The Dying of the Rose

By Richard Lawson

---

Kodachi shifted in her seat. The silence was quite uncomfortable.

The limo was just pulling through the gates. Kodachi felt a slight thrill run through her; this wasn't the first time she'd gone beyond these walls since coming here, but it was the first time that she didn't have to come back.

Part of her quailed at the thought. However much she had hated the place, it had been her home for eight years. There was security there; a place where she had achieved some equilibrium. She was leaving that behind.

"Think of it like being on the balance beam, Kodachi." The sensei had smiled at her. "You don't need spotters anymore. What we've done here is to help you find your natural balance. The beam itself will seem awfully thin at first. Over time, it will get wider and wider until you don't need to concentrate so much on keeping your balance."

Kodachi had snorted at the woman. "And the drugs I have to take? Aren't they, in effect, crutches? How wide do they make the beam?"

The woman was well used to her barbs. "That's one way to look at it. Perhaps it's better to think of it as a brace on your knee. It helps strengthen a part of you that's been overly strained. Perhaps, in time, your knee will get stronger and you won't need the brace. For now, keep it on so that you don't fall."

Kodachi was forced to admit that the analogy was apt. She truly had no desire to fall back into the life she had led before. She didn't want to be that person again.

She just had no idea who she wanted to be now.

Still looking out the window, she spoke to the person sitting next to her. "Where is your dear wife?"

The voice was slow to answer, and it sounded cautious, wary. "She is in San Francisco completing a merger. She should be back in a week or so."

Kodachi snorted. "Convenient timing for her. I imagine that when she gets back, she'll find some other place she needs to fly off to right away."

A hint of anger crept into the voice. "She is glad to see you out of the hospital, Kodachi."

Kodachi turned to glare at her fellow passenger, at the same time studying his face carefully. "Tell me, Brother dear, is she glad to see me coming to live with her?"

Tatewaki was staring straight ahead, his face in the neutral, stern mask it usually assumed around her. "It... is not her preference, I will not lie to you, Sister. Yet she knows her duty to her family, and is willing to accept you as a member of the household." Tatewaki turned to look evenly at Kodachi. "It is her hope that you remember your responsibility to maintain peace and harmony within the household."

Kodachi found a hint of reproach, and more than a touch of fear in Tatewaki's face. She was glad to note that eight years' separation had not diminished her ability to read her brother's emotions. At the same time, eight years had not changed his opinion of her.

Long practice inside the hospital forced her to back off and ask the question in another way: Had she given him a reason to change his opinion of her? Not yet. She wasn't quite up to trying to give him a reason at this particular moment.

Still, it hurt a little to realize that she wasn't exactly coming home to open arms.

Kodachi turned away from Tatewaki and looked out the window. The rest of the journey was made in silence.

The gates to the mansion opened. Kodachi flinched and looked down at her lap. The doctor had warned her that this might be difficult, but she still wasn't prepared for the strong push of memory and emotion into her consciousness.

"What are you doing, Kodachi!"

Kodachi stood by the controls to the gate. She'd seen the servants open the gate before, and she was sure she knew how to do it. She just wanted to try it, to see if she could do something only grown-ups could do. It had worked, and she'd been thrilled, until her mother's voice had turned the joy to abject terror.

"Mommy, I'm sorry!" Kodachi felt the tears began to flow. Trembling in fear, she pushed the button that would close the gate.

"Stop it, Kodachi!" Her mother grabbed her arm and literally dragged her away from the controls. "You stupid girl!" Kodachi was slapped across the face. "You know you aren't supposed to play with that!" Another slap, harder. Kodachi cried out as loud as she could, hoping that Mother would stop. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it only made her angrier.

This, unfortunately, turned out to be one of the latter. Kodachi was flung to the ground. "How disgraceful! What a pathetic girl you are, bawling and quavering like a little baby!" Kodachi curled into a ball on the ground. Her mother began slapping Kodachi's backside, but Kodachi knew from long experience that being hit there was preferable to any other place on her body. The slapping went on for a long time, punctuated by her mother's comments. "So weak! So useless! You bring shame to the family! You besmirch our honor! Our family is lessened by your presence!"

Kodachi's world was reduced to pain and terror, both familiar companions. The beating finally stopped, and her mother stood over her, watching as Kodachi screamed and wept. When Kodachi had recovered enough to be merely wracked with sobs, her mother spat at her, "I'm sorry I ever bore you into this world." Kodachi heard her mother turn and walk away.

Kodachi slowly realized that the limo door was being held open for her. She shook her head; this was only one memory out of many others. If she allowed herself to react like this to everything she saw, she may as well return to the hospital. That was the last thing in the world she wanted to do.

Gathering her courage, she stepped out of the limo.

