Flap. Flap. Flap.

The sound echoed loudly off the bare floors and walls. Ranma would never have thought that soft shoes could make so much noise. He began walking heel-to-toe to stop the pounding. The resulting silence only emphasized the emptiness.

He stopped in front of a window overlooking an alley. The building opposite was as old and worn as the one that housed the apartment. After the simple beauty of the Tendo home and the stated elegance of the Kuno mansion, places like this seemed so... lifeless.

Ranma raised his hand and made a fist. He pounded it lightly on the windowsill, controlling his breathing with difficulty.

The woman standing in the doorway cleared her throat. "You indicated that a private bath was necessary?" She pointed at another door.

Ranma relaxed his hand, then went over to the door and opened it. The fixtures looked to be several decades old, but it was a complete bath. Most importantly, no one would peek in on him during some potentially embarrassing moments.

He nodded and turned towards the woman. "I'll take it."

She smiled and named an amount, including first and last month's rent and a deposit. It was expensive, but Ranma knew it was as cheap as he could get in Tokyo. He reached into his backpack and pulled out some money. He counted off the amount, paused a moment, then handed it to the woman. She nodded and had him sign some documents. She gave him a key, then closed the door on her way out.

Ranma put his backpack on the floor. He separated the sleeping mat and unrolled it. He sat cross-legged on it, looking around at the studio apartment. His apartment.

His because, for the first time in his life, he was alone. Completely.

He swallowed heavily, wondering at the burning in his eyes. He lay on the mat and stared at the ceiling and thought about nothing at all until it hurt.

---

ROSES OF SHADOW

By Richard Lawson

Part Ten: His Rose is True

---

Ranma entered his room. After all this time, he was still uncomfortable with how sumptuous it was. Still, he had come to appreciate the desk, the closet, the private bathroom - unheard-of luxuries only a few weeks ago.

He sat at the desk and took out his homework. It was fairly light today; he figured he could polish it off before dinner. After that, he was due at the Tendo's.

The time flew by rather quickly. Sooner than he thought, the bell was ringing indicating that dinner was ready to be served. He quickly finished the essay he was working on, pronounced his homework done, and rushed to the dining room.

Kodachi and Tatewaki were already there. Ranma could feel the uncomfortable tension between them. Kodachi was still pushing her brother to get treatment, and Tatewaki was still resisting. Ranma was on Kodachi's side, of course, but his involvement was minimal for now.

The food was served, and was excellent as usual. Ranma shook his head, wondering what would happen if he ever had to do without someone else's cooking. He and Genma had been able to take food and make it mostly edible, but they'd never pass as cooks.

"Ranma-sama." Kodachi's voice was bright. "Would you like to accompany me to the hospital tonight?"

Ranma just barely managed to keep his eyes from popping out of his head. "What?"

"I'm going to go visit Kimiko. She's wanted to meet you for the longest time."

Ranma's mind raced. Kimiko. The older woman who had taken a liking to Kodachi during her stay in the psychiatric ward. "Uh, sorry, I, uh, got homework to do tonight."

Kodachi's face grew cold. "Oh." She looked down at her food.

Damn. Something was wrong. He needed her to feel good, to be distracted by something. "Say, Kodachi, is that Tohru guy going to be there?"

Kodachi didn't look up at him. "I do not know. Perhaps. I am not going there to see him, but if he is there, I would enjoy talking with him."

Ranma beamed. "Yeah, that'd be nice, wouldn't it?"

Kodachi didn't answer. She ate her rice without looking at him.

Something cold was settling into Ranma's stomach. This was not good. "I mean, he sounds like a great guy. Smart, knows all that drug stuff you like so much."

Kodachi continued to ignore him. Ranma bit his lip, wondering what he needed to do. Something, anything, and quick. "Um, maybe later tonight, when you get back from the hospital, we can, uh, talk or something. If you feel like it."

At this, Kodachi looked at him. Her expression was still cold as she chewed on something. Finally she swallowed, placed her chopsticks firmly on the table, took a sip of tea, and rose. "If you will excuse me."

