ROSES OF SHADOW

By Richard Lawson

Part Two: What Honor Compels

---

Ranma watched the birds across the street. They seemed to be playing a lively game of tag. One would take off, and another would immediately follow. They'd flit across and around the street before coming to rest on a wire or tree branch, chittering loudly. Ranma enjoyed their lively play.

Nabiki walked by, smiling and winking her eye. Ranma nodded absently to her. Soon thereafter, Akane came by. Ranma straightened from where he crouched atop the fence and walked along it next to Akane.

They walked for a while in silence before Ranma asked the same question he'd been asking for a week. "How's your father?"

"Angry. So angry still." Akane's voice was mixture of frustration and sadness. "He keeps talking about how betrayed he feels. His life-long friend has sold his son, choosing money over honor."

Ranma shook his head. "I kinda always thought our fathers were just the same. But there's one big difference. Your father has honor."

"Yeah. Maybe too damned much. I don't know why he's taking it out on you."

"Sins of the father and all that." Ranma shook his head. "How long do you think it'll be?"

It was another question Ranma asked almost daily. This time, however, Akane's answer was a lot more pessimistic. "A long time, I think. He's not furious any more, but his anger is constant, simmering. I haven't seen him this way since... in a long time."

"Damn." Ranma was a little surprised at the vehemence in his voice.

Akane tried to mollify him. "Don't worry, we'll get through to him. Nabiki works him over all the time. Even Kasumi helps, in her own way. He'll break down. He always does."

Ranma allowed himself to take a little comfort in her words. He knew he needed all the hope he could get.

Akane looked over at him. "Still bad?"

Ranma shook his head. "Nothing I can't handle."

Akane said nothing in a very irritated way. Ranma let out a sigh of the unjustly persecuted.

They went on to school in this manner. Ranma had to fight hard not to smile.

---

Ranma ducked under the hoop and crouched, waiting for Kodachi's next attack. She had another hoop in her hand and was whirling it above her head, watching him closely.

Ranma took in the tactical situation. He had to stay away from the pond, for more than the obvious reasons - the alligator behaved nicely around Kodachi, but he'd seen it devour a side of beef with unbridled enthusiasm.

Ranma also had to avoid Kuno. Kuno always stayed in one area of the backyard, but defended that area with vigor. While Ranma could handle Kuno easily, he'd leave an opening while doing so, and Kodachi was uncanny at exploiting such openings.

Another hoop came flying at him. He rolled to the side as the hoop buried itself deeply into a tree. Kodachi was not holding back at all.

Ranma kinda liked that about her.

Still, he was beginning to figure her out. As versatile as her attacks were, they were still limited in number. He had the hoops, balls, and clubs worked out; she'd never be able to hit him with any of those.

The only thing he hadn't yet got a handle on was her ribbon. As he watched, she pulled the damn thing out and began twirling it ominously. She could do a heck of a lot of things with it, as if it were a part of her body she could control with just a thought.

Ranma slowly straightened, keeping his hands ready. He wanted to try something different today. The ribbon came flying at him. Instead of trying to avoid it, he grabbed it with his hands. Kodachi tried to rip it out of his hands, but he was ready for it and instead gave the ribbon a strong tug himself. Kodachi, refusing to let go, was lifted off her feet. She flew through the air a few feet before landing, somersaulting, and jumping to her feet. By that time Ranma had gained enough slack on the ribbon to throw a couple of loops around her, pinning her arms to her side.

Ranma grinned. "Gotcha."

"That you did, Ranma-sama." Her voice was a little off. Ranma studied her, and noticed that her cheeks and eyes were shining. Ranma winced internally; for the past couple of weeks she had been bright and cheerful. She still poisoned his food - Kuno had been a big help in identifying what was safe to eat - and she fed her dangerous pets with relish. But overall she'd been friendly and almost nice.

Yet there was always an edge to her voice, a hint of something only barely controlled. It surfaced sometimes when she laughed. Now it seemed to be coming out again. Ranma quickly went over and unwrapped the ribbon. "You okay?"

She laughed, which caused the hair to rise on Ranma's neck. "I'm fine, Ranma-sama!" Still laughing, she bounced into the house, leaving black rose petals in her wake.

Ranma frowned. The rose petals were new. That is, this was the first time he'd seem them since moving into the mansion. He wondered what they meant. He wondered if it was safe to wonder.

Kuno finished his practice and walked by Ranma into the house. They ignored each other. Ranma had never cared much for the pompous jerk, and the extra time with him hadn't improved Ranma's opinion. Kuno, for his part, seemed to ignore just about everything. He lived in some private world that only allowed for occasional intrusions by reality.

