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A Taste of Autumn

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It was a fair Sunday afternoon in the midst of a typical fall in Tokyo's Nerima Ward. With the arrival of cooler temperatures, shorts and t-shirts were put away for the year while long sleeves and pants made their comeback. Even in areas where trees were scarce, leaves of colors ranging from bright yellow to dark red were carried along the roads by a brisk wind that blew on this day.

Meandering down one of those roads, hunched over and holding his abdomen, was Ranma Saotome. Not unlike most others, his long-sleeved shirts were his attire of preference these days.

A growl emanated from within his stomach, and Ranma whimpered.

"Damn you, Pop!"

So out of it was Ranma that he took little notice of the sights and sounds of everything going on around him, and that included the ringing of a bicycle approaching from behind.

"Someone…anyone…gimme something to eat. I'm begging y-…agh!"

He was struck by the bike. Bending over backwards onto its handlebars, he groaned from the sudden ache in his lower back.

"Nihao, Ranma!" came the chirp of a familiar voice.

Between the tufts of long, violet hair that hung from above, the tips of which tickled his cheeks, Ranma saw the cheery face of Shampoo beaming down at him.

Of course it was her, Ranma thought. Who else would run into him with their bicycle? Normally he would raise a stink about the whole thing, but right now, in his current state, he just didn't have the energy for it. He didn't have the energy to do much of anything, for that matter, except lay there atop the handlebars with his jaw hanging open and stare up at his fiancée, her pink-and-white, long-sleeved blouse providing a nice contrast against the mostly-blue sky above.

Shampoo blinked. Looking upon Ranma with curious eyes, she poked him in the cheek. There was no response. She put a finger in each corner of his mouth, stretching his face in comedic fashion. Still nothing. She removed her fingers and pinched the boy's nose instead. The tone of the constant groan he was emitting changed somewhat, but that was all.

With all else having failed, Shampoo placed a finger beneath Ranma's chin to close his mouth, leaned down, and planted a soft kiss upon his lips.

Ranma's eyes shot open. The gesture finally putting a start in him, he jolted up off the bike and whirled around, blushing furiously.

"H-hey!" Ranma surveyed the area frantically to check if anyone saw what just transpired. There were at least a couple pairs of eyes staring his way. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Ranma leave self open!" Shampoo giggled with glee. "Why you walk around like zombie?"

There was a twitch in Ranma's eye as he recalled the source of his grief. " 'Cause I woke up late today and Pop ate my share of breakfast! I haven't eaten a thing all day," he replied, no shortage of bitterness in his voice. "Why are you out here anyway? Shouldn't you be working?"

Shampoo shook her head. "Great-grandmother send Shampoo on special mission."

"Mission?"

Reaching into her pants pocket, Shampoo produced a folded-up flyer. "She hear customer talk about this one, so want know what is all about."

His interest piqued, Ranma snatched the flyer from her and opened it up. "Isachi Restaurant…come take part in our game…if you last until the end, our limited fall delicacy is yours."

Ranma lifted his eyebrows. "Hey, I remember this. Some guys from my class were talking about it a few days ago." Taking a gander at the address on the flyer, he faced off to his west. "Should be…over that way, by that park with the big pond, right?"

The pigtailed boy felt a weight upon his head as Shampoo, standing atop her bike, rested her arms on his hair and hung down in front of his face.

"Ranma want come?"

Even with her being upside-down, the excitement in Shampoo's expression was hard to miss.

Ranma looked at the flyer again, mulling it over. "What's this 'fall delicacy' they're talking about?"

"It no say. But if have to play game for it, must be delicious, yes?"

As if reacting to the word "delicious" coming from Shampoo's mouth, Ranma's stomach growled yet again, this time even louder than before. He met the girl's eyes with a look of determination. "I'm in. Let's do this."

Shampoo immediately lit up with joy. "Aiya! Shampoo worried this be boring, but now it be fun! Ranma want ride on bike?"

"No thanks." Ranma folded his arms in response. "I'm not so weak that I can't get there on my own."

Shampoo stuck her tongue out at him playfully. "Stick-in-mud."


After roughly a 20-minute trek—one person pedaling slowly on their bike to allow the one on foot to keep pace—Ranma and Shampoo arrived at Isachi Restaurant. The crowd of nearly 80 people gathered outside the compact building made it impossible to miss.

"There so many!" Shampoo marveled at the scene.

"Yeah, they're gonna have a lot of mouths to feed if this game isn't hard," Ranma said.

Feeling a pat on his shoulder, Ranma noticed Shampoo pointing to a bicycle parking area further down the road.

"Shampoo go put bike there for later."

While Shampoo took her momentary leave, Ranma scanned around the rest of the crowd. There were people of all ages mixed in there, from children to the elderly, and a fair balance of boys and girls as well. Most notably, Ranma spotted the very classmates of his that he'd first heard talking about this event.

"Ranma darling?"

Ranma felt a shiver run up his spine. Swallowing hard, he looked back over his shoulder where he saw the face of the younger Kuno sibling brighten. "Kodachi?!"

"It is you!" Kodachi clasped her hands together, both nearly hidden beneath the long sleeves of her black sweater. "My, what a wonderful surprise! What brings you here on this lovely fall day?"

"Food," Ranma replied flatly, taking a reflexive step back from the girl. "Wha-"

"What Kuno girl doing here?" Shampoo finished Ranma's question for him. Returning from her short venture, she had her hands placed firmly on her hips and a glare fixated on the rhythmic gymnast.

Kodachi's expression contorted with disgust as she laid eyes upon her rival. "You? I should be asking you the very same."

"Shampoo come with Ranma."

"Oh, I doubt that."

Not wanting a fight to break out before he could get his hands on the grub he so desired, Ranma cleared his throat to grab the girls' attention. "Uh, actually, I did come with her," he said, gesturing towards Shampoo.

Kodachi recoiled. "What?!" She quickly shook it off. "I…I see. Well, I appreciate you escorting my darling here for me, but as I shall be taking over, your presence is no longer needed. Feel free to leave at any time."

"You is one we no need," the other girl insisted. "Shampoo ask before what you doing here."

Heaving a sigh, Kodachi resigned herself to offering the bothersome answer. "If you must know, Isachi Restaurant has been catering meals for the Kuno estate for many years now," she explained. "Naturally, the news of a limited delicacy roused my interest, but they insisted I would have to play their silly game for it. Even slapping them with a wad of bills failed to change their minds. It is absurd!"

Kodachi shuffled over to Ranma and rubbed her head against his arm, causing goosebumps to grow along his skin. "At least now I shall be able to enjoy myself."

The knuckles cracked in Shampoo's right fist, and Ranma felt an intense battle aura coming off of her.

