ROSES OF SHADOW

By Richard Lawson

Part Three: Why Should He Live

---

Ranma began to drift awake. It was taking a long time. Well, it always took a long time; sleep was something he enjoyed a lot. This time, however, he felt particularly resistant to the idea of regaining consciousness.

He had enough awareness now to realize that he wasn't in his bed. He appeared to be sitting against the wall. A padded wall. There was a weight on his stomach. And his hand was resting on something... soft.

Finally he could deny it no longer. He woke up.

He was in the cell, as he feared he would be. And Kodachi was sleeping with her head on his stomach, also as he feared. His hand was caught up in her hair, resting lightly on her head.

"Damn," he swore softly. Again. Kodachi had hugged him and sobbed into his chest for half an hour last night. Then she had sniffled for another hour, her arms still wrapped around him. He'd had an arm draped over her shoulders and had been absently stroking her hair. Finally, she'd fallen asleep, and Ranma had not wanted to disturb her too quickly. He'd decided to wait until she was deep asleep before moving. Unfortunately, he had evidently fallen asleep himself. Somewhere during the night their positions had altered slightly.

Ranma studied Kodachi's face. It looked peaceful, although it was frightfully streaked with her eyeshadow. Still, Ranma knew that a peaceful look meant nothing on Kodachi - it was her eyes that told the story of her rationality, and he couldn't see them.

He imagined what her reaction was going to be when she woke up. Overjoyed, probably maniacally so, to wake up in his arms. The sickly sweet devotion she'd shower on him. Calling him "Ranma-sama" over and over.

Ranma wanted no part of that.

Slowly he disentangled his hand from her hair and lifted her shoulders. He scooted out from underneath her and gently laid her on the mat. Quietly, he gathered himself and opened the door. He heard her groan softly, and quickly stepped through the door and ran lightly down the hallway.

He ran to his room, his mind in a whirl. Sleeping with Kodachi was something he never thought would happen, and he hoped never to repeat the experience. For some reason, he kept thinking guiltily of Akane.

He ran into the bathroom, glancing at the clock as he did so. He didn't have much time. He threw off his clothes, quickly soaped up, filled a bucket with water, and dumped it over himself. Ranma realized her mistake instantly. Growling, she quickly filled it again with hot water and changed back.

Ranma ran out into the bedroom and ground to a halt. He realized two things instantly: Kodachi was standing in the bedroom doorway, and he was naked. Reacting quickly, he dove into the walk-in closet. Someone had put his backpack there. No need to guess who.

Still, it was convenient. He put on a fresh set of clothes, grabbed his bookbag, and walked back out into the bedroom.

Kodachi had not moved. Ranma noted that she had washed her face. It was completely devoid of makeup. In fact, Ranma had a little difficulty believing it was her. She looked cute without all the eyeshadow.

Her eyes, he was saddened to notice, weren't entirely in focus. "Where are you off to, Ranma-sama?"

Ranma felt a bit of annoyance. As usual, she was ignoring how impolite it was of her to peek in on him, concentrating only on the things that affected her. "I'm off to school. I'm gonna be late."

Her voice was neutral, which Ranma knew was dangerous. "You have plenty of time. My brother will not be leaving for another twenty minutes."

Ranma shrugged. "I like to be early." He moved closer to the door, but she didn't move out of his way.

"You're going to meet her again, aren't you?" The voice contained no hint of accusation, but her eyes drifted farther out of focus.

Damn. He had no time for this. He turned and walked towards the still-open window.

"Ranma-sama!" Her voice sounded a little shrill. "You stay away from her! You belong to me!"

Ranma whirled so quickly he surprised himself. He glared at her. "Listen to me, Kodachi, this is the last time I'm gonna say this. I - belong - to - nobody."

She just looked back at him with her cute face and unbalanced eyes and an expression that was part hurt and part supplication. Ranma couldn't bear the sight of it, so he turned and jumped out the window.

This was nuts, the whole thing was nuts. He wanted to get away, to get Kodachi to let him go. Yet all he had done was given her more reasons to obsess over him.

Ranma considered, for the first time, the possibility that she would never let him go. He shuddered.

Lost in his morose thoughts, he didn't realize where he was headed until the gates of Furinkan came into view. He blinked at them. He'd meant to go meet Akane, but his feet had taken him here instead. His stomach twisted a little at how Akane would feel about him skipping their morning rendezvous, especially after the fight they'd had yesterday. It wouldn't be pretty.

She'd probably yell at him. In a way, he was looking forward to it.

