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.
Chapter 06

      Akane was near exhaustion when they brought Ranma into the compound. Finding new places to put the injured had consumed a great deal of her energy because so many them had to be moved back outside of the compound after treatment. When not busy with that, she had found herself smothered by distraught children in dire need of comfort. By the time the two stretcher-bearers arrived with Ranma, she was physically exhausted and had a case of badly frayed nerves for accompaniment. She did not at first realize who lay on the stretcher and fell to pieces at the sight of him. Soun Tendo guided the men to Ranma's tent on the front lawn. Akane could not even remember where she was, let alone find the right tent.

      "Don't worry," a corpsman told Akane. "He's going to be fine. The cuts were nasty, but they will heal okay. He's just a little tranked right now, is all."

      "What happened?" Akane asked in a tiny voice.

      "He got into a sword fight," the corpsman said. "I guess today was the first time he ever had to kill anybody. He was a little shaken, so we popped him with a tranquilizer."

       Akane almost blurted out that this was not the first time Ranma had killed someone, but caught herself in time.

       How on earth do you explain to a normal person, even if he is a soldier, about Safuron? she asked herself. The inability to explain such things worried her. One of these days, that alone is going to cause us some serious trouble.

      "Ranma doesn't fight with weapons!" Akane finally choked out. "How did this happen?"

      "He didn't have a whole lotta choice, Akane," Ranko said in a grim voice. "There was several of 'em and they had Ranma, your dad and Doc Tofu surrounded."

      She and Ranko had stayed in Ranma's tent after the two soldiers transferred him to his futon. The evening shadows had gotten long by then, but the oppressive heat of the day lingered. She and Ranko tried to keep the air in the tent moving with fans until well after dark. Ryouga finally came along and made a nuisance of himself until the two of them agreed to go eat and get some rest. Akane lapsed into a daze after that.

       She woke up in the middle of the night because Ranko was crying, sounding very much like one of the children Akane had spent the day comforting.

      "It's not my fault! Please don't kill me, Mommy!" Ranko cried as she began shivering. "I'll be as manly as I can!"

      All the suspicions Akane had been harboring about Ranko died. This girl was nothing like the previous copy of Ranma who had come from a haunted mirror. This was the real Ranma in female form, deathly afraid of Nodoka.

       No wonder she carries herself with such pride! Akane thought. And no wonder she looks as though she's going to melt every time she looks at Ranma. What other sort of guy would a girl like Ranma be attracted to?

      "Well, congratulations, Nodoka," Akane said softly to the damp night. "Your son is so manly she can barely keep her hands off of himself. I hope you're pleased."

      "Please, Mommy! Please!" Ranko whimpered.

      "It's okay, baby," Akane said in a soft loving voice. She cuddled up to Ranko's back and kissed the girl on the cheek. "Everything is going to be fine."

       Ranko immediately rolled over and began sobbing into Akane's shoulder. Akane sighed and held the girl close. Ranko was cuddly, like the children Akane had been comforting all day.

      So is Ranma when he's having this particular nightmare, Akane thought. Dragons and gods might line up to take turns fighting him, or all of them might jump on him at the same time, and Ranma would scarcely bat an eye, yet one cross look from his mother turns him into a cowering wreck. Akane sighed as she held Ranko a little closer, then went back to sleep.

      Things were rather different when they woke up. Akane and Ranko's positions had shifted during the night to reflect their true feelings for one another. Akane blushed bright red as she glanced around, but there was nothing for her to worry about. Kasumi was the only one awake and she was as oblivious as ever. Akane extricated herself as gently as she could from Ranko's powerful embrace as she got up to see what Kasumi needed help with. Much to Akane's surprise and delight, Kasumi asked her to help with breakfast.

      It was not a very complicated recipe. All she had to do was keep boiling water in the pots and keep track of how long the pre-packaged meals the army had given them had been in the water. Kasumi and Nabiki looked after their distribution. By the time the sun had fully risen, Akane was ready to go lie down again. She did not do that, of course. There were entirely too many diapers to change and too many children in need of comforting for such an indulgence. Ranko proved to be exceptionally good at this particular chore. The children loved her.

      Akane cuddled a colicky newborn while trying to keep a pair of toddlers safely seated in her lap. Two somewhat older children sat down on either side of her and were leaning against her. Ranko was playing with a sizeable pack of the more mobile children out in the yard. She seemed to be having as much fun as the children were.

      Being deeply fatigued by the stress and long hours of physical labor, Akane's mind began to wander, then lapse into a kind of trance. Suddenly, she was seeing an older Ranko playing in the yard with several kids. Two of the children had red hair. Another two had bluish-black hair and two others had dark purplish hair. All of them were about the same age, and all of them had their hair pulled back into a braided queue. They were all exceedingly rambunctious and were having a great time dog-piling Ranko. The children piling up on Ranko was the only thing in Akane's vision that had any part in reality. The rest was her subconscious trying to make her deeper worries known.

      "Aiyah!" Shampoo's ever-cheerful voice cried out. "Girl-type Airen having too, too much fun!"

