Ryoga and Ranma stared at each other numbly. They each had a reason to be absolutely horrified.

Ryoga reacted first. His response was not helpful. "Look at you! A boy in girl's tights! Ha!"

Ranma snapped back. "Look at you! A boy totally naked! Ha HA!"

It didn't make him feel any better. In a second, maybe two, the steam from the kettle would clear away and everyone in the gymnasium would know his secret. Worse, they'd see him in a leotard. Ryoga was right - Ranma did not want people to see him that way.

A spray of cold water hit them. He looked over to see Akane standing with a fire hose. Ranma blew out a relieved breath as he and Ryoga changed. One disaster averted.

Ranma looked down to realize that another was about to happen. The force of the water's blast was carrying her out of the ring - and to defeat. Desperately she began to move her arms, hoping against hope to swim upstream and back into the arena. But momentum could not be so easily altered, no matter how fast and strong she was.

She fell to the ground outside the ring, Ryoga in pig form landing on top of her. Her mind shut down, with one thought ringing through her head: she'd lost.

The water stopped. Akane came running up to Ranma, her face a picture of shock and horror. "Oh Ranma, I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"

"Worry not, fair Akane." Kuno came striding up, his face supremely regal. "This is all for the best. For now that fiend Saotome has no claim over you, and we two are free to pursue our love unfettered by the spurious engagement forced upon you."

The look of horror on Akane's face deepened. Ranma stared at her, and slowly began to make some connections. Akane had bet her engagement on the outcome of the match. Ranma had lost. Which meant that...

A surreal laugh interrupted Ranma's thoughts. "A worthy opponent you are, little one. Never have I been so challenged. But the battle is mine - and with it, the right to wed Ranma-sama!"

Kodachi laughed and laughed, and Ranma felt her world come crashing down around her.

---

Ah! wherefore with infection should he live,
And with his presence grace impiety,
That sin by him advantage should achieve
And lace itself with his society?
Why should false painting imitate his cheek
And steal dead seeing of his living hue?
Why should poor beauty indirectly seek
Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?
Why should he live, now Nature bankrupt is,
Beggar'd of blood to blush through lively veins?
For she hath no exchequer now but his,
And, proud of many, lives upon his gains.
   O, him she stores, to show what wealth she had
   In days long since, before these last so bad.

-William Shakespeare
 Sonnet LXVII

ROSES OF SHADOW

By Richard Lawson

Part One: These Last So Bad

---

Ranma walked down the street in a daze. His head was swimming and his ears were ringing. He wanted to say it was because he hadn't slept in two days. But he knew. The truth was more tangible, more terrible than simple lack of sleep.

He had lost. The words "RANMA LOST" were hovering over him in large neon letters, with an arrow pointing at his head. He just knew that other people could see those words and would laugh at him as soon as they read them.

He approached the Tendo home. He needed to sleep, and put this behind him, and get on with his life. Maybe tomorrow he'd be able to think clearly. Hell, Ranma thought to himself, maybe there was something to be learned in all of this. There was a lesson in here somewhere. The School said so; you learned from everything that happened to you.

Ranma wasn't in the mood for lessons right now.

He approached the front gate, bone-weary. He wondered if he should go talk to Akane. She'd gone home while Ranma had changed out of his clothes and into another body. She'd seemed as depressed as he was, even a little hysterical. He'd need to straighten some stuff out with her. If he could figure out what he was supposed to straighten out. He was just so tired.

Opening the gate, Ranma walked up to the front door and paused. The door was wide open, and Ranma could hear a familiar sound. Akane, screaming at someone. He'd heard her angry before. Lots of times. But this time, there was a hint of desperation that worried him.

Ranma hurried down the hallway. Akane was standing in front of his room, being held by Nabiki as she screamed at someone inside. "Get out! You don't belong here, you've done enough damage, get OUT!" She easily shrugged off Nabiki's hold, but Nabiki merely held on to her again before she could move into the room.

Ranma came up and put a hand on Akane's shoulder. She whirled and looked up at him, and her eyes pleaded with him. For what, he didn't know.

"Ranma-sama! You're just in time." Ranma turned to see Kodachi in his room, packing his few belongings. She was dressed in a simple white shirt and a long black skirt. Her eyes glittered as she looked at Ranma. "Here." She finished stuffing the last items into his backpack, lifted it, and tossed it in his direction.

He caught it absently, staring at her. "What are you doing?"