Ranma waited a moment for Kuno to find his way, then went in after him. He walked down the hallway, and stopped at the sight of Kodachi. She was still wearing her leotard, but had thrown an apron over it. She was on her hands and knees polishing the woodwork.

He never could understand it. Kodachi would spend hours each day maintaining the large Kuno mansion. There were, indeed, no servants employed by the Kunos. Kodachi did all of the domestic work herself. She threw herself into the menial tasks with zeal, cleaning, dusting, vacuuming, and washing for hours on end. She was Kasumi on amphetamines.

Ranma stepped down the hallway so he could see her face clearly. Her eyes were mostly focused, which was good. She was concentrating every bit of her attention on the grains of wood in front of her. Ranma knew she would be doing this late into the evening, possibly even after midnight.

He decided to leave her alone. He went up to the room he slept in. He didn't want to call it "his" room; he didn't feel comfortable in it. He hadn't slept in a bed in years, and found the things too soft and luxurious for his tastes.

Also, he hadn't slept alone in his entire life. Much to his disgust, there was a large part of him that missed the company of the old man.

Ranma shook his head to clear it of such thoughts. He washed up in the private bathroom off of the bedroom. And then, because he had absolutely nothing else to do - heck, even a fight with Ryoga wouldn't have been so bad - he began his homework.

---

Ranma dropped into place beside Akane. They began their journey to school together.

Ranma spoke quietly. "How's-"

"Nothing's changed." Her voice was irritated and angry. "If something changes, I'll tell you. There's no reason to pester me every day."

"I ain't pestering you!" Ranma whipped his head away. "No reason to take it out on me."

"Take what out on you?"

"The fact that you- we're not engaged anymore. It ain't my fault."

"Who says I wanted to be engaged to you, idiot! Go ahead and sleep with that deranged floozy, see if I care!"

"I am not sleeping with her!"

"You have merely to ask, Ranma-sama."

Ranma nearly jumped out of his skin. Kodachi dropped from a tree and landed in front of them. She was dressed in the school uniform of St. Hebereke's, which was nowhere near Furinkan. Her eyes were slightly wild and drifted in and out of focus.

She looked angrily at Akane. "Is this how you keep your promises?"

Akane's temper was more than equal to the task. "I never made any promise. You just assumed I had. Nobody asked what I wanted. Nobody ever asks what I want!"

"Poor dear." The words were said with a ghost of mockery, as if Kodachi was trying to taunt Akane but couldn't quite remember how. "Everyone picks on you, how sad." Her voice hardened. "Still, you would do best to remember that your engagement was nullified. Ranma belongs to me."

That was enough for Ranma. "Shut up, Kodachi. Damn it! I belong to no one!"

Her eyes swiveled to meet his. "Is this how you operate, Ranma-sama? Do you have so little honor that you cannot see any commitment through to completion?"

The words cut him to the quick. "I have honor, Kodachi."

"Oh?" Akane now turned on him. "What does that mean? Do you want to marry that... that... Kuno?" She said the family name as if it was an insult.

"I didn't say that!" Ranma was angry beyond reason. "You're always jumping to conclusions, always assuming the worst about me, always calling me a pervert and stuff. You can't think of why I might be glad we're not engaged any more?"

Akane exploded. "I only said those things because you are a pervert. You probably peek in on Kodachi and pose for Kuno, right? I don't know why we keep trying to get you out of that hellhole. You and Kodachi deserve each other1"

She stepped around Kodachi, heading towards Furinkan. "Keep him, see if I care."

Kodachi called after her in a reasonable simulation of anger. "Stay away from my fiancee!"

Akane yelled over her shoulder. "Tell your fiancee to stop pestering me!" She began running quickly away.

Kodachi turned back to Ranma, a small smile on her face. "Good. That problem is solved."

Ranma had never wanted to hit a woman so much in his life. Had never wanted to hit anyone so much. "You enjoyed that, didn't you?" He was surprised by how soft and deadly his voice was.

She laughed insanely, as always. "Merely protecting my investment, Ranma-sama. Can't let some harridan take you away from me."

Ranma made a fist with one hand, then unclenched it after a second. "Get out of my sight," he said through clenched teeth. He stepped around her, taking the same route Akane had taken.

"Ranma-sama..." Her voice sounded almost pleading. Ranma couldn't care less. He needed very much for her to disappear forever.

---

Ranma lay on the floor, staring at the ceiling. Life was hell.

School had been decidedly unpleasant. He and Akane had ignored each other with a ferocity that sent whispers throughout the halls of Furinkan. Ranma had snapped at everyone around him and had spent a good deal of time out in the hallway holding a bucket of water.