      Akane shook her head. Purplish hair? Whose kids were the two with dark purplish hair?

      "I'll kill him!" Akane cried out, giving the children around her a start.

      "What wrong with Violent-Girl, now?" Shampoo asked, sounding annoyed as she caught one of the kids trying to climb her leg and picked him up.

      "You okay, Akane?" Ranko called out.

      Akane's mind came back around to the here and now.

      "I'm ... I'm fine," Akane said, her embarrassment evident in her voice. "I...I was just thinking about Happosai leading Ranma off into that storm, that's all. I guess I'm a little tired."

      "Hmph!" Shampoo noised. "Violent-Girl say when. Shampoo help her kill Old Pervert! We roast him over coals, yes?"

      "Hah!" Ranko chortled. "Pass the word around and you won't even hafta gather firewood. The girls' track team would be happy to help out."

      "And most of Amazon Tribe," Shampoo added. "Ones is pregnant not able to help much, but would love to watch."

      Akane managed to smile at Shampoo while suppressing a shudder.

      I wonder if the bimbo has figured out that her girl-type airen is also her greatest competition? Probably not, Akane thought. If she had, she would be chasing Ranko all over town with a pair of bonbori by now.

       As the morning dragged on, Akane tried her utmost to focus all her attention on the children. She wondered who was in greater need of comfort, the children or herself. Just as she finally decided that being a comfort to others was the ideal way to gain comfort for oneself, the JGSDF arrived and began hauling people away. Akane helped them keep the children organized and helped with putting identity bracelets on the children so that the JGSDF people could eventually match them up with their parents. It proved to be a very busy morning.

       Once all the refugees were gone, the quiet around Tendo-ke seemed almost ominous. Akane sat down on the engawa, and rubbed her weary feet while carefully listening to her surroundings. The silence was not total. Off in the distance she could hear the rings of hammers and the shouts of men already working to rebuild the shattered township. Nearby, birds sang and the ever-present cicadas burst out into their raucous song. She could hear Nodoka and Kasumi stirring around in the house. She smiled to herself listening as they ganged up on Ranma and shooed him outside. Still, something was missing. Akane felt almost as though she were sitting in a graveyard.

      A jet liner rumbled overhead, the sound of its engines exceptionally distinct. Akane suddenly realized what it was that her ears were missing. It was the sound of traffic. There was no sound of rubber meeting the roads, no clatter from the nearby rails. Nerima was ordinarily a sea of white noise, most of which was created by the sound of people and their machines scurrying about their business for the day. It struck her as funny that such a muffled quiet could seem so very wrong, but it definitely felt wrong. Tokyo had not the time for quiet. She was a great city and the frenetic was her norm, her surest sign of good health. The distinct call of birds rivaled only by the buzzing trill of cicadas was, for Tokyo, a sure sign that trouble had arrived and done its worst. Akane shuddered despite the heat.

      The clatter of falling boards drew her attention to the yard. It was her father. He was walking around the yard like a weeping zombie, cleaning up the incredible litter left by the improbable number of refugees that had streamed through their yard and garden. Akane's heart went out to him. Throughout her childhood, Soun Tendo had prided himself on his gardening and yard work. The arrival of the two-man horde of Saotome had made his gardening challenges infinitely greater than any faced by their neighbors, but Soun Tendo had fought on for the next two years. Now Akane's meteorological namesake had delivered him a crushing blow. She watched with pride welling up out of her heart as her father wept, but like the rest of Tokyo, made no admission of defeat.

       "I am become Akane!"

      This unexpected shout was followed by the sounds of breaking pottery.

       Nabiki? Akane thought. What the devil?

       "Destroyer of Kitchens!" Nabiki shouted. Then came another series of crashes.

       "Whoa, now, Honey!" Ukyou shouted. "That one's not ours!"

       Akane's eyes narrowed with anger as her mind began racing ahead. Knocking the soup out of Nabiki was not really the best thing to do under current circumstances, but it was what she wanted to do. She got up and hopped down into the yard. Nabiki was holding a large platter in one hand and a piece of lumber just the right size to make an excellent truncheon in the other. Ukyou had rescued the platter by seizing Nabiki's wrists. Akane stopped in mid-march. Her sister's eyes were completely glazed over and it was obvious that her knees were about to give out from beneath her. The only reason her sister had not already collapsed was because Ukyou was now holding her up. Akane's anger evaporated into a fit of giggling as she ran to give Ukyou a hand.

      "Whew!" Akane exclaimed as she got close to Ukyou and Nabiki. "She needs a bath!"

      "So do we all, Sugar," Ukyou said with a grunt as Nabiki fell forward and threw all of her weight onto the okonomiyaki chef. "Damn! She's a lot heavier than she looks!"

      "Here, let me help," Akane said.

      "Take her legs, Akane, I've already got this end."

      "I don't think I've ever seen her like this," Akane said in a worried voice. "It's not like her at all."

       Ukyou and Akane began making their way toward the house with the completely limp Nabiki stretched out between them. Akane gripped her sister's legs at the knees, and Ukyou held the slender young woman up by gripping her beneath the arms.

