|Divided I Stand|
|Based on the characters, settings and situations created by Rumiko Takahashi for her Ranma1/2 series of manga. They are here used without permission.|
Ranma Saotome woke with the feeling that someone had stuffed his mouth full of cotton. The sharp smell of a canvas tent did not help the taste any.
"Here, have some water, Ranma," a familiar voice said.
Ranma blinked as he accepted the glass. He was far more accustomed to hearing that voice shout, "Prepare to die!"
"How's your head?"
"Not bad," Ranma said. "What the hell are you doin' here?"
"Just tryin' to help out, Saotome," Ryouga said. "That's what any decent person does during an emergency."
"I know that, you blockhead," Ranma said with mock irritation. "I mean what are you doin' here, playin' nursemaid to me?"
"Well, it's not like I wanted the duty, you know!" Ryouga answered with mock outrage. "It was the only way I could get Akane to go get some rest."
"Yeah, okay, that makes sense. Where am I? Oh, wait! I forgot who I was talkin' to there for a minute."
"Oh, ha-ha, Ranma! You're in a tent."
"Right, so where is this tent, Ryouga?"
"Somewhere in Akane's yard."
"Hey, that ain't half bad for you! Did Akari's farm ride out the storm all right?"
"We got quite bit of rain, a little wind, nothing bad. What's the deal with your curse?"
"I wish I knew for sure. It ain't a cure, if that's what you're thinkin'."
"So what is it, then?"
"To tell ya the truth, I think it's just another curse added onto the first one."
"What makes you say that?"
"How would you like bein' a little black pig, knowin' that you were never, ever gonna be able to change back?"
Ryouga grimaced, then said, "I wouldn't."
"Well that's the shape Ranko is in."
"She's going to need help," Ryouga said. "One time I got stuck as a pig where I couldn't find hot water for three months."
"Yeah, I did. For weeks after I finally changed back, I'd wake up in the middle of the night pushing my face in the ground."
Ranma laughed, then winced.
"Easy on the stitches, Saotome."
"I'll tell the Doc it was all your fault."
"He'll just put 'em back in without painkillers," Ryouga said with feral grin. "They're runnin' short on that stuff, and you're a tough guy, remember?"
"Don't remind me, Ryouga," Ranma said, suddenly looking glum.
"Hey, don't let that nonsense at the clinic yesterday get you down. They had it coming. If they had gotten the chance, they would have cut your throat and laughed while they watched you thrash around on the ground."
"You ever kill anybody, Ryouga?"
"Yeah, but he had it coming," Ryouga said, suddenly looking uncomfortable. "He was trying to kill me."
"You didn't feel bad about it?"
"Sure, I felt bad about it," Ryouga said, "for a couple of days. Then I threw a really big Shishihoukodan and got it out of my system."
Ranma closed his eyes and shook his head in response.
"Was there anything left of the prefecture?"
"Of course, in your case, Saotome," Ryouga said, giving Ranma a nasty grin, "you're gonna hafta wait for those stitches to heal before you can throw a Shishihoukodan. I'm gonna enjoy watchin' you suffer from depression for a change."
"You're an asshole," Ranma said, grinning in spite of himself.
"Yeah, but not quite as big an asshole as you are."
"What would I do without my friends?" Ranma asked in mock despair as he covered his eyes with one hand.
"By the way, what's the deal with this Kumon guy? Did he really kick your ass?"
"Hey! I won in the end."
"Knew one more dirty trick than he did, huh?"
Ranma rolled his eyes then said, "Yeah, I knew a technique he didn't have. That was why we were fightin' in the first place."
"He's a hoot to watch."
"Yeah, how so, P-Chan?"
"Don't call me that!" Ryouga snapped. He recovered from his annoyance quickly and gave Ranma another nasty grin as he said, "Kumon came here to make sure your mom was okay, but now he can't keep his eyes off your girl half."
"Oh, that's great!" Ranma said with a groan. "That's just perfect! He wants to treat my mom like she's his mom and now he wants to treat my girl half like she's his...his...I don't wanna think about it!"
"Hey, there's nothin' like a new problem to take your mind off your depression, Saotome. Take it from somebody who knows."
Ranma shook his head in disgust.
"Hey, look at it this way, Ranma, it's better for her to fall for this Kumon guy than Kuno, right?"