She laughed a pretty little laugh that wasn't quite her full-blown maniacal laugh. "Why, Ranma-sama, you are moving into the Kuno mansion. Akane has agreed to give you up, so now you belong to me."

Ranma threw his backpack to the ground. "I belong to no one."

"That's right!" A bit of triumph colored Akane's shouting. "You can't have him. He's-" She broke off suddenly.

"He's what, Tendo?" Kodachi spoke derisively. "Your fiancee?"

Akane's face turned a peculiar shade of red - from embarrassment or frustration, Ranma couldn't tell.

Kodachi was examining Akane closely. Slowly, she smiled. "You can't say it, can you? Go ahead, try. I'll give him back to you if you can call him your fiancee."

Akane just gaped at her, shocked speechless. Ranma stared at her, waiting for her to say something.

"As I thought." Kodachi sniffed. "You never really wanted him anyway. That's why you bet your engagement on the match. It never really meant anything to you, did it?"

As Ranma watched, Akane's face mottled in rage. Yet she still didn't speak. Ranma for some reason found her lips fascinating, wondering if they would begin to form words. They stayed slightly apart as Akane breathed heavily.

"Poor dear." Kodachi's voice was openly mocking. Ranma turned to look at her. She had a wide smile on her face. She was enjoying this immensely, he realized. "Forced into an engagement against your will. You should thank me, Tendo. I have relieved you of the awful burden of being forced to marry Ranma-sama."

"What is this?" Soun came up, his expression angry. Ranma wondered where he'd been before. Probably hiding, Ranma thought with disgust; the man was weak-willed and ran away from conflicts whenever possible. The talk of marriage seemed to have flushed him out. "Akane and Ranma are to wed. That is the solemn oath of the Tendo and Saotome clans."

"Ah, but your daughter has repudiated her claim." Kodachi's voice was ingratiating, her manner the one of a teacher patiently explaining to a slow student. "And besides, Ranma-sama's father has agreed to break the engagement oath and instead allow him to marry me."

Soun straightened slightly, looking morally offended. "Saotome-kun is a man of honor. He would never-"

"But he has." She reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out an envelope. "I spoke with him after the match. He agreed and signed this letter as proof. I think you'll find it confirms everything I've just said." She handed the letter to Soun.

Soun opened it and read it. As he did, his face grew darker.

Akane glared at Kodachi again, finally regaining her voice. "He never signed that! It's a forgery."

"I recognize the handwriting." Soun's voice was soft and low. And dangerous. "That is his signature."

"Then he was forced to sign it." Akane grit her teeth. "A potion, something she made him drink, she hypnotized him... something!"

"My, my, you place more faith in my drugs than I do. It was much simpler than that. All I did was offer him one million yen if he would agree to those terms. He accepted with alacrity." Kodachi raised her chin and crossed her arms, the picture of one who has delivered the final, conclusive argument in a debate.

Ranma felt his heart sink into his stomach. He knew, without a doubt, that Kodachi was telling the truth. Genma had done some pretty rotten things during the course of their training. Stealing food, clothing, even money once in a while. He'd use every ruse he could think of. Often, Ranma had played the poor, miserable child, his clothes and face dirty. People would often take him and his father in, and Genma would milk them for everything he could before moving on. His father had often spoken of what he would do when he got his hands on some real money.

Evidently, he'd decided to finally live the high life again. At Ranma's expense.

Soun began to tremble. He whirled on Ranma, his voice shaking with his body. "Get out of this house. Tell that low-life oath-breaking honorless father of yours that if I ever see him again, I'll beat him within an inch of his life. The Saotome family is no longer welcome in this house." He began to advance on Ranma, and Ranma stepped backwards down the hallway, quite honestly frightened by Soun's demeanor. "Leave us right now."

Ranma walked backwards through the still-open front door and down the path. Soun stopped at the doorway, the letter crumpled in his hand.

Akane came up behind him and touched him on the arm. "Father..."

"And STAY AWAY FROM MY DAUGHTER!" Soun stepped backwards into the house, and slammed the door. The last thing Ranma saw inside the Tendo home was Akane's stricken face.

"Well, that went better than I had hoped." Kodachi's voice made him jump. He whirled to see her standing behind him, at the front gate. He wondered idly how she'd gotten there. "Now, let's go home."

Ranma locked his jaw. "I ain't going nowhere with you, Kodachi."

