To Wear A Midnight Rose

By Laurie Gerholz

Chapters: [Prologue]    [Illustrations] [Author's Notes]

Prologue

From the moment she awoke that morning, Kodachi Kuno knew that some momentous, life-changing event awaited her, and that it would occur soon. Yet the day blithely started down its usual path without a waver. She took breakfast with her older brother Tatewaki, and the two teenagers departed for their respective high schools.

Classes at St. Hebereke's School for Girls also proceeded apace. Kodachi received top marks on her chemistry exam, as she'd known she would. In the other class which she did not find unutterably boring, her French teacher assigned a new set of short stories to read, and Kodachi looked forward to making the acquaintance of another French writer.

The only unexpected occurrence of the school day was when the new recruit for the gymnastics team showed herself to be an exceptionally quick study. The girl was not so proficient as to be in a position to challenge Kodachi's role as team captain, but she would be a further guarantee of the lock on the sport championship which St. Hebereke had held since Kodachi had joined the team. A pleasant surprise, but hardly anything to greatly affect Kodachi's own life.

By the time the school day was done, Kodachi found herself quite on edge. She prided herself on never being caught unawares by any threat. Yet how did one prepare against Karma, which was what her jangled nerves whispered to her.

As she returned home to her family's estate, she resolved to relax. The day was mostly done, nothing untoward had occurred, yet the nagging feeling of premonition would not leave her. So she would first tend to her flowers, and then do the pleasant part of her homework. She retrieved the new book of French fiction from her satchel, got some tea from the kitchen, and retired to the conservatory.

She placed the tray with her tea and her book on the small wrought-iron table that sat with a pair of chairs at the center of the glass-walled room. Built as an extension to the south face of the mansion, it received excellent sunlight on bright days. Even during the chilling winter, the conservatory remained pleasantly warm and light. That gentle environment had prompted Kodachi to try some further experiments with her roses.

 

She'd been growing the flowers for years out in the expansive gardens of the Kuno estate. She couldn't even remember just how young she'd been when she started. The family had a gardener, of course, who did the bulk of the work. Early on, Kodachi had been drawn specifically to the roses. The gardener hadn't minded having the silent, intense, girl shadow him when he worked on the thorny plants. Eventually she began asking questions, which he answered matter-of-factly. Then she asked to work with him. He'd hesitated, concerned over the potential conflict of having his plants hurt versus the need to not insult the daughter of his employer. But a few trials showed that she was happy to accept his instruction, and soon she would inevitably join him whenever it came time to work on the roses.

It was after her mother died that the roses began to take on even more importance for her. She watched her brother and her father each withdraw away from her into their own grief. Not having other outlets for her emotions, she had kept to the company of her roses. Their simultaneous beauty and potential for causing pain came to fascinate her. As her own mood darkened so that she seemed to herself to be a creature of shadows, she pondered why her beloved roses should not carry a similar appearance. She studied horticulture and plant husbandry. Her examination of plant genetics claimed that her new fancy was likely impossible, but she had nothing to lose in trying. Eventually, her breeding efforts produced a rose with ebony petals.

Her success elated her, and she continued to develop a number of varieties of black roses. She knew that her achievement could bring fame, but she preferred to enjoy her plants in a more subtle fashion. They became her emblem, a standard that decorated her life. She took the name Black Rose, consciously adopting both their beauty and their threat.

 

Kodachi finally had produced sufficient numbers of black rose bushes that she was willing to attempt another experiment. She'd chafe during the winters, when her beautiful roses had to be covered against the cold winds and the snow. This year, she'd potted up a few plants into tubs, and brought them into the conservatory. She examined them daily to confirm their health. After a brief period of adjustment, they had all resumed blooming in the warmth of the conservatory, cheering Kodachi greatly. Even her newest variety, the dark miniature rose which she'd dubbed "Black Diamond" was bearing small clusters of jet-toned flowers.

It was there, amid the comforting greenery, that Sasuke appeared, offering an envelope to Kodachi. It didn't perturb her that she hadn't detected his presence until he stood, bowing, next to her chair. Members of his ninja clan had served her family for generations, he himself had acted as retainer to the household since before Kodachi's birth. Even she had difficulty keeping track of him if he wished to move about unnoticed.

As she took the envelope from him, he explained, "This arrived in today's mail." It was small, the size of a note card rather than a letter. The finely-written characters addressed it to both her and her brother. The return address named Kasumi Tendou.

A chill ran through Kodachi. This was it, then. To receive a missive from the eldest sister of the fiercest of Kodachi's rivals, and to have it addressed to both Kuno siblings, was indeed an indication that Karma had just knocked at her door.

She noted that the envelope had not been opened. That quickly, Sasuke produced a letter opener which Kodachi used to slice open the envelope.

About to remove the contents, she hesitated. She told herself that as it was addressed to both her and her brother, they should read it together. Why else delay reading it? "Is my brother home yet?"

"Yes, I believe Master Tatewaki is in the practice hall." Kodachi recalled that it was not a day on which the kendo team of Tatewaki's school met. Of course he would be practicing solo at home.

So when Kodachi paused at the door to the practice hall, she told herself it was only basic courtesy to allow Tatewaki to complete his kata. He was clad in gi and hakama as was traditional for kendo practice. Although kendo was not her art, Kodachi was well aware of her brother's expertise with the sword, and could appreciate the fluid grace he exhibited as he moved through the form.

Once he had completed the form to its usual perfection, Tatewaki turned to address her. "Sister, if you would change into your practice gear, we could spar for a while before dinner."

