ROSES OF SHADOW
By Richard Lawson
Part Nine: Moments of Light
Ranma rolled to the side and came up springing. He snapped his head to the side as a ribbon came snaking past. He grabbed Kodachi's shoulders in mid-air and flipped over her.
She whirled around quickly, producing a ball and throwing it at him. He decided to block it with his forearm instead of dodging it. He backpedaled, forcing Kodachi to pursue. She did, throwing balls and clubs at him. He danced from side to side, allowing the occasional one to hit him.
Finally he reached the rear wall of the Kuno estate. He waited for her to throw another club. This one he caught, reversed, and made as if he were going to throw it at her head. She flinched and dived to the side, ending up on one knee, looking up at him and panting.
Ranma grinned as he walked up to her, the club balanced on one finger. "Gotcha."
Kodachi smiled, then grimaced. She clutched her side and fell over.
Ranma dropped the club and moved quickly to sit behind her. He lifted her to a sitting position and reached around to support her rib cage. She continued her labored breathing while Ranma gently massaged her abdomen.
After a while, her breathing became less strained. Ranma lifted his head so that his mouth was clear from her hair. "Better?"
"A little, yes. Damn this prozac. I never used to get cramps this often. I never used to retain this much water."
Kodachi turned her head slightly to look at him out of the corner of her eye. "You don't know what I'm talking about?"
"Cramps, yeah, sure. But how do you retain water?"
"Hmm. What's the longest you've been female?"
Ranma looked up at the sky for a moment while he thought it over. "Well, there were a few days when I was trying to get across China. It was hard to find a place to get hot water, especially since Dad didn't have money and Shampoo was trying to kill me. I'd guess about a week."
"I see." Kodachi sounded slightly amused. "I should force you to stay female for a few weeks, just so you can experience what those of us stuck in the gender go through. You don't know how lucky you are in certain respects."
"You'd rather be a guy?"
"Don't be silly, Ranma-sama. The benefits far outweigh the irritants."
"I guess." He wasn't exactly sure what Kodachi was referring to, and he didn't want to know. "Uh, do you think it'll get better? The cramps, I mean?"
Kodachi was silent for a moment. "Tohru told me that the side-effects would diminish slightly, but not much. I could take more drugs to counter those side-effects, but I'm not interested in poisoning my body overly much. Curiously, Tohru agreed with me. He suggested some natural remedies that may help. But even then, the cramping and other things won't disappear. Not until I'm off the medication."
Apprehension twisted his stomach. "Off? You're gonna stop taking it?"
Kodachi sighed, and Ranma could hear irritation mixed with frustration in it. "Only under my psychologist's supervision. Cyclothimia is treatable with just psychotherapy. Once I've been stabilized for a while, and once I've dealt with... other issues, he may take me off the lithium and prozac."
Ranma hmmphed, nodding. It sounded very hopeful. "How are you getting along with your psychologist?"
Kodachi's voice was matter-of-fact. "I hate him."
Ranma nearly choked. His hands froze. "What?"
She continued in the same manner. "He is superior and annoying. He snaps at me all the time. I am convinced he enjoys inflicting pain and seeing others in agony. I would cheerfully watch him get hit by a truck."
Kodachi sighed, the sound of one who is trying their best to rise above the shortcomings of others. "Yet, he is helping. I spew a lot of vile at him and when I leave I feel slightly better than when I arrived. As long as he continues to help me improve myself, I will see him." Her voice hardened. "But I will never like him."
"Oh." Ranma didn't know how to feel about that. He resumed his massage. "I thought those guys were supposed to be all warm and understanding."
He felt her shrug. "I never thought about it one way or the other. Now Tohru, he's convinced that psychotherapy is a thing of the past, that medication will be able to treat all mental illness eventually. A person who offers that kind of treatment is called a psychopharmacologist. He told me all about it. I think that's what I want to choose as a vocation."
"Give people drugs and make their problems go away?"
"It is a valid form of treatment, one that produces better results than traditional psychotherapy alone. Also, it would be better for me to feed people drugs that help rather than hurt them, wouldn't you say?"
Ranma couldn't help grinning. "Yeah." His grin faded as another thought occurred to him. If Kodachi was ever going to let him go, it might be best if there was someone there for her. "This Tohru guy - ever talk to him?"
"Not since I left the hospital last week. Why do you ask?"
"Just asking. It's, uh, nice to have friendly contacts."
Something like suspicion colored Kodachi's words. "Yes, it is."
Ranma sensed that a subject change was in order. "Uh, how's your cramp?"