Just when he sensed things were about to break down, something coming up the hill towards the restaurant caught Ranma's eye. "Hey, look…"

Following their love interest's line of sight, both Shampoo and Kodachi spotted a weary traveler approaching, his eyes darting back and forth as if in search of something as the fallen leaves crunched beneath his feet. It was none other than Ryoga Hibiki.

"Ryoga? What he looking for?" Shampoo watched the boy from afar.

"With any luck, a bathhouse," Kodachi quipped. "He looks filthy."

Ranma had to admit, Ryoga did look more unkempt than usual. Dirt was visible all over his face and clothes, and his hair was especially disheveled. Just how long had this latest journey of his been?

While Ryoga continued to scour the area, he soon met the eyes of someone who was looking his way. "Ranma?" Noticing Shampoo and Kodachi nearby, his demeanor soured.

Ranma gave his rival a halfhearted wave. "Yo."

"Don't 'yo' me! What's going on here?"

"Food."

"Food?" Ryoga batted his eyes. "Where's Akane?"

"Beats me. Probably still at her friend's place." Ranma shrugged. "She said she was gonna help her study today."

Ryoga paused, contemplating the situation. "So she'll be back home later then. That's fine. I was just on my way to the Tendo Dojo to bring her a gift all the way from Hokkaido."

Ranma appeared unimpressed by the boy's intent. "Oh yeah?"

"That's right." Ryoga shot him a smug look. "Just don't get jealous when Akane ends up appreciating me for actually being thoughtful, unlike some other jerk I…know…"

Hearing a peculiar noise behind him, Ryoga peeked back to see Shampoo rummaging through his backpack.

"Hey! What are you doing with my stuff?"

"Shampoo want see present."

Ryoga jerked the backpack away from her, but not before Shampoo took possession of a moderately-sized box wrapped in cloth. "This look like it."

"Give it back!" Ryoga lunged for the box only for Shampoo to spin out of the way, leaving him to crash to the pavement below.

Shampoo quickly undid the cloth and opened up the container. Its contents made her raise an eyebrow.

"What is it?" Ranma asked curiously.

His fiancée held a hand over her mouth as she turned his way. "Is bad pears."

She tilted the box down so Ranma could see. Inside were several pears, their skin dark brown and wrinkled.

Kodachi, taking a look for herself, had to avert her eyes. "Eww! Disgusting!"

"What?!" Ryoga sprung to his feet, snatching the box from Shampoo. "This can't be! It's only been…!"

While Ryoga tried to figure out in his head how long he'd been gone, Ranma nodded in understanding of the situation. "Yup. Figures."

"You shut up!" Ryoga snarled. "Damn it all, I can't give her these."

"Of course no can!" Shampoo promptly grabbed the box and chucked it off into the distance, shoving a finger into Ryoga's face. "You need do better! If you give Akane that, you ruin everything!"

Ryoga staggered back, unable to bear the criticism. "I-I didn't know they were rotten, okay?" He turned to Ranma. "Back me up here!"

"You're asking me? Seriously?" Ranma offered an incredulous stare. "Look, forget the stupid pears. Why don't you just do this game with us and give her your share of the prize instead?"

"Huh? Game?"

At that moment, an old man's voice came blaring from a megaphone. "Welcome, everyone!"

All eyes turned to the restaurant's entrance, where a short, elderly man in an apron jumped up onto a stack of crates to a round of applause. A bandana hiding most of his grey hair, he flashed a wide grin below his mustache.

"Pretty spry for his age," Ranma complimented the feat. The man had to be pushing 70, he figured.

"What a group we got here!" the old man exclaimed. "For those here for the first time, I'm Isamu!"

An older woman, even shorter than Isamu, hopped up next to him now. The curls of her hair stuck out from beneath her own bandana.

"That one also no bad," Shampoo said. "She no can beat Great-grandmother, but no is bad."

The woman grabbed the megaphone from Isamu. "And I'm his wife, Sachiko!"

Squeezing together, the two of them spoke in unison. "Together, we are Isachi! Welcome to our restaurant!"

The gathered crowd clapped for the energetic pair.

"Well, fall is our favorite season, so we wanted to do something special for it this year," Isamu said. "That's why we invited all of you to play a game with us today. Would you like to know what you'll be playing?"

"Yeah!" some of the crowd responded.

"Really?" Isamu asked again.

This time came more of a response. "Yeah!"

"Really really?" Isamu persisted.

Her patience at an end, Kodachi grit her teeth. "Oh, just say it already!"

Isamu had to laugh at the outburst. "Very spirited, as always, Miss Kuno! Don't worry, it's a very simple game. I'm sure everyone knows it. In fact, most have probably played it. Today, we play a game of…follow the leader!"

Surprised reactions spread throughout the crowd, but Ryoga was merely confused by the announcement. "A kid's game?"

"It sound fun!" Shampoo said, earning herself a roll of the eyes from Kodachi.

"At least it's easy," Ranma added. "I just want something to eat already."

Up on the crates, Sachiko took possession of the megaphone. "Ah, but you know…Isamu and I always do everything together. So this game of follow the leader will be played…in pairs! Everyone, choose your partner!"

Shampoo didn't need to be told twice. At first mention of the stipulation, she whirled around to face the object of her affections. "Ranm-!"

Before the girl could finish, Kodachi swooped in and bumped Shampoo out of the way, pressing herself up against Ranma's chest—much to his discomfort. "Ranma darling, this is our chance! Let us show everyone how perfect of a match we are!"

Ranma, searching for any way out he could find, spotted Shampoo off to his side, her face so red she looked like she was about to blow. Prying Kodachi off of him, he hurriedly grabbed the other girl by the hand. "A-actually, I already promised Shampoo I'd pair up with her! See ya!"

He pulled Shampoo along with him to put some distance between them and Kodachi, and Shampoo, her hostility eradicated in an instant, allowed herself to be led away.

"Ahh! Ranma darling, how could you?" Kodachi, pouting, bit down on her thumbnail out of frustration. In search of her next move, she found herself face-to-face with Ryoga. "Who are you again?"

The martial artist narrowed his eyes at her. "Ryoga Hibiki."

Kodachi looked him up and down, sizing him up. With a disappointed shrug, she turned away. "You shall have to do."

"As what?" Ryoga grumbled.

Elsewhere, once Ranma was far enough away from Kodachi for his liking, he let go of Shampoo's hand. "Man, that was close." He couldn't help but notice a sparkle in the eyes of the girl he brought with him. "Wh-what?"

"Ranma choose Shampoo!"

"Well...yeah. I'm not choosing Kodachi or Ryoga, I'll tell you that right now."