"Oh, please, Ranma-sama." She tsked in irritation. "Where else will you stay? Part of the agreement your father made was that you would live in the Kuno mansion until our marriage."

Ranma blinked. "What?"

"In fact, he insisted on it. Which is just as well, considering what just happened." She raised her eyebrows. "Are you going to abide by the agreement your father made? Does the honor of the Saotome family mean so little?"

Ranma stared at her while his brain locked up. Too much had happened in the past couple of days. Akane. Ryoga. Kodachi. Akane. Soun. And, finally, Kodachi again. All without any sleep, thanks to Ryoga. He didn't know what to do, didn't know how to act. Didn't know what to feel.

The words she had just spoken rang through his head. The honor of the Saotome family. Genma had sold his honor for a few yen. How could such a thing be binding on Ranma? Just because someone came up out of the blue and said he was honor-bound to marry them, didn't make it true.

And yet, where else would he go? He really didn't look forward to sleeping in a tent. He had school tomorrow. Best, for now, to go along with Kodachi. He needed a warm place to sleep tonight. Tomorrow he could think clearly, and then he could decide where to go.

And perhaps then he could argue with the voice that was telling him that going with Kodachi was the only honorable thing to do.

He sighed and put on his backpack. "All right, let's get the hell out of here."

Something flickered across Kodachi's face, there and gone before he could fully register it. If he wasn't so tired, he'd think she'd been surprised. "This way," she said quietly.

Ranma followed her, his head ringing more than it had before. Damn, life was getting awfully complicated. Again. Like it had almost every day since that trip to China.

This time, however, it was taking an almost sinister turn. And Ranma feared what horrible things might be in store for him next.

---

Ranma woke slowly. Something was wrong, he knew that. What, he didn't know.

He sat bolt upright all at once. He looked at the unfamiliar surroundings. He was in a bed. He hadn't slept in an honest-to-goodness bed in years. And not just any bed. This one was big and luxurious, a four-poster affair with red silk curtains and bright blue sheets.

The room was as sumptuous as the bed. A desk in one corner, a large bureau, big, comfortable chairs at various strategic locations. Sunlight streamed through a large window. Outside he could see trees.

Ranma's heart sank as it all came back to him. Losing the match. Losing Akane. Coming to the Kuno mansion, more asleep than awake. A mumbled greeting to Kuno, being led up some stairs and into a room, crawling into the bed with no more thought than that he desperately needed sleep.

Oh my, this was going to be a difficult day.

Ranma slowly got out of bed. He didn't see his backpack anywhere. He walked over to the chest of drawers. He found his clothes inside. They'd obviously been cleaned and folded neatly. He took out a set and considered the three doors in the room. He opened one at random and found that it led to a large closet, currently empty. The next door revealed a small, complete bathroom.

Ranma washed himself. He avoided cold water when he did so, for some reason uncomfortable with changing himself while he was here. He dressed and grabbed his bookbag, lying neatly in the center of the desk. He wondered if someone had done his homework for him. That was probably too much to ask for.

He opened the remaining door, and entered a long, wide hallway. The carpet here was deep and rich. Ranma didn't like it.

Ranma made his way down the stairs. At the landing he looked around again. Damn, what a big place this was. He felt quite uncomfortable. What the hell good was all this stuff, anyway? He liked a simple house. He liked a simple life.

Sighing, he climbed down the stairs. His nose led him down another hallway and into a dining room three times the size of the Tendo one.

Kuno was just wiping his mouth. He put stood up, nodded his head in greeting, and left without a word. Ranma noted that he had left most of his breakfast untouched.

He also noticed another place at the table, with a full breakfast waiting. Ranma assumed it was his, and sat down at it. He picked up some chopsticks and took a tentative bite. It was surprisingly good. Ranma didn't know, exactly, why he was surprised. After a few weeks of Kasumi's food, he supposed he'd been worried that anything else would seem second-rate.

Ranma dug in with gusto; he was quite hungry. All of the food was good, if flavored a little strangely. He was just finishing up when Kodachi appeared through another door.

She was wearing her leotard and an apron. A hairnet covered her hair. She smiled as she saw him. "Good morning, Ranma-sama." Her voice was a little distant. She looked down at his breakfast, and raised an eyebrow in surprise. "You ate everything?"

"Uh, yeah. It was good."

"Oh." Kodachi turned and went back out the door she'd come in, which he guessed led to a kitchen. He wondered if she had been the one to prepare breakfast. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen a servant yet.