She stalked out of the room with frigid grace. Ranma felt each of her steps like a kick in his stomach. This wasn't how he'd wanted this to go.

"Saotome." Kuno's voice was even and neutral.

Ranma blinked over at him. "What?" It came out sharp and irritated, more so than he intended, but he didn't care.

Kuno lifted up his teacup and spoke over it. "Men's judgments are a parcel of their fortunes; and things outward do draw the inward quality after them, to suffer all alike."

"Huh?"

"Antony and Cleopatra, Act Three, Scene Thirteen."

"Huh?"

Kuno took a sip of his tea, then put his cup down and stood up. "I shall leave you to ponder its meaning. If you will excuse me."

Ranma watched him leave, his head swimming. He wasn't sure how much more of this kind of stuff he could take.

He picked at his food, terribly afraid of how much of "this stuff" was his fault.

---

Ranma stood perched on top of the fence surrounding Midorigame's pen. He was looking intently at the alligator floating contentedly in the middle of the pool. Ranma envied the creature's peace. All it had to do was to wait until someone gave it food, and then eat. No worries, no mental illnesses to deal with, no traps of honor to fall into.

"A penny for your thoughts, Ranma-sama."

Ranma choked and fell forward into the pen. He scrambled up and leapt over the fence, convinced he had heard thrashing coming from the pond. He landed and whirled, to see Kodachi looking at him with a raised eyebrow as Midorigame floated serenely.

"Don't do that. Man, I could have been eaten."

Kodachi smiled slightly. "I somehow doubt that."

"Well, maybe." He looked more closely at Kodachi. She was wearing a long, flowing skirt and one of her simple blouses. She had a large purse hanging on one arm. She was obviously on her way out.

What was most striking was her face. It took Ranma a second to realize what it was. Her makeup was much less severe than it usually was. Her eyeshadow didn't give her eyes an evil look anymore.

She seemed to grow nervous as he examined her. "Do you like it? I- I know that you didn't like the way I made up my face before. So I decided to try something a little different. Do you like it?"

Ranma felt a bit of panic. "You don't have to change the way you look for me."

Kodachi's widened and she appeared to be on the verge of an outburst. The she dropped her eyes. "Ranma-sama, I apologize for my behavior earlier. I did not mean to cause you distress." Her voice was tight, something barely contained underneath.

Ranma floundered for something to make her feel better. "No problem. Don't worry about that. Go ahead and visit your friends in the hospital. Say hi to Tohru for me."

The words seemed to strike Kodachi like a blow. She leaned forward from the waist, staring at the ground, dropping her purse. "I- I cannot..."

The ground below Ranma's feet seemed to be moving of its own accord. He lurched forward. "What-?"

Kodachi whipped herself back upright. Her expression had become frozen ice, her voice a perfect match. "Ranma-sama, we must talk."

Akane's face flashed before his eyes. He needed to leave soon to meet her. "Uh, but I've got homework to do right now. I mean-"

Kodachi's tone of voice brooked no argument. "Now, Ranma-sama."

Ranma sighed and followed Kodachi back into the house.

She led him to her parent's bedroom. Ranma felt more than a little alarmed, wondering what she intended to do to him. Kodachi walked over to a painting and pulled on the frame. It swung open, revealing a safe behind it. Kodachi turned the dial several times back and forth, then opened the safe. She reached inside and pulled out a large bundle of yen.

She turned to face Ranma and rifled quickly through the yen. She counted under her breath, then held out most of the yen towards Ranma. "Here."

Ranma furrowed his brow. "Huh? What's that for?"

With a tsk of annoyance, Kodachi turned back to the safe. She put the smaller pile of yen back into the safe and closed it. She walked over to Ranma, grabbed his hand, and put the yen into it. "Take it, Ranma-sama. It's for services rendered."

Ranma looked at it, utterly confused. "For what?"

"For getting me into psychotherapy, and for helping me recover afterwards. I have acclimated sufficiently, and your services are no longer required. I believe a million yen should suffice."

