"The Saotome Sisters"

Chapter 81

The bell rang to announce a visitor to the Cat Café, and Shampoo stuck her head out of the kitchen. "Cat Café is closed!" She called out brightly. "Please to come back when is opening time!"

"I bring package delivery!" The man called out in reply. From his accent, he was one of Shampoo and Cologne's countrymen.

"Aiyah! Spices arrive from China!" The bubbly Amazon bounced into the room. "It about time, Great-Grandmother about to run out!"

She hurried over to help the delivery man unpack his shipments. Cologne hopped in on her staff a few minutes later, watching as her great-granddaughter sorted out the various spices. As Shampoo opened up a package, her face screwed up in confusion.

"What this?" She asked, holding up a large mushroom for Cologne to see. It was easily as big around as her hand. "Shampoo not remember any mushrooms in order."

"Let me see that." Cologne hopped forward and took the mushroom. "Kairaishi Mushrooms? No, I didn't order any of this. We might as well send them back."

"Send them back?" Shampoo studied the mushroom closely as Cologne handed it back to her. "Is this one not good?"

"They are somewhat tasty, but that is not the point," Cologne said with a wry smile. "They contain a powerful toxin, which has an intense hallucinogenic effect. It is often used in black magic."

"Magic? What magic?"

"Come with me to the kitchen, and I will show you," Cologne replied. "And you too," she added, indicating the delivery man.

Once in the kitchen, she took the mushroom and diced it into small pieces with a sharp knife. She then cooked the mushrooms into a turnover. "Eat this," she said, and fed it to the delivery man.

"Many thanks!" he said. He gobbled down the pastry with no apparent effect. Then, quite suddenly, he began to sweat and became very agitated.

"The Kairaishi has taken effect." Cologne said. She then said, "Sleep", and clapped her hands. The man fell over on the floor, snoring.

"Aiyah!" Shampoo exclaimed. She stepped forward to put a hand on the man's shoulder, and he stirred at her touch. He sat up.

Cologne grinned, smugly. "Now watch." She clapped her hands again. The delivery man again rolled over, and in a moment, was snoozing away as happily as before.

"The suggestion is quite strong," Cologne said. "As long as you repeat the signal, the victim will be forced to obey. You can repeat it over and over again without it weakening."

Shampoo's eyes twinkled. "Can be any suggestion?"

"As long as it is in the victim's power."

Shampoo's grin became more wicked. "Shampoo will take them!" She woke the delivery man, paid him, and sent him on his way. Then she rubbed her hands gleefully as she turned back to the carving board and the mushrooms.

"Airen and Angry Girl try to trap Shampoo, play trick on her. But Shampoo play trick on them. If Shampoo use this mushrooms, Ranma give Shampoo kiss for sure!" She clapped her hands. "Then Airen know who is kiss better, Angry Girl or Shampoo."

Shampoo set about happily chopping up the mushrooms, while Cologne chuckled to herself. "Ah, to be young and in love," she said. Then she headed into the back to put away the other deliveries.

Back in the main dining area, just outside of the large window into the kitchen, Ukyo stood, pressed against the wall. "So, Shampoo has another plan to get Ranma, huh? Well, I'm sure Akane is comfortable enough with Ranma's feelings for her that she would not overreact to a couple of little kisses. Still, it's best not to take chances..."

Quietly, being careful to stay calm, just in case Cologne could sense her aura, Ukyo slipped back through the door into her lunchroom. "It's a good thing I decided to stop by this morning to double-check my supplies. Let's see now... I'm pretty sure I have some mushrooms that look like those..."

She walked back to the storeroom behind her shop, and looked through her supplies. "Just as I thought. I've got some mushrooms here that are close enough to those Kairaishi that Shampoo will never notice the difference. I'll just chop some of them up, and switch with her."

Ukyo took out the mushrooms, and placed them on her own cutting board, which was next to the trays she had set aside for her okonomiyaki toppings. Since she was planning a test run before her grand opening next weekend, they were ready for use and mostly full. She had only a little more preparation to do, and then she would take the trays out and install them next to the grill. She chopped up the mushrooms, then gathered them up into a carrying cloth.

She snuck back towards the kitchen, keeping an eye on Shampoo through the window. In a few minutes, the happily whistling Amazon had finished her work, and headed back into the storeroom for more ingredients. Ukyo quickly dashed into the kitchen, dumped her supply of mushrooms on the cutting board on the table, and picked up the ones that Shampoo had been chopping.

She ducked back into the dining room just in time. Shampoo came out of the storeroom, and began preparing a number of pork buns. Ukyo could not suppress a quiet chuckle as she headed back to her own storeroom. Shampoo would sure be surprised! Hopefully, she would try her plan out when Ranma came over, and Ukyo would be there to watch them. Ukyo grinned. She couldn't wait to see the fun!

Ukyo quickly set her mushrooms on the table beside her other supplies, and picked up her things to head back to the Tendo home. She had skipped breakfast this morning, since it was the weekend, but she had promised Akane that they would spar. She slipped out of the door to the expansion, careful not to make any noise and let the Amazons know she had overheard. Still chuckling to herself, she headed home.