"Perhaps tomorrow. We have both received this," and she held up the envelope. "It is from Kasumi Tendou."

"Truly? Perhaps sent on behalf of her beauteous sister, Akane? Oh, that Akane feels she cannot openly correspond with me, her gallant admirer—"

"Brother!" snapped Kodachi, stopping what she knew could degenerate into yet another flowery monologue of praise to her rival. "This was addressed to us both. We should read what Kasumi actually requests."

"Of course," agreed Tatewaki, momentarily subdued. He moved to stand behind her, where his height allowed him to easily read over her shoulder.

It was an invitation.

On behalf of
Akane Tendou and Ranma Saotome
you are cordially invited to witness
the final sorting of a number of affairs.

Tendou Dojo
Sunday, October 6, 2:00 p.m.

"Such curious phrasing," mused Kodachi. "The 'final sorting of affairs'."

"It is obvious!" Tatewaki cried jubilantly. "At last Akane will declare her true devotion to me! Of course she would do this before her loving family."

Kodachi raised one skeptical eyebrow. "And my inclusion?"

"She wishes to make peace with you, and show that the way is clear for you to claim Saotome for your own. Hence his name on the invitation as well. He has abandoned his vile ways and now returns your affections." He smiled broadly as he returned his wooden practice sword to the weapons rack.

Kodachi lifted a hand to her temple and pressed. She'd have to shortly seek out some aspirin. "We have two days until this ... gathering. I hope you'll control your enthusiasm until then."

"But why? These are joyous tidings."

Multiple aspirin. "Think, Brother. Akane did not feel she could contact you directly, her sister acts as agent. This is obviously being carefully orchestrated. Would you ruin her plans with premature action?"

Tatewaki frowned in thought, then nodded in agreement. "Yes, of course. She must move stealthily in order to escape from Saotome."

Kodachi chuckled. "Ah yes, the 'evil sorcerer Saotome' who has entrapped the affections of fair Akane Tendou. The same Ranma Saotome who you would be happy to see settled with your own sister."

"You can deal with him on his own level."

"You think so, do you?" Kodachi well knew that Tatewaki wouldn't see the contradiction even if the insult was sincere.

Leaving her brother to his imaginings, Kodachi retreated to her bedroom. She asked Sasuke to have her dinner sent up to her room, as she knew if she dined with her brother she would be subjected to his wild mental meanderings for the entire meal. She had much less cheery expectations for Sunday. But perhaps it was time for her to step out of the game. It had become more tiresome than anything else.

 

Sunday dawned gray and chill. Kodachi could have done without the icy tinge to the air, but the cloudy skies suited her mood and expectations for the day.

As she dressed, Kodachi took her cue from Nature and selected a trim black skirt and silver-gray silk blouse. Black hose and low-heeled black pumps complemented the skirt. She twined a black and a silver ribbon together to hold her customary side-swept ponytail.

Tatewaki was waiting for her at the front foyer, holding both of their raincoats and an umbrella. He'd agreed that the occasion demanded some formality, and had donned a black wool suit and conservatively striped maroon tie. Kodachi again was reminded what a handsome figure her brother could present, with his wavy black hair and athlete's build and grace. Too bad he invariably ruined the effect as soon as he opened his mouth.

It would have been simple enough to have Sasuke drive them to the Tendou home, but Kodachi asked her brother for the walk. She held little hope, but intended to use the time to try again to open her brother's mind to the possibility that loss, not gain, awaited them both.

"I simply cannot accept your assertions," said Tatewaki as the gates of the Tendou compound came into view. The two siblings walked comfortably in the shelter of the large umbrella since a gentle rain had indeed caught them halfway from home.

"I expected as much," said Kodachi with a sigh. "I had to try. For all we quarrel, you are still my brother."

Tatewaki looked at her with unaccustomed fondness. "And your efforts are appreciated, even if I don't agree with the necessity. Now put aside your worry, for we have arrived. The culmination of both our desires is at hand."

Kodachi didn't answer as they entered the yard and approached the front door of the Tendou house. Off to the side, behind the house, the dojo building could be seen. The neatly trimmed yard and bushes formed a still-green frame about an ornamental pool. The fish were quiet under the cool autumn air, letting the pool form a mirror of the gray sky.

"Hey there, Kuno baby! Good afternoon, Kodachi." A young woman with stylishly short bobbed hair had come to the door to greet them. Nabiki Tendou, the middle of the three Tendou sisters, shared Tatewaki's class at school.

Tatewaki formally bowed to her. "Good day, Nabiki Tendou. We have come in attendance upon the summons from the gracious Kasumi."

Nabiki favored him with a well-worn combination of amusement and cynicism. "We knew you would, if she sent the invitations."

"Unlike, say, if they had come from you?" Kodachi said quietly.

Nabiki gave her a flat stare, then stepped back to allow the Kunos to enter the foyer. As she gathered up their outerwear, Nabiki stated very seriously, "I will escort you to the dojo, where the guests are gathering. Be aware that this household is under a charge of truce. Anyone who breaks the peace will not be allowed to remain, and will not be welcome to return."

Without hesitation, both Kodachi and Tatewaki bowed in acknowledgement of the conditions.

Nabiki did indeed lead them through the house and across the covered walkway to the dojo. Kodachi accepted the formal pattern set for them, knowing that Nabiki was surely aware that she and her brother knew the layout of the house sufficiently to find their own way.