Nothing was making sense. "Kodachi, I wasn't-"

"Get out!" Kodachi pushed past him towards the door. "When I get back from the hospital, I expect you to be gone."

Ranma gaped after her. He ran and grabbed her arm at the door. "Kodachi, you don't-"

"Do you think me stupid, Ranma-sama?" Kodachi looked into his eyes. To his shock, he saw tears there. "There was a time when I could ignore the obvious, create my own reality. I was not as good as my brother, of course, but I was able to deal with things that didn't go as I wanted them to. Now, thanks to your help, I can see things with perfect clarity."

Ranma shook his head, still confused. "What things?"

"Please, Ranma-sama, do not play the innocent with me." She put her hand on his chest and shoved him against the doorframe. "Who is it that you are going to meet tonight?"

The blood drained from Ranma's face.

Kodachi continued before he could answer. "Who is it that you saw yesterday morning? Who is it you were thinking of all during our picnic together? Who is it that you went to go see that one day in the ice cream parlor, 'disguising' yourself as a woman so that I wouldn't know it was you?" She brought her head closer to his. "Who is it, Ranma-sama? And don't lie to me. You've been so truthful with me in other areas. Try to live up to that standard now. Who is it?"

Ranma somehow brought moisture to his mouth. "A-Akane."

"Akane," Kodachi said in confirmation. "All along, it's been Akane, hasn't it? You fought me on her behalf. When I forced you to move in with me, you kept a link with her. Kept her appraised of my mental health, told her how our relationship was going. Conspired with her to get me sane, in the hopes that once cured I would see how impossible our engagement was, and release you. Release you so you could fall back into her arms."

Ranma tried to protest, to try and tell her she was reading it wrong, but couldn't find the words.

"Well, it worked." Kodachi removed her hand and stepped back. Tears were flowing freely down her face. "I am sane. Or as sane as I can be, anyway. Sane enough to know that you could never find me desirable. Sane enough to know that you don't love me, will never love me. I know now that forcing you into marriage would make both of us miserable."

"K-Kodachi, I'd like us to-"

"Oh please, Ranma-sama." Her voice was close to a sob. "Spare me the 'friends' speech. I don't want your pity or sympathy. You performed remarkably well in getting me into therapy, but now that's done and you can drop the pretenses. G-go to the one you r-really love."

Kodachi fled down the hall. Ranma paused a second, then ran after her.

Halfway down the hall, she whirled on him. Ranma nearly crashed into her. She screeched at him. "Stop, Ranma-sama, just stop! I'll be fine, I've got my psychologist that I hate and a brother who's crazy and with their help and support I'll get by. You didn't want to be my caretaker forever, anyway." She grabbed his shirt and shook him. "I - WILL - SURVIVE! The Kunos have always had a knack for survival, and I don't need the largess of Saotome Ranma any more."

She wrapped her arms around him and cried into his shoulder for a moment. "You don't want me, no one's ever wanted me, not my mother not my father no one. I am unlovable, and the one man who has ever shown me the smallest amount of kindness did it only so he could be rid of me. I wanted you to like me, I did everything I could to get you to like me, poisoned myself tortured myself tried to be friendly and nice and I actually was almost able to fool myself into thinking that you *did* like me. But I can't, I can't anymore. It takes too much effort to maintain the facade, makes it harder for me to deal with reality."

Kodachi pushed herself away and looked into his eyes. "It has to be over, Ranma-sama. I've reached the point where you're doing me more harm than good. So p-please, for both our sakes, just leave. You can have Akane and I can have my sanity and we can each take comfort in those things and remember the one or two moments of illusion w-we two sh-shared."

She began to sob in earnest. She turned and fled down the hall once again.

Ranma stood as still as a statue. He didn't want to breathe, didn't want to move or hear or see, for any of those things would cause him to shatter on the spot.

Slowly, he lifted his arm to stare at the money he held in his hand. One million yen. The same amount of money Kodachi had paid Genma.

At long last, he thought to himself, I have become my father's son.

He ran to his bedroom, determined to be packed and gone before he threw up.