From the depths of Ukyo's storeroom, Mousse came down the stairs, peering through his thick glasses as he looked around. "Hello? Is anybody there?" He shrugged. "I thought I heard a noise."

He turned to head back into the main room of the Cat Café, to rejoin his beloved Shampoo and the old ghoul Cologne. As he did, he bumped into the table. His glasses fell off, and he picked them up and put them back on.

"Oh, dear," he said. "I seem to have knocked something over." The mushrooms Ukyo had set out had fallen on the floor. Fortunately, the rag still covered them. He picked it up, then carefully turned it over without spilling the contents.

"That was a close one," Mousse said. "I'm sure Kuonji would be upset if I spilled her supplies." He looked around at the plastic trays that Ukyo used to store her okonomiyaki toppings. "Hm. Kuonji must have chopped these mushrooms to put them in with her other ingredients. I wonder why she left them on the table instead of putting them in the tray."

"Oh, well," he chose an empty tray, and put the chopped mushrooms into it. "Now she won't have to worry about someone coming along and bumping into the table." Satisfied that he had helped bring Ukyo just a bit closer to her goal of opening up her okonomiyaki shop, he set off for the Cat Café, and headed up the stairs to begin his morning preparations.

Ukyo called out as she entered the Tendo home, and was answered by a loud sneeze, from Ranma. She hurried on into the family room, to find her brother and Akane watching TV. Ranma was sniffling, and wiping his nose, and his eyes were red. Akane was watching him, obviously concerned.

"You coming down with a cold, Ranchan?" Ukyo asked him.

"Nah. It was that old freak, Happosai." Ranma scowled.

"Happosai?" Ukyo looked confused. What did he have to do with it?

"Grandfather tried to pull a prank on you this morning," Akane said. "He put sneezing powder in your food. Unfortunately, nobody told him you wouldn't be eating breakfast with us this morning, and Ranma ate all your food." She nudged Ranma with her elbow. "There you go again, baka, thinking with your stomach." Then she sneezed.

"I ain't the only one..." Ranma growled.

"Looks like Ranma isn't the only one who had an appetite," Ukyo said with a grin.

Akane giggled lightly, putting a hand behind her head. "Okay, I guess you got me. I sampled off of your plate as well. I only took a few bites, though. Ranma ate the whole thing."

"I didn't know the old freak was gonna pull somethin' like that!" Ranma protested. Then he sneezed again. "Gah, I'm gonna get that old man. I don't wanna get caught up in your battle!"

"Don't worry, Ranma." Akane smiled at him. "I'm sure Ukyo doesn't mind, and Grandfather seemed unhappy that his plan didn't work. He said he was going to have to try again, since it didn't count that he got Ranma."

"Well," Ukyo said, "At least he isn't coming after you guys as long as he's distracted trying to outwit me." She patted Ranma on the shoulder. "Just watch what you eat from now on, okay? Anything the old man could have touched is suspect."

"What makes me mad is, my mom was gonna come over here today. Now I'm gonna have to visit her when I'm sneezin', all the time. I hope she don't think I'm sick an' start trying to treat me like a baby, or nothin'." He sneezed again.

"Maybe it'll wear off," Ukyo suggested.

"That's what I was hoping, but it seems Happosai knew what he was doing." Akane face turned into an irritated frown. "Every time I think Ranma's over it, he burps or something and the spices come back up." She shook her head. "I'm afraid it's going to last most of the day, or at least until Ranma can finish digesting his meal."

"Ha ha," Ranma grouched. "Very funny."

Akane rolled her eyes at his protests, then turned back to Ukyo. "So, have you got any plans for today?"

"Well, I thought I would open up the shop for a few hours and give my grill a test run. I asked some of the kids at school to stop by over the weekend," her mood turned pensive. "Although I don't know if any of them will show. I'm sure Sayuri and Yuka will come by, though."

"That sounds great!" Akane gave one of her room-brightening smiles. "That reminds me, I asked Sayuri and Yuka to come over tomorrow with one or two of the other girls to watch my training exercises. Do you think you could help me set up a demonstration?"


"After we get done, maybe we'll all go over to your restaurant for okonomiyaki!" Akane looked even happier. "It'll be fun!"

"It's a date, then. You wanna go out to the dojo and do some sparring? I'm in no rush, but I'd like to get back to the Cat Café before noon."

"Sure." Akane glanced at her sniffling fiancé. "Ranma, you want to come too?"

Ranma rubbed at his nose, angrily. "I can't concentrate with all this goin' on. I just wanna lay here and die."

"Oh, come on, Ranchan, it's not that bad. It's not like you REALLY have a cold." Ranma glared at her, and Ukyo chuckled. "Tell you what, why don't you soak in a hot tub for a while, then lay down and rest for a bit. That should soothe the irritation."

"All right, that sounds like it might work." Ranma stood up.

"Don't sleep the whole day away," Ukyo said with a grin. "I'd like you to come over and help some time in the afternoon, if you can."

Of course, the real reason she wanted Ranma to come over to the Cat Café was so that Shampoo could try out her trick. The sooner she got that out of the way the better. But she didn't have to tell Ranma that.

"Sure thing, Sis." Ranma headed down the hall to the furoba, while Akane got to her feet as well.