"Like I'd ever fall for Kuno, Porkbuns!"
"Oh, you're just lovin' this, aintcha?"
"Damn right I am. I haven't had a laugh like this in ages. The really funny thing is, I don't think your girl half can make up her mind whether to kill Kumon, or kiss him. Last night he came back to our tent with a bruise on one side of his face and lipstick on the other."
"Kiss him!" Ranma shouted, sounding outraged. "Lipstick?"
"Hey, that was scary, Ranma. You looked almost like old man Tendo there for a second. Think you could do that demon's head thing again?"
"Would you two like some breakfast?" Kasumi asked. Both Ranma and Ryouga looked up in surprise. Neither of them had heard Kasumi approaching the tent. She sounded cheerful, but looked terribly worn.
"Kasumi, you shouldn't be up this early," Ranma said.
"Oh, that's all right," Kasumi said as she handed bowls of food to Ranma and Ryouga. "I couldn't sleep anyway and Akane helped with breakfast this morning."
Ranma and Ryouga both blanched.
"You should have seen her," Kasumi said with a sunny, but wavering smile. "She was so proud of herself. She didn't make a single mistake."
Ryouga sniffed his bowl, gave Ranma a knowing grin, then dug into his food with gusto.
"See you later," Kasumi said as she tottered back towards the house.
Ranma sniffed his bowl. It did not smell toxic. Ryouga was eating the stuff without apparent harm. He decided to give it a taste.
"Hey! This ain't half-bad, given that it was Akane that cooked it," Ranma exclaimed.
"All she had to do was heat it, Saotome," Ryouga said around a mouthful of the stuff that had been in his bowl. "It's an MRE."
"It stands for 'Meal Ready to Eat'. The army guys have been passin' 'em out to everybody," Ryouga said. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then added, "I think this is beef tips and gravy on rice again. Can't be sure."
Ranma shrugged his shoulders and began to eat. The food was too bland, too hot, and too greasy, but filling. And, unlike many of the dishes Akane had cooked in the past, he could recognize the rice for what it was. Maybe, if he got lucky, Akane would actually learn to cook this well. Where there was life, there was hope, even when the life in question was cursed and chaotic.
The army worked until mid-morning to plow open a route through the debris-clogged streets between Furinkan and Tendo-ke. Shortly thereafter, trucks began to arrive at the Tendo domicile. The house was bereft of patients and refugees two hours later. Ranma became very frustrated when no one would let him help, so he went off in search of Tofu Ono. He found Tofu seated outside a tent. He was nursing a fire beneath a brass kettle. The doctors, it seemed, were camping with the school building between themselves and the temporary hospital that had been set up on the soccer field.
"Ya look like hell, Doc," Ranma said in a cheerful voice as he sat down across the fire from Tofu.
Tofu looked up and grinned at his young friend and patient.
"I hope I don't look as bad as I feel," Tofu said. "How are you doing?"
"I'm gettin' better, Doc," Ranma said as he pulled a long face. "The cuts itch a little, but that isn't what bothers me the most. I shoulda been able to avoid that mess, somehow."
"Oh, sure," Tofu said in a skeptical voice. "You could have let them kill you, but I don't think anyone around here would have been happy with that particular tradeoff."
"Whatcha got cookin' in the pot, Doc?"
"Just heating water to make some special tea. It's an old family recipe that makes you sleep for thirty hours or so."
"Man! I was hopin' you'd have somethin' like that! Got any extra?"
"Who would it be for, Ranma?"
"Mom and Kasumi. The army came and took all their patients away, but neither one of 'em will get any rest. They're tryin' to clean the place up now."
Tofu grinned then said, "I suppose I should not be the least bit surprised by that. Here."
Ranma took the small package of leaves that Tofu held out toward him.
"Instructions are written in the wrapper. Be sure you are the one that makes it, and not Akane, Ranma."
"Hey, Doc! I ain't that thick, ya know?"
"Oh, I know, but cautioning people is one of my jobs."
"You gonna be okay, Doc?"
"All I need is a little rest, Ranma, and I am about to get in a long nap."
"Okay, I'll come by and check on ya later. See ya in a day or so, Doc."
"Thanks, Ranma. Tell your mother and Kasumi I said hello."
