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 09

       Ranma gave Nabiki a puzzled stare.

       She's admittin' to somethin', but what? he wondered. I know she ain't interested in marryin' me or nothin'. We ain't each other's type.

       "It's not true, Nabiki!" Akane exclaimed. "Neither you nor Ranma are anything like those kind of men!"

       "Oh, you think not, Little Sister?" Nabiki asked as she gave Akane a sidelong smirk. "Ranma is ambitious and he loves to be loved. Pay him a couple of compliments and he'll wriggle like a puppy. You know, Ranma, adulation? The cheering crowds, the groups of drooling fanboys patting you on the back after you win a fight, that sort of thing? As for me, I positively adore money. Come to think of it, I'm rather fond of power as well--mostly because it makes it easier to bring in more money. Ranma-kun and I could make one hellish team if we ever set our minds to it."

       Ranma suddenly realized what Nabiki was talking about and did not like hearing it. She was telling the truth. She usually did tell the truth, or at least, part of the truth, but this time Nabiki was telling the whole truth and was pointing the finger at herself as much as she was at him. Not only was this hard to believe, it was hard to deal with.

       "I guess, in a way, we have made a pretty good team of sorts so far," Ranma said to Nabiki. "Not that I ever enjoyed it very much."

       Nabiki gave Ranma a shamefaced look and started to apologize, but Soun cut her off.

       "The road into hell is paved with good intentions," he exclaimed, then stared into his teacup.

       "Don't I know it!" Ranma and Nabiki chorused, both of them turning to look at the Tendo patriarch. Ranma could tell from a glance at Nabiki that she was feeling as sick at the stomach as he was. It was a relief to have an excuse to look away from her.

       Akane and Ranko stared back and forth at Ranma and Nabiki, their mouths agape with horror. Ranma felt a stab of pain. He hated admitting to a flaw, but in this case, he dared not do otherwise. He could still feel warm slipperiness of yakuza blood on his face and hands. He shuddered.

       "Saa-you!" Cologne said, in agreement. "The Eye takes advantage of your intentions, pure or not, as well as your flaws and weaknesses. The better your powers of persuasion, the more damage it will have you do. If what I hear from your schoolmates is true, the four of you have a great deal of influence on those around you, despite your flaws."

       Ranma growled in his throat and mumbled, "A good trap never looks anything at all like a trap."

       Ranko suddenly looked alarmed, as though she could see the truth of what had just been said. Akane became angry.

       "Well, I know my Ranma!" Akane exclaimed as she stood up behind Ranma and Ranko and placed a hand on each of their shoulders. "And, I know my sister! None of them are evil at heart."

       "Neither was Hung Hei-kun," Akane-chan," Cologne said in a gentle voice. "Do not make the mistake of thinking that the Eye would fail to take advantage of righteous anger."

       Akane blanched. She sat back down next to Ranma looking very frightened. Silence once again descended upon the group. Nabiki poured them all another round of tea with a wry grin on her face.

       "We ain't really after Happosai, are we?" Ranko asked.

       "Nope," Ranma answered. "It's this damned rock we gotta find and do somethin' about. How do we get rid of it, 'Baasan?"

       "That's a good question, Ranma-kun," Cologne said, "and I think you are quite right about the Eye being the problem, not Happosai. He is merely an obstacle."

       Ranma made an ugly face, as though he had just bitten into something that tasted bad. Ranko and Akane caressed his arms and shoulders quite openly. Ranma felt it and drew strength from their attentions while failing to see that the other three people in their group were taking mental notes.

       "Perhaps that was an impolitic choice of words on my part, Ranma-kun, but Happosai will do all that he can to keep the Eye away from you."

       "Assumin' we can get it away from the old freak without touchin' it, what do we do with it, 'Baasan?" Ranma asked.

       "Mmm, like I said, Ranma, that's a good question. Our scholars considered throwing it into an active volcano, but decided against that plan, fearing that such a ploy might result in an entire mountain of evil. Such places already exist, you know."