Kodachi definitely sounded amused. "Oh, it passed some time ago. But I didn't see any reason to inform you."
Ranma stopped his massage. Suddenly, he realized that what he was doing was very similar to hugging Kodachi. The weight of her in his arms and against his chest, and the smell of her hair and the movement of her body as it breathed - all at once, these things started doing things to him. His heart began to hammer and his face began to burn. He felt a strange mixture of a disgust he knew very well, a desire he found quite inexplicable, and the amusement he frequently used to hide behind. "Kodachi!" He lifted his hands away.
"No, don't." Kodachi grabbed his hands with hers. Her voice was almost pleading. "Please, hold me a little longer." She placed his hands so that his arms were wrapped around her. She settled against him slightly, resting the back of her head on his shoulder.
Ranma tried desperately not to pay attention to what exactly his left biceps were pressed against. He looked around to see if anyone else was watching. If word of this got back to Akane, she'd never forgive him.
Kodachi sighed. "Please, Ranma-sama, try to relax. I'd rather not be a source of tension to you if possible."
Ranma grimaced. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then opened them again and forced his muscles to relax. He found that, in fact, holding Kodachi in his arms felt rather good. He had an opportunity, now that he wasn't locked up, to move his left arm a little away from her, and found himself strangely reluctant to do so.
"That's better." Kodachi moved her head a little so that she resting in the crook of his neck. "That doesn't feel so bad, does it?"
Ranma shook his head slightly, incidentally bring his lips close to her hair. "No, it doesn't."
Kodachi made a pleased sound. Together they stared straight ahead at nothing at all, listening to the comfortable silence.
Ranma paced up and down the sidewalk. He wasn't so sure this was a bright idea. He was almost certain that Nabiki would try and talk him out of this if he had asked her about it.
He was just so tired of unresolved differences, of bad feelings lingering in the air and screwing things up. He'd seen what that had done to the Kuno family, and he had no desire to see it happen to him.
Time for action. To get it over with one way or another.
His mind made up - for the moment, anyway - he strode up to the gate, opened it, walked to the front door, and rang the doorbell.
It soon opened. Kasumi blinked twice at him. "Ranma-kun?"
Ranma bowed formally to her. "May I speak with your father, Kasumi-sama?" Having servants attend him had taught him the art of humility, even if it was something he planned to use as seldom as possible.
Kasumi looked at him a moment. "Please come in, Ranma-kun."
"Thank you." He stepped in and looked around, drinking in the familiar sights. This... this was home.
Kasumi indicated he should wait a moment, then walked down the hallway. Ranma looked at the pile of shoes next to the door and noted that everyone was home.
"He WHAT!" Soun's angry shout didn't sound pleased. Ranma strained to hear more, but he couldn't make anything else.
Finally, Soun came down the hallway, followed closely by a concerned Kasumi. Soun looked angry but calm. He loomed over Ranma. "What are you doing here?"
Ranma did something he had never done voluntarily in his life. He got on his knees and touched his forehead to the ground. "On behalf of my family, of the Saotome clan, I offer my deepest apology. The way we have treated you and your family was disgraceful, and I will do anything you require in order to, uh, make up for it."
Ranma remained where he was, waiting for a reaction. His plan had gone no farther than this. He'd said what he'd been planning to say, even if he'd stumbled a little at the end. Now it was all up to Soun.
Silence. And more silence. Finally a low rumbling. "Raaannnnmmmaaaa..." Despite the menace, Ranma thought he could detect a trace of uncertainty.
"Daddy, it wasn't his fault." Nabiki's voice, from the stairs. "He wasn't the one who backed out of the agreement. He's not the one liable."
"Ranma-kun is not a dishonorable man, Father." Kasumi's voice from where she stood next to Soun. "You know this to be true."
"I was the one who allowed Kodachi to bet Ranma on the match." This voice, also from the stairs, sent a thrill down Ranma's spine. "It's my fault that Kodachi decided to screw up the engagement. Not Ranma's."
Kasumi quickly spoke up. "Assigning blame for losing the match accomplishes nothing. What it came down to is that one man was offered temptation, and succumbed. I don't think Ranma should have to suffer because of that man's fall from grace."
"If he ever had grace," Nabiki said dryly.
Ranma suddenly felt a lot better. Having the Tendo sisters on his side was a good thing.
After another moment of silence, Ranma heard the sound of someone shifting uncomfortably in front of him. "Get up, Ranma."
Ranma complied, looking up into Soun's eyes.
Soun held the gaze for a moment, then looked away. "I hope you're not expecting to come and freeload again."