"I'll do that, Doc."
Everyone at Tendo-ke was busy when he got back. The house and yard were an incredible mess. Akane was helping Kasumi and Nodoka inside the house. Ryouga, Kumon, Ranko and Soun were trying to clean up the yard, if it could still be called a yard. Ranma guessed that it would be at least a year before the grass recovered. Ukyou was in the outdoor kitchen, getting ready to make lunch.
"Asleep," Ukyou said with a giggle. "She picked up a club a little while ago and shouted, 'I am become Akane! Destroyer of Kitchens!' I made her go to bed."
"Oh, boy. Did Akane hear her?"
"Hell, I think half of Nerima heard her. Where were you?"
"I went to see Doc Tofu."
"You okay?" Ukyou asked, suddenly looking concerned.
"I'm fine, but I'm worried about Mom and Kasumi. Doc Tofu gave me this special tea for 'em."
"Bless you, Ranma. You're so sweet to be such a constant jerk."
Ranma could only blink in response.
"Gimme," Ukyou said holding out her hand.
"What?" Ranma asked, now thoroughly confused.
"The tea, ahou."
"Oh," Ranma said as he placed the package in Ukyou's hand.
"I sent Konatsu off to check on the restaurant, so you'll hafta help me serve. Think you're up to it?"
"You kiddin'? I been sittin' around feelin' useless all mornin'."
"You should've said something to me sooner," Ukyou said with an evil grin. "We have about a truckload of dishes to wash and sort out. I think we have a place setting from every house in the neighborhood."
"Hey, no problem. Happy to help," Ranma said, making his way towards the improvised sink. The guys that had built the sheltered cooking area had salvaged a large double-bowl sink made of stainless steel from a wrecked cafe. Ukyou had already filled one side of it with hot soapy water. She had not been kidding about the dishes. Ranma had not realized that dinnerware came in so many different sizes, shapes and colors. They seemed to have enough inventory on hand to open a sizeable depaato of their own.
"Just put 'em in the racks as you finish washing them, Ranma. We'll pour water over 'em later to rinse and then let 'em air dry."
Ranma turned dishwashing into a kind of exercise, of course, a habit long ago drilled into him by his father. It made such work a good deal less boring. An hour later, he broke for lunch with everyone else.
Ranma had been worried about how to get Kasumi and Nodoka to drink the tea Tofu had given him, but Ukyou was a step ahead of him. She used her bubbly personality to charm Nodoka and Kasumi into trying "her new tea recipe".
"Oh, my!" Kasumi exclaimed. "This is very good, Ukyou."
"Indeed, it is," Nodoka added.
Ranma felt a tight band around his chest loosen as he watched the lines of fatigue on Kasumi's and his mother's faces fade. The two of them dropped right off to sleep where they sat. Soun and Ryouga carried them off to the large bed Soun normally slept in on the first floor. Soun gave Ukyou a questioning look once he returned.
"Ran-chan got it from Tofu," Ukyou said in answer to his silent question.
"Ah! Good thinking, Son," Soun said giving Ranma a clap on the shoulder. "I was very worried about those two."
Everyone else began to express his or her approval as well, even Ryouga.
"Way to go, Saotome," Ryouga said, faking a sneer. "I didn't think you had a considerate bone in your body."
"Ah, wadda you know, pork-butt!"
"Sticks and stones!"
"No fighting!" Akane shouted. "We have enough to clean up as it is."
"Yeah, you two," Ranko chimed in. "Cool it!"
Ryuu Kumon simply gave them all an amused snort. It was then that Ranma noticed that Akane was sitting next to him, and that Ranko sitting on the other side of Akane, and that Ryuu Kumon was seated next Ranko. It made him feel jealous. Then he felt foolish for being jealous. He could not say with any certainty what the source of his jealousy was. He was not all that keen on having Ranko sit so close to Akane, but that was silly, and he especially did not like Kumon sitting next to Ranko, but what harm could come from that? Ranko was still just as male between the ears as he was, right? Besides, what better guardian could he ask to have for Akane than Ranko? In the end, he finished his meal in a state of utter confusion.