       "No, I didn't," Ranma said. "Are there many of them?"

       "Fortunately, no," Cologne answered. "I actually like Tendo-san's solution. The idea of throwing it into the deepest parts of the sea strikes me as being quite sound."

       "But there isn't any part of the sea that cannot be reached anymore, Obaasan," Akane pointed out. "Would that really be any safer now-a-days?"

       "Perfect safety is impossible to us in anything, Akane-chan," Cologne answered. "Even if we were to arrange to have the Eye flung into the depths of space, it is unlikely that even that extreme measure would prove to be a permanent solution. The best we can hope for, I think, is to keep the thing out of human reach for a millennium or two."

       "Why not just break it up into thousands of pieces?" Ranma asked.

       "That might be like cutting up starfish and throwing the pieces back into the sea, Ranma-kun," Soun said. "Instead of fewer starfish, you get a new one out of every piece you make."

       "And it's probably not a good idea to just throw this thing into the sea without it being in a container of some kind, right, Honored Elder?" Nabiki asked.

       "That is true, Nabiki-chan," Cologne said. "Our ancestors made a puzzle box of ebony for that job. They carved the appropriate seals into the exterior of the box to stop the influence of the Eye from reaching anyone outside."

       "Can we acquire another such box?" Soun asked.

       "I brought one with me on the off chance that the Eye might turn up, Tendo-san," Cologne said, "but if we are to cast it into the sea, we need yet another container to protect the wood from the shipworms."

       "I'll do some research, Dad," Nabiki interjected, "but I suspect that a simple clay pot might be the best answer there."

       "Nabiki's right, Dad," Akane exclaimed. "Remember all that stuff we saw in the museum from those old shipwrecks? The pottery was the only thing that seemed to have held up very well. Even the glass bottles were corroded from being in the sea for so long."

       "Very well," Soun said. "We seem to have at least a partial plan of action. Nabiki will look into containers. I suppose Cologne and I had best start working with Ranma here to help him learn how to counter the Master's techniques."

       "What about handling the Eye, Dad?" Akane asked. "We'll need some way to handle it once Happosai has been defeated, or at least, once we have gotten the Eye away from him."

       "Special gloves are required for that, Akane-chan," Cologne said. "We will make a pair for you and Granddaughter, here, as well as Shampoo. The three of you will be tasked with handling the Eye and keeping it away from Ranma and Nabiki."

       "Am I that much different from Ranma already?" Ranko asked, looking upset.

       "No, but you will be, child," Cologne answered. "Already your focus on life is changing, is it not?"

       Ranko made a wry face. "

       The Eye is almost certainly seeking someone like Ranma or Nabiki," Cologne said with a sad sigh. "Acquiring the two of them through Happosai would make its century."

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        Shoko Asahara nearly laughed out loud as he watched the body float down the river. It was the leader of the fanatics who had been chasing Happosai. The fools had not been any more competent at the art of rock climbing than they had been at the art of tracking. They had not arranged their ropes correctly, nor had they used safe climbing techniques. Happosai merely waited until they were well up on the cliff, then popped out from behind a ledge and yelled "Boo" at the leader while he was in a precarious position. A few seconds later, the entire group was lying at the bottom of the cliff, bleeding, battered and dying.

       The police will never suspect Happosai, Asahara thought. They have no reason to. He never so much as left a mark on any of them. The only tracks they will ever find are those of the curator and these fools.

       (You may go, my old friend), a voice in Asahara's head told him.

       "As you wish, M'Lord," Asahara mumbled, knowing what most other people did not realize. Whispers can be heard at a surprising distance. A mumble might be heard, but never so far as whisper and a mumble is almost never understood by a listener removed any significant distance from the mumbler. The sound of a mumble readily blends with the ambient sound of a place, thus rapidly becoming unintelligible.

       (Watch your back), the disembodied voice added.

       "Mmm?" Ashahara mumbled. "I am hunted, M'Lord?"

