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The training dummy shook with each impact of Akane’s foot against it’s side, rocking back and forth on its wooden pole. With every kick, the poll bended further and further to the side, making the dummy lean further and further over as it bended back for the next kick.

Akane had a long and very rough day. First, Ranma had ruined her favourite dressing gown because of a fall in the koi pond after morning sparring, and she had no spare clothes. Then she had to go to school alone, which attracted Kuno’s attention. Dealing with him meant that she got to class late, and had to spend it outside holding buckets. One for herself, and one for Ranma being late as well.

And then, Shampoo was there too. Why was Shampoo at school, of all people? She must have known that Ranma would never want to dump her for whatever reason that could pop into his tiny little brain. Hell, she had probably known that for a long time. That’s why she could never leave that jerk alone.

Shampoo had managed to grab Ranma’s attention as he came in late at school. He didn’t even care that Akane had to endure Ranma’s punishment in her place. He only barely seemed to care that Shampoo was around, and that was because she brought a bowl of ramen with her.

When Akane protested, all Ranma could say was that he “didn’t bring lunch with him”, so he appreciated Shampoo’s help. And when Akane pointed out that Shampoo was only trying to get into his good graces, he just said that if she could cook as well as Shampoo did, she could too.

Akane knew that giving Ranma a black eye wasn’t a good way to get into his good graces, but she would be damned if it didn’t make her feel good. At least then Shampoo would have to deal with Ranma’s stupid handsome face being marred for at least a day. Well, as if that didn’t deter her before…

Akane could imagine Shampoo right now, snuggled in Ranma’s arms tightly, pressed against his chest, warm and content. Without anyone to drop in and ruin everything. Without Akane around.

The loud crack as the wooden stake supporting the dummy snapped in two shook Akane out of her thoughts, barely managing to right herself before she toppled over with it. The dummy bounced off the stone floor, cartwheeling over and landing on its back with a soft thump. Akane watched the dummy lay there inert, but the anger didn’t seep out as it usually did. She wanted something else to beat on to work out her anger, and she didn’t want to go to the bother of fixing the dummy so she could stand it back up again. She needed something else.

“Shampoo!”

Akane froze up as a sudden weight landed on her back, and a pair of arms wrapped around her shoulders. A familiar voice in her ear, of Shampoo’s dim-witted hanger on.

“Shampoo, how could you ditch me in the middle of the dinner rush like that?!”

The last thing that Akane thought, before she turned around and laid into Mousse, was that maybe this time she could finally release some of that anger that had been festering in her all day.

The first thing that Akane thought as she stood over Mousse’s thoroughly beaten body was that it wasn’t as satisfying as she thought it would be. Maybe it was because Mousse looked so pitiful as he laid there, bruised and beaten, but surprisingly unbowed.

“Shampoo…”

“I’m not Shampoo, you idiot!” Akane snapped.

Mousse roused himself up at shocking speed, at sitting position before she could even blink. He stared at Akane with wide, blinking eyes. And then, slowly, he pulled on his thick-lensed glasses, and peered at her.

“My apologies, Tendou-san,” Mousse said, “I thought you were Shampoo.”

Akane rapped her fist on Mousse’s head. “Can’t you remember to keep those glasses on *before* you start chasing after people?! You could avoid so many beatings that way!”

“I tried to,” Mousse said, as he quickly got to his feet. “But they had a habit of getting broken easily. But sometimes I end up forgetting where they are, too…” He touched the glasses awkwardly. “I’ve must’ve gone through at least ten pairs of these by now. Auntie Cologne said that about thirty percent of the Nekohanten’s yearly budget is solely for my glasses.”

Akane stared at Mousse in shocked silence. “That much…? For your glasses?”

Mousse just nodded. “I have a very particular prescription.”

Akane stared at Mousse for a long while, before she turned around and headed inside. But then she paused at the door-frame, and looked back at him. “If you’re looking for Shampoo,” she said, “you’re not going to find her here. She’s dragged Ranma off I don’t know where, and I don’t really care about finding either of them.”

“Do you really mean that?” Mousse asked. His sleeves were together, hands hidden inside. The lenses of his glasses glinted in the late noon sun. “Even I can tell that you can’t bear to see him and Shampoo together. I might not have the best eyes, but I’m not that dim.”