Ranma finished up the last of the food and stood up. He pondered his next move. He wanted to work out, but the old man wasn't here. Ranma flinched; thoughts of his father were a little painful right now. Genma had taken betrayal to a new level.

His morose thoughts were interrupted by the return of Kodachi. She was holding a large cup of some steaming, foul-smelling liquid. She handed it to him absently. "Here, drink this." She then began clearing the breakfast dishes.

Ranma looked down at the green, thick substance. He recoiled slightly. "What is this?"

Kodachi, carrying a load of dishes, walked past him towards the door. "It contains antidotes to the poisons you just ate," she said distantly as she left.

Ranma stared at the door. He felt the cup begin to slip from his hand. Convulsively he tightened his grip. He looked at the concoction. He felt dizzy and weak, but that may have only been the panic. Hastily he drank the liquid, ignoring the way it burned his tongue. It roiled around his stomach.

He looked at the bottom of cup, horror beginning to replace the panic. Good God, what had he gotten mixed up in? What kind of woman was Kodachi? What kind of life did the Kuno family lead here?

Kodachi lifted the cup from his hand. He looked up at her; she wasn't looking at him, merely going about clearing off the last of the dishes. She left the dining room again.

Ranma drew two deep breaths, walked over, picked up his bookbag, and left the dining room.

Kuno was waiting in the hallway. He had his school uniform on and was looking at Ranma dispassionately. "Saotome Ranma, let us off to Furinkan."

Ranma stared at him numbly. Kuno turned and walked down the hallway. Ranma followed him, more out of habit than anything. Mechanical, non-thinking actions were all he was capable of right now.

He followed Kuno down the street. Ranma managed enough lucidity to regard Kuno for a moment. As a walking companion to school, he was a far cry from Akane.

Kuno seemed to feel his gaze. "My apologies, Saotome Ranma."

Ranma blinked. "Uh, for what?"

"I should have warned you about my sister's cuisine."

Ranma grimaced and said nothing.

Kuno continued. "There is much about my sister I need to educate you on if you are to wed her."

Ranma felt a bit of relief; here was familiar territory he could get angry about. "We are not going to get married!"

"Really? Kodachi assures me that a man of your honor will live up to the commitments of the Saotome family."

Ranma's emotions sank back down into an unfathomable morass. Damn the old man anyhow.

They continued without another word. Furinkan finally came into view. Kuno nodded as they separated. Ranma changed his shoes and made his way to the classroom.

He sat in his seat next to Akane. She didn't look at him, but she didn't look deliberately away, either. She just looked straight ahead, waiting for the teacher to begin.

Ranma sighed and looked forward himself. For the first time in his life, he couldn't wait for school to begin.

---

After school, Ranma decided to hang out with Daisuke and Hiroshi. He managed to talk them into buying him a bowl of ramen - he hadn't eaten anything for lunch, having not taken anything from the Kuno mansion with him. They were full of questions about the match - particularly about the fantastic-looking girl who had the same name he did and fought the same way he fought. They pestered him for her phone number or where she lived - anything.

Ranma had no inclination to tell them that they were closer to her than they knew. He ate his ramen and ignored their questions.

Finally, Hiroshi realized he wasn't going to get anywhere. He instead said with a sigh, "Well, at least we can always try for Akane."

Ranma, the last of the ramen halfway to his lips, froze and glared at him.

Hiroshi blanched. "H-hey! It's... I mean, you guys aren't engaged anymore."

"That's right," Daisuke interjected. "She's available, right?"

Ranma spoke quietly. "You guys lay a hand on her and I'll..." He trailed off.

Daisuke and Hiroshi stared at him, waiting for him to finish. Ranma dropped the noodles back into the bowl and leaped over Hiroshi out of the booth.

Damn. This he did not need. Those two jerks would be fawning over Akane again. Hell, half the school would probably be asking her out. What the hell did they see in the uncute, unsexy...

Somehow, the familiar insults seemed inappropriate.

He shook his head and decided he couldn't put it off any longer. He had to go back to the Kuno mansion. To go...

It would never be home. He'd never really had a home, just places to stay once for a while. Yet, for some reason, even though he'd only been there a few weeks, the Tendo house had seemed like home. It had been almost... comfortable. Now he was forbidden to go there, and all he had was the cold, sterile Kuno mansion.