She looked at the mansion and gasped. It looked completely different. It had been remodeled, the traditional look replaced by a more modern, Western style. It was white, with shutters around larger windows. Columns had been added to the front entrance. The mansion was difficult to recognize as the one she grew up in.

It lessened her burden. It would be easier for her to fight off the memories if there were fewer familiar sights to remind her of past pain.

She looked over at Tatewaki, her eyes questioning him.

While Tatewaki didn't actually smile, his face softened a little, became less stern. "Nabiki's doing. She thought that the mansion was due for a makeover, as she put it." Tatewaki turned to look at the mansion, and his voice turned sad and angry at the same time. "I told her she could burn it to the ground and rebuild it if she wanted to. She told me that the cost-to-benefit ratio made such a measure unwise."

Kodachi laughed, and Tatewaki looked at her with surprise. They smiled at each other, sharing a complete understanding of how little they cared for the household of their youth.

They went inside. The changes to the interior were much more extensive. Kodachi frowned; the ultra-modern styling of the inside of the house wasn't exactly to her taste. Still, the interior had been decorated skillfully and consistently. It was obvious that someone had put a lot of thought and effort into making this a beautiful and comfortable place to live. Kodachi found that she couldn't be mad at Nabiki for what she had done to the Kuno mansion.

Tatewaki allowed Kodachi a moment to take in the surroundings, then led her upstairs to her old room. To Kodachi's relief, it had been left largely untouched. Her room had always been her sanctuary, the one place she could go to hide from Mother. Mother's peculiar sense of honor wouldn't allow her to follow Kodachi inside her room. Kodachi would always have to come out eventually, and the longer she made Mother wait, the worse the punishment was. Still, sometimes it had been worth the extra beatings to be able to find some peace here.

The chauffeur set her bags down while Kodachi made one slow circuit of the room, finding it very comfortable after eight years' absence. She returned to Tatewaki, and smiled at him again.

"Thank you, Brother. If you talk to your wife before she comes back, thank her as well." She bit her lip, trying to keep herself from dissolving into sobs. "It is good to be home."

Tatewaki was watching her closely, a strange, thoughtful look on his face. Finally, he reached up to grasp her shoulder. "It is good to have you home, Sister." She could tell that, at least at this moment, he meant it.

---

Kodachi sat, looking at Midorigame's pen. Tatewaki had sold him and her other pets years ago. She could understand his reluctance to take care of her pets, but she wished he had tried. She missed Midorigame very much.

She wandered over to her greenhouse. That, at least, had been maintained. Most of the poisonous plants had been removed, but her roses still grew there. Tatewaki's roses did as well. Black and red roses in various stages of growth lined the aisles. She walked slowly among them, admiring them. Soon she would reclaim her position as keeper of the greenhouse. For now, she was content to admire the fruits of someone else's labor.

She picked one rose and put it in her hair before walking outside again. Kodachi looked up at the overcast sky. Somehow, it matched her mood. She felt a storm coming.

Kodachi frowned. Her balance was slipping a little. She needed to get out, away from the memories this place couldn't help but evoke in her.

She walked through the gate and down the road, not going any place in particular. She looked around as she wandered, seeing things that were familiar and things that had changed. The sights induced a sense of nostalgia; a desire for things to be the way they were. At the same time, she was repelled by the idea of being as she was eight years ago. Her emotions churned strangely within her, and eventually Kodachi took to looking straight ahead of her, trying to block out as much of the outside world as possible.

The wind carried the sound of children playing. Kodachi stopped and tried to find the source. She saw trees one block over, and when she walked over to them, she discovered a playground. She walked over to a park bench, sat down, and watched the children at play.

One of the biggest regrets she had about the eight years lost to her was the opportunity to start her own family. While she had no desire to inflict upon a child the kind of mothering she would have been capable of during those eight years, she still wished she could go back in time and be as she was at this moment.

Kodachi sighed; who was to say she would be a good parent now?

She shook her head to clear it of these thoughts, and watched the children instead. A light rain began to fall, intermittent drops that occasionally became a steady shower. It didn't diminish the children's enthusiasm in the least.

There was a commotion to one side of the playing area. Kodachi watched as a boy, bigger than most of the rest of the children, tormented a little girl in the sandbox. The noise was quiet enough not to attract the attention of the parents, who were busy chatting with each other. Kodachi knew the sounds of a child being terrorized, however.

The big boy was standing over the girl, who was kneeling at his feet. She tried to crawl away, but he moved with her to keep her from leaving the sandbox. She whimpered and tried to move another way, but he kicked one of her arms out from underneath her. She sprawled at his feet, and began to cry softly.

Kodachi wondered if she should do something. If she tried to intervene, all that was likely to happen was that the nearby parents would see her as a threat to their children, ignoring the minor injustice taking place in the sandbox. The last thing Kodachi needed right now was to be seen as a child molester.