       (Indeed, you are, old friend. Our presence has been felt by our enemies.)

       Asahara smiled beneath his wrappings as he mumbled, "I haven't killed anyone for almost fifty years now."

       (Avoid such an expedient for as long as possible. My current slave is expendable. We will allow him to run the majority of risks.)

       "As you wish, M'Lord," he mumbled. Silent as a shadow and twice as dark, Asahara began to make his way out of the forest in much the same fashion as he entered it.

       (I will be calling upon you again soon. Be prepared.)

       "Always, M'Lord."

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       Genma Saotome lay in the cool comfort of the piece of concrete culvert the zoo had provided him for a den, pretending to sleep. In truth, he was having a silent laugh at his keepers. They thought they were taking advantage of his nap to hide food in various places around his large pen. The keepers in two of the other three zoos Genma had spent time in had done the exact same thing. He took great delight in solving the puzzles they presented him. He always solved them with great rapidity, or with great sloth by turns, thus always leaving his observers thoroughly confused.

       Don't wanna take all the mystery out of their lives, he thought. We pandas don't really do all that much, but what little we do is a great mystery to these scientific types. Today, I'm gonna throw 'em a really fast curve. It'll be fun watchin' to see what they do. How about that, Scientist-san? You and your helpers have become part of a rather more significant study--the study of intelligent humans and how they react to the inexplicable. Oh, sure! I ain't all that bright myself, but I have the advantage of knowing something you cannot even imagine to be true. Life isn't very fair, is it?

       Genma lay very still, continuing to feign sleep for another half-hour or so after his keepers finished stashing food around his display. Satisfied that enough time had passed, he finally stepped out of his lair and put on an elaborate show of stretching. Feeling the blood warm his muscles up some but not enough to suit him, he decided to play with the truck tire they had given him for a toy, all the while sniffing the air and placing with surprising accuracy most of the places where his keepers had stashed food for him to find.

       Hah! They put a big bunch of daikon way up there in that tree. A real panda would find that something of a puzzle, I'll bet. I wonder if the poor confused beast might not go around checking every sugi in sight from then on, hoping to find daikon among its branches? Would a real panda be surprised at only ever finding them in the ground from now on? Maybe that's one of the things these guys are hoping to find out. I almost hate to disappoint them, but, a panda's gotta do what man's gotta do! Gotta find the Master and beat the Eye out of 'im.

       Genma made a few "whuffing" noises as he began sniffing around as though he were a hungry panda. He was hungry, as it happened, but it would never do for him to step out of character while being watched. He knew he was being watched because he could hear the faint whistling sound the scientist's camera made whenever it was running, and he could catch her scent whenever he looked toward her observation station.

       He wandered around his pen, taking his time finding and savoring the food his keepers had hidden at ground level. He was careful to sit upright on his hindquarters in true panda fashion each time he found a stash. Finally, it came time for the part that Genma had been looking forward to, the daikon in the tree. Using his ample claws, he scaled the old sugi's massive trunk until he could reach the bundle of daikon stashed in the crotch of a limb. Rather than backing his way down to the ground to eat, the way any normal panda would, Genma stayed right where he was and began munching the crunchy tubers.

       Genma smiled to himself upon hearing a faint gasp come from the direction of the scientist's blind. A few seconds later, he could hear the sound of a second camera warming up. In fairly short order, his ears told him that this second camera was moving.

       Perfect! he thought. She's trying to find a place to get footage of me eating up here in this tree. Time to play like a squirrel.

       Genma, listened carefully to the faint noise of the second camera, and moved around so that the trunk was between him and the scientist. He smiled to himself again as he heard the even fainter sound of someone grinding their teeth.

       Oop! Now she's coming around to this side. Time to move again. I think I'll move up a little higher as well. A few seconds later, he could hear the scientist talking.