Returning to the Kuno mansion had found Kodachi folding clothes at a frenetic pace. All of Ranma's dinner had been poisoned, leaving him with what he could scrounge from the kitchen. Kodachi had not participated in a workout after dinner, instead concentrating on polishing the silverware. Ranma had examined her eyes; she was mostly present, but flickering wildly in and out of reality. He had judged her to be several days away from re-entering the cell, if his limited experience was any guide.

Ranma sighed and wondered at what his life had come to. Everything had been relatively okay until China. When the old man had taken him to the springs with no idea of the dangers that lurked there. When the old man had forced him into an engagement with someone he'd known nothing about. When the old man had reneged on that engagement and sold Ranma to an unbalanced woman.

Damn the old man anyhow.

"Psst."

Ranma frowned and sat up. "Kodachi, go to bed."

"Shut up, boy." The stage whisper was coming from the window. "Pack your things and let's get out of here."

"Pop!" Ranma sprang up and ran over to the window. Genma was crouched on the windowsill, looking furtively around.

"Hurry," Genma whispered urgently, "before the Kuno family ninjas come after us."

"They don't got no ninjas, Pop." Still, hurrying before Kodachi found out was good. "Wait."

Ranma ran over, opened the closet, and grabbed his backpack. He spent two frantic minutes shoving his things inside. He was missing some of his clothes, including one of his favorite shirts. Kodachi had them with the laundry. The hell with them, he decided. He had other priorities now. He shouldered his backpack and ran to the window. "Ready."

Genma was looking around the well-appointed room. "Did she give you any money? Jewels? Surely she gave you something nice and valuable that isn't too heavy?"

"Pop!" Ranma pushed him off the windowsill. Genma fell to the ground and stared up in surprise. Ranma jumped and landed lightly on the ground beside him. "Enough, Pop. I don't want to take nothing from this place. Let's go."

Genma grunted in disappointment. Nevertheless, he ran off into the night. Ranma followed.

They ran through the streets, backtracking and changing direction several times. It was a routine Ranma was familiar with; his father was trying to avoid any would-be pursuers. Ranma wondered when they would begin to make their way back to the Tendo Dojo.

After a while, it became clear they were leaving the city. Ranma looked back towards Nerima and grabbed Genma's arm. "Pop, where are we going?"

"We can't stay here, boy. It's too hot. Kodachi will be looking for us, and Tendo has... well, we won't be welcome there for a long time."

Ranma growled, but had to accept the logic. Maybe in a few months they could return, and Kodachi would have forgotten all about Ranma and fixated on something else. And Soun wouldn't be mad anymore and would let them say in the Tendo house again. And Akane... and Akane would be there.

Ranma resigned himself to patience, something he wasn't used to. "Okay. Where are we going?"

Genma turned and began walking off. "San Francisco."

Ranma stood frozen. Genma walked quite a distance before reluctantly turning back to stand in front of Ranma again. "C'mon, boy, who knows what forces she can bring to bear?"

"San Francisco? San Francisco?" Ranma literally could not believe his ears.

Genma sighed. "We need to get far away. Besides, I have a friend we can stay with. Owns a jewelry store there. His wife's younger sister is unmarried, too. I was thinking -"

"San FranCISCO!" Ranma grabbed his father's gi. "Are you outta your mind, Pop? I am not going to America!"

"Boy," Genma said in a pleading voice, "we can't stay here. Kodachi's got thugs that can track us all over Japan. Besides, America will be good for you. Maybe we could get you into the movies or something."

"Dammit, Pop!" Ranma shoved Genma away. "I am damn tired of you screwing around with my life. First China, then the engagement, then Kodachi, and now this! Not to mention all the trouble we got into before. I'm tired of it."

Ranma spun on his heel and stormed away. "You've screwed up my life enough. You sold me, Pop. Sold me and deserted me. I'd say that means you don't get to tell me what to do anymore."

Ranma stopped when he felt Genma's grip on his shoulder. "Boy." Genma sounded defensive, almost petulant. "I was always coming after you. This was an easy way for us to make a million yen. Now we've got it and we can move on, go to the next town like we always have."

Ranma turned his head and looked at his father. "Does your honor mean so little to you? Just a way to fool people long enough so you can steal from them? I thought you were better than that. You taught me all sorts of stuff about living up to the code of the School. Why can't you? Why won't you uphold the honor of the Saotome clan?"

The old man didn't answer. He stared at Ranma, something like shame covering his face.

Ranma shrugged his shoulder out of his father's grasp. "Don't even try to talk to me until you've grown up, Pop."

He stalked off, leaving his father behind.

