ROSES OF SHADOW

By Richard Lawson

Part Four: The Walls of Denial

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Ranma had expected Kodachi to regain consciousness long before they'd reached the mansion, but she was still a dead weight in Ranma's arms as she stepped through the gates. Ranma walked up to the front door and kicked it a couple of times. She didn't want to break it if she didn't have to.

Fortunately, Kuno answered the door. Immediately, his face lit up. "Pig-tailed one! At last, you have come seeking my company, as I always knew you would. Let us hither, so we may express our love for one another."

Disgust built up in Ranma; she had to swallow bile. "Hel-lo? Kuno? Do you see who I've got in my arms?"

Kuno glanced down. "She would not come between us, my love. Let us leave her resting so we can..."

"Dammit, Kuno! This is your sister. She needs help. Can you try to focus on that for just one moment!"

Kuno looked down at Kodachi again. This time, something registered on his face. After a moment, he looked back up at Ranma, his face quiet. "This way."

He turned into the mansion, Ranma close on his heels. They went upstairs through the wide, quiet corridors. Eventually they came to a door adorned with Kodachi's name written on a placard along with the prerequisite black rose. Kuno held the door open for Ranma.

Ranma walked quickly in, then slowed significantly as she looked around. She'd never been in Kodachi's room before, and the sight was a little startling.

The room was surprisingly humble, even smaller than Ranma's room was. It was still plenty roomy, with a vanity, bureau, mirror, bed, and a small table with chairs in the center. Black roses were everywhere; in a pot on the table, in vases, growing on a bush in a pot next to the door... there was little subtlety to the decor.

Ranma also noticed a large set of drapes against one wall. They weren't for the windows; those were on the opposite wall. Ranma decided to ignore it, and instead made her way to the bed. The bedspread, she noticed in passing, was covered with black rose symbols. Ranma put the still-unconscious Kodachi gently on the bed.

Two hands grabbed Ranma's shoulders from behind. "Thank you, pig-tailed one, for bringing my sister to me. Truly, yours it the compassion of a goddess."

Ranma violently shrugged her shoulders out of Kuno's grasp and whirled on him. "C'mon, you know who I am, don't you? For crying out loud, I changed in your arms. You know me, right?"

Kuno's face was rapt. "Verily, it is true, I know the face of she who will be my soulmate."

Ranma rolled her eyes. She wasn't up to playing psychotherapist again. "Whatever. I'm gonna go change. Stay with Kodachi."

His face showed almost comic distress. "Where are you going, beloved? Let me accompany you so that-"

"STAY WITH YOUR SISTER!" Ranma clenched her jaw a moment. "She needs you, Kuno. I don't. Isn't your flesh and blood important to you?"

Kuno looked puzzled. He turned and looked down at Kodachi. Ranma took the opportunity to make good on her exit.

She ran down to her bedroom, entered the bathroom, and quickly dumped hot water over her head. Ranma ran back out, tore off his shirt, kicked off his shoes, found a dry shirt in the closet, then went back to Kodachi's room, struggling into the shirt as he ran.

He slowed as he entered the room, nearly crashing into the rosebush next to the door. A thorn scratched his arm. Cursing silently, he picked a rose. Where'd she get so many of the damn things, all in bloom?

The answer was evident as he examined it closely. The rose was a fake. A fine job, enough to fool anyone on casual inspection, right down to the thorns. Ranma fingered the petals; they sure felt real, but he could see where they'd been sewn together.

He put the rose on the table and stepped over to Kodachi's bed. Kuno had taken a chair from the center setting and was sitting next to the bed holding Kodachi's hand.

Ranma knelt on the floor. He looked up at Kuno and for a moment they held each other's eyes. Kuno's face was expressionless, his eyes flat. Yet somehow Ranma could sense a deep turmoil just below the surface, struggling to be get out. Or struggling to be contained.

Ranma nodded his thanks to Kuno, then turned to look at Kodachi again. She seemed to be merely asleep. He could probably wake her, but feared to try. "Should we call a doctor? Does she have any medication she needs to take?"

Kuno's voice was neutral. "There is nothing wrong with her."