"Give me a minute to get into my gi," she said. "I'll meet you in the dojo."

The afternoon passed relatively quietly, although she had a handful of curious visitors show up around lunch. She invited them inside, warning them to mind the construction, and informed them of her plans to open the okonomiyaki shop the next weekend. She insisted that they have an okonomiyaki on the house, took their order, and asked for their honest feedback after they were done.

Most of the orders were for standard okonomiyaki, and her guests all seemed quite pleased. Several said they would return once the shop opened. Only a few brave souls were willing to try the Pot Luck Okonomiyaki, but their responses were the most enthusiastic of all. A couple of customers seemed curious about the Hiroshima and Chinese styles (which she was now calling the "Joketsuzoku Special') and promised to try them on their next visit.

Sayuri and Yuka, of course, stopped by, and they each had an okonomiyaki as well. Sayuri tried the Hiroshima style, but sheepishly admitted that she had never been to western Japan, and so had nothing to compare it too. She found it interesting; the many layers of cabbage made it taste very different.

The lunch crowd thinned out, and with the last of her ingredients running out, Ukyo went back to the storeroom for more trays. She had just fitted them in place as Ranma came in. "Hiya, Ranchan," Ukyo called out. "You want an okonomiyaki?"

Ranma sniffled and rubbed his nose. "No thanks. This sneezing powder has got me so stuffed up and makin' my nose run that I can't hardly smell anything. I'd hate ta eat one o' your okonomiyaki an' not be able to taste it, Sis."

Ukyo shrugged. "Oh, well, all right then. It does seem a shame to let it go to waste." She began to mix up the batter. "I think I'll just make one for myself, to go."

"Oh?" Ranma looked at her, then looked around the little room. "You ready to go already?"

"Yeah... business was pretty slow. I was planning on putting out some flyers for the Grand Opening, but I'll do it tomorrow. Did your mother show up?"

"Not yet," Ranma said, wiping his nose on his sleeve. Then he sneezed. "Oh, heck, I think it's starting up again."

"Poor Ranchan," Ukyo said sympathetically. She patted him on the shoulder, and then began layering on the toppings on her okonomiyaki.

At that moment, Shampoo burst in the door. "Airen! Is here! Shampoo so happy to see Airen!"

"Yeah, yeah," Ranma said, distractedly, waving an arm in her direction. "I came ta see Sis, not you!"

Shampoo's eyes fell. "Not be rude. Shampoo just happy to see Airen." Then her smile returned. "Shampoo bring too, too nice pork buns. Airen try, yes?"

"I dunno, Shampoo," Ranma said, sniffling. "I ain't really in a mood for more food."

"Aiyah!" Shampoo looked startled. "Airen sick? Then Airen definitely need Shampoo to make healthy meal, make Airen feel all better." She pulled him aside. "You eat these, you feel better too, too quick, yes?""

Ukyo chuckled to herself as she flipped over the okonomiyaki. She grabbed a handful of ingredients from the tray, and sprinkled it over the top, not noticing that she had grabbed a handful of suspicious looking mushrooms in the mix. She sat back to watch the fun, munching on her freshly cooked snack.

"Here, here, Airen eat!" Shampoo insisted. She stuffed a pork bun into Ranma's mouth despite his protests. Her own grin grew wicked as he chewed. "Is good, yes? Ranma make all gone?"

"Yeah, yeah, Shampoo, what is this all about?"

"You give big kiss now. Big, juicy kiss with much passion, like give to one true love!" Ranma then sneezed, loudly. Shampoo snapped her fingers.

"Kiss! Whaddya mean! I ain't gonna kiss you!" Ranma shoved Shampoo away from him, much to her frustration.

"Airen kiss Shampoo now! Why Airen no kiss Shampoo?" Ranma sneezed again, and Shampoo repeated her command. "You must give big kiss! Kiss long time, make very happy!" She snapped her fingers, and her face twisted into a scowl when it didn't work.

Ukyo wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. When did it get so hot in here? She felt a strong urge to do something, to leap over the counter and... do something, but she didn't know what. She shook her head to try to clear it.

"Are you crazy, Shampoo?" Ranma was yelling. "I ain't gonna kiss you, Akane would kill me! An' my Pops and Mr. Tendo wouldn't be too happy neither!"

Shampoo snapped her fingers twice more, staring into Ranma's eyes. Then she shrugged. "Aiyah, Kairaishi no work. Maybe Shampoo not use right. Oh, well." She leaned forward and kissed Ranma on the cheek, then bounded back into the main dining room. "Bye-bye Airen, Shampoo see again soon."

"What the heck was THAT about?" Ranma rubbing his cheek, with a grimace of distaste. He turned to his sister. "You ready to go, Sis?"

"Sure, Ranma," Ukyo mumbled, trying to pull herself out of her stupor. Why did she feel so dazed all of a sudden? "Give me a minute to put away these toppings."

Ukyo picked up the trays and took them back to the back room to put them away in the freezer. Then she rejoined her brother in the main hall. "Let's go."

They headed down the streets of Nerima, towards the Tendo home. Ukyo tried to make small talk. "So, when do you think your mother will arrive?"

"I dunno, Akane said that it wouldn't be more than an hour before she showed up. She said she would come by after lunch. I wanted to run and get you before she arrived."