All that was just an excuse, Kodachi realized. She was as powerless to stop the big boy as she had been powerless to stop her mother.

Another boy came up, smaller than the boy looming over the girl but full of determination. "Leave her alone."

The big boy looked at the smaller boy. "Yeah? You gonna make me?"

"Yes." The little boy's voice was very confident, and the big boy seemed taken aback.

Only for a moment. Then the big boy reached to push the smaller boy down. The smaller boy stepped around the big boy's arm, grabbed his neck, and pushed him into the sand. The little girl took advantage of the commotion to run away. She went a little distance away before turning to watch the boys in the sandbox.

The big boy got up, angry. He swung his fist at the smaller boy. The smaller boy leaned back, let the fist swing by him, then reached out with his leg to cut the big boy's legs out from underneath him.

The rain was coming down harder, and this got the parents' attention. They began calling their kids, who went running off. The boys in the sandbox ignored the sounds, warily circling each other. The smaller boy still had a look of complete confidence, and the big boy seemed to be a little afraid. Finally, the big boy charged the smaller boy, holding his arms wide out in an attempt to grapple the smaller boy. The smaller boy dropped onto his back and used his feet to propel the bigger boy over him, out of the sandbox, and a not-inconsiderable distance away before the big boy fell into the grass.

The big boy was slow to get to his feet, while the smaller boy was quick to bounce to his. When they were both up, the boys looked at each other from across the playground. The smaller boy smiled and stamped his foot in the big boy's direction. The big boy paled and ran off.

A woman's voice floated from somewhere to Kodachi's right. "Nouma, stop playing with your friends and come over here. We're going home."

The boy brightened immediately. "Yes, Daddy." He ran off.

Kodachi sighed. Why couldn't she have had someone like that when she was growing up? Someone to keep her from the injustices she was exposed to almost daily. Her brother hadn't been able to; he was subject to the same injustices. It should have been her father; he should have been the one to stand up against her mother. He had always been gone, away on business. That had poisoned the household harmony as much as anything else had.

Something percolated up from Kodachi's subconscious. Yes, what?

Daddy?

Kodachi jumped to her feet and looked over to her right.

The boy had joined a woman and a baby. The baby was being placed carefully in a stroller. The woman was wearing a loose-fitting shirt and slacks. Her short red hair was being tossed slightly by the wind. She straightened, and Kodachi got a good look at her face.

Ranma.

It hadn't taken Kodachi long, eight years ago, to determine that the boy and girl who both called themselves Saotome Ranma were, in fact, one and the same. She had had some fun tormenting Ranma, pretending that she didn't know about his peculiar problem. He obviously hated having Tatewaki obsessing over his female form, and Kodachi had gotten a perverse pleasure from teasing him when he was a girl. All that had been truly important to her was that it was his male half that was dominant, that he seemed to be a man more than a woman. She had wanted the man for herself.

Ranma smiled at the boy - Nouma, that was his name - and let him push the stroller. Together, they walked out of the park.

Kodachi had fortunately chosen to wear slacks herself. She had not given up on her martial arts training at the hospital; in fact, they had encouraged her to keep in top form, in the hopes that the discipline of the art would cross over into her therapy. She ran quickly but lightly after Ranma. Kodachi jumped onto the roof of a nearby house and leapt from rooftop to rooftop, keeping Ranma in sight. She ignored the rain and how slippery it made the roofs; she just needed to follow Ranma.

They led her right where she expected: the Tendo Dojo. Ranma and the children went inside the house. Kodachi silently leaped over the wall, made her way silently to the house, and crept along the edge. She ended up behind the house, right at the edge of the porch. The door to the house was open despite the rain, and Kodachi could hear the voices clearly.

"Hello, dear. Out playing with the kids?"

"Akane! What are you doing home so early?"

"There wasn't much more I could do at work. The place has gotten so hectic, I thought I could accomplish more here. Things are really coming to a head. These next few days are going to be very busy."

"Oh". Ranma's voice sounded quiet.

Akane evidently picked up on something. "What is it?"

Kodachi edged closer to the door, hoping to see into the house without being seen herself. She saw Ranma's back; Ranma seemed to be feeding the baby a bottle. Moving ever so much closer, she saw Akane begin to appear. She stopped there; Akane was sitting at the table and facing the door. If Kodachi moved any further forward, Akane would be able to see her.

The silence had dragged on while Ranma looked down at the baby. Finally, she looked back over at Akane. "I'm getting that feeling again."

"No!" Akane's retort was sharp, and punctuated by a slap on the table. "Not now! We've got another baby we have to take care of. Doesn't it ever let up?"

"I don't know." Ranma's voice was mild, apologetic and forceful at the same time. "It's not like I control it or anything."

"I know." Akane's voice was still angry, but contained a trace of apology itself. "Still, haven't you done enough for one lifetime? Can't the curse just let you go and leave us in peace?"