---

Ranma walked down the road in a daze. Kodachi's words were reverberating around in his brain and they wouldn't go away. With each repetition, his despair and self-loathing grew. What was truly terrifying was the thought that perhaps it would have been better to go to San Francisco after all.

He was a block past the Tendo home before he realized it. Smiling grimly, he turned around, wondering if this was how Ryogas were created.

Ranma walked up the path and knocked on the front door. He stood, wondering if he truly cared if it was answered.

It was answered, and by the one person he most wanted to see. Akane was frowning as she opened the door. "You're la-" She broke off as she saw him. Ranma could only imagine what his face must look like.

She looked behind him at the backpack he was wearing, then back into his face. "You... moved out?"

Ranma blew out a breath. "Was thrown out, more like it."

"Ah so." She examined him a moment longer. She smiled, then sobered. "I suppose we should talk."

"Yeah." He shrugged out of his backpack. Akane stepped back, and Ranma entered the house. He put the pack on the floor and followed Akane as she went upstairs.

They entered her room. She shut the door, then turned towards him.

Silence as they stared at each other. Then Akane took a quick step forward and hugged him fiercely. Ranma sighed and hugged her back.

She spoke into his shoulder. "How are you feeling, Ranma?"

"Oh, I don't know." Ranma shifted his head slightly on her shoulder. "Horrible."

Akane separated slightly, grasping his elbows and looking up at him. "Why? Isn't this what you wanted?"

Ranma grimaced. "Well... yeah. But... Kodachi... she didn't take it well."

Akane cocked her head. "Did you expect her to be happy about it?"

Ranma hung his head. "I didn't expect her to... to be... to act so..."

"You didn't expect her feelings for you to be genuine."

"Damn!" Ranma released her and turned away. He looked out the window. "I thought she was just... infatuated. That once she got stabilized, she'd stop being so obsessed with me."

Akane's hands were still held out from where she had been holding him. She slowly folded them across her chest. "A-and it hurts you to see her in such pain."

Ranma turned back towards Akane. "I just wanted to help her. Why did she have to be really in love with me?"

"You don't know, Ranma?" Akane shook her head, looking annoyed. "You went out of your way to help her, got her into therapy, showed genuine concern for her, and you can't figure out why she might be in love with you?"

Ranma ran his hands through his hair. "God, this was so screwed up. It shouldn't have been this way."

Akane spoke in a curious tone of voice. "And what way should it have been?"

"I don't know! I don't know! If... if Kodachi hadn't ever gotten ill, if her mother hadn't left, if her father wasn't so screwed up, too..." Ranma shook his head, frustrated with how unfair life was.

Akane was looking at him strangely. There was a deep pain in her eyes that Ranma couldn't fathom. Suddenly a huge smile covered her face. She sauntered up to Ranma, reached up, grabbed the back of his head, and brought him down for a kiss.

Ranma locked up. He'd never kissed anyone before, ever. When he hadn't been attending an all-boys school, he'd been on some training trip or other with Genma. Women had always been strange creatures; inexplicable, unknowable. Even becoming one himself had done little to lift the mystery. And now here was one in front of him, kissing him, and he had no idea to react.

He stared cross-eyed at her nose. She moved her lips slightly, and it sent strange sensations through him. He closed his eyes to better concentrate on the feeling, and found that it was very pleasant. He moved his lips a little bit, and she responded, and it felt very good.

Her lips left his, and Ranma stood there, his eyes still closed, enraptured.

A voice drifted from somewhere nearby. "Did you enjoy that, Ranma-sama?"

"Yeah. Thanks, Kodachi." He started, and his eyes flew open. "Huh?"

"I thought so." Akane smiled at him sadly. "The reason you're feeling so bad is because you have some feelings for her, too."

"Hey!" Anger roiled from somewhere inside Ranma. "What the hell was that all about!"

Akane sighed and sat in the chair at her desk. She stared down at her desktop, her eyes wide and unfocused. "I've been thinking about this for a long time, ever since Kodachi came and took you away. Ranma, you know what your problem is? It's that you don't know your own heart."

Ranma growled. "What would you know about it?"