Within the dojo, they found a curious arrangement. At the center of one long wall, a lop-sided triangle of zabuton cushions had been set out, the sides formed of three, two and two cushions respectively. Opposite this, stretching across the length of the room, a long line of more cushions were laid out. Nabiki indicated that the Kunos should occupy the two left-most cushions in the long line as the line faced the triangle.

Two other guests had already been seated. Kodachi recognized the young man, Ryouga Hibiki. Ryouga had for a good while been a rival to Ranma on a number of fronts, not the least of which was the matter of Akane's affections. But rumor had it that Ryouga had recently met someone else, undoubtedly the pretty long-haired young woman that occupied the cushion at his side. Ryouga and the girl noticed them, but seemed as content as Kodachi and Tatewaki to wait in silence.

In short order, Kasumi, the eldest Tendou sister, escorted in Ukyou Kuonji and another young woman, both clad in kimono. The two young women were seated at the far end of the row from Kodachi, on the far side of Ryouga.

Finally, Nabiki returned with Xian Pu, her great-grandmother the formidable Khu Lon, and Xian Pu's ever-hopeful suitor Mu Tsu. The trio from China were seated in the remaining space between Kodachi and Ryouga's friend.

After Nabiki withdrew, the guests surreptitiously regarded each other. By unspoken agreement, quiet reigned. Yet even through carefully schooled calm, Kodachi thought that the others shared her trepidation. Everyone had dressed up for the occasion. Even Xian Pu, Khu Lon and Mu Tsu had donned traditional Chinese finery.

Kodachi noticed that her brother was looking about the room curiously, especially at the front triangle of cushions. He noted her attention and explained in a whisper, "There is a place missing."

"What do you mean?" she asked, likewise whispering.

"The guest cushions are all occupied. Those before us must be for the Tendou and Saotome families. The three would be for Nabiki, Kasumi and their father. The two opposite would be for Saotome's parents. The two at the center must be for fair Akane and Saotome himself."

"I would agree. What is your point?"

"There is no place for my fire-haired goddess, the Pig-tailed Girl."

Kodachi sighed in exasperation at her brother's appellation for his other unrequited love-interest. "Her name is Ranko. She's a cousin of the Tendous. Why can you never remember that?" She paused and studied the seating arrangements again, and found she agreed about the omission. No matter what she thought of the girl, who both she and Tatewaki suspected of romancing Ranma right under the nose of the "official" fiancées, she was a player in this game. She deserved a place here.

Perhaps explanations would be provided with the rest of the "sorting".

For months, Kodachi had found herself caught up in the romantic chaos that surrounded Ranma Saotome and Akane Tendou. Ranma and Akane had been engaged via a long-standing agreement between their fathers. Yet Ranma also had claims of engagement on him from Ukyou and Xian Pu, albeit ones not of his own making, as Kodachi had heard it. Kodachi herself had become smitten with Ranma from their first meeting and had eagerly joined in the competition. The mysterious Ranko seemed always about also, in order to compete for Ranma's hand against her own cousin, even if she and Ranma consistently denied it. Her brother had long carried a torch for Akane Tendou, and Kodachi had heard rumors that Ryouga felt similarly, even though he recently had found this new girlfriend. And finally, Tatewaki had also become enamoured of Ranko Tendou from the moment he'd first laid eyes on her, yet had not set aside his pursuit of Akane.

Thinking about it all at once like that, Kodachi wondered if her headache would return.

At last the families entered. Ranma's parents, Genma and Nodoka Saotome, took one side of the front triangle of cushions. Nabiki, Kasumi and their father Soun Tendou entered, and sat themselves along the second side of the triangle. Finally, the centers of the matter, Akane and Ranma came in. They proceeded formally to the center of the gathering and together bowed to the assembled guests.

"Thank you all for coming today," they said together.

Kodachi noted out of the corner of her vision that Tatewaki was gazing at Akane in ardent adoration. Typical.

Akane continued. "I know that my sisters have explained the state of truce that exists here. I don't think we need to say why it's necessary." Indeed, with the high percentage of martial artists and hot tempers present, the romantic convolutions had more than once resulted in violence. Kodachi recalled with some chagrin cases where she had been the instigator. It bothered her that she'd allowed herself to resort to such crude methods even for such worthy goals. But Ranma was speaking, and Kodachi quickly focussed on his words.

"I'm not gonna claim that everyone's gonna walk away happy from this. I think we all know there's no way that can happen." He paused and looked to Akane. She smiled and nodded encouragingly to him. "But Akane and me have been doing a lotta thinking, and a lotta talking lately. We know we can't let things just go on as they are, 'cause people are gonna get even more hurt. So today, we settle things, and we expect everyone to respect our decisions."

Akane took up the thread, "Please don't think that Ranma and I haven't carefully considered this. And don't make the mistake of underestimating our resolve." She took Ranma's hand and they turned to face their families. With that gesture, Kodachi's suspicions were confirmed, that the two had made their hearts' choice, and their paths lay with each other.

Indeed, Akane and Ranma solemnly addressed their families, announcing their acceptance of the arranged engagement and their intent to marry at an appropriate time in the future. The women, Nabiki and Kasumi Tendou, and Nodoka Saotome, graciously and joyously welcomed the announcement. Nodoka, in her traditional kimono, embraced Akane and dubbed her "my dear daughter-to-be".

The fathers were another matter. They had long been pressuring their children to wed immediately, before the two were even out of high school. But Akane and Ranma presented irrefutable arguments as to why they should be allowed to pursue their relationship at their own pace. Eventually, even the stubborn Genma Saotome was forced to concede to his son's intentions.