      "I never figured her to be much of a trooper," Ukyou said between grunts, "but she damned sure held her own until now."

      "Yeah, well, the emergency is over with," Akane said with a giggle. "I guess falling back into her normal character came as a shock."

      "Oh, does that mean we can fall apart now?"

      "Nope! We were trained for this stuff, remember?"

      "Damn! And I really wanted to stop and have a good cry."

      "Me too! How about we get together Wednesday?"

      "Only if they've gotten the water back on."

      "Meet you at the sentou?"

      "You bet, Sugar," Ukyou said with a grin and another grunt. "Meet me at the bathhouse somewhere around nine in the morning. I could use an eight hour soak in the furo to go with my nervous breakdown."

      Akane gave Ukyou a grin, suddenly very happy that she and Ranma's oldest friend were no longer rivals. Akane had Konatsu to thank for that. The quiet, self-effacing little ninja had somehow crept into Ukyou's heart without anyone, Ukyou least of all, noticing until it was too late. Once their rivalry for Ranma's affections had ended, Akane had found Ukyou to be an enormous amount of fun to be around, just as she had hoped. She liked Ukyou for the very same reasons she had feared Ranma might fall for the girl. No matter what happened, Ukyou's sunny disposition always broke through the clouds of adversity, cheering everyone around her. Making people happy was something that came naturally to Ukyou.

      "Let's get her up on my shoulder," Akane said, once they reached the stairs, "then you go up and get her door."

      "Gotcha, Sugar."

      Akane trudged up the stairs with Nabiki lying over her shoulder as though she were a sack of rice. Getting Nabiki into her bed without dropping her, or banging her head on something, proved more difficult than the stairs had, but they finally got her tucked in.

      "Momma?" Nabiki cried out without opening her eyes.

      This took Akane and Ukyou aback.

      "I tried to do all the dishes, but there's so many!"

      Ukyou clapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes bright with amusement. Akane was amused, but also pained. None of them had ever quite gotten over the loss of the Tendo matriarch.

      "It's okay, Honey," Ukyou said in a gentle voice as she knelt down by the bed. "I'll finish the dishes. You get some rest."

      "I'm so tired, Mommy," Nabiki complained in little girl voice, still fast asleep.

      "I know, Baby," Ukyou whispered, then kissed Nabiki's forehead. "You go to sleep now."

      "Sure?" Nabiki asked sound as though she might be all of age six.

      "I'm sure, Honey," Ukyou said.

      Akane found herself struggling with a painful lump in her throat. Ukyou would surely make a good mother. She had an innate talent for the job.

      "G'night, Mommy," Nabiki mumbled.

      "Good night, Baby," Ukyou whispered, then stood up and glanced at Akane.

      Akane silently nodded her head and motioned for Ukyou to follow her out of the room. They left on tiptoe, gently closing the door behind them. Once out they were out in the hallway, Akane and Ukyou stopped to talk.

      "You know, Akane, I really had the wrong idea about your sister," Ukyou said.

      "I don't think so, Ukyou," Akane answered. "The problem is that until this storm came along you only ever saw the one side of her."

      "I guess maybe you're right. It's hard to believe that there is a real person behind all that ice and greed she usually shows us."

      Akane sighed. Ukyou could be painfully blunt at times, but then she was not given to prevarication either. Akane herself had begun to worry that the Nabiki she had grown up with had died somewhere along the way. With the arrival of this storm, Nabiki had been much more like her real self than she had since before...before Ranma and Genma had shown up. Why had their arrival ...?

      "I'm sorry, Akane," Ukyou said, sounding uncharacteristically contrite. "I didn't mean to..."

      "Oh, that's all right," Akane said, cutting off Ukyou's apology. "You just finally got to see the real Nabiki, is all. She has been misbehaving for the last two years or so."

      "You mean since Ran-chan showed up, right?"

      "Yeah, shortly after Ranma and his dad got here, it was 'Cry, Havoc! And let slip the Queen of Ice!'" Akane said, striking a dramatic pose.

      Ukyou giggled.

      "She even lost her interest in men--something that would be hard for you to believe if you had known her back then. She was completely boy-crazy before Ranma and his dad showed up. Now she treats them all like cattle."

      "Hah!" Ukyou chortled. "That has to be Genma's fault."

      Akane giggled in spite of herself. It was another sad truth. Genma never made a good first impression, yet, as Akane had learned by watching him, there was a good deal more to the man than most people noticed. A lot of what turned up on closer inspection of the elder Saotome was still less than pleasant, but much of that unpleasantness had to do with Genma's skill in The Art. You never wanted to be on the receiving end of what Genma Saotome could dish out.

      "Uh, Akane? I know this is kinda personal, but how much money does your doujou bring in?"

      "Probably not as much as your restaurant on average," Akane answered. "Class sizes go way up whenever a popular martial arts movie hits the streets, then attendance just sort of dries up over the next year. Dad always manages to hang onto a few long-term students, but never many." Akane paused to giggle. "Nabiki loves Jackie Chan. She ambushed him once at the airport when he was in Tokyo and kissed him on the cheek. She didn't know that Mr. Chan is very seriously married. She nearly got herself and Mr. Chan both killed."