Ranma growled. He hated this, hated feeling depressed for hours and hours. He needed to snap out of it. Lifting his head, he tried to stride confidently back to the mansion. He even jumped onto a few fences, something he hadn't done since the match. His innate self-confidence began to grow just a little. He'd get a grip on these problems and overcome them. He always did.

He strode through the main gate and into the mansion. Security was pretty light; Ranma didn't see any guards. He wondered if anyone ever tried to steal stuff.

He looked around the foyer, wondering what to do next. Kodachi, that was it. Talk to her, tell her to stop poisoning him. At least she did it knowingly, unlike Akane. Perhaps that meant she would listen to reason.

Ranma wandered up and down the halls, looking for her. He finally found her in an apron and hairnet again, dusting a fair-sized library. He strode up to her and called to her in a firm voice. "Kodachi."

She ignored him, continuing to dust the books.

Ranma frowned. He reached over to grab her shoulder. "Kodachi."

She turned and stared at him. Her eyes were unfocused and her expression was dreamy. She seemed to be in some far-off place. Slowly, she began to focus on him. She stopped about halfway back to reality, in Ranma's not-so-expert opinion. "Ranma-sama," she said absently.

Ranma examined her closely. "Hello? Kodachi?"

"Hello? Kodachi?" She frowned slightly. "Yes, Kodachi."

Ranma shook his head, his recently-reacquired confidence slipping. "I need to talk to you, Kodachi."

"Need to talk to me, Kodachi?" Her lip quavered. "Need to talk to me? Need -" She broke off and ran past him. As she reached the library door, Ranma thought he could hear her begin to sob.

Ranma's mouth dropped open. He hesitated a second, then ran after her.

She was fast, no doubt about it. He could barely keep his eyes on her as she ran down some stairs, down a hallway, and down another set of stairs to a basement. As Ranma reached the bottom of the stairs, he heard a door slam shut.

He turned and saw a simple white door at the end of a short hallway. He ran to it and tried to open it, but found that it was locked. He was wondering whether he should break it down when he noticed that there was a window in the door, covered by a sliding panel. Hesitantly, he reached up and slid the cover aside.

Inside was a small room bare of furnishings. There were mats on the floor, walls, and ceiling. They were uniformly a dull gray color. In the middle of the room, Kodachi was kneeling on the ground cradling her duster and rocking on her heels. She was sobbing uncontrollably.

Ranma cleared his throat. "Kodachi?"

"NO! NO!" The screams were hysterical. She leaped to her feet and pounded her hands against the opposite wall, hard. The duster broke in half, the feathered end falling to the ground. Kodachi slid back to the ground, still cradling the remains of the duster, and sobbing loudly.

Ranma was so entranced by the display that the hand on his shoulder caused him to grab it, whirl around, and throw Kuno against the wall, his forearm pressed against his presumed assailant's throat. Kuno took it impassively, looking down at Ranma as he would at someone who had dirtied his gi.

"It is best that we leave her alone," Kuno said calmly. "She will spend the night in that room and hurt no one, not even herself. When she is through she will emerge and be normal again."

Ranma bit back his first question, which was to ask Kuno what "normal" meant around here. "How often does she do this?"

"Periodically. Every few weeks or so. Sometimes she does it after having been through a stressful time."

Ranma thought back to the match and the fight at the Tendo home. She had seemed so calm while the others around her flared emotionally. Evidently it had affected her more deeply than her actions at the time would have suggested.

He stepped back and released Kuno. He looked at him thoughtfully. "Do you ever need to do this?"

"No." Kuno looked at Ranma for a moment. "Not yet." He turned and strode away back up the stairs.

Ranma slumped down against the wall, listening to Kodachi weep. He held his head in his hands and wondered how long he would need to stay here before he, too, needed a cell to cry in.

---

Ranma crouched on top of the wall, waiting. Finally, he heard the sound of the gate closing and footsteps approaching. As they turned the corner, he leaped to the ground. Nabiki and Akane took a step back in surprise. "Hi."

They stared at him for a second. Finally, Nabiki turned to Akane. "I, uh, gotta get to school early. Got some collections to make. I'm going to go on ahead." With that she took off running.

"Nabiki..." Akane reached out as if to stop her sister, but could only watch as she disappeared around another corner. Finally, she turned to look at Ranma.

Ranma looked back at her. "Wanna... wanna walk to school?"