Once things were settled with the families, Akane and Ranma turned to the guests. Outcomes were obvious, but the couple wished to personally address the issues that had arisen among them all over the past year.

They began at the opposite end of the row, with Ukyou. Her reaction was barely contained rage, her screams of denial quieting only under the calming words and embrace of her friend.

Ryouga was the next in line. It seemed that Ryouga's affections did indeed now lie with his companion, Akari. The two couples happily wished each other well, and Ranma reminded Ryouga that some day he would be in need of a best man.

Next came Xian Pu. Ranma clearly delineated how her claim on him was invalid. Shaking in fury, Xian Pu opened her mouth to reply but was silenced at a command from Khu Lon. Speaking as the tribal Elder she was, Khu Lon acknowledged Ranma's argument and declared the claim of marriage as void. The beautiful Chinese girl stared at the floor in defeat, oblivious as Ranma and Akane moved on down the line to face the Kuno siblings.

Ranma first stepped forward to address Kodachi. His expression was completely neutral, not even the coldness or anger she had expected from him. "Ya just heard what I told Ukyou and Xian Pu. Do I really hafta go over it again for you?"

Kodachi shook her head sadly. "Hardly. I will not apologize for pursuing you, Ranma. But I recognize now that I had lost this particular race even before I entered it. The two of you will suffer no more trouble from me."

Akane stepped up next to Ranma and faced Tatewaki. The expression she leveled at him carried visible anger, but for once it was tightly controlled. "And you, Upperclassman Kuno? Can I safely assume you'll stop harassing me?"

"You ask much of me, fair Akane," Tatewaki began. One of Akane's eyebrows twitched, and from the way Ranma suddenly glanced down at their clasped hands, her grip had severely tightened. "But I must acknowledge the validity of your relationship. Since you have publicly accepted it before us all, I will honor your decision. And your fiancé has taken care to legitimize his participation by dealing with the other claims, so I must honor his as well. My heart breaks to say it, but I relinquish my pursuit of you."

Akane nodded solemnly. "Thank you, Upperclassman." She was about to turn her attention back to the gathering as a whole, but Tatewaki was not finished.

"Now that Saotome has in all eyes committed to the beauteous Akane Tendou, I shall assuage my grief in the winning of the wondrous Pig-tailed Goddess."

"Her name is Ranko!" hissed Kodachi. If her brother couldn't even be bothered to use her name correctly, no wonder the girl didn't want anything to do with him. She looked back to Akane and Ranma, expecting to see Akane's anger flaring up in defense of her cousin.

Instead, Akane and Ranma just stood there. Akane wore a look of bemused resignation, and Ranma shook his head in exasperation.

"What did I tell ya?" he said.

"You were right. I should've known." Akane looked to her fiancé, sympathy in her eyes. "I'd hoped this wouldn't be necessary."

"Aw, what's the loss?" said Ranma with a shrug. "Everyone else here knows." He turned to the family group. "Kasumi?"

Kasumi had already risen to her feet even before Ranma spoke to her. She went to the decorative folding screen in the corner and withdrew from behind it two thermos jugs. She brought them both to Ranma and said, "The blue one contains cold water, the red one contains hot water." She looked at the red thermos as if deciding what to do with it, then bent to set it on the floor next to her.

Mu Tsu, seated next to Kodachi, spoke up then. "If you will allow me to assist you?"

Kasumi smiled, "Yes, thank you, Mu Tsu." The young Chinese man got to his feet and took the red thermos from Kasumi.

Ranma also nodded to Mu Tsu in acknowledgement of his help. Then he turned back to the two Kuno siblings. "You know that I spent some months in China, on a training trip with my old man. While there, we had the ..." Ranma frowned, "... crappy luck to wander into an area of cursed pools. These pools have the effect that if ya fall in, you become cursed with whatever died in that pool."

Kodachi and Tatewaki looked at each other, perplexed. She spoke, "Cursed? Really, Ranma. How can you expect us to believe such a thing?"

"I can't. That's why I'm gonna show you. Both of you, stand up please." They did so. Ranma's expression was still completely serious. And everyone else in the room seemed not at all surprised by the odd proceedings. He held out his arms to them. "Good. Now each of you grab one of my wrists and put your other hand on my shoulder." The Kunos complied, Tatewaki holding Ranma's right arm, Kodachi taking the left. Kodachi could feel the tension through the thin silk of his shirt where her fingers rested on Ranma's shoulder.

"My curse is activated by cold water," explained Ranma. "Kasumi is going to pour some on me. Then you'll see exactly what I've been living with since China."

Kodachi's mind was whirling. What horror could Ranma have possibly encountered that he'd describe it as a "curse"? What still haunted him? Her grip on his wrist and shoulder unconsciously tightened as Kasumi moved behind Ranma and raised the opened thermos above his head.

As the water poured over Ranma's head, Kodachi knew that for the first time in her life, she was witnessing something truly impossible. Ranma's black hair should have, if anything, darkened from the water, yet it lightened and took on a red cast. Mass melted away under Kodachi's hands as Ranma's frame shortened, compacted down into a body that was shorter than her. A body that was no longer male—Ranma's damp clothing now covered the petite yet athletic figure of a familiar young woman. The girl's red hair was still bound back in Ranma's customary braid. Her eyes—her eyes were Ranma's steel blue eyes and they alternately regarded Kodachi and her brother, daring either of them to deny what had just occurred.