      "Well gee, Akane, that sounds like another couple I know," Ukyou said with an impish grin.

      Akane blinked a couple of times, then asked, "Oh, really? Who?"

       Ukyou blinked once or twice at Akane and then stared at her in disbelief for a moment before asking, "Nabiki handles the money, right?"

      Akane's eyes widened with shock when she understood what Ukyou was driving at.

      "And feedin' Ran-chan and his old man has got be like feedin' a whole herd of horses, right?" Ukyou asked.

      "Try two herds of horses!" Akane exclaimed.

      Ukyou giggled.

      "Not to mention all the added repair bills we've had around here..." Akane's voice trailed off for a moment as a wave of guilt washed over her. "... but I have to admit, at least half of that has been my fault."

      "Then you've also had those little visits from Shampoo and Pansuto Tarou and what was her name? Miss Flamethrower?"

      "Rouge."

      Ukyou shuddered, then asked, "You know what the real miracle of all this is, don't cha?"

      "That we still have a house to live in?"

      "You got it, Sugar!" Ukyou said, casting a respectful glance at the door to Nabiki's room.

      "I wish there was some way I could help out," Akane said, as she began biting at a fingernail.

      "With your looks, Hon, there's plenty you could do."

      "Why do I not like where this is going?"

      "Because you're gonna hate it, but it'll bring in money and students. Or maybe I should've said, students with money."

      Akane sucked in a deep breath and rolled her eyes toward the heavens before blasting Ukyou's hair back.

      "If you think for one second that I am going to pose in front of a camera the way Ranma does for my sister, you are out of your dough-slinging little mind!"

      "Posing, yes. The way Nabiki's been making Ranma pose, no," Ukyou said. Her eyes were suddenly very bright and she had a happy grin on her face. "Have you ever seen any this fantasy art stuff?"

      "Fantasy art?"

      "Yeah, you know, with barbarians and dragons and stuff? Konatsu and I saw a big collection of it at a tournament last year. His favorite artist is this guy named Boris Vallejo. I kind of like Frazetta a little better, but Konatsu likes Vallejo."

       "Who?"

      "Boris Vallejo! He does a lot of illustrations for fantasy and science fiction stuff. Lots of his pictures are of girls wearing sexy armor and carrying really wicked looking weapons."

      Akane thought for a second, and then recalled the sort of pictures Ukyou was talking about. The guy was famous for his paintings of characters that looked like scantily clad barbarians, usually carrying a broadsword or oversized battle-axe. Akane suddenly had a vision of Ranma wearing a skimpy breechclout with a braided gold band holding his bangs out of his eyes and wielding a long heavy sword, every muscle in his upper torso bulging. She tried and failed to suppress a shiver. After a moment, another of those kinds of pictures came floating up out of the depths of her memory.

      "You mean girls that look like Shampoo!"

      "Sort of," Ukyou said with a nod, "but they usually wear a little less than Shampoo."

      "How can they be wearing armor and still have on less than what Shampoo runs around in?"

      "Vallejo-sensei poses them very carefully," Ukyou said, her grin growing larger.

      "I'll just bet he does!" Akane exclaimed. "You're right! I really hate this idea!"

      "Konatsu loves it for dress up!" Ukyou blurted, then blushed bright red as she began to giggle uncontrollably.

      "Isn't he a little too lean to dress up like that?" Akane asked in a worried voice.

      "Don't be silly! He likes for me to dress up like that."

      Akane suddenly felt dizzy. "Let's go downstairs. I have got to sit down."

      "You really should hear me out on this, Akane," Ukyou said as they made their way down the stairs.

      Akane, unable to vocalize a coherent answer, merely waved her hands in the air on either side of her head in protest.

      "But it'll do so much to promote the doujou!" Ukyou insisted. "You'll have students coming out of your ears!"

      "And feeling me up all the time!" Akane snapped as they walked out onto the engawa. "No, thank you!"

      "Shampoo doesn't get felt up all the time!"

      "Oh, no? Do you know how many broken wrists and fingers Doctor Tofu has treated since she came to town?"

      "Oh, come on, Akane!" Ukyou said in outraged protest. "That had to have died down within the first month!"

      "It's crazy, and I won't do it!"

      "Won't do what, dear?" Soun Tendo asked as he straightened up from his yard work. He made a face as he rubbed at the catch in his lower back.

      "Ukyou has this crazy idea about how to promote the doujou, Dad," Akane answered, sounding aggravated. "You'd never go for it."

      "Well, I don't know about that, Akane," Soun said, rubbing his chin. "Ukyou has built up a fairly respectable business. Perhaps I should hear her out."

      Akane rolled her eyes in exasperation. "It's crazy, Dad, I'm telling you."

      "So what is it, then?" Soun asked, looking at Ukyou expectantly.

      Ukyou looked Soun Tendo square in the eye, gave him a huge grin and said, "Boris Vallejo."

      Much to Akane's horror, her father's eyes widened with surprise and delight as his chin dropped to his chest.