After giving everyone a minute to find their partners, Isamu spoke again. "All right, everyone, the rules are simple: Sachiko and I are the leaders. We will perform actions, and you and your partner must follow us and perform them as well. If you succeed in following us to the end, we will make you a sizeable helping of our limited fall delicacy."

He gestured towards five men and women wearing the uniforms of Isachi Restaurant.

"Our staff will be on watch to make sure every team is following us properly. If you do not, you will be disqualified. That's all! Good luck!"

With that, the staff dispersed to hand out numbers to teams. One of them made their way over to Ranma and Shampoo, giving them a pair of large stickers with the number '8' on them. "Stick these on each other's backs, please."

The two of them did just that.

"Let's win us some food," Ranma said, pressing a sticker to the back of Shampoo's blouse.

"Shampoo do best for Ranma!" His partner pumped her fist. "And for Great-grandmother!"

Not far from them, Ryoga, sighing audibly, stuck the number '14' to the back of Kodachi.

"And what is wrong with you now?" Kodachi asked, hearing the expression of discontent. "Besides the obvious, that is."

"I'd rather be doing this with Akane, that's what," Ryoga muttered.

"Excuse me?" Kodachi eyed him sharply. "I shall have you know that I am far better an asset than Akane Tendo!"

"In what way?!"

"All of them!"

In the end, there were 38 teams assembled for the game. Once everyone appeared ready, Isamu and Sachiko jumped down from the stack of crates and walked to the far end of the crowd.

"Okay, everyone!" Isamu got the group's attention. "Stand beside your partner and face down this road!"

The teams all faced the same way, the elderly restaurant duo at the head of the pack.

"Now, link arms with your partner!"

Isamu started things off by sticking his elbow out, and Sachiko, in turn, wrapped her own arm around it.

While peering around at some of the other pairs following the order, Ranma noticed an expectant look being directed his way from Shampoo. "Oh. The old guy went first, so I gotta do it too, huh?"

Shampoo gave him an affirming nod.

Ranma offered his arm, and Shampoo, gladly accepting it, leaned up against him, nuzzling her head against his shoulder.

"Hey, they're not doing that, y'know."

"He only say link arm. No matter what else Shampoo do."

Positioned off behind them, Kodachi clenched her teeth at the sight of Shampoo snuggling up to Ranma. "How dare she!"

Ryoga could only groan as he tried to keep Kodachi from ripping his arm off.

"We'll start out easy to get everyone warmed up," Isamu announced. "First, follow us down the road while hopping on your left foot. And don't let go of your partner!"

The task was more difficult for some than others. In the case of Ranma and Shampoo, the superior balance they'd acquired over the course of their martial arts training made it mere child's play.

"I feel goofy doing this," Ranma complained, hopping his way down the road alongside Shampoo. At least he didn't feel quite so embarrassed with so many others doing the same thing.

"Just remember prize," his partner reminded him.

It wasn't long before Isamu changed things up. "Now hop on your right foot!"

The result was largely the same, though being attached to another individual while hopping made things more complicated than many expected.

"Now hop on both feet!"

Those who had been struggling with their balance were thankful for that latest command.

"And stop!" Isamu shouted, the teams drawing to an abrupt halt behind him. "Partners, unlink your arms and face each other!"

Ryoga and Kodachi were the first to come apart, more than happy for that to be over with. Shampoo, on the other hand, had been enjoying herself, so she couldn't help but wish it had gone on a little longer.

"Sachiko and I like to play Rock-Paper-Scissors to help decide certain things," Isamu said, "so let's play a game of it right now! Go!"

Reaching back with their fists, Isamu threw out scissors while Sachiko used rock.

"I won!" Sachiko cheered, raising her winning choice up over her head.

Standing amongst the other teams, Shampoo had an eager look about her. "Shampoo going win!"

"Whoa, you're really into this, huh?" Ranma poked fun at her.

The two of them readied themselves and went for it. Shampoo used rock. Ranma chose paper.

"I win," Ranma gloated, holding up his palm.

Shampoo lowered her head and stared down at her fist dejectedly, trying to figure out where she went wrong.

Once everyone was done, Sachiko took hold of the megaphone. "Okay! Winners, pinch the loser's cheeks!" She was the first to clamp down on her husband's cheeks and stretch them, smiling all the while.

Ranma wiggled his fingers around, wearing a mischievous smirk on his face as he stepped closer to Shampoo. "You ready?"

Planting her feet, Shampoo furrowed her brow. "Shampoo no run!"

Ranma reached out and grabbed the girl by her cheeks, stretching them until she let out a light whine. That was enough for him. Even after he let go, however, the glare in Shampoo's eyes made it clear she was still stewing over her loss.

Meanwhile, another victor refused to let go as Kodachi had Ryoga's cheeks stretched as wide as she could, unconcerned about the boy's obvious agony.

"Now, round two!" Sachiko declared. "Go!"

Between the elderly pair, Isamu won this time around.

Shampoo, with an intense look about her, had her rematch with Ranma. She used rock. Ranma used paper. It was the exact same result as the first time.

"I knew you'd go rock again!" Ranma pointed and laughed. "Man, I'm good!"

Shampoo puffed her cheeks out, simmering over yet another defeat.

Out ahead of the teams, Isamu reclaimed his megaphone. "I won! Now, losers, give the winners a shoulder rub!"

That was music to Ranma's ears. With a smug grin, he showed Shampoo his back. "Well?"

Biting down on her bottom lip, Shampoo approached Ranma, placed her hands on his shoulders, and squeezed with all of her strength.

Ranma cried out in pain as Shampoo worked on him, grinding her hands against his muscles. "Oww, ow, ow! They said to rub my shoulders, not crush them!"

Nearby, Kodachi glanced behind her, where Ryoga had the unenviable task of giving her a shoulder rub. "You are moving your hands too slow! And be more firm about it! Honestly, have you never done this sort of thing before?"

Ryoga accepted the criticism begrudgingly and continued on. "I'm starting to think this isn't worth it."

After Isamu had gotten his fill of Sachiko's shoulder rub, he spoke into the megaphone again. "All right, this is the third and final round! Go!"

Throwing out a surprise scissors play, Sachiko won the rubber match over Isamu.

As much as Shampoo loved Ranma's sense of confidence in general, the competitive drive in her wanted to take him down a notch right now. Ranma got her last time because she played the same hand. This time she was going to change it up.

Shampoo used scissors. But Ranma, thinking along the same lines, used rock. Completing the sweep, he held his fist up in victory.

"Why you change now?!" Shampoo roared.

"You really thought I'd go with the same thing three times in a row?" Ranma teased her.

Sachiko took the megaphone back from Isamu. "The last punishment! Losers, face away from the winners!"

Isamu turned his back to her, and the others who lost their matches did likewise with their own partners.

"Now," Sachiko spoke, "winners, tickle them to your heart's content!"