"Because I have the same problem." Akane pushed a pencil around with her finger. "We both hate to be forced into things. We hate it so much that we let it color all of our perceptions. We were so angry at our fathers for forcing the engagement that we didn't stop to think that we might not have minded so much."

That brought Ranma short. The words sounded very familiar. Kodachi had said something like that.

Akane looked over and nodded at his reaction. "It also didn't help that our... relationship as man and woman got off to such a bad start. We were always snapping at each other, and otherwise not treating each other very well."

"B-but Akane..." Ranma was having trouble with his breathing. "It never meant nothing."

Akane spoke in a very serious and somewhat tremulous tone of voice. "Do you remember when I was training for the match with Kodachi? How you sat there and made fun of me?" She drew in a breath. "That hurt."

Ranma looked into her eyes and found that he didn't have anything to say.

Akane's eyes were watering. "To be honest, I... I wasn't always fair to you. I didn't treat you very well, either. We weren't acting very much like people who w-were supposed to be engaged."

A thick silence hung in the air. Ranma desperately tried to stave off something he didn't want to happen. "Akane..."

"Do you know what I felt the day after Kodachi had taken you away? Do you know?" She rubbed the tears out of her eyes. "Relief."

The word was physically painful to hear. Ranma trembled where he stood.

Akane's eyes began to wander around the room. "That surprised me. I thought about it for a long time. A very long time. I decided that I was relieved because the fighting was over. I could walk to school and have a nice talk with Nabiki. I could come home and relax. At no time was I fighting. With you."

Ranma finally found his voice. "Didn't... weren't there some... good times, too?"

Akane shrugged. "Yes. But not enough. Not enough to make up for the other times. The times where I was shouting and angry."

She looked into his eyes again. "You may not believe this, but I don't like myself when I'm angry. When you left, I stopped being angry and started feeling better about myself. At the same time, that made me feel guilty. I mean, I... should have missed you more. But I didn't."

Ranma's legs seemed to lose their strength. He leaned against the wall. "I... I never meant for you..."

"I know. Oh God, Ranma, I never meant to make you feel bad, either. Maybe if we hadn't been forced into that damned engagement. Maybe if we hadn't had that accident in the bathroom, if we'd been able to hold on the good feelings we felt during the workout in the dojo. Maybe maybe maybe." Her voice caught on the repetition. "Too many maybes."

Ranma struggled to gain control of the situation. It was slipping away. Again. "But, Akane, the pressure's off. There's no one forcing us. Can't... can't we begin again?"

Akane looked at him for a while. Then she smiled softly. "Ranma, believe it or not, I would sometimes fantasize about you saying something like that to me. I'd picture you acting kind and decent and considerate. It's nice to see. I w-wish I'd seen it sooner." Her smile faded. "I wish I'd acted that way sooner. But right now... I can't. Too much went wrong, too quickly."

The desk suddenly reverberated from Akane's blow. "I mean, you came in here, and it was supposed to be you and me, and instead you started going on about Kodachi. And it came back, the anger came back. I wanted to hit you, to yell at you and tell you to forget her and concentrate on me. I can't do that anymore, Ranma. I can't be angry all the time."

Ranma swallowed. "I'm sorry. For everything."

Akane nodded. "Me too."

"Can't... can't you give it a chance?"

Akane looked at the floor for a long time. Then she sighed. "Maybe. Maybe someday. When we can put this behind us."

Ranma tried to take hope from her words. He didn't much succeed.

"Ranma..." Akane stood up and walked over to him. She reached up and rapped his head a couple of times with her knuckles. "You are so dense sometimes. Mostly about your own feelings. You spend so much time trying to get out of things you've been forced into - your curse, our engagement, the Kuno mansion - that you don't stop to think about your own heart. Stop and listen to it sometime." She gulped. "You might be surprised at what it tells you."

Ranma couldn't meet her eyes. He knew she meant well, but her words were hollow in her ears. "Yeah, whatever." He pushed himself off the wall and stepped past Akane. "I gotta go."