      Dad knows about this Vallejo guy? Akane thought as all her alarm bells went off. And he likes that stuff?

      "That...I..." Soun had to pause for a moment to let his jaw get in a couple of inarticulate flaps. "...I should have thought of that one myself! Why, I don't even need to hire models, and Nabiki is an excellent photographer!"

      Ukyou turned to Akane and gave her a triumphant stare. "See? I toldja!"

      "Daddeee!" Akane protested.

      "I think we might already have the right bits and pieces of armor for that kind of shoot!" Soun exclaimed, paying Akane no heed.

      Akane clapped the palm of her right hand to her forehead.

      Damn! I'm going to turn pink from head to foot before this is over, she thought. I can feel the blush spreading already.

      "We'll get everyone dressed up!" Soun said excitedly.

      "What do you mean dressed up?" Akane asked. "Nobody wears anything in those kinds of pictures!"

       Oblivious to his daughter's protests, Soun continued, "Then have you all pose here on these rocks around the koi pond. Then with a little magic out of Nabiki's camera, wa-lah! We'll have our very own Vallejo style posters to promote our school! No one will be able to tell that the pictures were taken right here!"

      "Dad!" Akane shouted.

      "How can I ever thank you enough, Ukyou-chan?" Soun asked.

      "That's easy!" Ukyou answered with an even larger grin than she had before. "I want to be on the poster!"

      "Why, certainly!" Soun said enthusiastically. "We could even make up a few posters to help promote your restaurant while we are at it!"

      "You're my kinda guy, Tendo Oji-san!" Ukyou happily exclaimed. "Konatsu might want to get in on the fun, too."

      "Why, certainly!" Soun answered. "After all, he is a great martial artist in his own right. We'd love to have him!"

      Akane groaned aloud, then snapped, "Fine! Just fine! I'm going to go help Kasumi and Aunt Nodoka!"

      "Excellent idea, Akane," Soun said absently, staring off into space.

      "I'll get lunch started," Ukyou said to Soun.

      "Very kind of you...Ukyou-chan," Soun replied, his mind obviously already busy with future plans.

      Akane found Kasumi scrubbing the floor in the hallway near the door to the master bedroom.

      "I'll get that, Kasumi," Akane said, doing her best to keep the anger and frustration out of her voice and not quite succeeding.

      Kasumi straightened up from her work while remaining on her knees and brushed a strand of hair out of her face before answering, "Oh, I can do it, Akane."

      "No!" Akane commanded as she relieved Kasumi of her brush, "You've already done the work of five people for the last two days, now go get a little rest!"

      Kasumi needed help to get up onto her feet. The lines of worry and fatigue creasing Kasumi's face tore at Akane's heart.

      "Go change your bed or something, Kasumi," Akane ordered.

      Kasumi smiled at Akane then said, "You're hoping I'll lie down, aren't you?"

      "Shouldn't I?" Akane asked, cocking an eyebrow at her older sister. "Go on, get out of here. I'll have these floors spotless in no time."

      Kasumi gave Akane a quick hug, then made her way toward the stairs. Akane dropped to her knees and began scrubbing the floor. The entire house stank from having too many people in it, and she could tell that the floor was the primary source of the odor. It had a bit of everything stuck to it, from the contents of spilled rice bowls to the contents of spilled diapers along with leaky baby bottles.

      "Akane, dear?" Nodoka asked.

      Akane looked up to find Ranma's mother standing above her with a double armload of laundry.

      "Yes, Aunt Nodoka?"

      "We are not refinishing the floors, dear--only cleaning them."

      "Oh," Akane said, glancing down at what she had been doing. "Sorry."

      "That's quite all right, dear, just use a bit less vigor and cover a little more area, if you would, please."

      "Yes, Aunt Nodoka."

      "We must maximize our use of the water, you know."

      "Yes, ma'am," Akane said contritely. "I'll be more careful."

      "Thank you, dear," Nodoka said, then made her way down the hall.

      Akane watched her go, wondering how on earth Nodoka planned to wash the laundry without running water, then decided that she did not want to know. Nodoka probably knew things about laundry that would horrify a girl of Akane's age.

      "She'll probably use a washboard in a tub or something," Akane muttered to herself as she scooted down a half-meter or so and continued with her self-assigned task. She was not merely scrubbing the floor, of course. She was trying to scrub a vision out of her mind. It was not an unpleasant vision, just a perverted one. Ranma in a breechclout, his tanned skin shiny and slick from a fragrant oil, those powerful arms of his held at the ready with the muscles in his legs rippling, leading the eye up to his...

      "Ooooo!" Akane growled as she applied even more effort to the floor.

      Of course, there was Ranma's girl-half...well...Ranko now, as well, wearing a tiny little chain-mail top over her ample breasts with just a hint of a raggedy little mail skirt barely hiding that cute little muscled up bottom of hers, and her rippling little double-domed tummy bare and begging to be stroked...

      "I'm turning into as big a pervert as he is!" Akane exclaimed in a hoarse whisper.

      "Akane, dear?" Nodoka's voice came from down the hallway.