Tatewaki's hands fell away from Ranma's arm as he staggered back. Staring eyes fixed on the now-female face, he dropped helplessly to his knees. "P-p-pig-tailed Girl," he stammered.

"Ranko," whispered Kodachi reflexively.

"Ranma," the girl said firmly. "It was always me. 'Ranko' Tendou was a fiction we used to cover up the unbelievable."

"Which is real?"

"I was born male, as normal as any other baby boy. In China I was accidentally dumped inta a particular pool. Now, cold water does this to me."

"But we see you all the time as a man," protested Kodachi.

"Oh, it's reversible." The female Ranma nodded to Mu Tsu. "Hot water changes me back." Mu Tsu poured the contents of the red thermos over Ranma. Kodachi, who hadn't removed her hands from Ranma's arm, felt and saw the transformation occur in reverse. Within moments, the black-haired young man was back. Kodachi released him and returned to her seat. Yet she couldn't remove her eyes from him, half expecting him to shift forms again, even without the triggering water.

Ranma stared coldly at Tatewaki, who was still sitting, stunned, mouth moving silently in denial. "Does this finish it, Kuno?"

Tatewaki slumped, dropped his gaze to the floor. "Yes, Saotome, this finishes it. The Pig-tailed Girl will no longer be bothered by me." He chuckled harshly, as if otherwise he'd be sobbing. "After all, it seems she doesn't truly exist."

Ranma accepted this and he and Akane retreated to the two central cushions. They seated themselves so that they faced the guests. Akane and Ranma each spoke in turn, again apologizing for what hurt they had clearly caused. Then they asked everyone present to make a new start with them.

"It may not be possible," said Ranma, looking most significantly down the row at Ukyou. "We know that. But we hafta ask." With that, Akane and Ranma bowed deeply to the guests and sat back, signaling an end to the event.

Kasumi stood and addressed the guests. "For those who wish to remain, you would be welcome to come to the house for refreshments." She paused, letting her calm gaze settle on each guest in turn. "And I reiterate what Akane and Ranma have already said; you are all welcome in this house." She bowed to them and left the dojo, no doubt going to set out the final preparations in the house. The rest of the Tendous and the Saotomes rose and followed her. Only Nabiki remained to consult with the guests.

Nabiki spoke with each guest in turn, and Kodachi watched as they left in twos and threes. Most spoke loud enough for her to hear, so Kodachi knew who she could expect to encounter at the party in the house. At the last, only Kodachi and Tatewaki remained. The siblings both rose to address Nabiki.

Tatewaki bowed to Nabiki, "I would ask that you convey my regrets to your sister, the gracious Kasumi, that I will be unable to partake of her hospitality. It would be best, I think, if I departed at this time."

Kodachi expected some acerbic comment from Nabiki but was surprised when the girl simply nodded acknowledgement and noted that she and Tatewaki would see each other at school the following day. Kodachi was relieved that Nabiki was willing to allow Tatewaki to retreat in his misery in peace. Nabiki then turned to Kodachi.

"Would you like to stay?"

"Yes, I think I would."

Nabiki nodded. "Of course. If you'll both come with me, I'll see you out, Tatewaki." Kodachi blinked. That was the first time she could ever recall hearing Nabiki properly address her brother by name.

Tatewaki seemed not to notice, but quietly followed the two girls to the house. Nabiki left Kodachi in the living room with the other guests, and took Tatewaki off to the front door.

Kodachi knew she should stop dwelling on her brother. He needed time alone to think right now, and perhaps he'd be prepared to talk with her by the time she returned home.

Yet she found herself watching him, talking quietly in the foyer with Nabiki as Nabiki retrieved his coat. She saw him shake his head when Nabiki offered him their umbrella. Always the gentleman, he would leave it for Kodachi and risk the rain himself.

Kodachi was aware of the person who had come up behind her, but was still surprised at whose voice she heard.

"Is he going to be okay?" asked Akane.

Kodachi turned to the short-haired girl. The expression of concern seemed genuine. Yet Kodachi returned anyway, "Do you care?"

Akane sighed. "He bothered me with unwanted attention for over a year, never took 'no' for an answer, all well before Ranma ever arrived. Ranma's presence only aggravated the problem. I'll admit that it will be a long time, if ever, before I can really let go of my anger over that. But today really hit him hard."

"You thought it wouldn't?"

Akane shook her head. "I knew it would. But he made it clear that we'd run out of options."

Kodachi nodded. "Yes. He just wouldn't listen otherwise." Her eyes drifted back to the now-empty foyer. "The revelations shocked him on a number of levels. I expect he is now facing many things about himself and his actions which he'd never cared to examine before." She looked about for a moment. "May I use your phone?"

Akane hesitated only a moment in surprise and led Kodachi to the phone in the kitchen. The kitchen was unoccupied at the moment as even Kasumi was out conversing with the guests. Kodachi punched the number for the Kuno mansion.

"Kuno residence." She recognized Sasuke's voice.

"Sasuke, this is Kodachi. I will be staying at the Tendou home for a while, but Tatewaki has left. I want you to find him and make sure he reaches the estate safely. It would also be better if he does not leave again until I return home."

"The event did not go well?" asked Sasuke.

"The news was very disturbing to my brother, and I fear he is not taking it well."

"I understand, Miss Kodachi. Master Tatewaki will not be allowed to do anything unfortunate."

"I know you will deal with him appropriately. But it would ease my mind if you contact me once my brother is ... secured."