Smiling, he entered the schoolyard.

---

Ranma loitered near the shoe lockers. She readjusted her pants slightly to they wouldn't slip, and waited.

Akane appeared and blinked at her. Ranma looked back. This had been another day of silence between them, although there had been none of the heat of yesterday. Now Akane didn't look mad, merely surprised. "Ranma?"

"Akane." Ranma lifted her bookbag over her shoulder. "Do you wanna... wanna get an ice cream or something?"

Akane looked at her for a second. "S-sure." She opened up her locker, changed her shoes, and walked with Ranma out of the school.

They found an ice cream shop, relatively removed from the after-school crowd. Akane ordered a milkshake and Ranma ordered a sundae. They were quickly served. Akane took a slow, thoughtful sip, looking at Ranma and not seeming to be paying any attention at all to the milkshake. Ranma shoved the ice cream around with her spoon, not knowing what to say.

Akane finally broke the ice. "Why are you a woman?"

Ranma grimaced. "Kodachi."

"Hmm?"

"Well, you know, she doesn't like it when we're together. You saw her yesterday. Today she's... a little wacko. I'm afraid of what she'd do if she saw us together."

Akane made a little 'o' of understanding. "And she doesn't know that this is you, too."

Ranma nodded. "I figure we're as safe as we can be."

Akane took a dutiful sip of her milkshake, her attention obviously focused on Ranma. "So..."

Ranma scooped up the cherry and let it fall again. "So."

"You wanted to see me."

Ranma lifted a corner of her mouth. "Sorry about yesterday."

Akane nodded solemnly. "Me too."

The air thick with silence.

"Uh, Akane..."

"Yes?"

"You know I'd do anything to get out of that damn mansion, don't you?"

"Do I?"

Ranma lifted her eyes from her sundae to Akane. Akane's face was studious. She hadn't spoken in anger or accusation; she seemed to be merely asking for clarification on a minor technical point. Ranma gathered her courage. "I mean, you know, it wasn't so bad when I was living with... at your house."

"I... I don't think it was so bad having you and your father as our guests."

Ranma drew a deep breath. There it was, the first admission made on both sides. Not much, but it could perhaps be a foundation to build on. Ranma tried to slow her racing heart, calm her raging thoughts. She needed to say this next thing carefully. For once, just once, she had to slow down and work it out. She had to get this right.

Ranma shoved the melting mess of ice cream aside and leaned forward, looking into Akane's eyes. They widened slightly before she, too, pushed aside her milkshake and leaned forward.

Then the wall exploded.

Ranma instinctively reached over to pull Akane's head down to the table, covering it with her own arms. The wall collapsed inward, raising a lot of dust.

Ranma looked over, half-expecting to see Kodachi in a rage. There was a shape outlined in the settling dust, and as it resolved itself, Ranma's mouth went dry. Not now. Of all times, not now.

The shape pointed one of its weapons at her. "Ranma. I kill!"

Akane had raised her head and was looking at the young woman curiously. Ranma barely registered that, instead leaning back in the booth, trying to stay as far away as possible. "Sh-sh-shampoo!"

Shampoo fairly radiated anger tinged with triumph. "Ranma!" She raised one of her bonbori. "Kill!" She leaped for the table.

Ranma vaulted away, noting that Akane had rolled under the booth and out. Shampoo's bonbori smashed the table where Ranma had been leaning.

Ranma landed atop a counter, still unable to fully come to terms with what she was seeing. "Shampoo. How'd you get here? When did you learn Japanese?"

Whatever Japanese she had learned was apparently limited in scope. "Kill!" She lunged forward again. Ranma barely escaped as the bonbori reduced the counter to rubble.

Ranma found herself back against a wall. This was too much, too much to deal with. Akane and Kodachi and now Shampoo too. She had to get away. Had to.

Shampoo, however, was a woman on a mission. She was closing in now, her prey cornered. "Time to die, Ranma."

"Hey!" Akane grabbed one of Shampoo's wrists. "What do you think you're doing? Who are you?"

Shampoo fixed Akane with a cold stare. "This personal. You leave, no hurt. You stay, kill." She broke free of Akane's grasp, looked back at Ranma, and took a step towards her.

Akane tsked and reached for Shampoo again.

As fast as a cat, Shampoo whirled and struck at Akane with a bonbori. Akane was able to leap away, but just barely.

"Stop!" Ranma leaped forward. She hated to hit women, absolutely hated it. But she also couldn't let Akane get hurt. Ranma tried for a disarming move; Shampoo was much less fearful without her weapons.