Ranma shook his head. "No."
Soun seemed to deflate a little bit. "I... if my daughters think you are an honorable man, I cannot deny them. I lift my injunctions against you." He straightened and shot Ranma a hard look. "But your father is still not to be allowed into this house or in the dojo for any reason. Do you understand?"
Ranma nodded. "Yes."
"Very well." The anger drained from Soun, and he seemed unable to figure out what to say next.
Kasumi stepped up. "Ranma-kun, would you like to stay for dinner?"
Ranma looked over to Kasumi, back to Soun, then up to the top of the stairs. Akane stood there, looking at him curiously. Their eyes met, and Akane nodded her head fractionally.
Ranma grinned and looked back at Kasumi. "I'd like that."
Kasumi smiled serenely, then stepped away.
Soun reached over and put his arm around Ranma's shoulders. "So, Ranma-kun, do you know how to play shogi?"
"Er... a little."
"Good!" Soun lead them down the hall. "I haven't played a match against anyone for a long time."
"Anyone you can beat, you mean," Nabiki said as she followed them.
Ranma felt his grin growing into a full-blown smile. This part of his plan had gone as well as he could have hoped. For tonight, he'd celebrate this victory before worrying about the second and altogether more difficult part.
Ranma ate breakfast alone. He had no idea where the Kunos were, and it worried him slightly.
He finished, stood up, and thanked the cook as she came to clear the dishes. He went out into the yard, with the vague idea of trying to find where everyone was.
He wandered around, trying to decide what to do about his current situation. Confronting Soun had been easy; the man had no backbone. Kodachi, on the other hand, had trouble even conceiving of things happening in any way different from how she wanted them to happen.
Voices drifted to him from one part of the yard. Voices that were raised in argument. Ranma frowned and followed them.
"I am your elder. It is unseemly for you to talk to me this way."
"Very good. A perfect imitation of Father. I am most impressed."
"Father did what he thought best for the family. It is not your place to question him."
"Father drove Mother away before he fled himself. How was that 'best for the family'?"
"I- I said he did what he thought-"
"And his thinking was flawed. As is mine. As is yours. That is why you must- Ranma-sama, tell him."
Ranma walked up to the pen. Kodachi was next to the pond, a fair-sized hunk of meat in her hand. She was pointing it at Tatewaki. He was on the outside of the pen looking in at Kodachi, an affronted look on his face.
Ranma hopped on top of the fence and crouched. "Tell him what?"
Kodachi shook the meat as if it were her finger, chastising Kuno. "That he must go see a psychologist. That he has problems similar to mine, and that they must be treated before the get worse."
Ranma looked over at Kuno. "I, uh, think she's right."
"By my ancestors!" Anger covered Kuno's face. "It is not your place to judge me, Saotome. I will have none of this."
Ranma shrugged. "Don't matter much to me. But... well, do you think anyone would want to live with you the way you are?"
A wistful look crossed Kuno's face. "The fair Akane, or the pig-tailed one - they both adore me for who I am."
Ranma spluttered. "Adore you? Kuno, you really do live in a dream world. Neither one of 'em can stand you. Trust me."
Kuno focused his eyes on Ranma. "And what would you know about it?"
"Oh for heaven's sake." Kodachi tossed the meat into the pond, where it was instantly answered by violent thrashing. She grabbed a bucket, filled it with water, and threw it at Ranma.
Ranma saw it coming and could have leapt out of the way. Instead he grit his teeth and let it hit him.
"There! Do you see, Brother dear? The 'pig-tailed one' couldn't care less for your advances. As you should well know, if you had but the eyes to see."
Kuno stared at Ranma. "My beloved goddess! Where did you come from?"
"Oh for crying out loud." Ranma jumped off the fence, ran over to Kuno, picked him up, and shook him. "Didn't you see what just happened? Are you blind? Do we need to go through this over and over again? What does it take to get through to you?"
Kuno looked at her with bewilderment. "Beloved, I- I do not know... that is..."
"Look at your 'beloved' closely." Kodachi poured hot water over Ranma. He wondered where she got it from. "Surely you cannot deny your eyes?"
Kuno's eyes glazed over. He began to look around the yard. "My beloved... she has run off-"
With a disgusted sound, Ranma threw Kuno a short distance away. "Dammit, Kuno, you need help. You're the one who told me what your mother said about you and Kodachi. If she was right about your sister, why can't she be right about you, too?"