"Ranma." She grabbed his arm. Her voice had a touch of desperation in it. "Please don't hate me?"

He relaxed his voice marginally. "Hate you? Never."

"Can- can we be friends?"

Ranma fought the shudder off. "Sure."

"Good." But her voice sounded sad, as if she knew what his real feelings about that were.

Ranma broke free from Akane and left the Tendo home and went nowhere at all.

---

Ranma stared at the ceiling of his new apartment. Hours and hours he'd spent not thinking. Something had to give soon.

Finally, something did break through: disgust. Here he was, paralyzed with fear, lying around doing nothing. That was not the way he lived life.

He sat up and tried to think about trivialities. He'd skipped a day of school to find this apartment. He'd have homework to make up. And stuff to buy. The equipment in his backpack was good enough for a wilderness campout, but not sufficient for urban living. He'd need a desk or table or something. A lamp, too, he noted as the sunlight began to fade. Stuff to cook with on the hotplate that came with the apartment.

His mind began to move again. A bit of energy to lighten up the depression. He began to try and organize the tasks he needed to. Ranma reached into his backpack and pulled out a pad of paper and a pen. After a moment's thought, he began to make lists.

So many things he needed to do. So many things he needed to get right. Time to stop waiting for things to happen so he could react; time to start making his own mark in the world. Beginning with this apartment. His apartment. His life.

A jolt ran through Ranma, revitalizing him. His hand began to move more and more frenetically, scrawling entries on the pad as the things he needed to do became clear. Akane and Kodachi had both been right; he had to stop feeling so damned sorry for himself.

He almost smiled. He was Saotome Ranma, which meant that nothing could keep him down. He'd almost forgotten that this time. He'd been so worried about things he'd forgotten to just relax and have fun. He resolved never to do that again.

The depression left him like a two-ton weight off his shoulders. His spirit soared as it hadn't since the gymnastics match.

He was Saotome Ranma. He would be just fine.

---

Kuno Kodachi sat on the roof of her family's mansion. On her left was a pile of black roses, the result of hours of painstaking effort. She was taking them one at a time and methodically pulling the petals off until one remained. She would stare at the sole petal for a moment, then added the deflowered rose to the growing pile on her right.

Ranma watched for a while, then picked up his bookbag and walked towards her. He leapt in the air, twisted, and landed on his feet in front of her. "Hey, Kodachi."

Her eyes widened. "Ranma-sama." Her voice was halfway between irritation and hope. "I thought I told you never to return."

"Yeah."

"Yet here you are."

"Yeah."

"I should summon the police."

"Do you want me to go?"

Kodachi looked down at the rose in her hands. "I don't know what I want anymore." She continued to pull petals from it.

Ranma sat cross-legged in front of her. "Whatcha doing?"

"Playing, 'he loves me, he loves me not'. I had difficulty accepting the answer I had discovered for myself, so I decided to let my beloved roses determine the answer for me."

She came to the last petal and stared at it. "They, too, tell me an answer I do not want to hear. I have been trying other of my roses, but the problem is that I created them all with the same number of petals. So they all give me the same answer. Eventually, I suppose, I will listen. Eventually. But I have not yet excised all of my foolish hopes, so I keep playing this game." She set the bare rose aside, and pickup up another full one.

Ranma grunted. He opened up his bookbag and reached inside. "Maybe you just need to use something different." He removed a white rose and held it out to her.

Kodachi froze in place, staring at the rose. Ranma wasn't sure she was breathing.

She lifted her eyes and stared at him. He grinned back at her.

Her voice came as if from a distant place. "You don't like me."

Ranma snorted, still smiling. "Says who?"

"You were always going to see Akane."

"Well, I probably still will, like you go and see Kimiko. We're just friends."

"You wanted to get away. Everything you did was to find a way to leave me."

"I was an idiot."

Kodachi's expression was slowly turning incredulous. "B-but you don't want to take care of me forever and ever. I don't want that, either."

Ranma laughed. "So, okay, we take care of each other. God knows, I need help sometimes. Lots of times."

She was breathing heavily. "Ranma-sama..."

