ROSES OF SHADOW

By Richard Lawson

Part Eight: The Color Black

---

Ranma was poised with the tips of his toes just touching the windowsill. His heels were flat together and his knees bent and sticking out on either side of his body. It was a very silly-looking pose and he assumed it when he was in a high humor.

Right now, he was sitting this way while staring at the slowly emerging dawn in the hope that it would somehow lift his spirits. It wasn't working.

Kodachi's homecoming had been muted. She had been more than a little apprehensive about all the new faces Ranma had introduced her to. She had begged off of dinner, saying that she was more tired than she was hungry. Ranma, seeing the way she held herself, had known it to be true.

His own sleep had been fitful. He was concerned that the servants were doing more harm than good. He was worried that Kodachi had gained sanity by becoming a drug-induced zombie. He was worried that the stress would finally push Kuno over the edge; his behavior had not changed, and had become even more manic in recent weeks.

Mostly, Ranma was worried that it was all his fault, that by trying to solve other people's problems he was instead destroying their lives.

Ranma sighed and jumped out into the yard. He ran through a kata; he didn't do them very often, depending more on the mock battles he'd fought with first Genma then Kodachi. However, this time he needed the ordered mechanics of the kata to try and calm his spirit.

Much to his surprise, it worked. He'd done too much damned worrying of late. He'd done what needed to be done. Time to move on and deal with whatever happened as a result.

Smiling, he turned towards the house and started. Kodachi was standing on the porch, dressed in her leotard. She had her arms crossed, one hand lifted to cup her chin. Ranma instinctively examined her eyes and found them as he had yesterday: relaxed and focused.

That, he decided, was a very good sign.

Her face, however, was expressionless. "Good morning, Ranma-sama. Watching you work the forms was very pleasant."

"Er, thanks." He looked around and picked up one of her balls. "Ready to work out?"

She studied him a moment more, then stepped off the porch.

They began the battle, but Ranma knew her heart wasn't in it. She was moving almost lethargically, going through the motions with no heat behind her attacks. Ranma had to hold himself back so much that he found himself responding in much the same lethargic way.

He decided to press a little, try to get her out of her doldrums. He attacked more vigorously, reaching in to poke her in the ribs, lightly rap her on the head, other innocuous, annoying attacks. It was the most he'd ever hit a woman and he didn't like it at all, but he wanted to get her angry, to scowl at him and throw a razor-sharp hoop at his head. Instead she just absorbed the attacks without counter-attacking effectively.

Finally, he swept her legs out from underneath her. She just remained where she'd fallen on her rear, her hands supporting her back as she remained propped up. She was blinking rapidly, and Ranma realized she was trying to keep from crying.

"Stop, we must stop. I cannot do this any more."

Ranma sucked in his lower lip, trying to figure out how to respond. "Oh, c'mon, this is fun, Kodachi. I missed working out with you. Let's keep doing it."

She looked up at him, an expression of surprise mixed with self-disgust. "But I am slow and fat. I do not deserve to be your sparring partner."

Ranma shook his head. "You're only slow 'cuz you're not really trying. Let yourself go and you'll do okay. And you're not fat."

"Yes I am!" Something sounding almost like anger colored her voice. "It's the medication, the lithium, it does this. It's made me gain a lot of weight."

"Oh, I never said you hadn't gained weight." Ranma eyed her body critically. "I'd say you've gained between fifteen and twenty pounds. But you're not fat."

Kodachi's eyes widened. She stared at Ranma, examining him closely. Ranma gazed back calmly, lifting a corner of his mouth. For once, the words that had flown off his lips without thought seemed to be the right thing to say.

He raised the other corner of his mouth and held out his hand. "C'mon. Let's keep working out; you'll never get back into shape if you give up this easy."

Kodachi looked at him a moment longer, then slowly raised her hand to grasp Ranma's. He lifted her to her feet. They stood for a second facing each other, Ranma still holding Kodachi's hand, their faces about a foot apart.

Ranma gently disengaged his hand and took a step back. "Okay, time for round two. This time, I ain't gonna be as nice to you."

A smile crept onto Kodachi's face. "As well you shouldn't, Ranma-sama. You have behaved in a most ungentlemanly fashion. It is time I punished you for that."

Ranma grinned, genuinely happy at her words. This was more like it.

They continued fighting, and this time Kodachi displayed more energy. She still wasn't up to her pre-hospital form, but she was certainly giving it her all. Soon they were both sweating profusely, Ranma having pushed the combat into more strenuous forms than usual.