      "Yes, Aunt Nodoka?"

      "Mind the varnish, dear."

      "Yes, Aunt Nodoka!"

      "I can't believe I let Ukyou do this to me," Akane muttered as she returned to her work. Oh, she thought, now there's a vision for you! Ukyou wearing a shiny brass bra and a long chain-mail skirt with a slit in the side to show off those long, luscious legs of hers and, no doubt, she'd be carrying a nasty looking halberd of some kind and she'd have some kind of bejeweled diadem holding that long hair of hers up in a fancy do. Doubtlessly, Ukyou looks positively edible in that kind of get up. I'll bet Konatsu ...

      Akane began licking her lips as she ground her badly overworked brush into the floor.

      What am I doing? She silently asked herself. I'm not supposed to think about girls that way! It's all Ranma's fault. Damn him! He's got me confused!

      Akane picked up the pace of her scrubbing by several degrees and once again, the varnish began to suffer.

      Thinking of Ranma and Ranko again did not help matters very much. She had wanted to smother them both in kisses when they returned the day after the storm. She had wanted to do so again after the fight at the clinic--but good girls just didn't do those kinds of things! Summoning all her will, Akane took a deep breath and forced herself to concentrate on the floor to the exclusion of all else. It was, as far as she was concerned, a matter of survival.

      The morning wore on until Ukyou called everyone to come eat. By then, Akane had finished scrubbing and rinsing most of the first floor. It had more than a few places where the varnish was completely gone, but at least now it was clean, and the house was beginning to smell better. Akane's hands were swollen and red, and several of her knuckles were bleeding raw, but she was calmer. Well, she was calmer until she found herself sitting between Ranma and Ranko.

      Both of them took the trouble to lightly brush her arm as they sat down on either side of her, just as Ranma and Akane had been careful to do since their return from the Battle of Kenseizan. It was their little game of smuggled romance that they had fallen into. The failed wedding had caused them to be circumspect about any show of physical affection for one another. They had limited themselves to brief contacts at the table, an occasional brush of the fingers on one hand while passing in the hallway at school, sometimes a long stare into one another's eyes during a quiet moment when no one was watching. They even held hands once in a while if they were certain that no one was around to see them. Whenever observed, they made a point of arguing as loudly as possible over things that amounted to nothing. The arguments worried her. Most of the time, they were completely fake, other times they took on an edge she did not like.

      Over the course of the year following their non-wedding, Akane had reached the point of not caring what form Ranma was in at any particular moment. She seldom ever really noticed anymore. She had come to appreciate him in his female body as much as she did when he was male. After all, he was Ranma all the time. Only now, there were two of Ranma, both of whom treated her as though nothing strange had happened, but one of them was female all the time and the other very definitely male all of the time. The situation was unnerving.

      For one thing, Akane could see that the male version of Ranma and the female version of Ranma liked each other. In fact, it seemed they liked each other a great deal. Akane found this discomfiting, but not necessarily surprising.

      Why wouldn't Ranma like himself? Akane asked herself. He always has and the attraction has to be even stronger, given that his alter ego is an exceedingly attractive female.

      Akane rubbed shoulders with each of them in turn, realizing that she loved them both.

      How could I not? They are both Ranma, even if one does go by the name of Ranko. But, therein lies the rub, I don't like the idea of them being attracted to one another, but how else would I have it? Would I want them not liking each other? How could that ever work out? What happens when we eventually marry? Somehow, the idea of having them both to love and having them love one another excites me, and frightens me, and infuriates me, all at one and the same time. I want...Oh, Buddha help me! I want them both and I want them both in the most perverted way, but I don't want anyone else to notice!

      Looks like lunch is mainly rice and little else. I suppose I should be thankful for it, too, Akane thought. Things could have been much, much worse. She took in a deep breath, held it for a minute, then let out a long sigh.

      Ukyou began plying Kasumi and Nodoka with her latest tea, but offered none to anyone else at the table. Akane cocked an eyebrow at Ukyou and got a wink from her in response.

      I wonder what she's up to? Akane thought. Oh, I get it. It's something to help Kasumi and Aunt Nodoka rest. Good. They both need it and both of them are too frazzled out to realize that Ukyou is up to something. Extra good. They've both done enough in the last few days.

      Ranma and Ranko both took advantage of the stir around the table to rub up against Akane. She shivered in response. Visions of Ranma in a breechclout returned to her mind in a rush, followed by one of Ranko in a scanty, chain-mail outfit. Butterflies whirled around in Akane's stomach as the rest of her body began to tingle. She felt a sympathetic response from both Ranma and Ranko as the tingle of her internal electricity made it to the surface of her skin. Much to her horror, Akane realized that she was starting to blush again. She glanced around the table. Everyone was too busy eating to notice.

      Thank my lucky stars that Nabiki is out of it, Akane thought. She never misses anything and almost never fails to ask about it at the worst possible moment.

      Akane stopped eating and stared down at her bowl as yet another perverted secret she had been keeping wormed its way back into her consciousness.