       This one isn't given to talking to herself, so she must be on her cell phone. Good! That means she's calling for help. They're gonna come inside the cage. Perfect! Too bad I can't lick her on the thigh again, but right now is not a good time to get another dart in my ass. That safety guy is a little trigger-happy. Of course, she's entirely too trusting of large predators, too. I shouldn't blame him, but that damned drug gives me a bitch of a hangover. I wonder if it gives real pandas a hangover? Probably does. Maybe I'll leave 'em a note about it.

       Genma held very still for several moments and listened intently. He had to use all the concentration he could muster. As quiet as the zoo was this late in the day, it was still inside a major city. He had to pick out the sounds he was hoping to hear from within a great sea of noise he could not even detect while in his human form. Eventually, he did pick up on the faint jingle of keys hanging from the belt of a rapidly walking man.

       Here comes the head keeper and his sidekick. They'll waste time arguing with Science-sama first. She'll hafta get mad and chew their asses before they'll do what she wants. The morons! I hate doing this to her in a way. She's very dedicated and she's as cute as a bug in a rug. She doesn't deserve me.

       Hearing the sounds of an argument followed by the sound of a key turning in a lock, Genma plastered himself to the trunk of the tree and invoked the Umisen-ken, thus becoming completely undetectable to a human. A good hunting dog would not have been fooled, but a hunting dog would be the last thing he would have to worry about in the zoo. Dogs tended to upset the animals. All he had to do now was wait for them to decide he really was gone and raise the alarm. That would take them a while. There was no obvious means of escape from the sugi to any of the outer walls of his pit. He would have to wait out their twenty-minute period of fuming and head scratching before he made a break for the door. Sooner or later they would set the hounds out after him, but by then he would be human and the hounds would become as confused as their masters.

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       (This young man you are so proud of has a Jusenkyou curse?) the voice in Happosai's head asked.

       "Yes, Master," Happosai answered aloud. "He turns into the prettiest little redhead you've ever seen."

       (Perhaps, perhaps not, Happosai. You forget. I once knew Helen of Troy.)

       "You've been in this stone for that long, Master?" Happosai asked.

       (No, I was entrapped here a by a sorcerer eager to be rid of me. The fool thought that by trapping me here, he could save his soul. I was quite able to get around on my own in those days.)

       "Hmmph! It's hard to hang onto yer soul if your belly is empty all the time. The Myceneaens needed wheat more than they needed some cute little hide."

       (An empty belly was never a problem for you though, was it?)

       "Nope! Never was. I could always find enough to eat one way or another."

       (Well, it was much the same for the Myceneaens, Happosai. You too, shall soon have your fill of sex and power, my devoted apprentice. This village looks to be perfect for our purposes.)

       "I still think it would be better to go back to Tokyo."

       (Of what import is yet another panty thief in Tokyo? They are a yen for the dozen there. If you want to attract the attention of your pigtailed princess and her father, then you must commit your crimes in a place where there will be a hue and cry.)

       "I don't see how raising hell here in this dinky little village is going to do any good, Master. No one in Tokyo is going to pay attention to the goings on in yet another village named Yamamura. It's just another little hick town."

       (This one is different from most of its kin.)

       "Oh? How so?"

       (This one is currently harboring a rather ambitious reporter for a major paper. She was recently banished here by her editor. She hates the rural beat.)

       "Oh, really?"

       (Yes. She is cynical, ambitious, greedy, and quite the looker. She is just kind of woman you need at the moment. You will give her an exclusive interview--after you have stolen all the bloomers from the local high school.)

       "Hah! I love the scent of a teenager's bloomers."

       (Indeed.)

       "So how am I going to get this reporter lady to interview me?"

       (By stealing her brassiere, of course. Preferably while she is wearing it.)

       "Let me guess. She isn't the sort of woman that squeals and gets mad about that kind of thing, right?"

       (Quite right.)

       "That's no fun. That'd be like trying to take underwear off of Nabiki. She just bides her time and finds a way to cost me money."

       (Perhaps, but this ploy will prove effective nonetheless. The reporter's attempt to avenge herself upon you will gain us our needed infamy in Tokyo.)

       "That's brilliant, Master!"