"Of course." Sasuke confirmed that he had the correct number for the Tendou residence, then hung up to carry out his instructions.

Akane had waited discreetly for Kodachi to finish her phone call. Now her frown of concern intensified. "Do you really think he'd do something ... drastic? Over this?"

"That is the problem. I don't know what he might be inclined to do right now."

Akane retrieved one of the spare plates of cookies from the counter and brought it to the kitchen table. She sat in one of the chairs and waved Kodachi to another. "We'll be right here to get the phone when Sasuke calls," explained Akane.

Kodachi nodded and took the proffered chair. She looked at the cookies. "Coconut?"

"Is that okay?"

"I adore coconut," Kodachi said before sampling one. "Excellent, as one can always expect from your sister."

"I'm surprised you stayed," admitted Akane.

Kodachi felt a slight heat in her cheeks, purposely used the rest of her cookie for time to find words. "I was reassured by your declaration of intending to make a fresh start with everyone. Relations between you and I have rarely been ... cordial."

"Oh, you mean like the fact we first met when you ambushed me and attempted to beat me up?" Akane asked casually, causing the heat to intensify. "Or that the same theme seemed to play out most of the other times we ran into each other?"

Kodachi struggled to face Akane, but finally said, "You were always a worthy opponent. But we will not meet in combat again, unless it would be for simple sparring."

"Really?" Akane's face had lit up at Kodachi's words.

"Of course I would practice with you, if you were willing."

"Well, that, sure. But did you really mean it that I was a worthy opponent?"

Kodachi nodded solemnly. "I wouldn't have said so if I hadn't meant it." Akane beamed at that and both girls quietly munched on cookies for a bit.

"I didn't realize until today," Kodachi began again, "but your mother is gone, isn't she?"

Akane nodded. "She died when I was six. Kasumi has run the household since. She's been almost like a replacement mother for us."

Kodachi's eyebrows shot upwards in surprise. "She can't be that much older than us."

"No, she's only three years older than me." Akane paused and looked down at her clasped hands, didn't face Kodachi as she continued, "Sometimes, when I stop to think about it, I feel horribly guilty. Kasumi has given up so much to take on that work. She's what kept this family together. Daddy's been pretty much an emotional wreck, even if he's gotten a little better over time."

Kodachi chuckled bitterly, "At least your father remained sane."

Akane looked up, startled. "I never thought ..."

"Of course you did," Kodachi said with a smile. "You've seen enough of my father in order to make that deduction."

"Well, yes I have. We all suspected, but it's not the kind of thing you go shouting around. But we haven't seen anything of him for a while now."

"Tatewaki and I finally had to take action. His mental condition continued to worsen. As he began to visibly deteriorate, even my brother came to understand that we could not care for him at home, even with Sasuke's aid. He's getting appropriate care now, and I hope with time, that he can return to us some day."

"Do you get to see him?"

"I try, but it ... hurts. My brother doesn't often go, because I think on some level he still thinks that Father did this on purpose. Tatewaki gets very angry over that." She smiled a small smile at Akane. "You see? It's not only regarding romantic topics that my brother will get an odd idea into his head and refuse to let it go until it's beaten out of him. Unfortunately, for this, I haven't discovered how to do that."

"And this all started for him when your mother died?" asked Akane.

"Yes," confirmed Kodachi. "I was ten, my brother eleven. Mother was killed in a car accident. She and Father had always been very close. Suddenly, she was gone. Father retreated back into the memories of their life together, particularly their tropical vacations which they especially loved. I think that if things had been different, eventually Mother and Father would have retired to the tropics.

"But things were not different. Ultimately, Father had nothing to give my brother and I, both of us not yet even teenagers. Sasuke has helped as he could, but as he is my family's employee, there has always been a distance between us that I, for one, never knew how to breach. Yet it is questionable that Tatewaki and I would be as functional as we are without Sasuke.

"And you are thinking right now: 'That explains much about Kodachi'." But she still smiled as she said it.

It was Akane's turn to blush. "You're right. Even for all that my family has suffered, we've held together better. We--" The phone rang then. Akane quickly confirmed that it was Sasuke, and handed the phone to Kodachi.

"This has taken longer than I expected," said Kodachi, not fully hiding the worry in her voice. "Were there difficulties?"

"Only in locating Master Tatewaki. He elected to take a rather meandering path from the Tendous'. But he is home now, meditating."

"Thank you, Sasuke. You have done well. I don't know yet how long I will be here."

Kodachi had hardly concluded the call when the small kitchen became rather crowded with the addition of two more people. Kasumi and Mu Tsu, both with arms laden with empty platters, stopped as they noticed the two girls.

"Oh, my," exclaimed Kasumi. "People have been asking for you, Akane."

"I should go out," began Akane, casting an apologetic glance to Kodachi.

"You must attend to your other guests," said Kodachi. "I appreciate your company while waiting."

"I think it was a good talk," Akane said with a smile.

"Yes, it was," agreed Kodachi.

Kasumi and Mu Tsu deposited their loads at the sink for later cleaning.

"I really could wash these up now," said Mu Tsu. "At the restaurant, I've learned to be very quick."

"Nonsense, you're a guest," Kasumi said firmly. Although spoken with her customary charm, Mu Tsu seemed to know when to defer to the mistress of the kitchen and gave no more protests. Kasumi continued, "But with four of us here, it will only take one trip to replenish the buffet." Kasumi quickly directed the other three to which platters she intended to be served next, while she retrieved a tray of sliced sashimi from the refrigerator.