Akane narrowed her eyes at Mousse, but he still stood unwavering. After a moment, she just scoffed and stepped inside. Maybe a hot bath and a cold drink of barley tea could do what beating on a pair of dummies couldn’t.

Unfortunately, the feelings still didn’t subside while in the bath. And worse, Mousse was sitting in the living room when she stepped inside. A half-empty glass of iced barley tea sat in front of him, which could only mean one thing to Akane: Kasumi must have taken pity on him and invited him to stay.

Akane frowned, but as there was also a large pitcher of barley tea, she sat down to the table. At least Mousse was relatively safe to be around: as far as she knew, the only time he ever really threatened her was with the whole circus kidnapping incident. After that, he mostly left her alone. As far as she knew, he cared more about defeating Ranma and winning over Shampoo than anything else.

“Why do you keep chasing Shampoo, anyway?” She said, partly to herself. But Mousse definitely heard it, turning to look at her. “I don’t think she even likes being around you. Every time I see her it’s Ranma this and Ranma that…” She growled as she grabbed the pitcher of tea and a glass. “I don’t think Ranma even likes her other than to satisfy his ego…”

“You don’t think I’ve noticed too?” Mousse asked. “She never stops talking about him, even in the Nekohanten. She’s always trying to think up some new scheme to get her to fall for him, day by day.” He lowered his gaze, his long hair hiding his eyes. “I don’t even know she even cares about how I feel!”

“Then why don’t you leave her?!” Akane said, sloshing some tea over the table. “You could quit the Nekohanten and go somewhere else! You don’t have to sit around being pushed around by her all the time!”

“You’re wrong, Akane-san.” Mousse’s face was completely stone still as he looked at her. “If Shampoo told me to move Heaven and Earth, I would do it for her. I came all this way for her, why should I quit now?”

“But she doesn’t love you!” Akane shouted, half rising from the table. “For all I know she wouldn’t care if you die tonight!” Her palms slammed on the table with enough force to make the glasses of tea hop in the air, barely managing to hold on to their contents without spillage. “How could you keep being in love with a woman like that?!”

Mousse flinched back from Akane, even though his face didn’t change. Somehow, even behind those thick glasses, Akane could tell that she had hit a nerve. Even so, he still sat there at the table, despite all of the spilled tea forming on the top, and now Akane could feel his gaze fixed firmly on her.

When Mousse spoke again, his voice was soft and level. “Because sometimes, love is something you can’t help but crave. Even when it is at its most poisonous and hateful. Even if it is the last thing in the world that you want.” He pushed his glasses back up his nose. “You of all people should know that.”

Akane didn’t say anything. She knew that Mousse was right. Even when he was wrong, he was right.

She silently rose to her feet, head hung low. “I’m going to clean the table off.” And then she turned around and headed for the kitchen.

When she returned with a rag to wipe the table, Mousse was still there. “What, you staying here to gloat?” She asked, lacing her question with as much of the little venom she had left in her as she could, before she knelt at the table to mop up the mess.

“Why should I?” Mousse replied. “There’s no satisfaction in verbal sparring like this. Especially not with you.”

“Why?” Akane asked, bitterness in her voice. “Because I’m too beneath you?”

“No,” Mousse said, “because you don’t deserve that such disrespect. Not even from Shampoo.”

Akane paused mid-wipe. “Do you really think that?”

“I don’t doubt it for a moment.” Mousse’s features softened, even behind those all-concealing glasses. “Maybe, somewhere deep down, Ranma knows it too.”

Akane didn’t reply for a long while. Instead she just kept wiping up all the spilt tea, keeping her gaze low so she could avoid looking at Mousse’s face. “You don’t think I thought about that? You don’t think I can tell that Ranma might actually…” She struggled for a moment to get the word out. “…like me?”

Mousse just poured some more barley tea into his glass. “Of course I do. I’m sure that everyone can tell how you really feel.”

“Then why doesn’t he just come out and say it?” Akane asked. “Why is he out there letting Shampoo hang on his arm all the time, or letting Ukyou fawn all over him? If he likes me so much, how come he still hasn’t told me how I feel?!”

Mousse just growled, his glasses giving off a sinister glint. “You don’t know how long I’ve been asking that question. Why do you think I’ve spent so much time and energy trying to destroy him?”