Amidst the laughter that rose up from the crowd, including that of Isamu, Shampoo peeked back nervously at Ranma, whose fingers danced around devilishly on his raised hands.

"Well? What are you gonna do?" Ranma asked her.

Steeling her resolve, the girl faced away from him defiantly. "Shampoo say no run!"

Ranma walked up to her from behind with a wicked smile. "You got guts, I'll give you that!"

He touched his fingertips to her sides, and the tickling ensued. Under the weight of Ranma's merciless assault, Shampoo laughed uncontrollably. Tears forming in her eyes, her legs gave out on her and she dropped to her knees. Only at that point did Ranma relent.

"Maybe in a hundred years you can challenge me again," Ranma said jokingly.

Panting, Shampoo looked up at him from below, her cheeks flushed from her bout of laughter. "Shampoo no forget this!"

Ranma was about to say something, but the sight of Shampoo on her knees, red-faced and breathing heavily like that derailed his train of thought. He quickly averted his eyes. "That look is…kinda…"

As the punishments went on, one girl's laughter stood out in the background. Kodachi was down on her knees, the same as Shampoo.

"Not so high and mighty now, are you?" Ryoga taunted her.

Kodachi, teary-eyed and seething, refused to look him in the face. "I shall never forgive you for this indignity!"

After Isamu recovered from his own tickling, he took hold of the megaphone again. "Ouch! I laughed so hard it hurt. Now, everyone link arms with your partner again."

The teams all linked up, including Ranma's, but a glance to his side let him know that his partner was still pouting.

"Come on, it's just some stupid Rock-Paper-Scissors."

"No care. Shampoo still mad."

With all of the pairs connected, Isamu was ready to move the game along. "All right, next we're going to jog to the top of this hill," he announced, pointing to the incline in the road ahead of he and Sachiko. "But I guess that wouldn't be very exciting, would it? So, we're going to do it backwards!"

Keeping their arms linked, the elderly duo repositioned to face the opposite way. The rest of the teams followed suit. With the change in direction, Ranma and Shampoo now saw Ryoga and Kodachi out in front of them.

"Everyone ready?" Isamu called out. "Go!"

Right from the start, Ryoga jogged forward while Kodachi jogged backward. Their arms jerking on one another, Kodachi fell flat on her face while Ryoga crashed to his back.

The incident perked up Shampoo, who couldn't help but snicker at the unfortunate pair while she jogged alongside Ranma.

"H-hey, I'm trying not to laugh here." Ranma chortled, failing to suppress his own amusement.

Slapping her palms against the road, Kodachi pushed herself up. She fixed a fiery glare on her partner. "Are you trying to sabotage me?! Why would you go that way?!"

Ryoga had no reply other than to mutter something incomprehensible back at her.

Before long, a member of the restaurant's staff walked over to the fallen duo. "Are you giving up?"

"No!" Kodachi shouted in response, driving the sole of her shoe into Ryoga's sturdy side. "Get up before they disqualify us!"

In time, all of the teams, including Ryoga and his irritated teammate, made it to the top of the hill safely.

As Ranma looked around, he realized they were right at the entrance to the park with that pond he remembered. He could plainly see the water not far from where he stood, its surface littered with leaves from the numerous trees around the park. The path to the pond was covered in them as well; no amount of tidying the grounds was going to keep the wind from doing what it felt like.

"That was some good exercise!" Isamu exclaimed into the megaphone. "Speaking of exercise, Sachiko and I took some tango lessons recently. It was a workout, but also a great time. In fact, it was so great that I think we should all do a little dance with our partners!"

Expressions of surprise rose up amongst the crowd.

For Shampoo, any lingering annoyance over the Rock-Paper-Scissors results faded in a hurry. "Shampoo get dance with Ranma?"

Folding his arms over his chest, Ranma let out a snort. "Dancing? Really? I'm a martial artist, not a dancer."

"Just try! Maybe Ranma like."

"Yeah, we'll see about that."

Elsewhere, Kodachi shot Ryoga a pointed look. "Have you ever danced in your life?"

Ryoga could only look away.

"I knew it!" Kodachi fussed.

Some of the all-male pairs were rather vocal about not wanting to dance with their partner. A reminder from the staff that they would be disqualified if they didn't do so put an end to it, though, as none of those teams were willing to walk away over the matter.

"Each team choose which one of you will lead and which will follow," Isamu instructed everyone. "And don't worry about getting it exactly right! Just give it a go and have some fun with it."

There was some disagreement here and there within the teams, but all of them eventually settled on their roles.

"Okay! First, the positions," the old man continued. "Followers, hold your right hand out and to your side and place your left hand on the back of the leader's right shoulder. Leaders, grab your partner's right hand with your left and put your right hand against their back."

The elderly pair were the first to enter the proper stance, demonstrating for the others how to do it. After that, the rest of the teams mimicked them.

Ranma, designated the leader by his insistent partner, got into position as well, bringing he and Shampoo not so close that they were pressed up against each other, but close enough that Ranma could smell the light fragrance of Shampoo's perfume. Seeing that cheerful smile on the girl's face up-close, Ranma was having trouble maintaining his focus.

"Now, the steps," Isamu spoke, trying his best to do the moves while talking into his megaphone. He and Sachiko started it off. "It's really simple! Leaders, first bring your left foot forward, then your right foot forward. Bring your left foot forward again, faster this time, and now take your right foot off to the side. After that, just drag your left foot over, but keep some distance between your feet."

The two of them pivoted around, performing the motions again in another direction.

"Followers, you do the opposite. Right foot backward, left foot backward, right foot backward, left foot to the side, and drag your right foot. Go for it!"

While the teams spaced themselves out to allow for some extra room, Ranma looked to Shampoo. "You, uh, get all that?"

"Shampoo get!" She gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up before returning her hand to his shoulder. "Ranma start."

Readying himself, Ranma moved his feet, and Shampoo moved along with him.

"Let's see…left foot forward, right foot forward…"

He sped up the next steps.

"…left foot forward, right foot to the side, and…drag."

Ranma dragged his left foot and Shampoo her right to mirror him, successfully completing their first round of the tango.

"We do more!" Shampoo requested.

They turned to face a different direction and started from the top.

"Left, right…left, right, drag."

After the second try, Ranma's demeanor relaxed. "Hey, this isn't so tough."

"If so easy, try go faster," Shampoo teased him.

"Oh, you think I can't do it without saying the moves, huh?" Ranma took it as a personal challenge. "Just make sure you keep up."

The pair of martial artists carried on with the dance. Ranma didn't need to recite the steps any longer, and Shampoo kept up with him just fine. They moved so smoothly and with such agility that the eyes of many of the other competitors who were taking things slowly were drawn to them.