"I can handle whatever happens, no matter how tough it gets. You should know that."

What little of Akane that Kodachi could see looked angry. Kodachi could see enough to notice that Akane had folded her arms. She guessed that Akane was glaring at Ranma. It wasn't hard to imagine.

"Ranma..." Akane paused a minute, then continued in a less angry tone of voice. "I know you've done all right so far, even against some real monsters. Still, I sometimes wish that we could move past all that and on to the 'happily ever after' part."

Ranma nodded. "I know. I'm sorry that I enjoy it so much. I know how much of a burden it puts on you and the kids."

Akane's voice lost all of its anger and became sad and loving. "I never want you to be unhappy. I would hate to keep you from what you do best. You are the one man in the world, I think, that could do the things you're asked to do. You've helped so many people, made the world a better place in so many little ways. It's selfish of me, I know, to want more of you for myself. Forgive me if I act a little jealous of the rest of the world?"

Ranma laughed softly. "Akane, there's nothing to forgive. There is one thing I want you to understand: no matter how much I enjoy going out and taking part in all sorts of strange and dangerous stuff, my greatest joy can always be found here, with you and the kids. Ain't nothing out there that could ever make me give up the life I have here."

A silence followed. Akane got up, and Kodachi had to move quickly away from the door. She saw enough to see Akane come up and hug Ranma gingerly, the baby between them. They whispered something to each other, and although Kodachi couldn't hear them, she knew what they were saying.

After another minute, Ranma spoke again. "Here, take the baby. I want to get some hot water. I'll go make dinner while I'm at it. Where's your father?"

"He's going to have dinner with Kasumi and Tofu tonight."

"Lucky guy. When do we get to eat her food again?"

Akane sounded amused. "We were just there last week, Ranma. Give her some time to restock her pantry."

"Ha ha." Kodachi heard Ranma leave the room. Akane went back to the table, and Kodachi could hear her singing a soft lullaby to the baby.

Kodachi eased back from the door. She silently stepped to the side of the house, where she stood for a moment, thinking.

There had been a lot of subtle emotional undertones. Akane was still an angry person, first and foremost, but she had tempered the anger with love. At least with Ranma, she set aside enough of her anger to listen to him and understand.

Ranma, who had always seemed impatience personified, had slowed down and carefully explained himself to Akane. He had been open and honest with his feelings. His love for Akane had come through strongly as well. The years had changed Akane and Ranma, and for the better.

Kodachi slid her back against the wall, brought her knees and arms to her face, and wept, yearning for the comfortable, loving life Ranma and Akane shared. What life had Kodachi known? A mother who abused her, physically and emotionally. A father who ignored her. A brother she could never truly connect with. Who in the universe could ever love Kuno Kodachi?

Kodachi knew she shouldn't feel sorry for herself. She ran through a litany of self-worth that she had learned at the hospital. It wasn't helping this time; the memory of the love that Ranma had found with another woman was too painful to bear.

Something tugged at her sleeve. "You all right, ma'am?"

Kodachi looked up. Standing there in the rain with her was Ranma's son. Nouma, if she remembered correctly. He looked at her curiously. "Why are you sitting in our yard crying?"

Kodachi couldn't help a wry smile. "That's a very good question. I wish I could give you an answer."

"Oh." The boy seemed disappointed. He continued to look at her. "Do I know you?"

Kodachi wiped her eyes while considering a trivial problem: what do you call your brother's wife's sister's son? Nephew-in-law? Nephew seemed close enough. "We've never met, but I'm your aunt. Aunt Kodachi."

The boy's face brightened. "Oh yeah! You're my crazy aunt!"

Kodachi laughed. She noticed that it sounded a lot like her old, maniacal laugh, and stopped before it went on too long. "Yes, that's right. I was crazy. I'm all better now."

"Oh. That's good." The boy seemed to lose interest in the subject. He cocked his head at her. "Do you know any martial arts?"

Kodachi had to keep herself from laughing again. His father's son, no doubt about it. "Yes, I do."

Nouma became very excited. "Great! Let's play!" He grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet. Kodachi was amazed at how strong he was. He led her to the dojo.

They bowed and entered. He led her to the center of the floor before releasing her hand. He jumped back, bowed formally at her, then assumed a ready position.

Kodachi's amusement grew in leaps and bounds. She bowed back at him, then stood perfectly still in an upright but relaxed position. They hadn't allowed her any of her hoops, clubs, or ribbons at the hospital, so she had focused her training on learning hand-to-hand techniques. She gotten passably good over the years.

Nouma was dancing around her. Kodachi knew that he was probably waiting for her to attack, something his father had probably taught him. She just kept still, knowing that he would grow impatient. Sure enough, he ran up to her, made a credible attempt to feint an attack at her stomach, then attempted to sweep her legs.