Ranma whipped his head back to glare at Kuno in surprised anger. "How can you say that!" He choked off more invective. Of course Kuno would see nothing wrong with her.

Kuno's eyes flashed. "How dare you imply otherwise, Saotome."

Ranma shook his head in disgust. "It don't matter to me that you can't see what a sick guy you are, Kuno. But dammit, this is your younger sister. Don't you care at all what happens to her? What kind of a brother are you?"

Kuno shouted incoherently, dropped Kodachi's hand, jumped from his chair, and grabbed for Ranma's shirt. Ranma whipped his hands up, grabbed Kuno's wrists, and held them. Kuno strained against Ranma's grip, but Ranma held firm.

Kuno's eyes burned with anger. His chest was heaving and his jaw was clenched. Ranma stared back at him, idly wondering how long Kuno could keep it up.

After a minute, something seemed to drain out of Kuno. The anger melted away, replaced by sadness, and shame. He pulled his hands back and Ranma released his wrists. Kuno gracefully resumed his seat, gingerly picking up Kodachi's hand and holding it between his two hands.

Ranma knelt on the floor again, angry and saddened. Kuno just wasn't able to deal realistically with anything. Damn him.

"My father was an... obsessive man." Kuno's voice, soft and distant, surprised Ranma. "Very much so. He would find something that fascinated him and explore it to the fullest. My mother often despaired at this. He often neglected his other duties - work, family, everything - to concentrate on his obsession. My mother took it as a dutiful wife should, but as the years passed and his obsessions grew, she began to admonish him more and more. At first, she did it when she thought they were alone. Then she did it in front of Kodachi and me, and eventually even in public."

Ranma kept his eyes on Kodachi, but all of his attention was on Kuno.

Kuno continued after a moment. "She wanted him to stop obsessing, to spend more time where it was needed. He refused, insisting that there was nothing wrong with him. She tried to persuade him to at least get a professional evaluation, but he continued to say that there was nothing wrong. She tried to appeal to his honor, to his duty, to - to his love. He rejected all those appeals with the words, 'There is nothing wrong.'

"There came a time when... when I began my... lifelong dedication to the bokken and katana. This frightened my mother. She began to use... certain aspects of my behavior to convince my father that... that he needed help. That we both needed help."

Ranma turned to look at Kuno. He was looking down at Kodachi's hand in his. His look was of fierce concentration, as if the speaking the words took every bit of his willpower. His voice, when he spoke again, was slightly hoarse.

"When I began memorizing extended passages of poetry and quoting them at... seemingly random times, my mother's pleas got more urgent. When I started following neighborhood girls around and... and pledging to them my love, she began begging my father on her knees, her head bowed to the floor, tears flowing from her eyes."

Kuno drew a deep breath. "And then... Kodachi. Kodachi began... behaving... she would... in cycles, become extremely happy and then unbearably depressed. It took us a while to figure out. But it eventually became apparent that... that Kodachi... that my sister..."

Kuno was literally struggling with the words, trying to get his lips to say something his mind didn't seem to want to. "My sister," he finally said in an agonized whisper, "was not well. She would spend hours cleaning her room, straightening everything over and over, never satisfied with how well it looked. Then she would destroy everything, throwing her clothes and furniture around, smashing things. She once cut herself quite badly when she smashed a mirror over her head. She required many stitches."

"My mother... did not take this well. There came a night when..." Kuno swallowed, continued. "My mother said some ugly things to my father. Said them very loudly, not caring that Kodachi and I were watching from the door. She called him sick, diseased, unclean. He had no balance, no sanity, no honor. She said it to his face: he had no honor."

Kuno stopped to maintain his composure. Ranma knew how much that had to pain Kuno, who despite his obsessions considered honor to be quite important. Ranma grimaced; he had some sympathy for people whose fathers were considered to be honorless.

"My father refused to hear. He insisted that everyone was fine. He was fine, I was fine, Kodachi was fine. He said these words: 'There is nothing wrong.'

"My mother didn't respond to that. She stared him in the face, then whirled and left the room, not looking at any of us. Kodachi tried to run after her, but my father held her back. Kodachi wailed, but my father ignored it. He held her and tried to tell her stories about what an exciting place Hawaii was. Kodachi wasn't listening. She wanted to be with her mother. Despite everything, Kodachi loved our mother very much.