Despite the cooler temperatures, Ranma and Shampoo were actually building up some perspiration from the amount of energy they were putting into it.

"This most fun Shampoo have in so long!"

"I'd be having more fun if my stomach wasn't empty, but yeah, it's not as bad as I was expecting."

"We go dance again another time?" Shampoo's tone was hopeful.

Faced with the girl's pleading look, Ranma struggled to spit out an answer. "Err…I, uh…"

"Owww!"

A sudden shriek of pain brought everyone's attention to Kodachi Kuno, who was down on one knee, grabbing her foot.

"S-sorry! I thought we were going the other way!" Ryoga apologized.

Her nose crinkling, Kodachi rose up and slammed her heel down onto Ryoga's right foot. "Watch where you are stepping, you buffoon!"

Ryoga, holding in the ensuing cry of discomfort, hopped around on his other foot to get himself through it.

"Well done, everyone!" Isamu complimented the teams. He pointed off to his side, towards the big pond in the middle of the park. "I know it's not the best season for it, but I'd like to go see the water before winter comes. So let's all go take a look, shall we?"

Eyeing the pond again, Ranma spotted a line of rowboats on the near side of the water that he hadn't noticed before. "I can take one guess what we're going over there for."

"Now, how should we get there? I wonder…" Isamu turned to his wife. "Any ideas, Sachiko?"

Sachiko took the megaphone from him. Feigning some pondering over the question, she finally answered. "Leapfrog!"

Isamu took the megaphone back. "Leapfrog?!" He chuckled. "Leapfrog it is!"

Just as the teams were wondering whether the game's leaders were being serious or not, Sachiko lowered herself down into the grass and fallen leaves covering the park grounds, getting into the stance of a frog. Isamu took up a position behind her.

"Everyone should know how to play leapfrog," the old man spoke, "but in case you don't, one of you will get down like a frog while the other stands behind them. Whoever is standing, place your hands against your partner's back and leap over them!"

Isamu did just as he said, placing his hands against Sachiko's back and hopping over her. It was his turn to squat down into the grass now, giving the megaphone to Sachiko.

"And now switch roles!" Sachiko instructed everyone. She placed her hands against Isamu's back and leaped over him before crouching down again. "Keep going until you reach the water!"

Unlike the tango, there wasn't anything even remotely complex to be learned here. The numerous teams followed behind Isamu and Sachiko, creating quite the sight for bystanders as they all leapfrogged their way across the park.

"Ribbit, ribbit!" Shampoo croaked jokingly, hopping over top of Ranma.

The pigtailed boy just shook his head. "I'm glad you're having fun with this, at least."

Behind them, Kodachi couldn't have appeared less thrilled as Ryoga leapfrogged her. "What are we? Children?"

"Stop complaining and just do it," Ryoga chided her.

The distance from the entrance to the pond wasn't much, and within minutes the teams all arrived at their destination.

"Good job, good job!" Isamu commended them. "Well, now that we're here, I'm sure you've all noticed these rowboats at the edge of the water. Sachiko and I love to ride in the boat together, so that's what we're going to do! And you'll be following us, of course."

Shampoo piqued an eyebrow over the idea. "Sound simple compare to other ones."

"Don't jinx it," Ranma told her.

Before he and Sachiko entered their boat, Isamu turned his attention back to the crowd. "Now that I think about it, we have about twice as many teams as we have boats. So, if your team's combined age is between…40 and 120, you get a free pass! Please walk around the pond to the other side. Everyone else, into the boats!"

The teams that were filtered out, all showing some degree of either relief or disappointment, headed for the opposite side of the pond. What remained were exactly 15 teams made up of students of varying education levels, along with one elderly team guiding them.

"Lucky us," Ranma muttered.

He and Shampoo climbed into their boat, and they, along with the others, followed the leading team's vessel out across the water.

While Ranma did the rowing, Shampoo found it difficult to contain her joy over the situation. "Aiyaa, is so romantic!"

"Is it?" Ranma asked dryly, not quite seeing it the same way.

About halfway across the pond, Isamu abruptly stopped rowing and grabbed his megaphone. "Everyone, stop!"

The boaters all turned their focus to the head of the group.

"You know, people tell Sachiko and I how alike we are all the time," Isamu said to them. "Because of that, sometimes we like to see how well we can mimic each other. Sounds like a fun thing to do out here on the pond, don't you think?"

Off in another boat, Ryoga cocked his head to the side. "Mimic? What do they mean by that?"

"Whoever lost the last game of Rock-Paper-Scissors in your team, you get to pose," Isamu instructed the others. "Whoever won the last game, you have to mirror them. Make sure you do…at least five poses! And try not to fall in the water! It's cold this time of year."

Shampoo, her misfortune from the Rock-Paper-Scissors event playing into her favor, had a certain gleam in her eye. "Ranma think can follow Shampoo?"

"You think I can't?" Ranma smirked. "Bring it on."

Every other team remained seated over their fear of falling into the water, but standing was the first move Shampoo made, and her partner did the same.

The girl put her clenched hands up by her ears, mimicking a cat's pose. Ranma didn't like the things that pose reminded him of, but he did it nonetheless.

Shampoo held her arms out at her sides. So did Ranma. She raised her arms up over her head and lifted her right knee so that she was balancing on one foot. Ranma did the same, only with his left knee to mirror her.

Stretching her right leg out, Shampoo raised it high above her head, gripping the underside of her shoe with her right hand. It was a serious test of balance, especially on the drifting boat, but Ranma was game, matching Shampoo's feat of flexibility with his opposite side.

Shampoo, keeping her leg elevated, leaned forward and clasped her hands behind her back, sticking her head out in front of her. Ranma, not giving in, did so as well.

Their faces were right next to each other in the cramped boat, and Shampoo, smiling brightly, rubbed her nose against Ranma's. Taken aback by the move, Ranma lost his footing and fell over backwards, grasping the rim of the boat for dear life as he nearly went overboard.

"What the heck was that?" Ranma asked, flustered.

"Is Eskimo kiss." His partner giggled. "Shampoo win!"

"That's cheating!"

Shampoo flashed him a V sign with her fingers. A win was a win.

Elsewhere along the pond, Ryoga, holding his own face within the boat, let out a pained groan.

"Did you actually think I hit myself?" Kodachi laughed openly, taking pleasure in mocking him. "How foolish."

Once Isamu and Sachiko were finished copying facial expressions with each other, they and the rest of the teams continued on rowing until they reached the remainder of the competitors waiting on the other side of the pond.

As Ranma soon noticed, the teams that got a free pass weren't the only thing awaiting them. Sitting in the grass were a dozen rectangular, plastic booths. The booths, large enough to fit two people, had doors on each end.

He had to wonder what exactly they were here for.