"I know your dream world is a very pleasant place." Kodachi's voice had assumed a reasonable tone. "Yet I also know the consequences of letting your fantasy consume your reality. You want something to be true - you desperately want it to be true - and even if you know it can never come to be, you find a fantasy place where it will always be true. And yet, such fantasies prevent you from finding happiness in reality. Open your eyes, Brother. Work on improving your reality. If you have trouble with your vision, see an optometrist. I know of a good one."
Kuno shook his head. "There-"
"-is nothing wrong." Kodachi and Ranma looked at each other, then back at Kuno.
Kuno looked back and forth between them, then bowed formally. "If you will excuse me." He turned and strode away.
Ranma sighed. "Damn."
Kodachi looked over at him and smiled wryly. "I thank you for your help, Ranma-sama. You performed remarkably well, given that you were not prepared for it. This will not be an easy task. My brother is quite stubborn, but I think we made progress here today."
Ranma grunted. "Anything to keep him from chasing me."
Kodachi narrowed her eyes. "You seem almost embarrassed to admit that you are capable of good deeds. You hide that embarrassment behind self-deprecation. I think denying that you are capable of good is just as unhealthy as denying that you are capable of evil."
Ranma looked down. Kodachi had no idea what evil he was capable of. Of what had motivated him to reform her in the first place. His stomach twisted with the fear that when that revelation was at last made, it would destroy her.
Kodachi reached out to touch his arm. "I'm sorry, Ranma-sama. I have been undergoing so much therapy of late, I sometimes have difficulty not seeing everyone's actions in psychological terms." She smiled again. "I hope eventually to simply enjoy the moments as they come. In time, I will be able to."
This did nothing to improve Ranma's mood. Still, he managed a smile. "Yeah. That'll be nice."
She searched his face, then turned away. "I think I will eat breakfast now. The conversation with my brother took longer than I had anticipated." She began to walk towards the house, then stopped and turned to face him again. "Would you like to go on a picnic this afternoon?"
Ranma shrugged. "Okay. What time?"
Kodachi frowned slightly. "Say, one o'clock?"
Kodachi's frown deepened. She turned and entered the house.
Ranma waited until she was gone, then ran towards the wall surrounding the estate. He leapt over it and ran through the streets, leaving the Kuno family problems behind him.
Ranma leaned forward, staring into the pond. He was usually so busy falling into it that he never had a chance to admire it. Now, in this awkward moment of peace, he could examine it at leisure. It was actually kinda nice.
"You know, Ranma-kun," Nabiki said from where she sat on a boulder, "if you'd come to us beforehand, we could have planned your presentation to Daddy a little better."
Ranma shrugged. "It worked."
"Only 'cuz you were lucky. What if the three of us hadn't been there to support you?"
"Nabiki." Akane spoke the name without inflection. Ranma felt more mental telepathy thingies happening behind him. He turned to see them looking at each other.
After a moment, Nabiki shrugged herself. "Well, okay, it did work. And pretty well, too." She spoke almost begrudgingly. "Good job, Ranma-kun."
"Well, I was just-" Ranma paused, considered. "I mean... thanks."
"How is Kodachi-chan doing?" Kasumi paused from where she was hanging laundry.
"Pretty good, I think." Ranma thought it over. "I mean, she's still adjusting, but she's still a heck of a lot better than before. Sometimes I find it hard to believe she's the same person I fought in the ring." Ranma gazed into the pond, thinking of Kodachi.
Akane's voice nearly made him jump. "Have you talked about your engagement yet?"
Ranma shook his head. "Not yet. But soon, I think. She's trying to reform Tatewaki now. I think that means she's ready to deal with the outside world."
Kasumi looked sad. "Do you want me to talk to her, Ranma-kun?"
Ranma smiled at her. "No thanks. I... I gotta do this myself."
"Hmmph." Nabiki looked skeptical. "You really did get lucky with Daddy. You sure we can't help? Kodachi isn't going to cave in as easily."
"No, but... well, she'll listen to me. I mean, really listen. That's the biggest difference in her, the ability to, uh, focus on the present."
Akane raised an eyebrow. "You've gotten to know her pretty well, then?"
"Well, of course." Looked back down into the pool and idly trailed his hand in the water. "I mean, I live with her and all. And, well, she really treats me like her fiancee. She tells me everything. She sent me letters from the hospital even."
He looked up at Akane. "Don't mean nothing. Just kinda necessary given the circumstances. Now that she's getting better, I don't need to get to know her any better."
Akane seemed to mull over his words. She didn't respond.
Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "So we don't have any sympathy love happening, then?"
Ranma shook his head. "I told you, I don't wanna be Kodachi's life-long nurse."