Kodachi jumped, tucked her legs, and did a somersault over the boy. She came out of the tuck, twisted, and landed behind Nouma, facing him. She patted him on the head and tousled his hair.

He spun and grabbed her arm, attempting to throw her. He was much too short for such a maneuver to succeed, no matter how strong he was. She reached down with her other hand and grabbed his feet. She lifted him and cradled him in her arms, kissing him lightly on the forehead.

This seemed to infuriate him. He wiggled out of her grasp - he was strong enough to do that - then attempted a rapid series of punches.

She recognized Ranma's Kachuu Tenshin Amiguriken technique. Nouma was not nearly that fast, although she could see tremendous potential. Kodachi had developed a speed technique of her own involving clubs, the Senju Konbo. Although she wasn't as fast as Ranma, she could still move very quickly when she needed to. She blocked Nouma's punches easily, occasionally reaching in to pinch his cheek.

He danced back and looked mad. He looked at her closely. She could almost see the wheels turning in his head - how could this old, crazy woman be able to beat him?

Kodachi smiled at him. "Nouma-chan, I am bigger, stronger, faster, and more experienced than you are. Don't lose hope. I have no doubt that, in time, you'll be able to beat me easily."

Nouma looked at her a moment, then grinned. "Dad says that someday I'll be able to beat everyone except him."

Kodachi laughed. "Oh, don't let him tell you that. You'll beat him one day, I know it."

"Really, Aunt Kodachi?" Nouma's face lit up. "Can you show me how?"

Kodachi smiled. "I can't teach you martial arts any better than your father can. However, I can show you strategy and tactics. I was always better at those things than your father."

Nouma made a puzzled face. "Strategy and tactics?"

Kodachi nodded. "How to plan before you do anything, and how to execute that plan in a fight. It's a better way to fight than your father's method of just reacting to whatever the opponent does. Your father only wins because he's so much better at what he does, and he reacts quickly and well. The last time we fought, however, I won. Because I planned ahead."

Nouma's eyes grew very wide. "You beat Daddy?"

Kodachi's smile dimmed. She hadn't used very honorable methods. In fact, they had been quite underhanded. Still, the object lesson was valid. "We'll need to learn how tactics and strategy fit into the concepts of Budo: Moral Development, Discipline, and Aesthetic Form."

"Budo." The word was unfamiliar and uncertain in Nouma's mouth.

Kodachi nodded. "When you can combine your father's martial arts techniques with what I can teach you about Budo, you'll be able to beat anyone. Including your father."

Nouma practically danced in front of her. "Oh, thank you, Aunt Kodachi!" He ran over to her, hesitated a second, then hugged her fiercely.

Kodachi sighed tremulously. The feel of Ranma's son in her arms was wonderful.

A plan sprung to her mind.

Swear Nouma to secrecy. Go home. Her knowledge of drugs and chemistry had only increased inside the hospital. Make a sleeping powder, one gentle enough for a six-year-old. Make ready to leave the country - maybe to the US, or Australia. Come back to the Tendo Dojo. Take Nouma. Flee before Ranma knew what was going on. Live a long and happy life, raising Nouma as her own son. Nouma would soon learn to forget Ranma and Akane and turn all his devotion to Kodachi. Kodachi would make a home for herself as full of love as the Tendo home was.

Kodachi hugged the boy to her, smelled his hair, felt him quivering in excitement, and began to cry.

She was deluding herself. Nouma would never forget his mother and father. He would never forgive the person who had taken them from him. Ranma and Akane would never stop searching for him, and Tatewaki and Nabiki would throw all of the resources of the Kuno family into locating her. Whatever free life she would have left would be spent on the run with a child who hated her.

The person she had been eight years ago would have ignored the inevitable consequences of her actions. That Kodachi would have concentrated on the perceived short-term gains, and ignored the price that would have been extracted from those closest to her. And from herself.

Nouma wiggled out of her grasp and frowned at her. "You're crying again, Aunt Kodachi."

Kodachi smiled weakly at Nouma. "It's because I love you so much, Nouma-chan. I have to tell you, I'll need to get your parent's permission. It's not likely that they'll let me teach you. I was very mean to them a long time ago, before you were born. I was sick then, and I was sick for a long time. I'm mostly better, but it will be a long time, if ever, before they trust me. So I was crying, because I might not ever see you again."

Nouma hung his head. "Oh." He sounded very sad. He jerked his head up and looked at her hopefully. "Can you teach me how to beat Daddy over the phone?"

Kodachi closed her eyes; Nouma's eagerness to be with her was too painful. "We'll see, Nouma-chan." She gathered her courage and opened her eyes. "And now, I have something cross to say to you."

Nouma's eyes got wide again, this time in fear. "What is it, Aunt Kodachi?"