"Look, how about calling me Ranma? I ain't your superior."

Kodachi's voice was trembling. "Ranma. You're not teasing me? Not trying to get something out of me? I can give you more money."

Ranma tsked and shook his head. "C'mon, Kodachi. Is it so hard to believe that someone might like you? I ain't lying, not now, not about this. Never again, if I can help it."

Kodachi spoke in a small voice. "You like me?"

Ranma nodded firmly. "Yeah. Yes."

A tear trickled down her cheek. Slowly, she put the black rose she was holding in her hand on the rooftop, then reached out and took the white rose from Ranma. "Sh-should I pull off the petals?"

Ranma smiled. "How's about we just say that we both know what the answer really is, and leave the rose alone?"

Kodachi gave him a weak smile. She smelled the rose, then put it in her hair, her eyes not leaving his.

Ranma felt incredibly good. This was nice, this not denying stuff. He'd have to try it more often.

He turned and sat next to Kodachi. "Now, I was talking of needing your help. I got a lot of stuff I need to take care of and I need your advice." He reached into his bookbag and pulled out his pad of paper.

Kodachi leaned into him, clutching his arm as she read the pad. "'Pots and pans and stuff'? You know, Ranma-s... Ranma, you could move back in here."

Ranma paused for a moment. "Uh, I don't think that's such a good idea. I mean... well, I don't want either one of us to think that the only reason we were going out was so I could freeload off of you. That's why, once I get settled, I'm gonna work out some kinda repayment plan for the yen you gave me."

Kodachi looked up at him. "There is no need. You performed a service and were compensated."

Ranma shook his head. "Nah. I helped you for my own reasons. Not exactly alteristic of me."

Kodachi lifted a corner of her mouth. "Altruistic."

"Uh, yeah, that too." He flipped past several pages on the notepad. "Anyway, it was this list I needed help with."

Kodachi frowned. "I am not sure I can understand your handwriting."

"Well, I was a little excited when I wrote it. First of, I gotta find my father and set things right with him."

Kodachi stiffened. "I- I share some responsibility in that."

Ranma nodded. "A little, yeah. You weren't feeling well at the time, so I don't blame you so much. Still, I could use your help."

Kodachi considered the pad silently for a moment. "All right."

Ranma grinned. "Great. Also, one of my friends is lost. No one's seen him for weeks. I should find out where he is. I'd like to get cured, too. Gotta figure a way around Shampoo first, though. Oh, and I want to help you with your brother, if you'll let me."

Kodachi spoke softly. "I'd like that. Anything else?"

"Not right now. I'm sure more stuff will come up. It always seems to."

"Funny you should mention that." Kodachi reached over and pulled out something half-buried in the discarded roses. "This was found at our front gate this evening, evidently left there by someone who didn't know you'd moved out."

Ranma frowned at it. "What is that? An okonomiyaki?"

"Yes. A challenge is written on it."

Ranma snorted. "Weird." He suddenly grinned. "This is more of what I'm used to."

"Evidently." She looked up at him. "I believe, however, that there is no problem that we two cannot overcome."

Ranma smiled back at her. "I think so, too."

Kodachi shook her head in wonderment. "I cannot believe my eyes and ears. Can this really be Ranma? He isn't shy about expressing his feelings, isn't afraid to ask for help, and confronts difficult emotional issues head-on."

Ranma chuckled. "I just decided to listen to a good friend of mine. She told me to listen to my heart. I did, and I sure like what my heart is telling me."

Kodachi reached up with one of her hands to touch his cheek. "I love you, Ranma."

Ranma bit his lip. "Well, I, uh, ain't quite ready to say the same thing back to you, yet. Let me just say... I mean, I like you. And the possibility... the possibility for more is there." He smiled gently. "Fair enough?"

She smiled, a tender smile he had never seen in her before. "It is more than I had ever thought possible." She looked evenly at him.

He was getting better at this telepathy stuff. Ranma bent his head down and kissed Kodachi. And decided that white roses were definitely more his flavor.

~*~

ROSES OF SHADOW - THE END

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