Akane just gave Mousse an icy glare. “I don’t want you to destroy Ranma, you know. Just try and get Shampoo away from him.” She paused to consider her words, and then added, “You could just kick his butt a little bit. But nothing lethal, or potentially crippling.”

Mousse groaned in disappointment. “Not even dismemberment? I think Ranma could live with only one leg.”

Akane just glared at Mousse, the hardest she possibly could. So hard that she could feel her eyeballs starting to hurt. So hard her chi radiated from her body like blue fire.

It didn’t take long for Mousse to quickly cave in under Akane’s judgemental gaze. “Alright, fine…” He bowed his head. “No dismemberment, either. Even if it can be justified…”

“Nothing Ranma does could justify dismembering him,” Akane replied. “Not even him playing around with Shampoo could justify anything worse than a heavy beating. That’s supposed to be the way it works.”

Mousse looked at Akane desperately. “But…”

“No buts!” Akane said sharply, her eyes still fixed on Mousse. “If you’re going to be spending time in this house, you have to stick to the rules. We have more than enough problems here with Ranma by himself…”

Mousse sighed, bowing his head again. Unable to recover from Akane’s next-level chastisement, all he could do was mumble a half-hearted “sorry” to Akane, barely able to be heard.

The minutes ticked by slowly as Akane and Mousse sat together. A good chunk of it was spent in silence, but they occasionally talked in short bursts, mostly Mousse asking a question that Akane answered, allowing Mousse to make a comment on it. Then the two would occasionally feel a bit awkward, before letting time slip past them in silence.

It was during one of these silences that Kasumi arrived in the living room. “Akane-chan! You didn’t tell me that you had a guest!” She gave Mousse a smile and a gentle wave. “Aren’t you one of Shampoo’s friends?”

Mousse was slightly taken aback for a moment, before he rose to his feet. “I’m not Shampoo’s friend. I’m the one that is finally going to win her heart!” He clenched a fist, chi aura flaring around him. “I’ve come here to challenge Ranma and steal Shampoo away from his undeserving grasp!”

Kasumi nodded, still smiling. “That sounds interesting, Mousse. But Ranma isn’t going to be here for a while. He’s gone downtown with Shampoo, on a date.” She kept smiling, even though both Akane and Mousse were staring at her in horror. “They both seemed to be having fun when I came across them earlier. Well, Shampoo did, Ranma seemed to be a bit nervous.”

Akane rose up from the table. “So are those two downtown right now? Like, can we catch up with them?” She looked over at Mousse, who still seemed to be stuck in a state of shock.

Kasumi just nodded, seemingly unaware of Mousse’s continual shock. “I was just at the supermarket when I ran into them. They were probably on their way downtown by now, so…”

Akane nodded, and reached out to grab Mousse by his shirt. “Come on! There’s still time to find them!”

“What happened to not caring what Ranma might be doing right now?!” Mousse said, half-spluttering from the awkward angle she was pulling him down into.

“There’s no time!” Akane said frantically. “There’s no telling what Shampoo might try and pull on him when they’re alone! Come on!” She started dragging Mousse out of the living room by his shirt, stopping only to let him pull on his slippers, before all but dragging him out of the Tendou house and down the street.

Despite the fact that it was late evening, it was still pretty bustling downtown in Nerima-ku. Akane and Mousse found themselves having to walk through the crowds hand in hand as they searched for Ranma and Shampoo. Mousse was slightly uncomfortable, holding the hand of a girl other than Shampoo, let alone Ranma’s fiancee. Akane was more concerned with finding Ranma, and not having Mousse get lost in the crowd.

“Akane-san,” Mousse said nervously, after several minutes of pounding the pavement together. “Do you really have any idea where they might be?” He tried his best to look around, trying to catch sight of that tell-tale lavender hair. “I mean, there’s quite a lot of people around. Maybe we should have asked Kasumi if she knew where they could have gone?”

Akane stopped suddenly, and Mousse had to keep from slamming into her back and knocking her over. “Yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry.” And then Mousse got very nervous all of a sudden. Akane just apologising out of the blue was not a sight he expected to see.