"It was Kodachi who first discovered that our mother had left. When my father finally let her go, she ran up to our parents' bedroom. She screamed, and I ran after her. The closet door was open, and some of my mother's clothes were gone. Also, she had taken with her a painting of roses, one that she had valued highly.

"Kodachi didn't take it well. She screamed and kept on screaming. The few times I managed to bring her down to a level of some coherency, she would babble, 'Mother left, mother left us.' Then she'd go back to screaming."

Kuno squeezed Kodachi's hand once, breathing heavily, his eyes glistening. Ranma felt short of breath himself. After a moment, Kuno resumed his story.

"She was like that all night. I stayed with her, trying to comfort her. Our father came up once, noted the missing clothes and painting, looked at me and Kodachi huddled together on the floor, then left without saying a word. This only caused Kodachi more grief.

"After that, my father only became more disconnected from reality. His conversation would focus solely on Hawaii and what a wonderful place it was. Kodachi remained depressed for days, her tantrum spreading through the house and causing greater damage. The servants left us one by one, unwilling to deal with the madness in our house.

"It should not have surprised us when our Father left as well. One day we came home from school to find a note from him saying that he was going to spend some time living in Hawaii. I... was upset." Kuno hung his head a moment, and Ranma wondered whether Kuno had done his own raging.

Kuno lifted his head. "When Kodachi read the letter our father left, she grew very pale. 'He left us,' she said, then dropped the letter and made her way to her bedroom. I expected that she would destroy it, but when I checked in on her later, she was calmly plucking the leaves off of a rose and replacing them with black silk petals she had created. She seemed happy with the task, so I did not bother her."

Kuno finally turned his head to look at Ranma. "It took us a while to find stability again. We have balance, of a sort. Kodachi has devoted herself to the upkeep of the mansion, and I'm sure she finds comfort in that, a way of dealing with the demons inside. When they become too much, she has created a place for herself where she can rage and nothing gets destroyed and nobody gets hurt. I... I find that I can deal with things. It is hard sometimes, but I have found a few pleasant things to focus my attention on, and they are enough to keep me from... going to the extremes my sister does. For now, they are enough."

Kuno looked beyond Ranma, and his face hardened. "My father has much to answer for. He drove my mother away, and then fled from his obligations. He indeed has no honor, and if I see him again I... I will make him feel the fires of heaven."

Ranma stayed very still, trying to figure out how to react. He'd always been of the opinion that no one had a worse father than he had. Here, however, was someone to challenge Genma for that title. The mother seemed like no prize, either. What hell had been created by three mentally ill people and a fourth that abandoned them rather than finding ways of dealing with it?

Ranma licked his lips and spoke softly. "Tatewaki, now that your father is gone, wouldn't this be a good time to get the help your mother was always begging you to get? Kodachi certainly needs it and... and I think it wouldn't hurt for you to see someone."

Kuno focused on Ranma again. "I have indicated that there is nothing wrong. We have had some difficulties in the past, but we have overcome them. We have reached a precarious equilibrium. I... told you what I told you because you... threaten to disturb that equilibrium."

Kuno leaned forward to stare deeply into Ranma's eyes. "'Ware, Saotome, lest your well-intentioned efforts to 'cure' us drive your fiance into madness."

Ranma had a hundred arguments to make, a hundred reasons why both Kuno and Kodachi needed professional psychiatric help. Staring into Kuno's eyes, seeing the fire within, however, made Ranma suspect that now was not the best time to bring it up.

And yet, he couldn't leave it alone either. "Kuno, you should know that... I am going to do what I can to... to make Kodachi feel better. It ain't good that she has to lock herself into a padded cell once in a while. I don't think she's got to do that."

Kuno leaned farther forward so that their eyes were an inch apart. "I can not decide whether thou art unworthy of this task, or undeserving of this burden. You would challenge my authority? Question what I have done to maintain peace and harmony in what remains of our family? Risk Kodachi's sanity on what you believe to be best for her?"