Kodachi made her voice stern and waggled her finger at him. "Don't talk to strangers. It's very dangerous, especially when your parents aren't around. I might not have been your aunt. There are mean and evil people who could hurt you." I was almost one of them, she said to herself. "I don't want to see you do this again, or I will tell your father."

Nouma grinned. "Oh, is that all? Mommy tells me that, too. Daddy showed me some things I can do to mean people. I can go like this - " he pantomimed poking his fingers into her eyes, " - or this - " he turned and kicked his leg halfway to her knee, " - or this!" He kicked up at her groin. "Except that only works on boys."

Kodachi smiled, amused. "Those are all very good things. But why didn't you do any of those things to me?"

Nouma grinned and looked behind her. "'Cuz Daddy was watching us all the time. He wouldn't let nobody do nothing mean to me."

A cold wave of fear washed over Kodachi. She stood rock still, afraid to move.

Ranma's voice, male this time, called from somewhere behind her. "Go back to the house and wash up, Nouma. I'll have dinner ready in a while. Help Mommy watch over your sister."

Nouma nodded. "Yes, Daddy." He touched Kodachi's hand. "I don't think you're as crazy as Aunt Nabiki says you are, even if you cry all the time." He smiled at her, then ran out of the dojo.

Silence descended. Kodachi felt something like gibbering rise up in her throat. She fought it down and slowly turned around.

Ranma was leaning against the wall of the dojo, his arms folded across his chest. His expression was neutral. As good as she was at reading people's feelings, she couldn't read his.

He looked more handsome than ever. The years had matured him. He was slightly taller, slightly broader across the shoulders. His face had settled, become slightly less smooth, slightly more rugged. His eyes, as gorgeous as ever, held hints of wisdom she'd never seen before.

Kodachi fought the irrational impulses that washed over her. I will not call him Ranma-sama. I will not call him Ranma-sama. I will not fall at his feet and worship him and beg him to be mine. I have my own identity, I don't need someone to give me my identity. I am worthy within myself. I like myself for who I am, not for the company I keep. I won't force others to do things because I need them to fill the emptiness inside me. I can fill it myself with the things I accomplish. I do not need this handsome strong dedicated loving man in front of me. I will not call him Ranma-sama.

"Hello Ranma-sa... -san." She drew a shaky breath and let it out. "You... you cut your hair." It was the only thing she could think of to say.

Ranma's voice was disturbingly quiet. "It was cut against my will."

Kodachi didn't know what to make of that. She realized the subject was irrelevant, and moved on to things of consequence. "I... I apologize for... disturbing the harmony of your household."

Ranma's voice grew quieter, deadly. "Out less than a day, Kodachi, and you're already skulking around our house."

Kodachi recoiled under the impact of his words. "I didn't plan it this way, Ranma-san." She tried to force her mind to think clearly. She got the feeling that nothing but complete honesty would avail her. If nothing else, she needed to establish a new basis for trust with him. If she hadn't already destroyed all such chance. "I saw your son in the park. He reminded me of all the good times I rarely knew when I was his age. When I saw you, it reminded me of the opportunities I wasted eight and more years ago. I needed to see you with your family. With your wife. I wanted to see how people in love lived."

She swallowed. "I... I guess I was hoping that you were unhappy." She looked down at her feet, ashamed, before forcing herself to look up at Ranma again. "I still hadn't given up on you. I heard you, though, with your wife. It was obvious that you two are so much in love." Kodachi sagged a little. "It was obvious eight years ago. Obvious to everyone except a certain group of teenagers who had trouble perceiving reality correctly. For everyone else, it was just stubbornness and immaturity. For me, it was a disease."

She made herself stand straighter. "I'm better now. The disease is being treated. I won't try to make something between us where there is nothing. I won't stand between you and the ones you love."

Kodachi examined Ranma, waiting for a reaction. He didn't seem inclined to give one, just kept watching her steadily. Kodachi swallowed and plunged on.

"It made me sad, seeing other people sharing love I could never be a part of. Then your son came up to me." She smiled at Ranma. "He is a sweet, loving, energetic child. He had heard that I was insane, but he didn't judge me by other people's words. He offered me friendship where no one else ever had. It drew at me. It spoke to the diseased part of my mind, wanting to gobble him up and try to force his love into my heart."

Kodachi saw Ranma's eyes narrow slightly and rushed on before he could say anything. "Please believe me, Ranma, the healthy part of my mind is stronger than the unhealthy part. Those urges will never rule me again. I will never - " Suddenly, a sob wracked her. She held her breath, brought herself under control. "I will never hurt him. I will never come here without permission again. I won't try to meet him, and I won't disturb your family again."

She felt the tears flowing down her face and ignored them, intent on Ranma's reaction. He didn't move, just looked at her with his stern face and wise eyes. She couldn't bear the look. Turning away, she moved to leave the dojo.