Quietly, the two retreated out of the crowds into the nearest shop. The front was lively and pink, and seemed to be selling various kinds of sweet crepes. Schoolgirls in uniform gathered at the front counter, picking out various kinds to try out, watching the servers fill the crepes with ice cream, chocolate and fruit. Some of them gave Akane and Mousse odd looks, but that was probably down to Mousse wearing his usual white coat with the gigantic sleeves.

“Maybe they’ll come in here,” Akane said, a twinge of desperate hope in her voice. “I know Ranma’s the type who’d go for this stuff.” She looked amongst the gaggle of girls, but Shampoo or Ranma were nowhere to be seen. “I’m guessing that Shampoo would like these too…”

Mousse just nodded, moving across to look at the menu. “Shampoo always had a sweet tooth.” He pulled off his glasses for a moment (which attracted some stares from the girls around him) to look at Akane. “What would you like?”

Akane blinked in surprise. “Me?” She looked around for a moment, then back at Mousse. “Are you really buying me a crepe right now?”

Mousse just smiled at her smugly. “What, don’t you like sweet things, Akane-san?”

Akane scowled back at Mousse. “Get real!” But the scowl only last for a second, turning into lip-chewing consideration as she looked up at the menu board. “Well, maybe get me the strawberry crepe, too.”

Mousse just nodded, and turned to the counter. “One strawberry crepe, and one lychee crepe, please.”

“Hey, cutie!” A voice called out from beside him. “Couldja get me a chocolate banana crepe, too?”

Mousse smiled down at the redheaded girl beside her. “But of course! I think I should have enough money for all three of us!”

Akane snorted at Mousse. “What happened to looking for Shampoo?” She sat back against the wall, waiting for the staff to finish the crepes, handing them to Mousse and the redhead…

Wait… Redhead?

Akane quickly leaped to her feet, and stalked over to the redhead, who she could tell was wearing a school uniform Akane now realised was that of Furinkan High. And her eyes grew even harder as the girl giggled in a rather recognisable manner.

“Thanks a lot, cutie!” The girl said, taking her crepe before turning around to face Akane. But as soon as her big blue eyes fixed on Akane’s, she stopped dead in front of her.

“Ranma!” Akane blurted out. “Just what are you doing here?!”

It was definitely Ranma. Ranma in girl form with loose hair and wearing a school uniform, but it was definitely Ranma. And she was definitely surprised to run into Akane and Mousse while downtown.

Mousse turned around to face… Well, Akane guess that it was supposed to be her, but ended up being one of the counter staff. “Ranma? Ranma’s here? Now?!” Thankfully, he didn’t grab the girl or anything, otherwise he might have been in real trouble.

“Mousse, I’m here,” Akane shouted, “put your glasses on!” As Mousse struggled to put his glasses back on, she turned back to Ranma, who was now carefully nibbling at her crepe. “Just what do you think you’re doing here?! And where is Shampoo gone off to?!”

Ranma swallowed her bite of crepe before she spoke. “Well, I’m having a crepe, aren’t I? As for Shampoo…” Ranma took another bite, talking through her mouthful of sweet pastry. “I don’t even know. It took me ages to ditch her, and I had to borrow this uniform from the school store.”

Mousse glared at Ranma. “That’s a likely story, indeed!”

Ranma glared back at Mousse for a moment, before looking back at Akane. “Where did you get him from? A garbage can somewhere?”

Akane’s glare hardened further. “He came to our home, looking for you and Shampoo. I’m guessing that maybe Cologne must be getting upset, seeing that she’s been gone from the Nekohanten for so long.

"Actually,” Mousse said while stepping over to Akane’s side, “I haven’t heard much from Cologne about Shampoo today… She seemed to care more about me helping her in the kitchen than anything about her…”

Akane paused for a moment to look at Mousse in pity, before turning back to Ranma. “We’ve been looking for you two! We were really worried, okay?”

Ranma snorted. “You, worried? About me? I should have a plaque made or something. Believe me, I’m not in any trouble right now. It’s nothin’ I can’t handle!”

Akane just frowned at Ranma. “Is that the reason why you’re in a girls’ uniform right now?” She folded her arms as Ranma started to sweat lightly, her frown deepening. “What have you and Shampoo been doing while you were out?”

Ranma backed away slightly. “What d'ya mean, Akane?! I didn’t do anythin’ with Shampoo! The only reason why I’m wearing this is because I wanted to get away from that crazy chick!”