"That's very thoughtful of you, Ranchan. You know, I'm looking forward to spending some time with Auntie Saotome. It's time we started trying to think about how to break the news of your curse..."

As Ukyo was saying that, Ranma sneezed. Ukyo immediately threw her arms around him, drew him close, and kissed him soundly on the lips.

Ranma leaped back like he had been bitten by a snake. "SIS! WHAT ARE YOU DOING!"

Ukyo stared at him, her eyes wide. She looked to be in shock. "I... I... I'm sorry, Ranma, I just... I just don't know what came over me!"

"Geez, Sis! What kinda trick are you tryin' to pull here? I aughtta... WAH-CHOO!"

In a flash, Ukyo had again grabbed Ranma and pulled him down to her. Their lips met for a much longer period this time. Ranma began to squirm before Ukyo released him.

Ukyo was blushing deeply, and waved her hands in front of herself. "Honest, Ranchan, it doesn't mean anything! It's like I can't control myself or somethin'!"

"Tell me about it!" Ranma said, flabbergasted. "Get ahold of yourself! You're my sister, you're not supposed ta be thinkin' things like that about me!"

"I'm NOT, Ranma, I'm NOT. Or not really, anyway..." Ukyo's blush deepened. Then she shook her head. "Look, you know me, Ranchan! You know I wouldn't..."

Before she could finish, Ranma sneezed again. Ukyo leaped at him, sending them both tumbling to the ground as she kissed him deeply. She then leaped back to her feet. "No, no, no! It's not what you think!"

"I gotta get outta here," Ranma yelled, crawling on his back like a spider. He turned over, already at a full run by the time he got back to his feet. He shot off like a rocket headed for the Tendo home.

"Ranchan, come back!" Ukyo yelled after him. "I don't know what's going on, but we can figure it out! Don't be afraid of me!"

Ranma ran all the way home, and charged through the front door, slamming it behind him. "It's not my fault, Akane!" He called out. "I didn't do it!"

"What?" Akane came down the hallway from the family room, eyeing Ranma curiously. "What have you done now, baka?"

Ranma grabbed her by the shoulders. "I told you, I didn't do it! You gotta believe me!" He sneezed, and Akane pushed his face away from hers.

Nodoka came down the hall behind Akane. "What is wrong, my son? You look as if something horrible happened. Is it something that you are afraid to face responsibility for?"

"Oh, hi, Mom." He looked chagrined. "Look, it's just, I told you, it's not what it looks like. I told you, okay?" He sniffled and wiped his nose.

"Ranma..." Akane's tone was warning, but she was not angry yet. At that moment, Ukyo came in through the door.

"Look, Ranchan, it's not what you think, okay!" Ukyo said. "Let's just sit down and talk about this."

"No, no! I can't be anywhere around you!" With that, Ranma charged down the hall to the family room.

"Ranchan, I didn't mean to! You gotta believe me!"

Akane shook her head. "Not you too..."

Ukyo looked at her. "I'm really sorry, Akane. I don't know what happened. But I... um... I kinda... um... kissed Ranma."

"Kissed Ranma?" Akane rolled her eyes. "Honestly, you'd think the world had come to an end. There's nothing bad about a little kiss between family."

"It wasn't that kind of kiss!" Ranma yelled, from the family room. He then sneezed. Ukyo twitched.

"It wasn't what it seems like, I swear!" Ukyo countered, continuing down the hall in the direction of her brother's voice. "I don't know what's going on, but I've gotten over my feelings for you!"

"I didn't know you had feelings for me! Not like that, anyway!" As they came into the room, Ranma was cowering behind the table. He looked like he might bolt, but Akane hurried over to comfort him.

Unfortunately, he sneezed again, and as Ukyo entered the room, reflex took over. She leaped across the table, and laying down across it, planted a deep smooch on Ranma's lips.

Akane drew back. "Ranma!" She yelled.

"I didn't do it!" He yelled back. "It wasn't me, it was her!" He made a gesture towards Ukyo, pushing her away as he did.

"It wasn't me either," Ukyo said. "Or not because I wanted to! I don't want to take Ranma from you, Akane!"

Akane's eyes flashed. "Oh, do you think you CAN take Ranma from me?"


Ranma looked from one girl to another, then tried to extract himself from his position at the table. He sneezed again, and Ukyo gave him another long kiss.

"Ukyo! Stop it!" Akane was starting to sound frightened. "This isn't funny anymore."

"It's the sneezing!" Ukyo snapped her fingers. "The sneezing is doing it!"

"Oh, I guess you're going to blame Happosai for this, now..." Akane harrumphed and looked away, although it was obvious she was hurt.

"Yeah... yeah it could be." She thought about it. "But how? I haven't seen Happosai all day. I haven't eaten anything unusual or been caught by any explosions or powders..."

Ranma sneezed again. Yet again, Ukyo gave him a passionate kiss. "Oh, my son is so manly!" Nodoka gushed.

"I am not!" Ranma said, then blanched. "I mean I am, but I can't help it! It's not my fault women throw themselves at my feet all the time..."

Akane turned red. "Oh, is that all I am to you? Yet another woman who's fallen under your spell? Am I supposed to throw myself at your feet!"