"Kodachi." Ranma's voice was still quiet, but now it seemed to be softer, more understanding. "Do you know about my curse?"

Kodachi stood facing the door. "I know you change back and forth from a man to a woman, and that it has something to do with water."

"Yeah, that's right. I went to China once, and fell into a cursed pool. The most obvious aspect of the curse is what you noticed. Another aspect is that I can't get cured, not until the curse is done with me."

Kodachi tried to puzzle that through. "Done with you?"

"I dunno what it means, either." Ranma sounded a little frustrated. "The curse also seems to keep finding ways of getting me in trouble. Of putting me in situations where my skills are needed to help people out."

"Oh?" Kodachi was intrigued almost despite herself. "Your martial arts skills, you mean?"

"Sometimes. Sometimes it helps that I can be a woman whenever I need to be. Anyway, I've begun to develop a sense for when trouble is coming. Today, at the park, I began to sense something bad was about to happen. It just wouldn't go away, even after I got home and started making dinner. So I looked for my son, and found you."

Kodachi hunched in on herself a bit. Yes, she was a source of danger. Ranma's instincts were spot on.

"And then, all of a sudden, while you were talking to him just now, the sense of danger vanished." Kodachi heard Ranma walk up behind her. "I dunno what it means, exactly. Either the curse decided you weren't really a problem, or you convinced me with the warnings you tried to give Nouma."

Kodachi felt Ranma's strong hands grab her shoulders, and he gently turned her so that they were facing each other. "I guess what I'm saying is that I don't think you're a threat. If you want to teach Nouma, I don't mind, so long as Akane or I am around while you do it. You're right about one thing; I ain't so good at planning stuff out."

Ranma's face and voice hardened. "Just so long as you don't teach him to use the same dirty tricks you did. What you said about Budo, that sounds good. Remember it yourself."

Kodachi stared up at him, barely able to breathe for fear that she would discover that what she had heard was not true. "What about Akane?"

Ranma's eyes widened; clearly he hadn't thought about that. "Let me talk to her. You're right, she may not be so keen on the idea. It helps, though, that Nouma is so taken with you. He doesn't like just anyone; he has a sense for telling good people from bad. Akane will listen to me, and to Nouma. Just don't be offended if it takes her a while to warm up to you."

"Oh Ranma." This time, she felt no urge to add a '-sama'. "You are generous beyond belief. After all that I've done to you-" She had to stop another sob from choking her off. "You'll really willing to let me into your family's life?"

"Of course! You're my-" He stopped, and a puzzled look came over him. "What do you call your wife's sister's husband's sister?"

Kodachi laughed, and there was no trace of madness in it. "How about your friend?"

Ranma grinned. "That'll do."

---

Kodachi walked through the front door of the mansion. She wandered around the still-unfamiliar layout, trying to find her brother.

Dinner had been an interesting experience. Akane had spent the meal glaring at Kodachi, barely controlled anger radiating from her. Ranma had tried his best to soothe her, at the same time trying to control the balky six-month-old who had just discovered that rice made excellent throwing material.

Nouma had been the savior. He had chatted brightly with Kodachi, evidently taking great delight in her company. He whispered loudly how they were going to team up and beat Ranma in the dojo. He pestered her with questions about strategy and tactics, even though it was clear that he really didn't understand what the terms meant. His enthusiasm had finally worn down Akane's anger, and by the end of the evening she had actually smiled at Kodachi and said how glad she was to see her out of the hospital.

Kodachi finally found her brother in what appeared to be his study, talking on the phone to Nabiki. He raised his eyebrows at her and indicated a chair. She sat and listened, not so much to the words as to the love behind them.

Tatewaki eventually hung up and turned to face her. "Dear Sister, you had me worried when you did not appear for dinner."

Irritation washed over her. "You are not my keeper, Tatewaki."

His face settled into his familiar, cold mask. "Forgive me, Kodachi, you are absolutely right."

She sighed. She had made so much progress today. If she could come to an understanding with Akane and Ranma, two people who certainly had a lot of reason to hate and shun her, why could she not learn to speak with her brother in a civil manner?

Kodachi looked around the study, trying to regain the peaceful state she had entered with. Her eyes locked onto a small blade hung against the wall. Kodachi stood up and walked over to it. "Brother, I thought you forswore the tanto blade."

"I have." His voice was carefully neutral, with a touch of defensiveness leaking through. "That blade is not mine."

Kodachi looked at it carefully. "Mother's?"

She heard him draw in a quick breath. Eight years ago, Mother had not been a safe topic to bring up with Kodachi. It had been a major breakthrough for Kodachi three years ago when she had been able to talk about her mother without screaming or crying. "Yes, it's hers."