Akane’s frown didn’t falter. “You can’t just tell her to leave you alone? You weren’t trying to fight her off at school, I could tell.”

Ranma shrank back further from Akane’s glare. Briefly, her eyes flitted over to Mousse, who was glaring at her even more murderously than Akane was. She froze for a moment, unable to think of anything other than what kind of dangerous weapons that Mousse might be preparing under that baggy tunic of his.

“Look,” Ranma said desperately, “if you’re gonna be like this, I’m just gonna leave right now!” And then she turned towards the door…

Only to see Shampoo standing there, her favourite chui gripped tightly in her hands. Around her, the other customers quickly filed out, retreating to a safer distance from the shop. Behind the counter, the staff retreated to a backroom, peering around the door.

“Ranma!” Shampoo said, raising a chui towards Ranma. “You ditch Shampoo in middle of date! Then find you dressing like a girl and sharing food with Akane and stupid Mousse?!” Her body started to glow with fury, her chi radiating. “I teach you hard lesson now!”

“Shampoo!” Mousse shouted, stepping in front of Akane and Ranma. “Cologne has been asking for you all day! You left us short during the lunch rush! You have to stop chasing Ranma and come home already!”

Shampoo glared at Mousse. “Stupid Mousse get out of way! Great-grandmother said I could take Ranma out on date tonight! You no try ruin it!” Before anyone else could respond, Shampoo was already charging, one chui reared back for a punishing swing.

Akane quickly grabbed Mousse by the back of his tunic, and yanked him backwards out of the path of Shampoo’s chui. The heavy metal mace smashed into the glass shield of the counter, sending glass shards around the shop, causing the staff to further hide behind the door.

Ranma was already above Shampoo, somersaulting across the air to land on an unbroken part of the counter. “You’re gonna have to pay for that, you know!” She squeaked as Shampoo whirled around, smashing her chui down where she was before she hopped across the counter again, leaving a massive dent where she was. “Are you nuts?!”

“Shampoo not nuts!” Shampoo pulled her chui free from the buckled counter. “Ranma nuts for ditching Shampoo for ugly idiots!” She jumped the counter effortlessly, hefting the large heavy maces in her hands like they were plastic toys. “Shampoo punish Ranma!”

Mousse and Akane watched the ensuing brawl in a mixture of appreciation and terror. Appreciation because Shampoo was always one of the better fighters among Ranma’s four suitors, as far as natural talent went. Terror because Shampoo was also wrecking the shop as Ranma dodged her blows, shattering the counter and causing fruit, ice cream and crepe batter to splatter over the floor.

“What do we do?!” Mousse asked Akane. “If this goes on, Shampoo’s going to destroy the whole shop! And we’ll be on the hook for it!”

Akane looked around the shop for ideas. She knew she couldn’t take on Shampoo in a straight fight. Even if she could, Ranma probably wouldn’t let her help, out of that stupid pride that she had. Which meant that she needed something else.

Then Akane’s eyes fell on a broken sink, smashed from Shampoo’s rampage, spouting cold water across the floor. She quickly turned to look at Mousse. “Do you have anything in there that can hold water? Like a bucket or something?”

Mousse fished around in his tunic for a moment, before pulling out a child’s potty. “I’ve got the Fist of the White Swan…”

Akane stared at the potty in silence, before she took it in her hands. “I guess this’ll have to do…” She dashed over to the pipe as quietly as she could. She checked to see that Shampoo was still busy over at the other end of the shop, and grabbed the broken pipe and bent it downwards to collect the cold water.

Akane kept an eye on Ranma and Shampoo’s battle as the potty slowly filled with water. Shampoo’s attention was fully on Ranma, furiously striving to land a blow on her, while Ranma ducked and dodged around her. Thankfully, Ranma was trying her best to keep to the other end of the shop as she sprang about, away from Akane and Mousse.

Akane peered into the potty again: it was almost half-full, enough that she could use. She hefted the potty up again, the thick ceramic now somewhat unwieldy with water sloshing around in it, and turned towards Shampoo.

Akane watched as Shampoo swung again, the massive metal chui smashing into a wall, shattering tile and plaster in her wake. Ranma just managed to dodge, sailing above her head. And at that moment, Akane darted forward and launched the cold water into Shampoo’s face.