Shampoo spun around with a high kick. Ranma ducked under it, then rolled to the side to avoid a bonbori. Another bonbori made her spring backwards. She was having trouble getting a rhythm, finding ways to counter Shampoo. She was having difficulty overcoming her reluctance to hit women, even when her life depended on it.

Another bonbori was being swung at her face. Ranma blocked it with her arms, the impact knocking her against the wall. Ranma grunted, sensing a bonbori heading for her stomach but unable to coordinate a defense in time. She tried to brace herself; this was going to hurt.

The bonbori unexpectedly changed trajectory, flying out of Shampoo's hand and towards the hole she'd created in the wall. Ranma followed it with her eyes, for some reason not seeing the ribbon until the bonbori was lying at Kodachi's feet.

Ranma stared at Kodachi. She was in her leotard, the evil eyeshadow on her face, the black rose in her hair. The ribbon unwrapped itself from the bonbori and twirled in a pleasant spiral in front of Kodachi. Kodachi's eyes, Ranma was surprised to notice, were fully focused. Hard, even. She was smiling slightly, a menacing smile that had little madness in it.

Kodachi's voice was harsh but controlled. "Stay away from her."

Shampoo turned to face Kodachi. "Who you?"

Kodachi laughed her long, mocking laugh that for some reason didn't seem as tinged with madness as it usually did. "Kodachi, the Black Rose. Undefeated champion of St. Hebereke's." She stepped gracefully into the shop. "This one is under my protection. Leave her alone."

"Obstacle." Shampoo narrowed her eyes. "Obstacle is for killing." She shifted her remaining bonbori into her right hand, and seemed to be gathering herself for a charge at Kodachi. That is, until the bonbori went flying from her hand.

She now whirled on Akane, who retracted her foot and stood ready. "Then you'll have to kill me, too."

Shampoo growled. "Is okay." She threw a vicious punch at Akane's head. Akane ducked under it and tried to sweep Shampoo's legs. Shampoo jumped over it, only to be caught in mid-air by Kodachi's ribbon.

The ribbon pulled Shampoo viciously towards the floor. Shampoo managed to land well enough to absorb the impact. She grabbed the ribbon in preparation to either trying to unwrap it or pull it from Kodachi's hand. A blow to her backside from Akane caused her to pitch forward on her knees.

Akane quickly knelt on top of Shampoo's legs, grabbed one of her arms, and twisted it behind her back. Shampoo gritted her teeth reached behind her to grab at Akane. Kodachi, approaching Shampoo, flicked the ribbon so a loop wrapped itself around Shampoo's neck. Kodachi tugged the ribbon, and Shampoo's eyes bulged. She pulled at the ribbon with her free hand, and Kodachi allowed her to loosen it slightly.

Kodachi laughed again. "Silly woman, to think you can defeat the Black Rose? For shame." She stood over Shampoo, looking down at her mockingly.

Shampoo spoke tightly, angrily. "You interfere Amazon. Personal. You go away. Ranma die!"

Kodachi slowly shook her head. "You are not among the Amazons now. Ranma-sama is under my protection. Leave while you can."

"No leave." Shampoo tried to pull her arm loose from Akane's grasp, but Akane had a good two-handed grip on it. "Ranma shame Shampoo. Must die."

Kodachi narrowed her eyes. "If Ranma-sama shamed you, it was surely unintentional. And surely not worth killing for."

"Death is only way! Amazons say so. Shampoo says so!"

Kodachi straightened and spoke in a regal manner. "The Kuno family have been samurai for many generations. For four hundred years we have helped carry the Emperor's honor. This one -" she indicated Ranma "- is under my protection and that of our family. And, by extension, the Emperor's. Kill her, and you bring the wrath of Heaven on your head and the heads of your family. For we cannot allow such an attack on our honor go unpunished."

Kodachi leaned forward at the waist to look into Shampoo's eyes. "Think on that, Amazon. Is what Ranma-sama did to you worth dying for?" She pulled on the ribbon for emphasis. "Worth going to war over? For I swear to you, kill Ranma-sama and I will not rest until you are hunted down and killed, along with all of those close to you."

Akane leaned forward and spoke directly into Shampoo's ear. "Me too. You kill Ranma, I kill you. That's a promise."

Shampoo seemed to ignore Akane, instead shifting her gaze back and forth between Kodachi's eyes. Kodachi was still focused, still present. In fact, Ranma had never seen her so... *here*.