Kodachi turned to look back at Tatewaki. "*The* tanto blade?"

"Yes." The defensiveness was stronger, and now tinged with anger.

She looked a him closely. "Why?"

Kodachi watched him struggle with himself. She saw him considering lying to her, not telling her anything, yelling at her. When he did speak, she knew he spoke the truth. "Mother believed in Budo, up to the very end. She despised herself because she could not live up to it. She hated herself for what she did to us, and for what she did to the family harmony. In the end, she thought the only way she could bring peace to the family was to end her life. I keep the blade to remind myself how important harmony is, to myself, and to my family. Peace starts from within and spreads to others." He looked grim. "The day I can do no more than bring pain to the family is the day I use that blade myself."

Kodachi looked at him evenly for a moment, then reached up and lifted the blade from its place on the wall. She dropped it on the floor and stepped on the blade. Reaching down, she pulled sharply on the handle. The blade snapped off easily.

Tatewaki lunged to his feet, far too late to stop her. Anger covered his face.

Before he could act on it, Kodachi put the handle into his hands. "Listen to me, Brother. The day you cannot find peace from within is the day you look to others for help. Did you not once tell me, on the day of your wedding which I could not attend, that Nabiki helped you fight the madness within you, and kept it from claiming your soul?"

Tatewaki gritted his teeth, but eventually nodded.

"You found peace and love in her. She found the same in you, and you helped each other." Kodachi reached up and touched her head and his. "There is a chemical imbalance in each of us. We inherited it from our parents. It makes us susceptible to certain types of mental disorders. It can be treated. I will be taking drugs very likely for the rest of my life to keep the chemicals balanced properly.

"You have found love, and that is the best drug of all. But if you ever find yourself slipping, if you think that the world hates you and would be better off without you, don't look to this for answers." She indicated the broken blade in his hands. "Look instead to those around you for help. I learned in the hospital that Mother's biggest fault was not the beatings she gave us, or the suicide that left us bereft. Rather, it was her inability to ask for help."

Kodachi stepped closer to him, filled with an intense desire to make him understand. "I, too, could not ask for help. I did not even acknowledge that I needed help. I nearly destroyed several lives. Fortunately, one person cared enough about me to get help for me. I hated him for it. It took me years to forgive him for bringing me to those who could treat my illness. Now, at last, I have come to understand that there is nothing to forgive. It was an act of kindness and love."

She stepped back and bowed deeply to him. "Thank you, Tatewaki, for saving my life." She straightened and shot him a look of warning. "But never, ever consider taking your own life to assuage your honor. There are too many people around you who love you, who would be hurt by your absence. Look to them, and let them give you strength as you have given your strength to others."

Tatewaki stood silently for several minutes. His anger was gone, as well as his cold mask. Instead, his face was covered with shock.

Slowly, over those several minutes, she saw filial love, so deeply buried in him, come to the surface. Kodachi sighed in relief and let her own love for her brother loose from the cage she kept it locked in.

They looked at each other a while. Then Tatewaki went over to the wall and readjusted the fittings so that the broken blade once again would rest there. When he was finished, he turned to her. "To remind me that, even if it seems that there is no one else, my sister loves and cares for me, and that I can count on her to tell me when I am acting like an idiot, and to get help for me when I don't know any better."

Kodachi smiled in amusement. They bowed to each other, and resumed their seats.

Tension seemed to flow out of Tatewaki, and Kodachi realized that, for the first time in ten years or so, he was relaxing in her presence. "I knew that you had changed, dear Sister. I just didn't realize how much."

Kodachi raised an eyebrow. "How would you know? Perception has never been one of your strong points, dear Brother."

Tatewaki chuckled. "My wife says much the same thing. Yet it does not take the perception of Kodachi and Nabiki to notice the rose in your hair."

Kodachi reached up and touched the rose. She had forgotten that she had put it there hours ago. "How does that make me any different?"

Tatewaki laughed. "You truly do not know? Who is the perceptive one now?"

Kodachi frowned, then reached up and took the rose out of her hair. She held it in front of her and looked at it.

It looked back at her, blushing. Red.

She looked up at Tatewaki in surprise. He nodded. "I knew, when you walked in, that Kodachi the Black Rose was no more."

Kodachi assimilated that information, and smiled. Tension drained out of her as well. She had been so worried that leaving the hospital meant that she would soon be returning to the days of old, of savage joy balanced by unbearable depression. She hadn't realized that, deep within herself, she had accepted her new self as the one, true Kodachi.

This new Kodachi was finding a better place than when she had left. Or rather, she was making the world better for herself. She had found a nephew she could teach and love, and a brother she was coming to know and like for the first time.

The Black Rose was dead. Kodachi wasn't sure what the new foliage was going to turn out to be, but she knew that, no matter what, it was going to be full of the colors of life.

~*~

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