      That damned manga I found lying on the sidewalk shortly after Ranma arrived. It is so sick! I don't know why I keep it! The story, if it can be called that, starts with two girls...playing with each other while a guy watches and then the two girls gang up on his...Oh, my! Why did I have to think of this now? His...it was...is...so much like...what I saw of Ranma that day in the bath...Ranma was so...so manly! Oh, I wanted him so badly that night!

      Akane's breath had started coming in short rapid pants, but no one noticed. They were too busy dealing with the semi-somnolent Nodoka and Kasumi.

      I wish I could understand why I kept that thing, or why it thrills me so much. I hate most perverted stuff, but I enjoy looking at that stupid thing for some reason.

      Akane's breathing returned to normal and she had regained some measure of control over herself, having put the torrid piece of literature out of her mind by the time everyone came back to the table. Ranma and Ranko rubbed up against her again as they sat down, setting Akane's mind on fire again. Looking up, she found Ukyou smiling across the table at her with merry eyes. Akane again began to see the okonomiyaki specialist wearing skimpy armor and a fancy hair-do held together by bejeweled gewgaws.

      It's a wonder Ranma didn't dump me the day Ukyou showed up, Akane thought. She's got those long slender legs, that long luxuriant hair, a wonderful face and those pert breasts...how the hell can she stand to keep those bound anyway...and those lovely long legs and that wonderfully heart-shaped little ass...I'm really lucky Ranma just didn't steal some poor guy's yatai and run off with her.

      "Ran-chan got it from Tofu," Ukyou exclaimed, making Akane wonder what on earth the okonomiyaki chef was talking about.

      "Ah! Good thinking, Son," Soun Tendo said. He gave Ranma a hearty clap on the shoulder as he passed by and sat back down at his favorite place.

      Murmurs of approval made their way around the room.

      "Way to go, Saotome!" Ryouga said, with a sneer. "I didn't think you had a considerate bone in your body."

      What's up with him? Akane wondered. It's not like Ryouga to pick on anyone. Ranma has probably been teasing him about something again.

       Ranma used the disturbance as an excuse to rub up against Akane.

      "Ah, wadda you know, Pork-butt!"

      "Sticks and stones!"

      "No fighting!" Akane shouted, happy to have an excuse for a red face, and also taking advantage of the situation by rubbing up against Ranma and Ranko in turn. "We have enough to clean up as it is."

      Ranko rubbed up against Akane on her right side, causing Akane to become acutely aware of the difference in how Ranko's skin felt compared to Ranma's.

      "Yeah, you two! Cool it!" Ranko admonished.

      Akane shivered at the touch of soft feminine skin, then noticed the stare that Ryuu Kumon was giving Ranko.

      Dammit! What is wrong with that guy? Akane thought. He has to know who Ranko really is! He's a bigger pervert than Happosai! How dare he stare at her like that? He'd just better keep his hands off her is all I can say.

      Ranko gave Kumon a grin and a wink while continuing to rub shoulders with Akane.

      Ranma, you are such a pervert! Akane wanted to say, but maintained her silence by taking in a large bite of rice. Why is it you love being ogled all the time? Yeah, okay! I don't mind being looked at either, but geez! If you got half a chance, you'd be posing for the girly mags or something. You love teasing strange guys, even though you loathe them. Some poor unsuspecting guy is going to try and take your bait one of these days. What will you do then? Beat him up because you wriggled one time too many?

      No one noticed Akane inhaling her rice like a refuse grinder eating tree limbs, mostly because they were doing the same thing. A short time later, the rice ran out. Akane stood up and stretched, rubbing at the kink in her lower back.

      "I guess I had better get back to work on these floors," Akane announced.

      "You want a hand with that, Sugar?" Ukyou asked.

      Akane blanched. The last thing she wanted today was to have Ukyou working right alongside her. It wasn't that she did not normally enjoy Ukyou's company, far from it. In fact, that was Akane's problem at the moment. She would enjoy Ukyou's company just a wee bit too much.

      Why does the idea of her wearing a brass bra trip me out so much? Ranma's the professional pervert, not me. Maybe I should check with Doctor Tofu and see if maybe disasters don't do something funny to your hormones.

      "No thanks, Ukyou," Akane said. "I haven't got that much left to do. You'll probably still be doing dishes by the time I finish. I'll come out and give you a hand later, okay?"

      "Well, you're right about the dishes, Akane," Ukyou said with a giggle. "We've got a mountain of 'em out there."

      "I'll find you on Mount Dishpan later," Akane said, then trudged off toward the front hall where she had left her brush and bucket. She was busily scrubbing away when she heard everyone else troop outside.

      Two hours of scrubbing away at unwonted visions and two thoroughly worn out scrub brushes later, Akane finished with the floor. She dropped the useless brushes into the now empty bucket as she stood up and made her way toward the engawa and the backyard. She paused as she stepped out into the yard, listening to Ranma and Ranko talk.

      "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," Ranma said.

      Which mess? Akane wondered. We've only got a couple hundred of them going at the moment.

      "We take it one step at a time, is all."

      Humph! Nabiki's right. Ranma's girl-half is more practical.

      "Which reminds me," Ranko continued, "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."