Isamu, fresh off his rowboat, made his way to the front of the crowd. "All right! This is the finale!" he announced. "First of all, congratulations for making it this far. But, before we get to the last task, we need to do something to prepare for it—something to help build the team chemistry you'll be needing."

The various competitors looked around at one another, unsure where the old man was going with all of this.

"They say that to understand someone, you should put yourself in their shoes," Isamu elaborated. "On that note, Sachiko and I will be right back."

The elderly duo headed for the nearest booth, each entering one side and closing the door behind them. Curious murmurs filled the park grounds. Minutes passed, but still the two of them weren't coming out.

Shampoo kept her eyes locked on the booth, awaiting the next task's reveal with interest. "What they do in there?"

"Beats me, but I wish they'd hurry," Ranma complained, his stomach growling more fiercely than it had all day. "I'm about to starve here."

At last, the doors to the booth swung open. Out came Isamu and Sachiko, and, much to the confusion of the crowd, they looked just the same as before they entered.

"Tadaa!" the two of them shouted together, throwing their hands into the air.

They were met with questioning looks.

"What? You can't tell?" Isamu asked. "We switched clothes! Are you all blind?"

Now everyone was starting to get it.

"How could we tell that?" Kodachi barked at them. "You both wear the same garb!"

"That's not true!" Isamu retorted, gesturing toward his midsection. "Look how tight this is on me!"

"Mine is too baggy now," Sachiko added, giving her waistband a tug.

While everyone squinted to try to see the difference, Isamu moved things along. "In any case, this is your next step. The members of each team will enter these mobile dressing rooms and exchange clothes with each other!"

"WHAT?!" Ryoga and Kodachi exclaimed simultaneously. They weren't alone in their shock as many of the players were left speechless.

Though there were mixed feelings among the teams, Shampoo was firmly on the positive side, the eagerness evident on her face. "Is good idea!"

"No, it's not!" Ranma argued. "Think about my pride here! I don't wanna wear pink!"

If he could just turn into a girl, everything would be fine, he thought. He did have the flask of cold water on him that he always carried around in case a triggering of his curse might be needed, but what if, thinking he was someone different than the Ranma who originally entered the game, they disqualified him? Then he wouldn't be fed. All of this would have been for nothing.

That was unacceptable. The same could be said of quitting. His stomach practically hurt it was so empty right now, and he was this close to earning his prize. If he couldn't give up and he couldn't change into a girl, then…

"I have to do it." Ranma hung his head in defeat.

"Ranma darling!"

Out of nowhere appeared Kodachi, latching herself onto her love interest's arm.

"Hey! Wh-what is it?" Ranma asked, already sensing Shampoo's emotions on the rise beside him.

"You must become my partner for this event!"

"I'll pass, thanks."

"Please!" Kodachi pleaded, pointing to Ryoga. "Do not make me wear that person's grungy rags. Who knows how long it has been since they were properly washed!"

"I wash them all the time," Ryoga informed her. "I'm the one who should be complaining here."

"Silence!" Kodachi snapped at him.

Shampoo, unable to stand by any longer, grabbed onto Ranma's other arm. "Ranma is Shampoo partner!"

"And he should not be!" Kodachi contested. "You have terrible chemistry with him."

"What you say?!"

"You heard me. Even this pig of a man and I have better chemistry than you have with Ranma darling!"

"Don't call me a pig!" Ryoga erupted.

Baring his teeth, Ranma yanked himself free of Kodachi's grip.

The Black Rose looked up at him with bewilderment. "Ranma...darling?"

"Bad chemistry, huh?" Ranma repeated the claim, a hint of annoyance in his voice. "How 'bout we see who's got better chemistry with whatever this last event is? Whoever finishes first wins."

Ryoga directed a threatening glare at his rival. "Is that a challenge?"

"Yeah, it is."

"You're on, Ranma."

Fired up, Ryoga took his leave to prepare himself.

"H-hey! Come back here!" Kodachi followed after her partner.

Shampoo, meanwhile, batted her eyes as she looked upon her fiancée. "Ranma…"

"Sorry. What she was saying just kinda ticked me off," Ranma said, holding his fist out to her. "Let's win this!"

Nodding happily in agreement, Shampoo bumped her own fist against his.

While the two of them waited for one of the dressing rooms to open up, the field of competitors slimmed down as a few of the more stubborn individuals refused to exchange clothes with their partners, resulting in four teams quitting. Why that was enough to push them over the edge despite the dancing event earlier was a mystery to the rest.

After some time, one of the dressing rooms finally became available. Ranma and Shampoo entered on opposite ends.

As Ranma found out, it was a tight fit inside, but there seemed to be enough space to manage. At the very top of the divider between the two rooms was an opening designed to pass clothes through.

Ranma slipped off his shoes, then went about taking off his shirt. While he undressed, he could hear Shampoo humming to herself as she did the same. He only wished he could be as happy about this whole thing as she was. Removing his pants, he hung them and his shirt over the divider.

The articles of clothing were pulled over to Shampoo's side and replaced with the blouse and pink pants the girl had been wearing. Ranma brought them down onto his side, taking a long, hesitant look at the girly attire.

"At least it's not a dress or a skirt, I guess," he muttered.

Just then, he heard Shampoo's voice.

"Here go!"

Ranma felt something land atop his head. Reaching up, he took a soft and silky object into his hand. It was a dark purple pair of panties, and rather seductive ones at that. With all the lace and frills going on, it had to be something from a lingerie shop, he figured.

"What are you giving me these for?" A blush spreading across his cheeks, Ranma tossed the panties back through the hole.

Shampoo grabbed the top of the divider and pulled herself up, looking down at him through the opening. "They say we need give clothes."

"You think I'm gonna wear your panties?!" Ranma asked, exasperated. "Put those back on!"

"But is rule."

"They meant outer clothes only!"

"Ahh, Shampoo not know."

While she understood her mistake, Shampoo was slow to let go of the divider. Ranma standing there in only his undershorts was quite the enjoyable sight, after all.

"Hey!" Ranma snapped at her.

Shampoo couldn't contain her chuckle. "Just like look at airen body," she said, dropping back down at last.

"Seriously…" Ranma grumbled.

Getting into Ranma's outfit was a lot easier for Shampoo than the opposite, and thus she was the first to exit the dressing room.

Ranma was glad that Shampoo's clothes at least had some looseness to them, but they were still tight, especially around his wrists and ankles. Once he finally squeezed into them and put his shoes back on, he stood with his hand on the door, not especially looking forward to opening it.

It was fine, he told himself. He wouldn't be the only one doing this. Plenty of other guys would be embarrassed, too. Just think of the food. The food.

Taking a long breath, Ranma pushed the door open and stepped out.