Finally Kodachi called a halt, bending forward at the waist and clasping her knees. "Is th-this how you always f-fought with your father?"

Ranma wiped his brow. "Uh, well, to tell you the truth, he and I fought a lot more savagely. We got into some pretty vicious battles. If either one of us wasn't in top form, the other would make him suffer for it. A lot."

Kodachi straightened and looked at Ranma in surprise. "How is it, then, that I was able to defeat you?"

Ranma flushed. "Lots of reasons. One big reason was that I was way too over-confident. And... well, other things."

Kodachi tilted her head. "Tell me."

Ranma grimaced. "I... there's this guy, I don't know if you've met him. Name's Ryoga. He hates me. He was able to goad me into fighting with him all night before the match."

"A large ego and poor impulse control. I've noticed that about you already."

"Uh, yeah." Ranma rubbed the back of his head. He allowed himself a moment of self-deprecation; it was certainly easier trying to see what Kodachi's problems were rather than face his own. "And... well, you were able to attach him to me. That didn't help."

"Hmm?" Kodachi furrowed her brow. "Attach who?"

"Oh. Uh, we never did talk about Jusenkyo, did we?"

Kodachi laughed, a gentle laugh that was nice to hear. "Two months you've lived here and there is so little I know about you. There was never any time before, somehow. I... I hope we can spend more time together, just talking."

Ranma felt his chest tighten a little, a strange sensation he was unable to reconcile. "Uh, sure. That'd be good." It wasn't exactly what he'd been planning. It sounded suspiciously like dating or something. Certainly it wasn't going to help him get away from her.

However, it was probably what she needed. He'd play along for a while until she was adjusted. Then he could gently break it off. Maybe he could get Nabiki's help. Or, just maybe, even Akane's.

He forced himself to focus on Kodachi again. "Uh, well, it'll help that you don't have to do all the housework any more."

Kodachi's expression turned cold. "I suppose it will." With that, she turned and moved quickly towards the house.

Ranma followed her, frowning. When Akane was angry, she stomped, bulling her way through anything and everything in her way. When Kodachi was angry, she moved with a rigid grace, her head tossed back, in the certain knowledge that whatever was in her way would simply move off of its own accord.

One thing they seemed to share in common, unfortunately, was getting angry at Ranma for no reason he could fathom.

He moved slowly after her, trying not to feel irritated and failing. He entered the dining room and watched as Kodachi took a seat, looking quite uncomfortable. As soon as Ranma took a seat, the door from the kitchen opened and the cook brought in breakfast. How she knew exactly when everyone was going to be seated remained a mystery to Ranma.

Kuno had been waiting impassively. As breakfast was served, he commented idly, "I believe you will find the food to be excellent. We have a worthy cook."

Kodachi looked at the woman and sniffed. She picked up her chopsticks and began listlessly pushing food around her plate.

Ranma had already begun. He too appreciated the food, but he was more concerned for Kodachi. She looked depressed and he couldn't figure out why. He swallowed his food. "Say, Kodachi, did you take your medication this morning?"

She glared angrily at him. "Yes!" she snapped in a tone that would have Akane credit.

Perhaps, Ranma thought, that was why the irritation flared inside him. Either way, he wanted to snap back at Kodachi. He controlled himself with difficulty. He was fairly certain he hadn't deserved that.

"Kodachi." Kuno's spoke with just a hint of rebuke. "Your fiance seeks only to ensure that you maintain your regimen and thus stay healthy. It is unseemly of you to respond to his genuine concern in such a disrespectful manner."

Kodachi shifted her glare to Kuno. He returned it calmly. Ranma sensed some sort of deep, unspoken communication taking place. After a moment, Kodachi ducked her head. "My apologies, Ranma-sama, for my rude behavior."

"No prob." Ranma felt slightly unnerved by her sudden reversal. He'd seen Akane, Nabiki, and Kasumi do the same kind of mental telepathy. Maybe there was something to this sibling thing after all.

---

Ranma opened up the bundle the cook had given him. The aroma of the food made his mouth water. The cook was very good, of that there was no doubt. Still, the food had none of the personal touches Kasumi had always put into her food, like decorations in the rice that took on the shape of birds or flowers or faces. Ranma missed that, despite the embarrassing shape some of those faces had taken.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Akane open her lunch box. She started, then quickly grabbed her chopsticks and mixed her rice with them. Ranma chuckled.