"Of course not!" Ranma snapped back, but sneezed again before he could defend himself further. By the time he pried Ukyo off of him, Akane was beginning to tremble, and clench her fists.

"Akane, calm down," Ukyo said, taking a moment to wipe her lips. "Of course that's not what Ranma means."

"Calm down? That's easy for you to say! Your fiancé isn't kissing another girl right in front of you!" Holding back her anger was beginning to take its toll, and tears were starting to gather in Akane's eyes.

"Now, Akane, don't be jealous. Perhaps you should both kiss him." Nodoka's eyes sparkled, obviously imagining her son romantically sweeping the two girls off their feet. "After all, Ukyo is Ranma's fiancée, too. She shouldn't be forced to deny her feelings out of concern for you."

"I knew it! I knew you liked her better than me!" Akane's voice caught in her throat. "Is it because I can't cook? I'm really trying, I really am..."

"Mom! You're not helping! Ah-choo!"

"Ukyo, can you at least TRY to control yourself while I'm here watching? Don't you know how much this hurts me?"

"The mushrooms! The Kairaishi mushrooms! Ranchan changed the trigger when he sneezed!" She turned to Akane, with a look of dawning realization in her eyes. "It's a post-hypnotic suggestion, Akane, I can't help it! Shampoo was trying to make Ranma kiss her, and she got me instead!"

"Shampoo?" Akane's trembling had given way to sobbing, and tears streaked her face. "Do you expect me to believe that? Oh... I want to..." She put her face in her hands.

"Yeah, Akane, she's right." From Ranma's contemplative expression, he was remembering the trick as well. "I thought that was odd, her telling me to kiss her."

"That Amazon girl was trying to kiss you as well?" Nodoka looked curious, but obviously pleased.

"No, no, SHE tried to make ME kiss HER!"

"And did you, Ranma?" Akane's tone was harsh, but her sobs were plain, now. "You've kissed Ukyo now, what's Shampoo as well..."

"No, I didn't kiss her, you stupid tomboy! She kissed me!" He jumped, as if startled. "On the cheek! She kissed me on the cheek! Not on the lips!" He waved his hands wildly.

"Shut UP, Ranchan, you're not..." Ranma sneezed and Ukyo kissed him.

"Oh my son, I am so proud!" Nodoka exclaimed jubilantly. "But the manly thing would be to make a choice now." Akane began to wail. Ranma was panicking and on the verge of passing out.


It was not Ranma who sneezed, that time. It was Akane. Ukyo reached forward, planted her hand firmly behind Akane's head, and pulled her forward into the most passionate liplock she had administered so far.

There was a moment where everything seemed normal. Ukyo shifted her lips a bit to deepen the kiss, and Akane leaned her head to allow for a better angle. Then Ukyo's eyes snapped open. She stared into Akane's dark eyes, which were wide with astonishment and shock. Both girls froze in place, neither daring to move. It was as if they had turned to stone.

Ranma's hand suddenly shot up to his nose. "I gotta get outta here!" he shouted, his voice nasal since he was holding his nose closed. He scrambled up from his side of the table, almost knocking it over in his hurry. He tripped once rushing out of the room. Then, when he was well outside of the family room, he was heard to sneeze. "Gah! Now there's blood everywhere!"

There was a long awkward silence. Then Nodoka cleared her throat.

"I must talk to my son," she said, as she stoically rose to her feet. "Obviously he is not properly satisfying his fiancées if they must turn to each other." She left the room.

Ukyo finally broke the kiss. She looked away from Akane, her face as red as a beet. "I'm... I'm sorry Akane..."

There was a light, bashful giggle from Akane. "Don't be." Ukyo looked up to find Akane's face just as red as hers, but she was smiling. "I'm actually glad you did that."

"Uhhhh..." Ukyo swallowed. She could feel herself sweating the big drop.

Akane took a deep breath, and then let it out, slowly. "For a long time now, I've been worried about my feelings. I've been afraid that my attraction to Ranma's female body was not just due to my love for him, but... something else."

The dark haired tomboy lowered her eyes. "At least now I know for sure. While I love Ranma with all my heart, now I know it isn't partly because of some misplaced attraction to you. I love Ranma for Ranma, and nothing else.

"It was a very nice kiss." Akane said. Her tone was gracious, but her eyes danced with mischief. "Some day, you're going to make some man very happy..."

Akane sighed again, the last of the tension draining out of her. Her smile became almost apologetic. "... But it wasn't magic."

Ukyo giggled nervously. "Well, thank God for that..."

Akane stood up. "I'm going to go straighten things out with Auntie. You should probably avoid Ranma for the rest of the day - or at least until either the sneezing powder or Shampoo's spell wears off."

"All right." Ukyo still couldn't meet Akane's eyes, but she was smiling, too.

"And Ukyo... there's just one more thing." She looked down at her friend with a mock glare. "Don't think that you can pretend to be Ranma and get another kiss out of me. I could tell it was you the moment your lips met mine. So I'll know." She shook her fist, but her eyes were shining with mirth. "If you get any urges to steal another kiss from me, you just think again. I'll show you the business end of my shinai."