Shampoo was right there waiting, waving to him in his own attire. Ranma could already hear the snickers coming from nearby as he made his way over to her.

"Ohh, it fit better than Shampoo think," his partner said, studying the image of her clothes on his body.

"Doesn't feel like it." Ranma tried to make himself more comfortable by stretching his limbs some, but with little success. "My stuff's kinda big on you, huh?"

Ranma's shirt looked looser on Shampoo than the pants did, the sleeves so long that they covered her hands entirely.

"Is fine!" Shampoo insisted. Looking giddy as could be, she brought the sleeves to her face and took a deep inhale.

"What're you doing?"

"No can help. It have Ranma scent!"

Over by another of the dressing rooms, Kodachi looked like the world was ready to end as she stood there in Ryoga's worn-out clothes. "This is absolutely no longer worth it."

"That's my line!" Ryoga shouted. Kodachi's sweater had enough elasticity to it that he was able to make it work, but fitting into her pants took some effort. Even now, he could tell his mobility was going to be a problem in them.

Once the dressing rooms were all empty, Isamu spoke into his megaphone again. "Now that everyone has changed, why don't we get used to our new clothes while we walk up to the road here?"

He and Sachiko led the way up a paved path, prompting the others to follow.

"Great, now even more people are gonna see me in this," Ranma complained, trying his best to adjust.

His teammate, on the other hand, couldn't have cared less where they were going as she skipped along beside him. "Shampoo no mind be seen in Ranma clothes."

Once they made it out of the park and up to the road, everyone saw exactly why they were led there. The road, over 50 yards long with an incline leading upward, was set up like an obstacle course. The hill was littered with hurdles, including wooden barrels, stacks of tires, mannequins, and inflatable ball pits, among other things. Bystanders lined the sides of the course, all curious to see the event unfold.

Sachiko grabbed the megaphone from Isamu and pointed towards the hill's summit. "Once you reach the top, the goal is to the right side. And you'll need good teamwork to get there, because one of you will be riding piggyback on your blindfolded partner!"

Amidst the whines and collective disbelief that arose from the teams, Ranma's lips actually curved upward into a small smile. "Blindfolded, huh? Interesting."

Ranma and Shampoo looked over to Ryoga and Kodachi, who returned a glare their way. Things were about to get serious.

The restaurant staff handed out blindfolds to each of the teams. Shampoo slipped the one given to them over Ranma's eyes, tying it for him behind his head.

"Listen, you're my eyes here, so just tell me where I need to go," Ranma instructed her.

Though Ranma couldn't see it, Shampoo raised her hand in an energetic salute. "Can count on Shampoo!"

Not far away, Ryoga growled as Kodachi tightened the blindfold over his face.

"We must win this! Do you understand?"

"Fine! Just quit squeezing that thing! It's tight enough!"

Everyone gathered at the starting line, where Isamu and Sachiko were at the head of the pack. The fact that Isamu could carry his wife on his back at his age was impressive to many, though not all that surprising considering how sprightly the two of them had shown themselves to be throughout the game.

Shampoo was positioned on Ranma's back, her arms wrapped around his shoulders and Ranma holding her legs at his sides. Kodachi was secured similarly upon Ryoga.

"Teams, ready!" Sachiko bellowed.

Shampoo and Kodachi shot a brief glance at each other, nothing friendly about it.

"Get set!"

Ranma and Ryoga bent at the knees, planting their feet firmly on the pavement.

"Go!"

Like a gust of wind, the martial artists blew past the rest of the teams, including the leader, as they started their way up the hill.

"Hey! You're supposed to follow the leader!" Sachiko shouted at them.

Too focused on their own competition to pay any attention to the complaint, the two teams forged onward.

"Right!" Shampoo called out, prompting Ranma to move to the side to avoid a barrel in their path. "Left! Right!"

Ranma whipped past one of the mannequins, followed by a ball pit after dashing to his right again.

"Left!" Kodachi directed her own partner.

Ryoga heard the instruction, but instead moved right. He plowed straight into a stack of tires, knocking it over and nearly taking a spill from the unexpected impact.

"What are you doing?!" Kodachi chided him.

"Moving!" Ryoga griped back at her.

Kodachi wanted to lay into him, but as she quickly realized, there were more important things to worry about. "Right!"

This time Ryoga went to the left, running directly through a wooden roadblock and breaking it in half.

"That's it! I do not care anymore! Just go straight and run into whatever pleases you!"

"What?!"

Meanwhile, Ranma and Shampoo smoothly evaded the obstacles up ahead, passing by a water cooler as they maintained a healthy lead.

"Are we winning?" Ranma asked.

"Yes!" Shampoo told him. "We almost to top of hill! No stop n-agh!"

Shampoo, feeling something grip her by the throat, was yanked back all of a sudden. She grabbed onto Ranma's shoulders to keep from falling off, threatening to pull him down in the process.

"Whoa! What's going on back there?" Ranma's pace slowed as he fought to maintain his balance.

Trying to get herself stabilized again, Shampoo looked back to see that it was a ribbon wound around her throat. The culprit was a sneering Kodachi. She managed to undo the gymnastics tool's grasp, flinging it away as she pulled herself back up against her partner. It was then that she saw the upcoming hazard they were approaching.

"Ranma jump now!"

Ranma didn't know why he was jumping, but jump he did, clearing an inflatable ball pit that may have sent them sprawling to the concrete.

"You keep run," the girl told him. "Shampoo need take care of stupid one, so no let go!"

"Wha-? Hey, don't do anything crazy!" Ranma warned her. "I don't wanna get disqualified!"

Peeking behind her, Shampoo saw Kodachi about to whip that ribbon her way again. She waited patiently, and when the ribbon did come, she caught it. Hooking her legs in front of Ranma, she let go of his shoulders completely, using both hands to keep hold of the ribbon as Kodachi tried to pull it free.

"Let go of that this instant, you thief!" Kodachi barked at her.

Shampoo had her head lowered, her eyes focused downward. She appeared to be doing something with the ribbon from Kodachi's vantage point, but the gymnast couldn't see what exactly it was. When Shampoo finally looked back at her again, Kodachi gave the tool a mighty tug, this time successfully freeing it from her rival's possession.

It wasn't only the ribbon coming back to her, though. Tied to the end of it was the metal flask filled with cold water that Ranma had stashed away in his pocket, and Kodachi, not noticing until it was too late, took the flask right to her forehead. With a loud clank, the container bounced off her cranium and dropped to the ground along with the ribbon. Kodachi, dazed from the blow, collapsed against Ryoga's back.

"What was that sound?" Ryoga asked, wincing as he knocked aside a mannequin with his face. His teammate couldn't offer a reply.