Akane whirled on him. "What are you laughing at?"

Ranma grinned. "Nothing. Nothing at all."

She glared at him, then muttered under her breath as she began to eat.

Ranma thought the exchange over. Akane's treatment of him had gone through some wild fluctuations since the incident with Shampoo. She'd ignored him completely and she'd chattered brightly with him. She'd gossiped with him and she'd deliberately avoided him. However, she'd never yelled at him, never become even mildly irritated with him until just now. He wondered if this was a good sign.

"I heard Kodachi came home."

Ranma looked over at Akane. She was eating her food and staring straight ahead. She'd spoken in an even, factual voice.

Ranma dared to hope.

"Uh, yeah. Yesterday."

"She was in there a long time."

"Three weeks. It seemed to do her some good."

At this, Akane turned to consider Ranma thoughtfully. "You mean she's cured?"

Ranma shook his head. "You don't cure mental illness, you control it. She's more in control now than she was before."

"Ah so." She looked down at her food. "Does that mean she's stopped obsessing over you?"

"I, uh, don't know. She's still recovering, and... well, she still needs someone to help support her. It sure ain't gonna be Kuno, so I'm doing what I can."

Akane took a sip of her milk. "That's a nice thing you're doing for her."

"Thanks." He wasn't sure if she was being sincere. It sure sounded like it.

She looked up at him. "And then? After she's recovered?"

Ranma felt his stomach twist. "Well, then we'll see. I sure hope she'll be able to see how screwed up our so-called engagement is, and call it off. And then... and then I can move out and..."

Akane raised an eyebrow. "And?"

Ranma tried a nervous smile. "And we'll go from there."

Akane eyed him for a minute, her eyebrow still raised. Then she turned back to her lunch. "I hope it all works out the way you want."

"Uh, yeah, me too."

"Keep me posted."

"I will."

Ranma went back to eating his lunch, hope growing inside him. Maybe, just maybe, things were beginning to come together. For perhaps the first time in his life.

---

"Jusenkyo?"

"Yeah."

"Fascinating." Kodachi was idly rubbing Midorigame's stomach. Ranma was watching from up in a nearby tree. "And your father took you there because he had heard it was dangerous, without knowing exactly how it was dangerous?"

"Yeah." Ranma felt a familiar resentment building inside of him.

"Not a shining example of intelligence, I grant you. And your father, he was cursed too?"

"Yeah. Poetic justice, I'd call it."

Kodachi chuckled. "For more than your father, I'd say."

Ranma blinked at her, wondering what to make of that comment. He decided he didn't want to know.

Fortunately, she moved on. "A panda." She shook her head. "I didn't know such places existed."

Ranma shrugged. "I wish they didn't."

Kodachi punched Midorigame's stomach. He immediately flipped over and began to waddle back to his pond. Kodachi walked over to the fence surrounding the pond. She hadn't been pleased at its construction, but had made no further objections when Ranma had pointed out that it was necessary to protect the staff. She closed the gate and walked underneath the tree. Ranma was about to drop down when she jumped up to land on a branch opposite him.

Ranma examined her eyes, a habit he hadn't broken himself of yet. They looked normal. Almost. "You're still wearing your eyeshadow."

She arched an eyebrow. "And what does that mean?"

Ranma blanched. He had never told her how much he hated her "evil" eyeshadow. For some reason, he'd assumed that she'd stop wearing it after being stabilized. "Uh, nothing."

It was as if she could read his mind. "You know, Ranma-sama, I'm still the same person I always was. The medication doesn't change my personality; it just keeps me from experiencing some of its more extreme aspects. Don't expect some docile geisha to take my place."

Ranma bowed his head. "I didn't mean nothing."

She sat on the branch, her legs dangling down. She put her elbows on her knees and leaned forward to cup her chin in her hands. "Can I go?"

Ranma furrowed his brow. "Where?"

"Jusenkyo, of course. I'd like to turn into something. Like... an alligator. Or an orca."

Ranma's jaw dropped open. "You want to be cursed?"

Her eyes were shining. "A panther! A black panther! That would be invigorating."

Ranma shuddered. "Please, not a cat."

"What's wrong with cats?"

"That's... a story for another time." He shook his head. "I'm not sure you've thought about what it means to be cursed. I mean, do you know what it's like to be afraid of the rain? Of puddles? Of not being able to swim?"

"Oh, poo, Ranma-sama. You could swim if you wanted to."