Looking at what they were each carrying, Akane asked, "What? All this is needed already? We couldn't have been sitting in here that long."

"Ranma's father is here," Kasumi reminded her with a sigh. "Ranma and Mrs. Saotome have been attempting to, ah, monitor him around the buffet table. But as they, too, are trying to mingle with the guests, they haven't been fully successful."

"Is it still raining?" asked Akane.

"I think so," said Mu Tsu. He cocked his head to listen. "Yes, in here I can hear it."

Akane shrugged. "Simple, then. There's no way Mr. Saotome can stand up to the combination of Ranma, you Mu Tsu, and Ryouga. Toss him outside. Between the three of you, you guys won't even have to get wet. Then all he'll be able to eat is bamboo shoots."

Mu Tsu snickered and Kasumi giggled as they went out to the dining room. Mu Tsu could be heard calling for Ranma and Ryouga.

Akane was about to follow when she noticed Kodachi, who had stopped, puzzled, and was just staring out the kitchen doorway.

"Hello? Earth to Kodachi?"

Kodachi blinked and focused on Akane. "Excuse me? Bamboo shoots?"

Akane giggled. "Oh, yeah. Remember when Ranma said that both he and his dad had gone to China? Well ..."

 

As the potential hazard of Ranma's gluttonous father no longer haunted the buffet table, Kodachi and Mu Tsu took the opportunity to fill up plates and get tea.

"That certainly went most ... efficiently," said Kodachi, referring to the implementation of Akane's suggestion for dealing with Ranma's father. The two found chairs where they could set down their tea cups and continue conversing.

"Normally, Ranma is perfectly capable of handling his father by himself," commented Mu Tsu. "But I think his mother would've been upset with Ranma if he'd messed up his good clothes before the party was over. I'm sure Ryouga was glad to help. I know I was."

"You say that with a touch of glee."

"This will probably come as no surprise, but it was the actions of Ranma's father that originally triggered their entanglements with Xian Pu and the laws of our tribe."

"Which entanglements eventually resulted in Xian Pu pursuing Ranma back here to Japan. And then you arrived, in pursuit of Xian Pu. I seem to recall you fought vigorously against Ranma, hoping to win back Xian Pu's affections.

"In fact, I'm surprised to see you here at the party. I'd have thought you'd be free to court Xian Pu now that Ranma has removed himself from that picture. Even Khu Lon acknowledged that."

Mu Tsu smiled and sipped his tea. "It seems Khu Lon was correct about my potential as an actor."

"You weren't after Xian Pu?" Kodachi asked in surprise.

"Oh, I was at first. Khu Lon had sent word back to the Elders about Xian Pu and Ranma. It wasn't the kind of thing they'd announce to the village, but rumors get out anyway. Even though I knew what a breach of tradition it would be to interfere, all I could think of was Xian Pu. I made for the coast as soon as I heard."

Mu Tsu spoke of how his original intent to wreak havoc on his rival and win back the affections of Xian Pu was rudely shattered at the end of Ranma's fists. And then, once he understood the magnitude of his mistakes, how Khu Lon secretly enlisted his aid in her own mission. Now that Khu Lon's issues had been resolved by Ranma and Akane's declarations, she intended to return home to China with Xian Pu. But Mu Tsu hoped to remain in Japan to attend college.

"And then once I have that kind of education to offer, I might be able to make a place for myself in China." Mu Tsu paused, and then asked softly, "Have I bored you with my ramblings?".

With a start, Kodachi focused again on Mu Tsu. "I'm sorry. No, you haven't bored me at all. It just occurred to me, how casually you speak of just up and journeying to another country and then just deciding to stay."

"Well, I was rather single-minded in my pursuit of Xian Pu. And staying wasn't completely my choice." He chuckled.

"But staying now is," she pointed out.

"True."

"How?"

Mu Tsu blinked. "Pardon?"

"How did you find the courage? I've prided myself on meeting and surpassing every challenge presented to me. But listening to your tale, I realize that I've ... arranged things. I've had the power, with my family's wealth, to assure that I only need face ... appropriate challenges."

Mu Tsu favored her with a smile. "I think you do yourself a disservice. It makes little sense to break yourself over impossible odds, either."

"Is that not what you did?"

"Ah, but I was thinking only of winning the great prize—the hand of Xian Pu. Once I knew that was impossible, I was ready to cut my losses."

"But you're considering living here now."

"After living in Japan for some months it's not really an unfamiliar place any more. I wouldn't call it a 'challenge'. Now college, that will be a challenge. But that would be true if I enrolled back in China, too."

"Perhaps." Kodachi started at the half-full plate in her lap, uncomfortable at having her arguments countered, even in such a gentle manner.

Mu Tsu sighed and cocked his head to the side so the light glinting off his thick glasses hid his eyes, but not his tolerant smile. "It may not be your color, but maybe this will cheer you anyway," he said as he withdrew his hands from his sleeves. He presented to Kodachi a long-stemmed rose, the white petals edged in violet.

Surprised and delighted, Kodachi took the rose and held it to her nose. "It's fresh! How did you...?"

Mu Tsu waggled one finger in admonition. "Ah, ah. A magician never..."

"...gives up his secrets," they finished together, and laughed.

By unspoken agreement, they talked of other things, and Kodachi was able to forget the unease that Mu Tsu's story had raised in her.

 

As Kodachi walked home from the Tendous', she appreciated that Tatewaki had left the umbrella for her. The rain formed a liquid curtain about her, glittering in streamers each time she passed a street lamp.