Shampoo got her arms back around Ranma's shoulders just in time to see the top of the hill. The timing couldn't have been better as Ranma was about to run straight into a concrete wall bordering the other side of the intersection.

"Turn right!" Shampoo shouted.

Much to Shampoo's relief, Ranma made the turn before he crashed. The goal was now within her sight.

Behind them, Ryoga, not getting any direction from Kodachi, heard Shampoo's call. "Right, huh? I'm not letting you win, Ranma!"

Coming to the hill's top, Ryoga made a decisive turn to…the left. He ran clear down the road in the opposite direction of the obstacle course, disappearing into the distance with Kodachi still on his back.

"Go far right!"

Ranma darted to his right, dodging a large roadblock in the way. With that, only one obstacle lay in wait.

"Jump high!" Shampoo instructed him.

"Got it!" Ranma exclaimed.

He sprung off the road and into the air, jumping above three double-stacked columns of barrels before coming down cleanly on the other side. It was only a matter of steps later when he passed between two posts held up by the restaurant staff, taking his team through the goal.

"We win!" Shampoo hugged Ranma tightly from behind.

"Seriously?" Ranma put on the brakes, skidding to a stop. Shampoo lifted the blindfold for him, allowing him to see for himself. "Whoa, we did. Take that, Ryoga!"

Shampoo hopped down from her partner's back. Seeing him offer a high five, she ecstatically jumped up to accept. "We make best team!"

"Well, hard to argue it after this," Ranma replied, looking back upon the course with prideful eyes. "And those two really thought they could beat us. Wait…what happened to them, anyway?"


It was nearing sunset as everyone sat in the park where the boat rowing took place earlier, the autumn leaves providing some cushion while more continued to fall from the trees around them. The temperature dropped along with the sun, but most were dressed to appropriately deal with it. The competitors all headed for the dressing rooms upon returning here, using the opportunity to swap back into their original clothes.

Ranma was more thankful than anyone to be back in his own attire. He was also thankful that the restaurant staff decided to forgive he and Shampoo for passing by the leaders on their way to the obstacle course's goal. A sweet aroma in the air had him drooling now, the smell drifting over from a pair of food carts on the road bordering the park where Isamu and Sachiko, along with several staffers, worked on cooking everyone's reward for finishing the game.

"Hope those ones hurry," Shampoo spoke up, seated beside her fellow victor. "Is almost dark. Shampoo need get bike back before go home."

Ranma was stirred from the trance the smell of the meal had him in. "Bike? Oh, right, your bike. I'll walk you there and back home after we're done here, so don't worry 'bout it."

The Amazon girl brought her eyes to him, her brows raised.

"What?"

"Ranma mean that?"

"I mean, you were the one who told me about this whole thing when I was starving. Figure it's the least I could do."

Feeling her heart skip a beat, Shampoo placed her hands over her chest. Ranma was going to walk her home? She couldn't believe it! Still…as happy as that made her feel, something wasn't sitting right with her, and she knew just what it was.

"Ranma need do important thing first."

The pigtailed boy watched as Shampoo put her fist into her opposite palm, a tenacious look about her. "Let me guess, Rock-Paper-Scissors?"

Shampoo nodded emphatically.

Sighing, Ranma prepared himself for their impromptu fourth round. "Fine, but this is the last time."

Reaching back, Shampoo threw out paper this time around. Ranma used scissors.

Shampoo stared daggers at Ranma's hand, unable to believe that she lost yet again.

"You're never gonna win," Ranma told her.

"This no is over!" Shampoo fumed.

Before another match could be demanded, the two of them saw a member of the restaurant staff heading their way, an elevated tray in each hand. "Here you go," he said, setting the trays down before them. "Enjoy!"

A pair of chopsticks and a bowl containing some sort of dark, red-colored sauce sat at the side of each tray, but the main dish was covered by a metal lid.

Ranma couldn't wait any longer. His stomach at its limit, he removed the lid with haste. What sat beneath made both he and his partner bat their eyes.

It was a hefty plate of fried gyoza, steam rising from the heat coming off of it.

"Dumpling?" Shampoo gave the dish a quizzical look.

This was perfectly fine by Ranma. Taking hold of the chopsticks, he swiped two of the gyoza in one motion and stuffed them into his mouth, the heat of their contents be damned. The rush of joy was overwhelming. Crispy on the outside, sweet and delicious on the inside; it was almost enough to make him cry.

He recognized this taste, too. "So good! It's sweet potato gyoza."

Ranma took another of the dumplings, dipping it into the red sauce before eating it. "Hey, this is chili oil," he said with his mouth full, looking rejuvenated as he turned to Shampoo. "Try some! It'll warm you up quick."

Removing the lid from her own plate, Shampoo did as Ranma suggested and tried one of the sauce-dipped gyoza. "Mmm! Is good, but...why only dumpling when they make sound like big deal? Great-grandmother going be disappointed."

While chewing down another helping of gyoza, Ranma couldn't help but notice the scene around he and his partner. Everyone else they'd gone through the game with had smiles etched on their faces, all of them laughing and looking as though they were having a great time as they enjoyed their reward.

"It's probably more about this," Ranma said, pointing out their surroundings.

Shampoo took a look around, and the realization of what Ranma meant started to sink in. "Ah! Is no just about special food. Is for ato-…atomo-…"

"Atmosphere," Ranma finished for her, picking up another gyoza.

The girl furrowed her brow. "Shampoo know word." Leaning over, she snatched the gyoza from Ranma's chopsticks with her mouth.

"Hey, eat your own! I need these!" Ranma griped.

Wearing a satisfied smirk, Shampoo plucked one of the gyoza from her own plate and held it up to the boy's mouth. "Shampoo make even," she told him. " 'Ahhh!' "

Not one to turn down a treat in his hungered state, Ranma accepted the helping, much to Shampoo's delight. Feeding each other was something she always wanted to do with Ranma. Who would have thought her chance would come today?

"Oh yeah, I wonder where Ryoga and Kodachi are," Ranma said, not seeing any sign of them nearby.

Only now did his teammate think to scour the area for the pair. "Shampoo forget about those ones. Where they go?"


Hours later, after the skies grew dark, Ryoga trudged through the rugged mountains with Kodachi riding on his back. They were still dressed in each other's clothes as the hoots and howls of wild animals provided background noise for their unintentional journey.

"It's getting cold out," Ryoga spoke, able to see his own breath as it left his mouth. "Let's just set up camp for the night."

"I refuse!" Kodachi shouted, her forehead still red from the flask striking it earlier. "Take me home this instant, you fool!"

"It's already nighttime. We'll freeze out here!"

"Well you had better hurry then, hadn't you?"

The Kuno girl's attitude wearing on him, Ryoga let out a growl so loud that it echoed throughout the night.

"Where's the way out of here?!"


The End