Within seconds, Shampoo shrank into her pink outfit, struggling inside of the dress. But before she could wriggle out, Akane was already on her, grabbing at the ends of her clothes to keep her inside. She could hear Shampoo start to yowl as she struggled inside her improvised satin prison, which made Ranma leap away in terror.

“Don’t let her escape!” Ranma all but shrieked, as she scrambled up onto a high shelf. “She’ll be after me in seconds!”

Akane looked up at Ranma, bug-eyed and cowering, and nodded. She tied together the sleeves and neck of Shampoo’s shirt together, to make a makeshift sack to keep the transformed cat inside.

As she did so, Mousse came up to her, a large steel wok in hand. “Put her in here,” he said, holding the wok out. So Akane placed the little struggling pile in the wok, and covered it with the rest of her discarded clothes.

Mousse nodded to Akane. “Thank you, Akane-san. I’d better get Shampoo back to the Nekohanten.”

“Are you sure you could do that?” Akane asked, her brow furrowing in concern. “Shampoo’s going to be really upset at you about this.” She stepped forward, towards Mousse carefully. “You don’t have to go home with her, you know.”

Mousse nodded his eyes distant. “I know that, Akane-san. But I’ve already experienced the worst that she and Cologne could possibly do to me.” He turned towards Akane, giving her a sad smile. “It could always be worse. But at least I’ll see you around.”

Akane watched as Mousse turned around and left the shop, lugging the wok holding Shampoo out with him. She watched as he turned around and then disappeared down the street, out of her and Ranma’s sight. Then she heard the sound of a door clicking open at her side.

She turned to see the two employees of the shop peering out at her and Ranma. “Is it finally safe to come out?” One of the employees asked.

Akane just nodded silently. “I’m sorry about the mess,” she said quietly. “That girl is really dangerous when she’s mad.”

“No problem,” the other employee said, “we’re leaving this for the manager to deal with, anyway.”

After managing to resolve everything with the staff at the shop, it was getting pretty late in the evening. Akane and Ranma walked together through the side streets of Nerima, Akane walking ahead while Ranma lagged behind. For a long while neither of them spoke a word, and as the streets were currently empty, that made for a long, lonely walk.

Eventually, the silence was too much for Ranma to take. “I’m surprised that you and Mousse managed to get so buddy-buddy so quickly…” She snorted, and looked out towards the canal running beside them. “Remember when he kidnapped you and tried to turn you into a duck?”

“Of course I do,” Akane said, her jaw rigid. “I also remember him helping you a couple of times as well. Like the incident with those strange men that got you stuck as a girl for a while?”

Ranma was silent for a moment. But only for a moment. “Why did you two hafta go looking for me, anyway? Maybe if you weren’t there, Shampoo wouldn’t have found me and none of this would have ever happened.”

“I kind of doubt that, Ranma.” Akane kept staring straight ahead, because she didn’t want to turn around and catch the smug look on Ranma’s face. “And anyway, we were looking for you because I was worried about you.”

“Worried?” Ranma asked. “About me?”

“Of course!” Akane said angrily. “What do you think I was doing since you disappeared out of school today? You really think I was taking it easy back there?!” She took a deep breath, feeling the conversation slip out of her grasp again.

“Well I’m sorry, okay?” Ranma blurted out. “I couldn’t exactly figure out how to get home with Shampoo breathing down my neck. And I was thinking that you wouldn’t even care…”

Akane turned to face Ranma, her eyes flashing. “I do care about you, you jerk! That’s why I was there!”

Ranma was silent for a moment, her big blue eyes blinking in surprise. But Akane quickly turned around and stalked off, leaving Ranma behind. Instead, she heard Ranma dashing up behind her to try and catch up.

Ranma walked beside Akane, trying to match her pace. “It’s nice to know that you care about me, okay? Just wanted to hear you say that.”

Akane was silent for a long moment, before she reached out to take hold of Ranma’s hand. “Thanks, Ranma…” She smiled inwardly as she felt Ranma stiffen slightly as she squeezed her hand, before the fingers relaxed into a more comfortable grip.

Quietly, the two girls walked side by side, their shadows melding together as they lengthened behind them.

 

the end