---

The streets of Nerima were mostly deserted. Ranma walked through them with no clear idea of what he was going to do now.

In the back of his mind, he'd always known that the old man would be coming for him. He'd been biding his time, waiting for Genma to rescue him. Little had he realized that he was only going to be taken from one bad situation and put into another. He couldn't rely on Genma anymore. For anything.

So what was left to rely on?

Honor. The word came back to him. So long he had berated his father for having no honor, yet he had been willing to run away from his obligations at the drop of a hat. He'd been having a bad time - a horrible time - and had jumped at the chance to escape.

"Do you have so little honor that you cannot see any commitment through to completion?" Kodachi's words buzzed through his head. As horrifying as it was, his father had the right to arrange whatever engagement he saw fit. He had arranged something with Kodachi that, despite the motivations behind it, Ranma was honor-bound to accept as valid. The prior engagement to Akane was not binding at this time, since both Genma and Soun had repudiated it.

Ranma idly wondered what other agreements Genma had made on his behalf, and when those might be coming up to bite him.

Ranma grimaced. There was no helping it. He'd have to stay with Kodachi until he could find a way to get her to annul the engagement. Once Kodachi had released him, he could go and talk to Soun and try to convince him that honor meant more to him than it did to his father.

He remembered Akane's angry shouts this morning and quickly revised his plan. All he had to do right now was get out from underneath Kodachi's thumb. He could decide what to do then.

Reluctantly, he made his way back towards the Kuno mansion.

This late at night the gate was locked, the only token effort at security the Kunos made. Ranma had never bothered to learn the code to activate the gate; instead, he leaped over the wall and landed inside the grounds. He made his way to the mansion and entered the foyer.

The mansion was dark. Ranma removed his shoes and padded across the thick carpet. He stepped on something sharp and cried out. He reached down and picked it up, examining it as best he could in the darkness. It was a fork. One of the pieces of silverware Kodachi had been polishing earlier.

Something twisted Ranma's stomach. He walked into the dining room. As his eyes adjusted he could see more silverware littering the floor. A few of the knives were stuck in the wall.

"Damn," Ranma said softly. Using all of the courage he could muster, he reentered the hallway and found the door that led to the basement. He opened it and walked down.

The lights were on. He could see the door at the end of the hallway perfectly, just as he could hear the sobs quite clearly.

Ranma moved slowly down the hallway. He paused at the door, then used all of the willpower he had at his disposal to slide open the window.

Kodachi was inside, wearing her apron over her school uniform, just as he'd seen her last. She was kneeling on the ground, crying and sobbing and rocking on her heels, all just like before. This time, however, instead of the feather duster, she was cradling one of Ranma's shirts.

Ranma closed the window with a snap. The crying inside continued unabated; he was certain she wasn't aware of him.

He didn't want to do this. He didn't want to be here. Every fiber of his being called on him to run down the hallway and up the stairs. He wanted to find his father and go to San Francisco and leave this all behind. Problems unrelated to martial arts were things to be avoided if possible, run away from if necessary. He'd never had to deal with anything serious, never had to help someone with a deep emotional problem, and he preferred to keep it that way.

Run. Run now. Leave your honor behind. What the hell good has it ever done you anyway.

Ranma reached down and grabbed the door handle. He tried to turn it. It was locked. He began to pull his hand away, paused, then gripped it tightly and twisted convulsively. Something snapped, and the door swung open.

Kodachi turned at the intrusion. She looked up at him. He had to keep from recoiling. Her eyes were red and her face was puffy. Her eyeshadow had mixed with her tears and left black streaks running down her face. Her lip was trembling and her eyes were distant, unfocused, mad.

Ranma quailed and actually leaned backwards, preparatory to turning around and running. He scraped together every last bit of courage, honor, and self-respect that he possessed, and held his ground.

Slowly, very slowly, her eyes began to focus. As they did, astonishment began to fight through her sobbing, along with a kind of fearful hope. "R-Ranma-sama?"

Ranma nodded. "Yeah," he said in a subdued voice. "It's me."

"You... you came back. You didn't leave me." She said this with amazement.

Honor compelled him to say the next words. Honor, and something else. He knelt on the ground in front of her as he said them. "I ain't gonna leave, Kodachi. Not without your say-so."

Her sobs, which had been ebbing, began again in full force. "Ranma-sama!" She reached over and hugged him fiercely, sobbing into his chest. This sobbing sounded a little different. Ranma could hear... control. It wasn't hysterical, it wasn't unstoppable. It sounded more like... relief.

He sighed and hugged her to him, stroking her hair and comforting her. And as he did so, he felt something release inside him, something that told him he had done the right thing, and had begun something that was going to be all right.

~*~

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