       (That is why I am the Master.)

       "What about your remaining slaves, Master? I want to deal with them soon."

       (All in good time, my avid apprentice. You will need the boy to help deal with them. Some of them are quite powerful, and I would not abandon them to you had they not grown so complacent.)

       "Sounds like a fatal failure of vision to me."

       (Indeed that is so, Happosai. I have encountered very few men with a vision as perverted as yours.)

       Happosai smiled happily as his hard black little heart swelled with pride.

       (The high school is on the eastern end of the village.)

       "Thank you, Master."

            ================================================

       Pansuto Tarou sat in a clean, brightly lit little ramen-ya called Tampopo Too, watching the proprietor's television and slurping noodles. He did not ordinarily watch television, having long ago concluded that it was mostly a waste of time, but today was different. He had realized before leaving China that the greatest problem he would face in rescuing the picayune panty thief and mis-namer of newborns from the doubtlessly furious Saotome, would be that of finding him. If the Saotome were indeed trying to kill Happosai, and such a an attempt at pesticide seemed entirely likely to Pansuto Tarou, then the old man would not be found anywhere near Nerima-ku. The prurient old poot would be running for his life.

       Fortunately, it also meant that the impish source of invective the wide world over would also be burning up energy at a prodigious rate. Which in turn meant that there should be a series of severely irate crowds of women possessed of inadequately bounded bosoms seething in the old satyr's wake. Happosai would, after all, need to recharge at a fairly high frequency. Given the highly photogenic nature of such scenes, Tarou expected the television news crews to be Johnny on the spot. All he would need for proof that he had picked up the trail of the prurient pest would be to spy of one the cursed Saotome in the crowd. Whether he liked it or not, the younger Saotome's radiant pulchritude could easily capture the eye of a thousand cameras.

       The news, however, proved to be a disappointment. Aside from the usual blah-blah and coverage of the typhoon that had inundated Tokyo, the color piece of the evening was about a panda escaping from the Kyoto zoo.

       "Wait a minute!" Tarou exclaimed. "Did that guy just say that a panda escaped from the zoo?"

       "Yep," the proprietor answered. "The same one they found in Tokyo during the storm. The poor thing must be trying to find its way back home."

       "Where is this zoo they're talkin' about?" Tarou asked with a feral grin.

            ================================================

       Genma Saotome sat on the park bench in his human form, chuckling softly as the dogs and their handlers ran by him for the third time without realizing who, or rather what, he had been just a few hours earlier. Both the dogs and their handlers were thoroughly confused. Genma liked it that way. He would have already left the park surrounding the zoo were it not for one minor problem. He lacked the money he needed to do some traveling.

      I suppose I should have realized that they would ship me to the zoo in Kyoto, not that it makes much difference. I would have needed money to travel anyway. The Master is almost certain to have left Tokyo before now, knowing that I am serious about putting him away again. I would have had to travel anyway. I just imagine he has gone north again. He likes hiding in the mountains. He's so nimble that rough terrain gives an almost insurmountable advantage. That is why we always trained yama go mori. In forested mountains, the old monster reigns supreme, but I think I can cook up a nasty little surprise or two for the old bastard. I have learned as much from my son as the boy has learned from me.

       Genma was, of course, an accomplished pickpocket, but the park was a poor place to practice that particular art. Most of the people visiting this place were locals, and a pickpocket needed victims who were distracted and disoriented to ply his trade. A smart pickpocket would not work a place like this without a partner.

       "Too bad the boy isn't here," Genma muttered softly to himself. "A little water and he becomes a first-rate distraction. I could have train fare and some to spare in five minutes without the marks or Ranma ever knowing I did it. I guess I'll just have to sit right here and wait for this maize vendor's bagman to show up."

       Genma had opted to commit the equivalent of armed robbery. Not of the vendor selling roasted maize from the yatai he currently had staked out, but from the fellow who would show up sooner or later and collect money from that poor sod. Street vendors always paid more than one kind of tax. They paid licenses fees to the government, and they paid the local yakuza for "protection". Unlike the government, the street vendor's "protectors" collected their fees on a daily basis. Genma had a hard and fast rule about never robbing anyone who could complain to the police and be heard.