"Don't worry about it, Akane," Ukyo said with amusement. "After all, as you said... what's a little kiss between family?"

Akane was all smiles as she invited her friends into the dojo. "Come in, come in," she said, barely able to contain her excitement. "Sayuri, Yuka, I'm glad you could make it!"

"We wouldn't miss this," Sayuri said. She and her friend quickly entered the dojo and took a seat on a bench Akane had set up for them. Akane had hung her training bricks from the rafters, as before, but only about half of the dojo's area was covered. There was plenty of room for their guests to sit down. Akane herself was wearing a gym shirt and shorts. Her clothing was brand new, and not ripped like before.

The girl with the glasses was the next to come in. "Welcome to the Tendo dojo," Akane said warmly, as she bowed to the girl. She returned the greeting, with a shy smile of her own. Behind her was a short, cross-looking girl with a thick mane of brown hair that surrounded her face. Akane's eyes brightened in recognition, and the girl's seemingly perpetual scowl faded to an apologetic grimace.

"I'm really sorry, Akane," the girl said. "At first, I ignored all those silly rumors about you. But then you started to seem closer to Ukyo and Ranma than to Sayuri and Yuka and myself, and I guess I kind of decided you were moving on. When the others wanted to go out with you, I started finding more and more reasons to stay behind.

"Then, when Sayuri invited us all on that hot springs trip, and Ukyo and Happosai crashed it, I guess I started listening to the rumors." She turned to Ukyo, who was standing apart from the group. "I apologize for that, Ukyo. I'd like to be your friend, too, if you'll let me."

Ukyo grinned. "Any friend of Akane's is a friend of mine. And believe me, I'm as frustrated by that old freak's antics as you are."

The girl turned back to Akane. "Anyway, I'm really sorry I let you down, and I'd really like to be friends again."

Akane took her hand. "Of course. Don't worry about it." She gave her friend a big smile. "It's good to see you again." A couple of other girls that Akane also recognized as former friends filed in behind her. "It's good to see you all again."

Behind the little group, Akane was surprised to see a certain tall gymnast with her black hair in a ponytail. "Kodachi? Your lesson isn't until Tuesday. Did you take time off from your gymnastics practice?"

Kodachi waltzed into the dojo, waving a hand dismissively. "My team isn't meeting this week, so I have some extra time. But my brother has been going on and on about the big fight you and Ranma had on Friday. He was quite incensed that Ranma dear had been mistreating his 'fierce tigress', and that he had been unable to release you from his wicked grasp. I just HAD to come by and see for myself the truth of the matter!"

She bounded over to Ranma, who drew back at her approach. "So, Ranma dear, has this commoner been treating you kindly? Although I have given up my love for you, I would not have her taking a prince such as you for granted."

Akane's eye began twitching. "Ranma and I just had a little spat, that's all. Ranma has apologized for dismissing my cooking without even trying it, and we've both forgiven each other."

"I apologized?" Ranma queried, with a teasing note in his voice. "I seem to remember a certain homicidal tomboy begging me to accept her apology after the whole school saw what horrible things she was imagining doing to me..."

"Ranma..." Akane growled warningly.

"Hohohohoho!" Kodachi wrapped her arms around Ranma. "Now, Ranma dear, if it was a fine meal that you wanted, you need only ask me. I'm sure that I can present you with a banquet fit for a king!" She glanced at Akane and then Ukyo. "Certainly better than some fast food chef can provide for the common rabble."

"Fast food chef!" Ukyo protested, folding her arms with a glare.

"Alas, I can no longer claim you as my fiancé, Ranma dear, but you can at least reward me with a kiss..." Kodachi leaned closer, pulling out a bouquet of black roses, and pursing her lips as she held the roses in Ranma's face. Ranma stared at her in increasing horror. Before she could trigger the paralysis gas, Akane grabbed Ranma by the arm and spun him out of Kodachi's grasp.

"Quit playing around, Kuno, or I'm doubling your training session next week!" Akane threatened.

Kodachi responded with a laugh. "Relax, Tendo, I am only teasing, as usual. It is the only fun I get these days, with my dear brother studying so hard for final exams. He seems to have gotten it into his head that you and his 'ponytailed goddess' will look upon him with greater admiration if he can achieve perfect scores. As he is paying your sister for the privilege of tutoring him, I suspect that it was her idea..."

She tossed the roses aside, and then glanced at Ukyo. "My apologies to you as well, Kuonji. I heard that you are opening a new restaurant, and I would love to sample your fare."

Ukyo still looked insulted, but she nodded. "Actually, Akane and I were going to take you all out to the restaurant for lunch once we are done here."

"That sounds great!" Sayuri said. "So what are you planning to do, Akane?" She looked around at the ropes hanging in a pattern around the dojo. Unlike before, when Akane had hung cinder blocks from the ropes, now she had replaced them with flat slabs of rock. They were smaller than the cinder blocks, which allowed Akane to place them closer together. "Is all this part of the training?"

Akane walked over to one of the stones, and swung it on the end of its rope. "Yes, this is my training technique. It is called the Bakusai Tenketsu, or 'Breaking Point'. Ryoga learned this from Cologne, and I tried to duplicate his training and broke my arm. I sensed the breaking point just before I hit, though, and was able to shatter the rock, even though the impact was too much for my body to stand."