"That's not the point." Ranma felt strangely defensive. "It's awful being turned into a girl. I hate it."

Kodachi snorted. "The only reason you hate it is because it happened to you without your prior consent. If you'd just get over that part of it, you'd probably find that you don't mind it so much."

Ranma nearly fell out of the tree. He stared at Kodachi as his mind reeled. That was something that had quite simply never occurred to him. He had no idea how to respond to it.

Kodachi was intently watching his reaction. Her voice was slightly strained as she asked, "Don't you think?"

Ranma shook his head, more out of confusion than anything else. "I hate turning into a girl, no matter what you say. I'd do anything to be free of my curse. Anything."

Kodachi studied him a moment more. Ranma thought he saw disappointment in her eyes, the source of which eluded him.

Kodachi leaned forward until she fell out of the tree. Ranma yelped and tried to grab her, but much too late. He watched as she did a complete somersault in the air before landing on her feet. She began wandering towards the house.

Ranma jumped out of the tree and ran until he caught up with her. "Uh, I'd go to Jusenkyo with you, but Shampoo and the Amazons'd kill me before I got within a hundred kilometers of the place."

"Don't fret, Ranma-sama. For now, I am struggling enough with being myself without throwing other genders or species into the mix."

Ranma chuckled despite himself. He quickly sobered. "How are you holding up?"

Kodachi stopped just short of the house. She spoke rapidly. "Did you know that blackness is the absence of color? You take white light and you remove the colors one by one. It fades through different shades, and some of the colors are nice but something is missing and you can't quite place your finger on it. As more and more colors disappear the blackness begins to form and then you have a world where you can see nothing but darkness and there's nothing left."

She turned to look him in the eye. "My world was full of bright, sharp colors, even if some of them were painful to look at. Now the lithium is draining the color from my life and I named myself better than I knew. I am Kodachi the Black Rose, the Rose of No Color, and I can't decide between bright and painful or safe and dark."

Ranma found that his mouth was dry. This aspect of Kodachi terrified him. She was supposed to be beyond this, supposed to be getting better.

The same person she had always been, she said. Just not as extreme. The woman who sobbed in the gray room was still alive. He was seeing hints of her now.

He drew a breath. "I... I think you got another choice. Stay, er, safe, and, um, add some color as you go along. If you stick with it long enough, you'll... you'll find a white rose waiting for you eventually." He squirmed uncomfortably. He would never have the Kuno family's gift for speaking allegorically.

Kodachi looked at him for another moment. She sniffed. "Do yourself a favor, Ranma-sama. Stick with your somewhat crude manner of speech. If you try to imitate the speech patterns of others, you might come across as insincere."

"Hmm? I wasn't trying to be, y'know, insincere."

Kodachi shifted her gaze from one of his eyes to the other, searching for what, Ranma didn't know. "Good," she said softly. Then she faced forward and entered the house.

Ranma fell bonelessly to a cross-legged position, holding his head in his hands. Again. Every encounter with Kodachi drained him in one way or another. He wasn't sure how much more he could take.

He had to remember what he was doing this for.

He sprang to his feet and ran from the mansion.

---

Ranma crept his way along the rooftop. He listened for a moment until he heard the sound of movement from inside. Then he hung down and tapped on the window.

Akane stared at him incredulously. She came over and opened the window. "What are you doing here?"

"I... I just wanted to see you. Can I come in?"

Akane looked at him dubiously. "I don't think that would be a good idea."

Ranma sighed. "Okay. How's your father?"

"He doesn't mention you or your father anymore. No one talks about it around him, so he doesn't explode anymore. I think he's calmed down now. I'm not sure he'll ever forgive your father, but he might talk to you."

"That's good. Do, uh, you want me to talk with him?"

Akane stared at him for a long time. Ranma tried to still the irritation before it reached his face; people had been staring at him a lot today.

Finally, Akane spoke. "I don't know, Ranma. I just... don't know."

"Will... will you give me some time before deciding? Let me try and work things out with Kodachi."

Akane let out a quiet breath. "Okay. You'd better go before Dad sees you."

They held each other's gaze in the darkening twilight. Ranma didn't know what to feel, didn't want to stop looking in her eyes, wanted to go back in time and find his younger self on the eve of the fight with Kodachi and tell him to pay attention, that his whole life was in the balance and that he'd better not blow it.

Ranma lifted himself away from Akane's gaze and ran off into the gathering blackness.

~*~

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