"S-sure." Her eyes were wide and her expression uncertain. They turned and began to make their way to Furinkan.

Ranma wondered what to say. He'd felt an overwhelming desire to talk to Akane, but now that he was in her presence, he couldn't formulate a thought. "How've you been?" was the only thing he could thing to say.

"Uh, okay I guess. I, uh, lost P-chan."

"Oh yeah?"

"I was ice-skating, and I think I left him on the ice. I haven't seen him since."

Ranma could tell that she was taking her pet's loss pretty hard. Ranma had more important things to think about than where Ryoga had wandered off. "Don't worry, he'll be fine. I'm sure wherever he is, he's being well cared for."

"I hope so." Akane sighed. Then she turned her head to look at Ranma. "How have you been?"

Ranma looked down. "It... it ain't been a lot of fun."

"I imagine. Kodachi doesn't seem like the most stable person in the world."

"You have no idea." Ranma shuddered. He considered Akane again. "How's your father?"

Akane understood the question immediately. "Still furious at your dad. And you. I don't think you should try and go home for a while."

Ranma muttered a curse. "This is all so screwed up."

"Ranma." Akane stopped. Ranma turned to face her. To his shock, she looked to be on the verge of tears. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" Ranma pulled his head back. "For what?"

"For pushing you out of the ring with the fire hose. For making you lose the match. F-for..." A tear began to make its way down her cheek. "For screwing up your life."

"Akane! It ain't your fault." Ranma growled. "I... I stayed up all night practicing with Ryoga, when I should have known better." He shouldn't have let Ryoga goad him like that, shouldn't have fought him all night. "I let Kodachi attach Ry- P-chan to me, and she used the oldest trick in the book!" Look over there, indeed. He'd been such an idiot. "And I... uh, I held back when I shouldn't have. I mean..."

"She was a girl." Akane had stopped crying and was even looking a little irritated. "She was a girl and you have trouble attacking women. Even when you are one."

Ranma grimaced. "Hell, the fight should have been over in less than a minute. It would have been, if I'd been thinking clearly and not held back. So don't blame yourself, Akane. I was the one that got me into that mess."

"And I was the one that bet our engagement on the match." Akane was sounding more and more angry. Exactly at who, Ranma couldn't tell.

"I don't see that you ever agreed. Kodachi just announced that you would be fighting for me, and everyone seemed to go along with it." Ranma scowled. "If anyone's at fault for that part, it's Pop. He let Kodachi buy me like some damn piece of fish at the market."

"That's right!" Akane spun and kicked a nearby lamppost. She made a significant dent in the side of it. "If I ever see him again, it's panda steaks for dinner!"

Ranma grinned. "I'll help serve."

Akane looked at him in surprise. Then she smiled back for just a second. Fleeting as it was, it warmed his heart. She quickly sobered. "So what do we do now?"

"I don't know. I was wondering if you had any ideas."

Akane sighed, and indicated that they should keep walking. "I... I guess we should just wait for my father to cool down. Maybe we can make him listen to reason."

Ranma nodded. "Okay."

Akane looked at him out of the corner of her eye. "Does it strike you as strange?"

Ranma laughed without humor. "The whole situation strikes me as strange. What part were you referring to?"

Akane spoke in a quiet, serious tone of voice. "That after weeks of protesting the engagement, we're both trying to get back into it?"

Ranma flushed. "I'm just trying to get away from Kodachi. Don't go jumping to any conclusions."

Akane's voice hardened. "I'm not. I just don't want Kodachi to win, that's all. Besides, boys have started to come on to me again, and at least they were afraid of you. I just want to get them off my back."

Ranma nodded. "Just so we understand each other."

"We do," Akane said icily.

They said nothing more as they approached Furinkan.

---

Ranma bounced around the large yard. Training by himself was boring. Even if he had mostly outclassed his father in pure skill, the old man had enough dirty tricks up his sleeve to make the matches interesting. At least the Kuno yard was big; he could bounce around all over the place without having to worry about any damn koi ponds.

He stopped for a moment on the branch of a small tree. On a very large porch overlooking the back yard, Kodachi and Kuno were working out. Kuno was thrusting with his bokken in a slow, deliberate manner, following forms that had been established centuries ago and rigidly adhering to them. Ranma shook his head; Kuno was all forms, no skill. Ranma could take him out any time he wanted to.