       The shadows were growing long, and people were making their way home. The vendor began closing up his yatai and making it ready for travel.

       "There he is," Genma whispered to himself, "and there's his backup. Both of 'em are newbies. This won't be much of a chore. Let's just hope they are near the end of their run for the day. I'd hate to rob somebody who had no money."

       A nattily dressed young man, wearing a light tan suit with a dark brown shirt and tan tie, walked up to the vendor Genma had been watching. The two of them chatted about the weather and the news for a moment, then the vendor handed the younger man a surprisingly large wad of bills. Genma waited patiently as the young thug strutted away. The second man, the one Genma had picked out as the bagman's backup, trailed behind the fellow about twenty meters, doing his best to seem as if he were traveling alone. He was dressed nothing like the man he was guarding, of course, because he was carrying a gun and wanted to avoid drawing attention to himself.

       Too bad about that strut, Genma thought. It's a dead giveaway. What is it with the yakuza that they can never act like a normal person for any length of time? This asshole may as well wear a sign for all the good his mufti is doing him.

       Genma followed them patiently, waiting for them to get into a place and situation where he could strike. Much to Genma's delight, they made stops at two more yatai before heading off away from the park. They were not headed toward the train station, which implied that they had a car parked somewhere.

       I gotta hit 'em before they get into the car. The bagman is in the lead, so he will probably be the driver. That makes sense. If anything breaks loose, his job is to haul ass with the money and leave his back up to deal with it. Trouble is, big boy, you ain't gonna have no back up. This looks like a good place for your gun-toting buddy to take a nap. I'll just drop his sleepy ass between this hedge and this building.

       Genma silently raced forward and clipped the gunman on the side of side of the neck with a carefully calculated knife-hand blow. The man went out like a light and Genma caught him before he could hit the pavement. He dropped the unconscious gunman into the narrow space between a low hedge and a nearby building--after taking the gunman's wallet, of course. With the most dangerous part of his plan completed, Genma invoked the Umisen-ken and moved in closer to the bagman with his favorite furoshiki in hand. Genma, like any experienced hitchhiker, never went anywhere without a large towel.

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       Ranma staggered out of the furoba and up to the guestroom of Tendo-ke. There, he quickly stripped down to his boxers and fell face down onto the futon Kasumi had already made out for him. He was exhausted. Worse, there did not seem to be a single spot on his body that lacked a bruise, an abrasion or both. Soun Tendo had proven to be as sneaky and dirty in a fight as Ranma's father, and Cologne was a nasty piece of work, with or without her walking stick. All Ranma really wanted to do was to sleep. Someone knocked at the door.

       "Saotome?" Ranko asked.

       "Ya can't sleep in here anymore, ya know," Ranma mumbled into his pillow.

       "Didn't come in her to sleep, Ranma," Ranko said with a note of evil humor in her voice. "Mom gave me some of that liniment Pops used to use on us. Remember it?"

       "Oh, man! I thought he lost the recipe for that stuff!"

       "He did, but Mom had a copy. She sent me up here to give you a rubdown."

       Alarm bells began going off in Ranma's head.

       "How's she takin' all this about you and me and our fractured curse?"

       "So far, she seems to be perfectly happy to have us both around," Ranko answered with a bit of a quaver in her voice. "The thing is, I can't tell if she thinks of me as her daughter or one of Tendo-san's."

       "Any word back from Doc Tofu on that test?"

       "Not yet."

       "Then let's not encourage her to decide just yet."

       "I see your point, Ranma. I don't hafta like it, but I can see your point."

       "Look, I'm sorry this has happened, okay? I mean, if I could swap places with ya, I would."

       "Hmph! What makes ya think I'd wanna swap?"

       "Well--I mean--geez! You aren't already..."