Finally, Shampoo bowed her head. Kodachi straightened and took a step back, unlooping the ribbon from around Shampoo. Akane released Shampoo and stepped back too, ready to pounce on her in a moment.

Shampoo shook out her arm, took a breath, then stood up and faced Ranma. Akane and Kodachi immediately became very alert, but Shampoo stayed absolutely still.

"Ranma. No can kill while under laughing woman's protection. You in Japan - safe." She seemed none-too-pleased with that concession. "You in China - kill. All Amazons hunt you, you no escape next time." Her eyes glinted at the prospect.

Shampoo seemed to struggle for the right words. "This not finish. You, me - we meet again, fight again, somewhere else, not China, not Japan. Cannot live with dishonor. We meet, we fight, I kill. Someday. I no forget kiss of death. You no forget either."

She stared at Ranma for a long minute before spinning on her heel and walking past Kodachi out of the shop. She nodded at Kodachi as she did so, as if giving a casual greeting to an equal.

Ranma leaned against the wall, dizzy from relief. It was over, at last. As long as she stayed in Japan, she'd never have to worry about Shampoo. She was probably right - there would probably be another confrontation, someday. But Akane and Kodachi had bought her a stay of years, perhaps decades.

Ranma smiled. "Thanks guys."

To Ranma's alarm, Kodachi's eyes began to rapidly lose focus. "You! Pig-tailed one! Where is Ranma-sama?"

Something snapped inside Ranma. It was all too much. "No! Dammit, dammit, NO, KODACHI!" She strode up to Kodachi and roughly grabbed her arms. "Who am I?"

Kodachi's eyes didn't get better. "You are that brazen hussy after my Ranma-sama."

"No! Dammit, you knew just a minute ago. You knew who I was. You protected me. Saved me, even. You know me!"

Kodachi tried to move away, but Ranma held her arms. She mumbled erratically. "No... you... you are trying to confuse me. You are one of those harridans after..."

"NO!" Ranma shook Kodachi. "Don't hide from this. Don't run away from me. You know who I am."

Kodachi was shaking her head. "No... don't..."

Ranma was merciless. "I'm tired of it all, Kodachi. Tired of you seeing only what you want to see. Tired of seeing you fade away when it suits you. Don't run away."

Ranma leaned forward so that her eyes were only a few inches away from Kodachi's. "You didn't like it when I left. Well, I came back. Now I'm asking you to come back and face this."

Kodachi's eyes were still unfocused, and now her lip was trembling slightly.

Ranma's voice was hard and unrelenting. "Who am I?"

Kodachi swallowed. "Y-you're..." She bit her lip. "Ranma-sama."

Relief flooded Ranma. She leaned back and smiled. "There, that wasn't so hard, was it?"

Kodachi fainted.

Ranma caught her as she fell. She looked closely at Kodachi, convinced this was another scam. People just didn't faint like that; it had to be an act. But Kodachi was a dead weight in Ranma's arms, and Ranma knew enough about how bodies held themselves to be fairly certain that Kodachi really was unconscious.

Sadness tinged with disgust filled Ranma. There was only so much reality Kodachi could face before she had to shut down, one way or the other. She really was sick.

Ranma scooped up Kodachi. Better take her back to the mansion. Maybe Kuno would know what to do.

She turned towards the door, and caught sight of Akane.

Akane had her hands clasped in front of her. She had a slight smile on her face, and appeared to be happy. She was standing rock still, however. "Go ahead, Ranma, take her home. She needs you."

Ranma flinched at Akane's voice. Trying to be bright and happy, but underneath hints of real pain. "Akane..."

"No, don't say anything. Just go." A hint of desperation.

Ranma swallowed. "Can, uh, we talk again tomorrow?"

"I d-don't know, Ranma. I'm awfully busy." Akane whirled suddenly and began walking towards the door. "Maybe next week."

"Akane!" Ranma wanted to run after her, but Kodachi weighed her down.

Akane's voice drifted from the doorway. "Your fiance needs you, Ranma."

Ranma hung her head, Akane's words a dagger in her stomach. This was not how this was supposed to go. Damn Shampoo for ruining things. And Kodachi. And Genma. Ranma just wanted the opportunity to clear something up between him and Akane, and events were conspiring against her. It was all slipping away. Akane... Akane was slipping away.

Damn. Damn damn damn damn.

She looked down at the still-unconscious Kodachi. "Why? Tell me why, Kodachi. Tell me what to do."

Kodachi wasn't yet willing to provide any answers.

Sighing, Ranma stepped through the hole in the wall on her way back to the mansion.

~*~

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