He looked at Kodachi. Her style was unique. He'd never even heard of Rhythmic Gymnastics Martial Arts before. Kodachi wore a leotard as she practiced with two balls. One she threw very high up into the air. She did a very rapid series of cartwheels and somersaults while always keeping the other ball held high, whether it was held in her hand or with her feet or resting on top of her head. Finally she sprang upright and, without looking, grabbed the second ball as it fell into her hand cupped behind her back.

She set the ball down and picked up a ribbon. She began whirling it around her body in a pretty spiral that went down to her feet. She moved to the side, keeping the spiral going as she moved. Then with a snap she leaped into the air and sent the ribbon flying away from her. And towards Ranma.

Ranma had been so mesmerized by her workout that he didn't react, only noted that the ribbon wasn't aimed directly at him. It snagged the branch next to him, and Kodachi tugged on it tightly. It changed the arc of her leap, and she landed on the branch next to Ranma.

She smiled. "Good afternoon, Ranma-sama."

Ranma studied her closely. She seemed better, relative as that term was. Her voice was lively, even if it contained that superior tone that always set his teeth on edge. Already, though, Ranma had learned to read her real mood by her eyes. They seemed sharp and focused. Full of mischief. He hated the eye shadow she used, the way it slanted her eyes and made them look... well, evil. But for now, she seemed to be in high spirits. "Hey there, Kodachi."

"Are you enjoying your stay here?"

"Um..." Loaded question. He tried switching topics. "Say, do you guys have any servants or anything?"

Her smile vanished. "I handle the domestic duties in the mansion. We have no need of servants."

Ranma frowned. "That's an awfully big mansion. How do you keep it up all by yourself?"

Her voice began to get a little icy. "With diligence."

Ranma gulped, and decided to try another question. "Where are your parents?"

To Ranma's consternation, Kodachi's eyes began to glaze over. "Do us both a favor, Ranma. Never ask about my parents again."

Ranma quickly waved his hands in a conciliatory fashion. "Hey, I'm sorry."

She laughed, the full-throated laugh that always frightened Ranma. "Don't worry, Ranma-sama," she said through the laughter. "It is of no concern. Come, let us practice together as a good family should." With that, she pushed him out of the tree.

"Hey!" He flipped in the air landed on his feet. He glared angrily up at her. "What do -"

He was interrupted by a ribbon whipping the end of his nose. "Ow!" He jumped back and covered his nose with his hands. That had hurt.

Kodachi landed, laughed, and threw a ball at him. He blocked it with a forearm. He moved his head aside as the ribbon snaked past. He growled and leaped away, only to be struck in mid-air by Kuno's bokken.

Kuno looked irritated. "Saotome! Stay out of my way while I practice."

Ranma stuck his tongue out at him while he flew through the air. He turned to see where he was going to land. He felt the blood drain from his face as he saw the pond approaching.

Damn it all, anyway, he thought. Where does all this stupid water come from?

Ranma entered the pond with a splash. She touched the bottom, frustrated. What to do now? She could hold her breath a long time; perhaps she could find a way to sneak out of the pond without anyone seeing. She turned around with the idea of seeing how big the pond was and what was on the other side. She found herself face-to-snout with an alligator that was regarding her curiously.

Ranma let her breath out trying to scream. She pushed off the bottom and shot out of the pond, landing on the ground a few feet away. She scrabbled backwards on her seat until she came to the feet of Kodachi. She pointed frantically at the pond. "There's... there's... there's an alligator in that pond!"

Kodachi was looking at her in shock. Kuno came up and stared down at her, his face equally surprised.

Ranma flushed, realizing that she had just given her secret away. They knew. They knew everything now.

Still, she thought, perhaps this was for the best. If Kodachi knew that Ranma was sometimes a girl, she'd perhaps want nothing to do with her. And Kuno would certainly be angry that one of his beloveds was actually a guy. The more Ranma thought about it and the longer the Kuno siblings stared at her, the better she thought her chances were that her problems were solved.

Finally Kuno dropped his bokken. "Pig-tailed girl!" He scooped her up and hugged her closely.

Kodachi glared at her. "What are you doing in my pond, you dreadful woman? Where have you hidden my fiancee? The Black Rose will punish you!"

Ranma closed her eyes. She should have realized that nothing was going to get resolved so easily. And, she realized with a shudder, it was only going to get worse before it got better.

If it ever did.

Ranma tried to keep from crying while the Kunos lavished their special attention on her.

~*~

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