      A colonel and his adjutant? Akane thought, as panic rose in her throat. Coming here tonight? None of us will have had a decent bath! The house is a wreck--Kasumi and Aunt Nodoka are going to shit cats! Dad's in big trouble!

      "Who's Colonel Abe?" Ranma asked.

      "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."

      Useless damned cops! Akane thought. All they ever really worry about is appearances and their squeeze money. Assholes!

      "Maybe they were right," Ranma said, glumly staring down at the dishwater.

       What the hell is the matter with you, Ranma? Akane wondered.

      "Don't be an idiot!" Ranko snapped. "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."

      And Dad took an even dozen of them out. Akane mentally added. He probably killed at least eight of them from what I heard.

      "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."

      Akane watched with growing concern as Ranma began to tremble. He squeezed his eyes shut, but tears glistened in the hot sunlight as they ran down his cheeks. Akane desperately wanted to reach out and hug him. Ranko grabbed a folding chair and set it down behind Ranma.

      Akane began hurrying toward her husband and wife to be.

       Why is he down on himself? Stuff like that is what we have trained all our lives to do!

      "Sit!"

      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.

      Akane stopped and took in a sharp breath. That should be me doing this, not him...her...!

      Ranko placed the palms of her hands 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."

      Neither was I and I hate it too! Akane thought. Wait! Always have been? Has Ranma really been two different people all this time? Who is he in love with? Who is she in love with? Oh, heaven and hell! Who, or what, am I in love with? This is a bigger mess than I realized.

      "I would have given anything if I coulda been in there with you," Ranko said, fixing Ranma with a steady gaze, "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. Akane stared in open mouth awe at Ranma and Ranko, touched by their obvious love for one another, while burning up inside until there was little left of her save a solid cinder of jealousy.

      "There shoulda been another way!" Ranma said in a hoarse voice.

      There was no other way, Ranma, or you would have seen it and used it. Akane thought. Ranko is right. You are a blockhead. Not that this is news. Now you are finally finding out that you aren't so powerful as you think. So you're not a kami, so what?

      "There probably was, but have you thought of it yet?" Ranko asked.

      If he hasn't thought of a way by now, there wasn't one. Akane wanted to say, but bit her lip instead.

      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!"

      Huge hot tears began to burn their way down Akane's cheeks. That's my job! I'm supposed to be the one comforting him when things like this happen! Why is she here? I know why. She's here because of that damned mirror and she loves Ranma as much as I do. Maybe she loves him more than I do. She's been riding around inside him for over two years now. I've lost. I can't compete with her. Ukyou should be happy that Konatsu found her when he did. At least she has someone of her own. I haven't got anybody now. There isn't a man on earth who could take Ranma's place in my heart.

      "Uh, Akane?" Ranma and Ranko chorused, causing Akane to flinch. "It's not what you think!"

      Akane dropped her bucket, then turned and ran blindly toward the doujou.

      "Wait, come back, Akane!" Ranko called out.

      Akane ignored her new rival's plea and kept running until she was inside the doujou. She turned and slammed the shoji shut, then fell to her knees as she turned her grief and anger loose on the floor. Tears and fists rained upon the heavy hardwood planks.

      "Stop that!" Ranko's angry voice said. "I toldja, it ain't like you think it is."

      "Why did you follow me in here?" Akane asked, her voice seething with anger as she looked up at Ranko. "I wanted to be alone."

      "Because I love you, Akane."

      Akane's heart stopped as her chin dropped into her cleavage.

      "So does he," Ranko said, gesturing toward Ranma's position with her head, "but the big dummy can't bring himself to say it. I can, because I know I don't have that much time left."

      "Aren't you two really the same person?"

      "Not for long."

      "I don't understand!"

      "I know," Ranko said, then cupped Akane face between her palms and kissed her full on the mouth, "but you will."

      Akane's heart changed its pace from frozen-in-place to a thousand beats per second.

      I enjoyed that! I've wanted to kiss her for so long! But it's not right! I'm not being true to Ranma. Besides, she's a girl!

      Ranko dropped to her knees in front of Akane and made eye contact. Akane suddenly felt as though she were drowning in twin pools of deep blue water.

      "Right now," Ranko said a soft voice, "I'm only a little different from Ranma. That means that I'm just as much in love with you as he is."

      "But you're in love with him!"

      Ranko laughed, then said, "How could I not be? I've always been in love with myself! You know that."

      "You really infuriate me sometimes," Akane said through gritted teeth. "You know that?"

      Ranko grinned back at her and said, "I am what I am, Akane, even when there's two of me instead of just one. Look at it this way, at least for now, I can love you twice as much as I could otherwise."

      Akane seized Ranko in her arms and held her tight, then gave her a deep passionate kiss on the mouth. Their kiss lasted until the sound of the shoji sliding back got their attention. Akane looked up to find the unmistakable silhouette of Otoko-Ranma standing in the opening. The faint shimmer of a growing battle aura writhed and danced in the air around him.

      "I'll hold him, Akane," Ranko said with the lopsided grin she wore when facing a serious opponent, "you kiss him."