He had hoped the activity would keep his mind off some of his worries. He was wrong. No matter what else he tried to think about, his mind returned to the emotions he had experience during lunch. I'm jealous of Ranko whenever she gets close to Akane, but it's just as bad when I think about Ranko with a guy. Then too, I really don't like the idea of Akane bein' nice to Ranko, it makes me nervous, or something. What the hell is wrong with me?
"Gonna need some fresh hot water soon, Ucchan," Ranma called over his shoulder.
"Okay, it's almost hot enough."
"Shit, I'm turning into a Kuno," Ranma muttered under his breath as he pulled the plug out of the sink.
"What makes ya say that, Ran-chan?" Ukyou asked. "You're not going to start spouting tanka, are ya?"
"Nah, that's not it," Ranma said in an irritated voice. "Poetry ain't my bag, let alone tanka. I hafta read that stuff at least twice before I can understand it."
"Oh, so it's Akane and Ranko, then!" Ukyou said, grinning gleefully at Ranma's consternation. She struck a Kuno-esque pose and said in melodramatic tones, "I would have them both! Is that it?"
"Oh, well, I've already walked in those shoes, remember? How do they fit?" Ukyou asked, giving her old friend a impish smile.
"You're the only guy I know who could fall in love with himself and be jealous of himself at one and the same time, Ran-chan--'Course, it's no surprise that you're in love with yourself. That's old news."
"Oh, hah-hah!" Ranma said sarcastically. "I thought we were still friends. And what makes you think I'm in love with Ranko?"
"Oh, puh-leaze, Ran-chan! You're the guy that can't play poker, remember?"
"Is it that obvious?"
"To anyone who knows you, yeah! And no one who knows you is the least bit surprised!" Ukyou said, giving him a positively sunny smile. "Akane least of all."
"Oh, man! She'll end up killin' us both."
"Or boffin' ya both at the same time."
"Just tellin' ya like it is, Sugar," Ukyou said sweetly. "What are friends for?"
"How am I gonna get outta this mess?"
"Hey, don't forget about Shampoo. I think she's takin' all of this harder than anybody."
"Oh, man! She ain't gonna start after Ranko, is she?"
"I don't think so," Ukyou said, with a shake of her head. "I overheard Cologne saying something about adopting Ranko as a daughter."
"Oh, man, I hope not! That would make her senior to Shampoo. You know 'bout how well that'll work."
"Well, I might be overestimating the old biddy, but from what I've seen of her, she usually gets her own way, Ran-chan," Ukyou said, as she stepped in close to Ranma and poked him in the chest with her index finger. "You, my dear friend, are one of the few exceptions."
"And I might not be one," Ranma said. "The fat lady ain't sung, yet. Hell, I don't think the fat lady's even in the ballpark."
"No matter where you go, there you are!" Ukyou said cheerfully.
"Yeah, and so here I am! How did I get here again?"
"You don't wanna know."
"Oh, okay, but what am I gonna do now?"
"Just keep floundering until Akane rescues you," Ukyou said as she paused and feigned a relieved sigh. "Makes me glad I'm not her."
"Say, how're things goin' with you and Konatsu, anyway?"
"The truth? He keeps me wrapped around his little finger."
"That guy would move heaven and earth for you, Ucchan."
"I know. That's why I let him wrap me around his little finger."
"Why ain't Akane like that?"
"Because she's engaged to you, ahou."
"Yeah, well, I guess it is a little different."
Ukyou rolled her eyes in response. She walked over to one of the stockpots heating over a field burner and tried to lift it.
"Hang on a second, Ucchan," Ranko said as she quickened her pace towards the ramshackle kitchen. "I'll give you a hand with that."
"Thanks, Ranko-honey," Ucchan said taking one handle of the pot in hand while Ranko took the other. "What are you doing over here? Sunburn bothering you again?"
Ranko rolled her eyes as she helped to lift the pot and said, "Nah, it's Kumon."
"Yeah, I guess I'd get a little overheated if I had a hunk like that staring at me all the time," Ukyou said.
"Hey! Hey! Hey!" Ranma and Ranko chorused.
Ukyou merely gave Ranko a knowing grin in response.
"What's this about you belting Ryuu upside the head last night?" Ranma asked Ranko while water poured into the sink.
"Huh? Oh, that! It wasn't me. He was helpin' some old lady into the compound late last night and her granddaughter gave him a peck on the cheek."