She glanced at Ranma, giving him an apologetic look. He just rolled his eyes, especially when Akane added. "That baka never has let me live that down. Anyway, this training makes my body tougher, so I can use the ability on small rocks now. I developed this kata to build up my whole body, so I can take punches or kicks from much stronger opponents than before."

Akane paused a moment, to collect her thoughts, then fell into her stance. Then she struck out with a finger, causing the first brick to explode. She had made the kata a bit tighter, since there was less space between the slabs, and she stepped closer to the explosion, bearing its impact a bit more. The denser rock didn't shatter like concrete, though, and the edges were not as sharp. Since her body was better able to withstand cuts, she had moved on to blunt impacts.

After a few minutes, Akane had made her way through most of the rock slabs. Although the exploding stone had ripped holes in her clothing, the overall damage was still less than before. Small cuts and bruises appeared on her skin, but there was no longer that look of agony on her face. Instead, Akane seemed almost serene, as she continued the steps of her kata. The watching audience had been stunned into silence by the display, and no sound could be heard but the repeated explosions.

Finally, Akane made her last strike, reducing the final slab to a fine cloud of fragments. Her shirt had been shredded, exposing a bit of her bra. Her arms and legs were crisscrossed with crimson welts, but there was no sign of blood. Akane turned, and bowed to her shocked audience. Then, quite suddenly, Sayuri and Yuka leaped to their feet, and raced to her.

"Akane! That was... that was..." Sayuri faltered, unable to find the words. She and Yuka looked Akane's arms over carefully, while the other girls came up to see as well.

"I'm all right, guys," Akane said sheepishly.

"Geez, Akane, how can you DO that! You should have been cut to ribbons! Doesn't that hurt?" Yuka was able to find one open cut on Akane's side, but as she watched in amazement, it healed over and stopped bleeding.

"It did hurt, at first," Akane admitted. "But as the training went on, it got better. I can withstand the explosions now, at least for these small bricks."

Ranma came up behind her, and hung a towel over Akane's shoulders, to hide her ripped shirt and preserve her modesty. Akane gave him a grateful smile, and then wiped the sweat from her face with the end of the towel.

Akane then lowered her eyes. "To tell the truth, guys, I usually use bigger bricks than this. I used the smaller ones because I didn't want to scare you..."

"Well, you DID scare me!" Sayuri said, and Yuka nodded her head in agreement. "That was the most intense thing I've ever seen! I was sure you were going to kill yourself!"

"I have to admit, Tendo," Kodachi cut in, "I have endured your conditioning training, and know how it works, and yet that shocked even me." She had come up to stand slightly outside of Akane's circle of friends, but she was looking Akane over with as much concern as the others. "While I would never be willing to subject myself to such a disfiguring technique as that, I can no longer question your strength of will. It is no surprise that I can no longer keep up with you."

Akane flinched at the word "disfiguring", and her eyes narrowed a bit, but Yuka spoke up before she could respond. "Kodachi's right, Akane. Aren't you afraid this will leave scars?"

Akane looked up at Ranma, standing behind her, and he grinned confidently back at her. She met Yuka's eyes with the same confidence. "I don't mind a few scars. That's the point, really, scar tissue is tougher than regular skin and will protect me from further abrasions. Although I don't want the calluses to get so thick they start to split."

She glanced at Ukyo. "Ranma and Ukyo use a cream that softens the tissue and prevents it from scarring. I have a few scars, but not enough to notice, even after all this training."

"And besides," Ranma added, drawing her into his arms. "I think a few scars makes her look cute." Akane giggled, and half-heartedly slapped at his arm.

The girls all looked at each other. As one, they all got an expression of "Oh! So that's what's going on!" at Ranma and Akane's sudden closeness. They then turned back to Akane with smiles.

"Well, I guess if you're doing it to yourself, then that's okay," Sayuri said. "And I guess Ukyo and Ranma can tell if you're pushing yourself too hard."

"You bet we can," Ukyo and Ranma said at the same time. Ukyo had been coming up to join the two of them and Ranma jumped a bit at her echo, brushing against her side. The two of them shared an uncomfortable laugh before turning their attention back to the others.

Ukyo finished the thought. "Akane was pretty clever to come up with this, and with it, she's been able to cram a lifetime of conditioning into a few months. She's managed to compensate for one of her major weaknesses, and is a better fighter because of it."

Akane nodded. "Let me show you WHY I've been training this way. Ukyo?"

She walked over to one side of the dojo, while Ukyo went over to pick up a sword from the wall. Although most of the weapons Ukyo had borrowed had been returned after the fight with the Dojo Destroyer, Akane and Ukyo had agreed to keep some of them out, and had hung them on the walls as decoration. Ukyo tested the weight of the weapon with a few practice swings, and then took a position opposite Akane.

Ranma led the watching girls back over to the bench. Once the combat area was cleared, Akane and Ukyo bowed to their audience, then to each other. Then both fell into a stance.