       "No! Well, no more than I ever was..."

       "What's that supposed ta mean?" Ranma asked angrily as he sat up and gave his alter-ego a hard stare.

       "You know damned good and well what that means, baka!" Ranko said in a soft voice. "It's just that when we were together and male, we didn't want to think about it, right?"

       Ranma had to admit she was right. He did not like it very much, but Ranko was right. He had always felt girlish whenever he was in his cursed form and he had fought those feelings tooth and nail. He had not dared to do otherwise.

       "I guess in a way, things are easier, now, huh?" Ranma asked.

       "Some things, yeah," Ranko answered. "Others ain't so easy. What if that test comes back and says we're just like brother and sister? For all we know, we could be twins genetically."

       Ranma felt a lump of ice form in his stomach. It was a question that had been worrying him as well.

       "Or maybe even clones," Nabiki's voice added, causing both Ranma and Ranko to start.

       "You forgot to knock, Nabiki!" Ranma and Ranko chorused.

       "You left the door open, Ranko," Nabiki answered sweetly.

       "Whaddaya mean about us bein' clones?" Ranma asked.

       "Yeah, he's male and I'm female," Ranko said. "How could I be a clone of him?"

       "All it takes is one little chromosome to make all the difference," Nabiki said. "I've been doing some reading."

       Ranma lay back down, then covered his eyes with one hand. Ranko simply looked glum.

       "If all the spring had to do was to change one chromosome to express itself, it makes sense that you two would be clones of one another."

       "Yeah, it makes sense all right," Ranma said.

       "It's one of the precepts of the school," Ranko said. "Follow the path of least resistance."

       "Attack where your enemy's defense is weakest," Ranma added.

       "So what are you two going to do if it turns out that you are like brother and sister, or even closer, genetically speaking?" Nabiki asked in a serious voice.

       Ranma and Ranko stared at her in silence for a moment. It was obvious that Nabiki was worried about something and was not working one of her usual angles.

       "What's gotten into you, Nabiki?" Ranma and Ranko asked in stereo. "Your actin' awfully sincere lately."

       Nabiki gave them a wry smile in return, then said, "I've always been like this, you know. I just wouldn't admit it. I love my baby sister more than I can tell you."

       Ranma and Ranko exchanged glances.

       "If it was just the two of us..." Ranko started saying.

       "...it'd be simple," Ranma and Ranko said in chorus. "We'd just grit our teeth and do the right thing. Only trouble is, it ain't just us."

       "That's what worries me, too," Nabiki said. "It'll kinda throw a kink into your relationship with Akane, won't it?"

       Ranma and Ranko both rolled their eyes and said, "There's plenty of kinks in that already."

       Nabiki snickered. Ranma shook his head and covered his eyes again. Ranko giggled. Nabiki giggled. Ranma suddenly broke out laughing. The three of them were still laughing when Akane entered the room.

       "What's so funny?" Akane asked.

       "The kinks in your love live, sister mine," Nabiki said.

       Akane blushed. Ranma and Ranko began to show the first faint signs of alarm.

       "Hmph! It's not that unusual for a girl who likes girls to take up with a married couple, Nabiki," Akane said sounding defensive. "Besides, anyone who knows the three of us should understand. If they don't understand, or don't want to understand, then to hell with them!"

       "Brave words, dear sister," Nabiki said giving Akane a cold eye, "but what will you do if it turns out that Ranma and Ranko here are genetically brother and sister? It might even turn out that they are clones!"

       Akane looked startled as she slowly sank to her knees and sat in seiza.

       "I hadn't thought of that," she said.

       "They have," Nabiki said nodding toward Ranma and Ranko in turn.

       "Why didn't you say anything to me about it?" Akane asked in a pained voice.

       "Didn't seem to be any point in it, Akane," Ranma answered with a shrug of the shoulders.

       "We already talked to Doc Tofu about it," Ranko quickly added, "but we won't know anything until the lab results come back."