She wondered why there wasn't as much hurt in her heart as she had expected. Not that she would ever admit any to others, not even her brother. But she thought she'd grown up enough in the past year to admit it to herself.

So where was the pain? What was there instead? A feeling of being set adrift, she noted. It surprised her how much the amusement of the competition for Ranma's attentions had anchored her. No, not just the amusement, the involvement with the others in the game. Even if she was the only one who considered it a "game", some slight bonds had been forged. She had no friends; the ones she'd known before her mother's death had been left behind in the wake of grief she hadn't found ways to release. And so, unconsciously, she'd dived into this romantic distraction which allowed her to at least have adversaries. Adversaries meant she wasn't alone, but also that they would never approach closer than she was prepared for.

Sasuke greeted her upon reaching the house. He told her that her brother was still in meditation, and she agreed that it wasn't yet time for them to talk.

"Would you care for dinner, Miss Kodachi?" he asked as she moved towards the stairs.

"No, thank you, Sasuke. Kasumi Tendou and Mrs. Saotome fed us well, and I suspect thought, rather than food, is what I need now." Sasuke bowed in acknowledgement and she slowly trod up to her bedroom.

At first she thought that a nice hot bath, and then time among her roses would help to settle her mind. But as she changed out of her dressy clothes, she spied her computer on her desk. The stirring of an idea danced around the edges of her mind.

As she soaked in the delicious hot water, the memory of her conversation with Mu Tsu played over and again in her mind. She'd admitted to not truly seeking out worthy challenges for herself. Could she do so now, with little left to bind her to her inertia?

Yes, she decided, she could. Settling for less would tip her into mediocrity. That was simply unacceptable. But what should she do? How to find an appropriate challenge?

 

Done with her bath, wrapped in a cozy robe, Kodachi sat at her desk, fingers poised over the keyboard of her computer. She realized that her casual use of the web hadn't truly prepared her for a serious search. But since she didn't even know what she was searching for yet, perhaps random chance would offer some clues.

She opened up her favorite search engine and began typing in combinations of terms relating to her major interests. "Chemistry" and "roses" presented a number of sites that looked interesting enough to bookmark, but nothing to direct a new life. "Japan" and "French" turned up a listing of French restaurants in Japan, a number of sites about Japan written in French, and there at the bottom of the page, mention of a boarding school located in a town north of Tokyo. Intrigued, she examined that link further.

After combing through the school's site, and some related links, she realized that this was it, the new goal she needed. A crystalline excitement welled up within her, a feeling she recognized as heralding the start of a new adventure. There was more research to perform of course, but the promise of this path astounded her.

At that moment there came a soft rap at her door, and her brother's voice, "Sister? Are you still awake?"

"Come in, Tatchi," she called.

He did so, pausing at the door so he was silhouetted in the light of the hallway. The small pool of light from her desk lamp did not extend out far into her now-darkened room, but she could tell that he was in his nightclothes. She could also tell from his stance that while he had regained his composure, he had not recovered much in the way of good spirits.

"Did your meditation prove worthwhile?" she asked.

"I'm not certain yet. Today gave me much to absorb and ponder. I find myself shying away from many topics of consideration, but I know now that I must not." He drew a chair up next to the desk so they could converse within the small pool of light. "I take it from your mood that your ruminations have been more productive?"

"I believe so. I know what I shall pursue now."

"Indeed?"

She turned the monitor so that he could read the screen.

"Ohtori Academy?" he read.

"Their academic program is very highly rated, with a strong background in French language and culture."

"I can see where that would interest you, but this institution is here in Japan?"

"Oh, yes." She clicked over to the screen which described the campus and its locale.

"You would be moving away from home here in Tokyo," he observed.

"Yes. But I've been researching the area and it seems pleasant enough, if not overly cosmopolitan—" She broke off upon noticing the somber look in Tatewaki's eyes. "This is not some whim, brother."

"I know."

"It was prompted by today's events, but I think this was simply a confirmation of something I've sensed for some time. I ... I need to stretch, and I don't think I can do so here. And I've created something of a patch of thorns for myself, I know that. I need a fresh start."

"And you should have it," agreed Tatewaki, although his whole posture spoke of sadness. "I will miss you, sister."

It struck her then what the implications were of her idea. She had never lived anywhere other than in that house, in that city. The people she dealt with, for the most part, were those she'd known for years. And she had never been far away from her brother. Even through the loss of their mother and the evaporation of their father's mental health, the two Kuno siblings had always remained together.

"I will miss you, too, Tatchi," she said, and knew it was true. Her gaze was drawn back to the glowing monitor screen. "But I know how we will deal with that," she declared.

"How?"

"You, dear brother, are going to learn to use e-mail."

He actually squirmed a bit. "We'll correspond, of course..."

"And you can write letters to me as much as you like. I know you enjoy doing that. But for immediate response, e-mail will serve much better."

"It's so ... technological."

"Indeed it is. Now, I know you have at least one account through your school. You were complaining about it the other day."

"It's difficult."

"Between Sasuke and myself, we'll have it all deciphered for you and write up easy instructions."

He sighed. "Very well. That will probably be easier to deal with than all of the social and emotional convolutions which still await me."

Kodachi rose from her chair. "Now come. I must locate Sasuke and tell him my plans. There are arrangements to be made that he can aid me with. I will begin tomorrow."

 

January 2003

Chapters: [Prologue]    [Illustrations] [Author's Notes]

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