Ranma, for the first time ever, felt slightly intimidated by Kuno. Truly, he was on uncertain grounds, and Kuno certainly had more experience with mental illness than Ranma did. However, Ranma wasn't willing to back down. Someone had to stand up for Kodachi, and no one else was volunteering for the job. "Kuno, I don't wanna fight you over this. But I will be trying to do what I can for her. Just... please don't try and stop me. If you aren't going to help me, at least stay out of the way, okay?"

Kuno leaned back, the anger draining away. Indeed, he was smiling slightly. "I believe you are indeed a worthy suitor for my sister's hand." As he said this, he placed Kodachi's hand into Ranma's. "Watch over her, Ranma. To you I cede the responsibility of maintaining Kodachi's honor."

As Ranma gaped at him, Kuno stood up. "You will make a worthy husband for my sister, Saotome Ranma."

"Hey! I never said I was..."

He trailed off as he saw that his words would make no impact on Kuno. He was already leaving the room, the arrogance back in his stride.

Ranma sighed and looked down at Kodachi's hand. What the hell had he just promised? The words had come off of his lips, as usual before he could think them through. He wanted to get away from Kodachi, not try and help her with some serious mental problems.

He hated life. Life was fun and then he met Kodachi.

He shot her a look of accusation. It lasted less than a second as he noticed that she was looking at him. Her eyes were focused on him and her face was quiet.

The blood drained from his face. How much had she overhead? When she continued to do nothing but look at him steadily, he swallowed and tried a tentative question. "How are you feeling?"

She took her time answering. Finally she spoke in subdued voice. "I am fine, Ranma-sama. Thank you for asking."

Ranma winced, realizing that 'Ranma-sama' carried other connotations he was uncomfortable thinking about. He quickly focused on another matter. "Do you remember what we talked about back at the ice cream shop?"

Kodachi nodded.

Ranma waited, then prompted. "And...?"

Her voice was even quieter. "You're a woman. Sometimes, you're a woman. When you are doused with cold water. Hot water changes you back."

Ranma blinked. "How'd you know about the water?"

"I saw you in the bathroom." Her voice was factual, not entirely without emotion but pretty close. Still, he thought he detected a hint of apology in her tone.

Ranma nodded. "Okay. How do you feel about that?"

She stared at him a bit longer. "Which are you, really?"

Irritation flared up in him, giving his words a sharper tone than he intended. "I'm a guy!"

She smiled. "I'm glad."

Ranma paused, then chuckled. They looked at each for a moment.

Finally, Ranma couldn't stand it any more. He stood up, blushing slightly when he realized that he was still holding her hand. He put it by her side. "Why don't you rest for a while? I think you need it."

"Nonsense, Ranma-sama." She swung her legs around so that she was sitting on the edge of the bed. "Who will fix dinner if I am abed? You need nourishment, Ranma-sama, as does my honored brother."

Ranma watched her carefully as she stood up and made her way across the bedroom. She stopped to pick up the rose he'd left on the table and put it into her hair. She turned to face him as she settled it into place. "I am honored that you have chosen to be my protector. From now on, the rose I wear will symbolize the devotion we share."

She smiled again, then turned and left.

Ranma sat on her bed, overwhelmed. During that two-minute period she had seemed almost normal. Almost like a cheerful, well-adjusted sixteen-year-old. Almost like a person he wouldn't mind so much living in the same house with.

And yet, he knew it was only a temporary victory. Very soon, her eyes would begin to lose focus and she'd be busy doing housework until the madness drove her to the gray room. She'd try to poison him and she'd laugh her insane laugh and she'd attack Akane out of jealousy. Soon she'd be back to the old, unbalanced Kodachi, and the rose in her hair would be more a symbol of the illness inside of her than anything else.

It would need to be dealt with, and despite his confident statements to Kuno, he had no idea how to proceed.

Ranma looked at the door Kodachi had just walked through, and smiled. Let the past be the past and the future be the future. For now, he was going to try to enjoy the only moment of peace he'd had in a while.

He stood up and walked out the door, pretty sure that Kodachi wouldn't mind if he talked with her while she prepared their dinner.

~*~

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