       "But you're sitting here talking to Nabiki about it and haven't said a word to me before now!" Akane said, anger tingeing her voice. "Why can you talk to her about it but not me?"

       "I brought it up, Akane," Nabiki said. "They didn't say anything about it to me, either."

       Akane took a deep breath, then gave Ranma and Ranko both a hard stare in turn.

       "So you weren't going to say anything to me until you knew, right?" Akane asked.

       "Dammit, Akane!" Ranma and Ranko chorused. "Do ya think this is easy for me?"

       "No, I don't suppose it..."

       "We've been in love with ya since we got here, ya know!" Ranko blurted. Ranma gave Ranko an angry stare.

       "I mean, it ain't like I could just give up on ya 'cause I'm stuck in my girl form, now is it?" Ranko added. "And there's no way I could expect my guy side ta give up on ya!"

       "Nor would the two of you give up on each other, from what I can see," Nabiki added with a smirk.

       Ranma and Ranko blushed in unison.

       Akane giggled. Ranma opened his mouth as though to say something, but no sound came out.

       "So what is it, Saotome?" Nabiki asked. "Spit it out."

       "If...if Ranko and me are brother and sister, or even clones, like you say we could be, then we'll do the right thing and act like brother and sister. I wouldn't like it if Ranko turned completely girl and...and....and decided she needed to find...a...a guy ta be with, but that would just hafta the be the way it would go and I'd learn ta live with it."

       Ranma suddenly looked much more fatigued than he already was. Ranko scooted over next to Akane and put her arm around Akane's waist.

       "Ya ain't gotta worry about that for now, Saotome."

       Ranma's eyes grew to the size of dinner plates before he finally forced them shut. He lied down again, or rather; most of him lied down again. Part of him remained quite erect. Nabiki quickly averted her eyes toward the ceiling. Akane and Ranko stared for a moment, then Akane threw a blanket over his middle. After several seconds of what can only be described as a pregnant silence, the three girls had themselves a first-rate giggle fest.

       "Really, Ranko! Why is it that two girls cuddling up like that has such a powerful effect on guys?" Nabiki asked.

       "Hey! I ain't some kinda guru, ya know. It just does, okay?"

       "What's this clone business about, Nabiki?" Akane asked.

       "There is only one chromosome's difference between being male or female, Akane."

       "Oh, so you think the magic in the spring probably took the path of least resistance," Akane said.

       "See?" Ranko asked. "I toldja its basic to the school."

       "Basic to nature, you mean," Nabiki said.

       "Basic to both," Akane added. "Weren't we supposed to give Ranma a rubdown?"

       "I think I'll go now," Nabiki said as she stood up. "I'm going to leave the door open, so don't get too carried away."

       "No need," Ranko said with a crooked grin, "He ain't up to it."

       "Oh?" Nabiki asked, giving Ranma a skeptical stare.

       "Believe me, Nabiki," Akane said. "He isn't ready."

       "I'll leave the door open just in case," Nabiki said. "He might start showing signs of life again. 'Night!"

            ================================================

       Kenzan Konatsu lay next to Ukyou Kuonji and listened to her breathing deepen as she slid off into a gentle sleep. Her aura was still quite bright, filling the room with her love for him. He was grateful to her for that. She would never know how grateful. He would never stop trying to tell her, of course, but she could not ever really know what he felt for her. Ukyou had turned him into something he had not been prior to meeting her. She had turned him into a person. He did not know what he had been before he met her, just a shadow, perhaps.

       Satisfied that the love of his life was fast asleep, he rose from the bedding and made his way downstairs, as dark as a shadow and twice as quiet. Upon reaching the first floor, he began running through his clan's kata. The old evil had finally begun stirring. Konatsu could sense it. The time had come for him to put the edge back on his technique and polish it out. He would need all his skills soon, and all the strength and patience he could muster.

       "The prophet said that we would one day meet on the field of battle, Old Master, and I am the last of my clan," Konatsu mumbled to the night. "I dare not fail my ancestors. Please excuse me, but you must die when we meet."