"Good." Ranma looked over at Akane. She was looking down at her clasped hands and refused to meet his gaze.
"Well, I'm done here." Kasumi picked up her empty laundry basket. "Nabiki, could you give me a hand in the kitchen?"
Nabiki began to protest, then looked back and forth between Ranma and Akane.
Ranma's eyes widened. Quickly he straightened from his crouch. "I gotta go."
Akane looked up at him. "So soon?"
"Yeah, sorry." He bit his lip. "Er, do, um, maybe tomorrow we could, uh, you know, if you want, er, that is..."
Akane interrupted. "What time?"
Ranma gulped. "Maybe around six?"
"I'll meet you then." She turned to face Kasumi. "I'll help you in the kitchen." She walked off before Kasumi could say anything. Kasumi looked at Ranma for a moment, then followed.
Nabiki scowled. "Idiot. What's so important you have to leave right at this moment?"
Ranma shrugged. He turned to go.
"Ranma." Nabiki ran up to him and touched his arm. "I've got no idea what Akane's feelings are towards you. I think that's because she hasn't got a clue herself. How you treat her tomorrow could be very important. It could tip the scales one way or the other." She squeezed his forearm tightly. "Be careful."
Ranma stared at Nabiki for a second. "Thanks."
He walked off as Nabiki released his arm. Tomorrow. It would all be decided tomorrow. That was a little scary. He was looking forward to it, though. Looking forward to the relief he would feel when a decision had been made, no matter what it was.
Still, that didn't mean he didn't care what that decision was. He put his hands behind his head as he walked, thinking of what he would say to Akane tomorrow.
Ranma couldn't help himself. He studied the food carefully.
Kodachi tsked at him tiredly. "Ranma-sama, it is not poisoned. I promise you, I will never again poison anyone's food."
Ranma decided to take her word for it. He bit into the sandwich, chewed, and nodded his appreciation to her.
Kodachi leaned against the tree, her eyes staring into the distance, her untouched sandwich in her hands. "This is a beautiful place, is it not?"
Ranma was forced to agree. The Kuno family's limousine had proven serviceable despite three years of disuse. A servant had doubled as chauffeur and driven them to a large monastery outside Tokyo. Kodachi had somehow gotten them inside, and they were sitting on a small hill overlooking a lake.
Ranma finished his sandwich and lay on his stomach. "So, Kodachi... how are you feeling?"
Kodachi shifted her gaze over to him. "Fine." She took a bite out of her sandwich.
Ranma examined her face. He decided to try Akane's trick. "Kodachi," he prompted quietly.
Kodachi swallowed and stared into her sandwich. "I... sometimes miss the mania. I felt so good during those times. I'm trying to follow your words, trying to find the bits of color in my new existence and add them to my inner light." She paused a moment. "I was hoping I would find one such light here." She took another bite.
Ranma grimaced. He hadn't been terribly good company, he knew. He'd spent much of the ride up thinking about his date with Akane tomorrow. He hadn't responded very well to Kodachi's attempts to start a conversation, and after a while she'd stopped trying.
Ranma shook his head fractionally, disgusted with himself. He needed to behave better. Kodachi needed to be in a good frame of mind as much as possible. That was important to her recovery. And it was important to Ranma, too.
He stood up. "Wanna walk around the lake?"
Kodachi looked at him in surprise. She quickly swallowed her food. "Sure."
He reached down, grabbed her hand, and lifted her to her feet. She didn't release her grip, so Ranma didn't either. Together they made their way down the hill.
Ranma felt his heart pounding in a peculiar way. He shook his head again, slightly more strongly, in an attempt to clear it. "Uh, so, you think you'll feel good about yourself again?"
"My psychologist is helping me with some self-worth exercises. They are surprisingly effective. I do feel better."
They walked together for a bit in silence before she added, "Not necessarily *good*. But better."
Ranma winced internally. Not exactly what he wanted to hear.
Kodachi suddenly wrapped her arms around one of his and leaned her head against him as they walked. "When you're with me, though, I do feel good. Thank you for being here with me today."
Ranma swallowed. "You're welcome. It's, uh, nice to be here."
She looked up at him. "Really?"
Ranma drew a deep breath and told her the truth, because she deserved it. "Yes, really."
Kodachi sighed happily.
Ranma grinned. Damn the future anyway. Time once again to forget it and live the moment.
So he did. He couldn't quite shake the feeling that too much pain was waiting just around the corner, but for Kodachi's sake he enjoyed being with her.
For Kodachi's sake, and his own.
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