Akane looked up again with a different smile. "Good. Because we're going to the Nekohanten for lunch."

Ranma's jaw dropped for real. "WHAT?! Are you nuts?!"

"Think about it, Ranma-kun," Kasumi's voice came from behind him.

Akane stepped in. "You said to treat this like a battle. Well, I'm changing the rules. We're fighting on my terms now. We're going, and if you're nice to me I win, and if you're nice to her... she wins. Understand? Kasumi and Nabiki are coming along to make sure the battle stays on my terms."

Ranma was petrified by Akane's determination. Her fire's burning again... gods, she's past pretty. She's... magnificent. I wish I could tell her.

Akane reached out and closed his mouth. Her hand lingered on his chin, then dropped. "Well? I can't force you to come, but... don't you want me to win?"

Ranma sagged. "Yeah." I think you won already. I wish I could tell ya that too, but I don't think you'd believe me.


Mousse was near the door when Ranma and Akane walked into the Nekohanten, followed closely by Nabiki and Kasumi. He slid his glasses down from his forehead and looked Akane up and down. Akane blushed. Mousse smiled slightly. "Table for four, yes?" he said. He looked at Ranma and lowered his voice. "You're a lucky man, Saotome. Be an honorable one and do the right thing for a change."

Ranma glared at Mousse, but Akane's tug at his elbow compelled him to move. She was still holding his arm when the crash sounded from the direction of the kitchen. He looked that way and saw Shampoo, standing over a mess of broken bowls and wasted noodles, locking gazes with Akane. Jeez, I can almost see the lightning bolts....

Perfect. Akane smiled grimly at her rival. Look, Shampoo. He's mine. Choke on it. Then the line-of-sight was broken as Mousse seated them at their table.

Mousse produced filled water glasses from his sleeve and set them on the table. "Are you ready to order?"

They'd chatted about the menu on the walk over. "Four specials, please," Nabiki told him. Mousse nodded and left. Ranma carefully moved his glass of water away a little, and the Tendo sisters exchanged amused smiles.

Shampoo arrived with the ramen, setting four steaming bowls down with her usual grace, except for Akane's, which spilled a little. Shampoo ignored Akane and rubbed her side against Ranma's shoulder. "Why you with ugly girl, airen? Come on date with Shampoo instead."

"You got it all wrong!" Ranma protested. "This ain't a date, not with Kasumi and Nabiki along!"

"Good!" Shampoo purred. "You come with me, then. I show you much better time." She tugged on his arm.

Ranma took in Kasumi's expectant look, Nabiki's disgusted look, and Akane's breathless look, and remembered: '...if you're nice to me I win, and if you're nice to her, she wins... don't you want me to win?' It was enough.

"Quit it, Shampoo. I came with Akane, and I'm leavin' with Akane."

Akane gasped in delight. Shampoo's eyes narrowed. Her hand flicked out to Ranma's water glass. Splash!

"What the hell ya do that for!" Ranma screeched.

"Ha, now you no enjoy not-date so much, eh?" Shampoo turned to flounce back to the kitchen. Splash!

"Miyaarl!" Shampoo crawled out of her dress and shook water off her paws.

Akane put her empty water glass down with a satisfied expression, then blinked. Ranma was balancing atop the back of her chair, terrified. "Ca-cat!" she stuttered. Shampoo was waving her soggy tail and preparing to leap for the seat of Ranma's chair.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Ranma! I forgot!" Akane jumped up and carefully punted Shampoo into the kitchen. Some of the other patrons applauded. Akane waved to them, then sat down. Ranma dropped into her own chair, still looking frazzled. Her good clothes were now wet and baggy.

"Hell," Ranma remarked, then brightened. Her ramen had survived the encounter unscathed. She started slurping her lunch.

Akane called Mousse over. "Could we get some hot water, please?"

Mousse glanced warily in the direction of the kitchen. "I regret that I am unable to provide hot water at the moment," he said, sounding like he meant the regret part.

Akane nodded. Of course he's not going to oppose Shampoo directly. "That's all right, Mousse. I understand."

Mousse leaned down, whispered in Akane's ear, and moved on. Akane blushed. "What?" Ranma asked suspiciously.

"Oh, nothing," Akane said, smiling. "I'll tell you later."

Kasumi and Nabiki started eating. "Good," Nabiki pronounced. "Free, too." The others stared at her. "Well, if they think we're going to pay for this after that performance, they can think again!"


"Sorry about the disaster," Ranma said to Akane on the way home. Ranma was still wet and female. Kasumi and Nabiki had dropped well back.

"That's all right," Akane said. "I got what I went for."

Ranma eyed her sidelong. Akane looked happy. "You figure you won, then?"

"Oh, yes. Between dropping the bowls, resorting to dirty tricks, and being kicked into the kitchen, she was way behind on points. But you telling her off clinched it. Thank you, Ranma. I could still have lost if you'd gone with her."

"Aw, I couldn't of done that," Ranma said uncomfortably.

Akane studied her. "Yes, you could have. And I was a little afraid you would. But you didn't, and I'm glad." I just hope I'm right about why.

"So, what'd Mousse tell ya?" Ranma asked, hoping to change the subject.

Akane laughed. "He said 'Good hunting.'"


"Stupid Akane," Shampoo griped, upstairs at the Nekohanten and dressing after her hot-water treatment.

Cologne cackled. "I warned you that your plan might backfire. The Tendo girl's got her hooks into Son-in-law now, and he's not wiggling much. She's tougher than you thought. Maybe I'll adopt her."

Shampoo stopped. "Great-grandmother! You wouldn't!"

Cologne turned an ancient gaze on her. "Child, you know very well that I'm not here to guarantee your success." She puffed on her pipe. "If I were, this would have been over long ago."

"He's mine," Shampoo said stubbornly. "I'll win him yet."

"Perhaps, perhaps not. It's good training either way," Cologne said comfortably. "Don't do anything stupid, though. And try to enjoy life in the meantime. As I do."

~~~~~ end of Exercise ~~~~~

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