The sparring match that followed again stunned the girls into silence. Both Ukyo and Akane seemed to flash around the dojo, moving almost too fast to see, although Ukyo moved far faster than Akane. Akane seemed to plant herself solidly, enduring a barrage of strikes from Ukyo's sword, then darted in for a few strikes of her own. Akane didn't have the reach to avoid Ukyo's sword, and had to take a few hits to score a point, but that was obviously the point of the demonstration. Akane didn't flinch from the sword strikes, and it didn't seem to affect her in the least.

Finally, Akane pushed Ukyo back into a corner, where a pile of round stones had been set, obviously for the demonstration. As Akane leaped back, to dodge a leg sweep, Ukyo dropped her sword, and picked up the stones in the same sweeping motion. Akane jumped into the air, and Ukyo threw the stones over her head. They hung there, for a fraction of a second.

"Kachuu Tenshin Amaguriken!" Ukyo's arms flashed into action, and in a blur, picked the stones out of the air and hurled them at Akane. Akane countered with "Bakusai Tentetsu revised!" and her hands flashed out with the speed of the Chestnut Fist as well. As the rain of missiles came at her, she touched each with a finger, and it exploded. The staccato rhythm of the explosions sounded like a machine gun going off in the crowded dojo.

When the cloud of dust cleared, Akane dropped to the ground, unharmed. She looked as if she might try to continue her attack, but then Happosai came bounding in through the door.

"Little Ukyo!" He called out. "Catch!"

He tossed a round, bomb-shaped object at Ukyo. She intercepted it, but then tossed it to Akane without catching it. Akane stumbled as she caught it, and then juggled it from hand to hand as she failed to catch it for a few moments, but then threw it back to Ukyo. Just as she caught it, it went off.

A cloud of gas filled the dojo. Everyone began coughing as the dense cloud surrounded them. A number of girls were heard to cry out in dismay and disgust.

"Gah!" Ranma yelled. "What a stink!"

As best he could in the blinding smoke, Ranma gathered up Akane's friends and Kodachi, and escorted them out of the dojo. Akane and Ukyo helped each other out of the door. The whole group of them gathered outside in the Tendo yard, coughing and with their eyes watering.

"I gotcha that time, Little Ukyo!" Happosai said smugly. "I'll be waiting for your counter prank!" With that, he cackled gaily and started to leap over the Tendo compound wall.

A ribbon snagged his foot. Kodachi pulled him back down to the ground, holding the handle of her ribbon with a scowl. "It will take me forever to get this smell out of my clothes, you perverted old lunatic," she said. She then triggered the electrical charge on her ribbon, and Happosai jumped around on the end of his restraint.

"No fair, Little Ukyo!" Happosai pleaded. "You wouldn't let all of your friends attack this old man, would you? This prank war was supposed to be between you and me!"

Ukyo stood up, wiping her reddened eyes. "Hey, you caught my friends in your stink bomb, old fool. It's no business of mine if they want to take revenge for that."

"Hohohohohoho!" Kodachi laughed shrilly. "Are you with me, girls!"

"Yes!" They all answered. Within a second, they were on top of Happosai, pounding him into a pulp.

Akane made a face as she came over to Ukyo. "We all stink, we can't go out for okonomiyaki like this. Ranma, why don't you run take a bath real quick, and as soon as you're done, the rest of us can take a bath together. I'll see if Kasumi can bring us all a change of clothes."

Akane and Ukyo stood watching the girls beating up Happosai. Ranma chuckled to himself as he headed into the house.

Author's Notes:

I would like to give credit to MZephyr for Mousse knocking over the pilfered Kairaishi mushrooms and setting the plot twist in motion. He had Mousse do the same thing in "Sharing Thoughts", when Mousse's clumsiness caused Shampoo to mess up a mind reading potion that allowed Ranma and Akane to learn about each other's true feelings. Although I can't recall one instance of that happening in the canon, it seemed so appropriate that I used it.

And I'd also like to give credit to Ernest Hemmingway for "sweating the big drop". I went looking for a convenient way to describe the iconic Anime Big Sweat Drop, and found the reference in TV Tropes. It's actually a translation of a Spanish phrase, which makes it even funnier to me. :D The sweatdrop itself was suggested by Kevin Hammel when I showed him a preview of the chapter.

Akane has other friends other than Sayuri and Yuka, but I assumed that over the course of this story they would drift away from her as Ukyo and Ranma became a part of her life. The girl showing up at the end and apologizing to Akane was meant to be one of those girls. To be precise, she is the girl who is often seen with a fourth girl, who has freckles, and is a little overweight. Akane seems to also have a few other friends, although they could be the same four girls with minor variations in hairstyle. I intentionally made the glasses wearing girl NOT part of Akane's inner circle, but she resembles any number of girls in the crowd who might consider themselves friendly towards Akane.

I have recently (like since starting this chapter) heard that the other two girls' names are "Makoto" and "Shikaku". (With Makoto being the one Akane spoke to) I don't know if these are "unofficial" names like Sayuri and Yuka, though, or just completely made up. I intentionally avoided using any names, because I didn't want to suggest these were original characters who were not in the canon.

In a previous version of this chapter, I said Kuno was studying for college. This is obviously incorrect, as only a year has passed, not two. I had previously said Kuno was studying for his senior year, but somehow changed that in my mind to graduating and going to college. I've corrected that error, and explained why Kuno's so interested in grades all of a sudden. :D