"So who hit him?" Ranma asked.
"The girl's boyfriend. He hit Kumon with a piece of lumber."
Ranma grimaced as he said, "Big mistake."
"Oh, you guessed it. The guy was one of the patients they hauled out of here this morning." Ranko said as she surveyed the overloaded drying racks. "Why don't I rinse some of these off and start dryin' 'em?"
"Sounds like a good idea to me," Ukyou said. "You guys won't mind if I go catch a little nap will ya?"
"Hell, no!" Ranma and Ranko chorused.
"I soaked some towels in fresh water, Ucchan," Ranko said. "They're in a bowl in the bathroom if you want one."
Ukyou stretched and yawned, then said, "Thanks, Ranko. I could use one."
Ranma and Ranko watched her walk back towards the house, then began work on the dishes.
"Man, Ranma! You shoulda seen Nabiki a little while ago."
"You kiddin'? She looked like she had just gone ten rounds with Jet Li."
"Bad case of the blind staggers, huh?"
"Worse! Ukyou had to stop her from breaking every dish in sight."
"So what's up with you and Kumon?"
"Ah, you know how it is," Ranko said, striking a pose that showed off her figure. "He don't wanna look, but he can't help himself--no more than you can."
Ranma quickly looked back down at the sink.
"It's wired into us, I think," Ranko added in a quiet voice. "Bein' male and female."
"I just imagine his curiosity is killing him too," Ranma said.
"Yeah, that's the way I figure it," Ranko said. "Ya gotta admit, this ain't exactly a normal situation."
"We got a real big mess on our hands, Ranko, and I don't know how to straighten it out. I don't even know how to begin."
"We take it one step at a time, is all. Which reminds me, Colonel Abe and his adjutant are comin' over tonight. I know they'll wanna talk to Oji-san, but I'd be surprised if they don't want to talk to you and me, too."
"Who's Colonel Abe?"
"Oh, that's right! You wouldn't know. You were out of it. He's in command of the army guys that saved our ass yesterday. He declared martial law because of the yakuza."
"Martial law? Does that mean that the army's in control of everything?"
"Yeah, and be glad of it, buddy! I think the regular cops wanted to lock you, me, and Oji-san up yesterday."
"Maybe they were right," Ranma said, glumly staring down at the dishwater.
"Don't be an idiot! You fought four guys in mortal combat with swords yesterday, and won. Sergeant Tanaka killed four of 'em outright with a rifle. He shot the first one in the side of the head because he was gonna shoot you, then he shot three others in the back because they were running away."
"You're kiddin' me!"
"No, I ain't!" Ranko said. "You know what's really strange? Tanaka's a real nice guy."
"You mean you talked to him?"
"Yeah, him and the corpsman that patched you up. Both of 'em think you and Oji-san are two of the gutsiest men on earth. So does Colonel Abe, I think. I didn't really get to talk to him."
Ranma began to tremble. He squeezed his eyes shut in an effort to dam the tears that were now burning at the corners of his eyes. Ranko grabbed a folding chair and set it down behind him.
Ranma shook his head no.
"Sit down, Saotome! Now!"
Ranma breathed out a huge sigh as he sat down. Ranko straddled his legs and sat down in his lap. She placed the palms of her hand on either side of Ranma's head and whispered, "Now you listen to me, you blockhead! I can't know what you are going through right now because I wasn't there with you yesterday the way I always have been, and I hate it, Ranma. I would have given anything if I coulda been in there with you, but one thing I do know, you did the only thing you could do at the time. Those guys played their little game and they paid the price for it. It was their fault they died, not yours."
Ranma stared down into Ranko's eyes, barely able to see anything but the deep love she felt for him. It was a love he shared with her because they were, quite literally, part of each other.
"There shoulda been another way!" Ranma said in a hoarse voice.
"There probably was, but have you thought of it yet?"
Ranma silently shook his head.
"Neither have I, and I saw most of the fight. What makes you think you coulda come up with an answer yesterday, when they was slingin' steel all over the place, huh?" Ranko asked. She put her arms around Ranma and gave him a powerful hug, saying, "Ya big dummy!"
Ranma put his arms around Ranko and hugged her back. After a moment, he felt the presence of a third person. He opened his eyes and looked up. It was Akane, and she was crying.