Disclaimer: Don't own 'em, don't claim to own 'em, don't sue me.
Warning: Friends, Romans, potential flamers, lend me your ears. Or rather your eyes, as you're reading this, not hearing it. This chapter is on the harsh side. I'm really not kidding (well, I didn't think it was all that earth-shatteringly horrible, but when it was up on my webpage, a lot of other people did). Before, there was angst. Now, there is…uber-angst. Ryoga has a flashback, and it is not nice. However, it is not crucial to the plot that you read the flashback, it is mostly there for emotional effect—so if you are at all worried, I am telling you now to skip the big italicized part in the middle. I mean it.
Despite warning people about this on my page, I still took a lot of heat for it later. So this time around, I mean to thoroughly get my point across. If you don't think you'll like it, do. Not. Read. It. And now that you've been so thoroughly warned, let me also make this clear—I will absolutely, positively not tolerate any flames regarding the content contained in the flashback. So if you read it despite my warnings and decide you hate it…tough patooties. Don't bother wasting time with flames, because I'll be deleting them as soon as they appear.
Other than that…'njoy ^ ^.
I sit here locked inside my head
Remembering everything you've said
This silence gets us nowhere
Gets us nowhere
Way too fast…
~Staind, "For You"
In a little while
I'll be gone
The moment's already passed
Yeah it's gone
And I'm not here
This isn't happening
I'm not here
I'm not here…
~Radiohead, "How to Disappear Completely"
Shampoo held back a sigh as she wiped down the last table with her cloth, then tossed it into the bucket at her feet. It had been a long and busy night, one that hadn't been made any easier by her uncharacteristically heavy thoughts.
Picking up the bucket and her spray bottle of disinfectant, Shampoo trudged to the kitchen. She could hear her grandmother dealing with the money and paperwork in the back room, and Mousse was standing at the sink, washing the last of the dishes. Without saying anything, Shampoo walked to the rear door and emptied the bucket outside. She paused for a moment, watching as the grayish water swirled towards the storm drain a few yards down the alley. Then she went back inside and busied herself with putting away the cleaning supplies.
A few minutes later, Shampoo stood up from where she had been crouched on the floor. She was tired, not just from the work, but from what had happened over the past two days as well. Just thinking about it made her feel exhausted. She reached behind her back to untie her apron. The entire situation was so impossibly complicated that she couldn't imagine how it would ever be brought to a resolution—if it could be brought to a resolution, that was.
Shampoo was so preoccupied with her thoughts that she didn't notice that Mousse was finished with what he was doing and had turned around to look at her. She tugged at the stubborn knot she was trying to untie, grimacing slightly in annoyance as it refused to come undone.
"How long are you going to stay mad at me for this time?" Mousse asked abruptly.
Shampoo spun around on the ball of her foot to face him. "What?" she said, surprised that he'd spoken after the hours of silence that had been between them.
Mousse had pushed his glasses back on his forehead, revealing his turquoise eyes. "Or maybe you haven't decided yet," he said, crossing his arms over his chest.
Shampoo dropped her gaze to the floor. Annoying as it could be, she often felt Mousse was easier to deal with when he was acting ridiculously lovesick and overwrought. This calmer, more serious person he became when something significant enough to bring him down to earth occurred wasn't so easily dismissed with the usual insults and brush-offs.
Finally succeeding in pulling the knot loose, Shampoo began to shrug the frilly apron off her shoulders. "Shampoo not mad at stu-…at Mousse," she said quietly.
Instead of breaking into some joyous babble of hopefulness and gratitude, Mousse simply raised his eyebrows. "Why not?"
Shampoo kept her eyes downcast. "Because, Shampoo should have seen that plan likely go bad from start," she answered him. "They usually do," she muttered.
Mousse blinked. "You…you mean you're giving up on him?" he asked, his voice a mixture of confusion, shock, and hope.
Shampoo clenched her fists and glared at him, her voice rising. "Shampoo no say that!" she snapped, her tone heated. She felt an unwanted twinge of guilt at the expression her words brought to Mousse's face.
"I didn't really think so," he said, unable to keep all the despondence from his voice. "But if you aren't mad, then why are you being so…so…"
Shampoo repressed a tired sigh. She twisted her apron in her hands, causing the delicate flower print to contort and make the tiny pink blooms appear broken and crushed. She knew she could shake it out and they would return to normal instantly, becoming straight and full, almost as if nothing had happened at all. If only everything were that easy.
"You know why," she said finally.
Mousse glanced up at her again and eyed her silently for a long moment. "If I hadn't switched the vials-"
"And if Shampoo no had make powder," Shampoo interrupted him, "and if Ranma no had said bad lie. Then this no happen." Now she did sigh, closing her eyes wearily. "Many mistakes, not just Mousse's. And if what happened no happen, then who say something else not happen instead?"
"I…I know," Mousse replied. "You're right, none of us should've…I just wish…" he trailed off momentarily. "Why did it have to be this bad?" he said finally, his voice tight with frustration. "No one deserves something like that, but why did it have to be him?"
Shampoo clutched her apron, wondering the exact same thing. It was true that neither of them was very close to Ryoga, and it was true that the Lost Boy could be annoying on occasion, but at the same time, Shampoo couldn't think of a single person who had deserved it less. He had little to do with her pursuit of Ranma, and next to nothing to do with Mousse's pursuit of her. He should've remained aside from these matters in the first place, not been dragged into them without even knowing. As if that weren't bad enough, she knew that as a person, just for who he was, Ryoga shouldn't have wound up on the receiving end of something like this. He rarely wished harm on others, while in contrast so many of them were largely careless as to what happened to someone who got in their way. There was the whole situation with Ranma of course, but even Shampoo knew that was half bluster rather than true intent on Ryoga's part—in spite of himself, Ryoga was almost always one of the first to jump in and help, to be willing to risk himself for someone else. And perhaps worst of all was that Shampoo knew that of the memories that had been brought back into Ryoga's awareness, very few of them were likely to be happy ones. From what she knew of his life, she could put it together well enough, and she knew exactly what the ability to do a perfect Shi-shi Hokodan meant.
"It have to be him…because Ranma no would do that to anyone else," Shampoo said at last.
"He's a bastard for it, Shampoo," Mousse said vehemently. "If he wanted to keep Ryoga away from Akane, fine. But he didn't have to do it like that."
Shampoo lifted her head. "Shampoo no think that why Ranma do it," she told him. "Maybe small part for that. But that not real reason."
"Then what was the reason?" Mousse demanded.
"I don't know," she said forcefully, slipping into Cantonese as she did when she was too frustrated to express things otherwise. "It just…I'm sure it wasn't because he thought it would…something's not right about it all-"
"Shampoo!" Cologne's voice came from the other room, the tone scolding. "You're in Japan, speak the right language!"
Both of the young people took a moment to shoot a petulant look towards the doorway. "Yes, Great-grandmother," Shampoo said loudly. Then she turned back to Mousse. "It no matter anyway," she said to him. "What done is done."
Mousse uncrossed his arms and clenched his fists. "How can you still defend him?" he snapped. "I know you're not just going to stop chasing after him for this, but how can you say it doesn't matter? Didn't you see the look on Ryoga's face? Do you think it doesn't matter to him?"
Shampoo bit her lip and stared at the floor. She should be angry at him for speaking to her like this, she should want to yell at him, to hit him hard enough to send him down the block…but she didn't. She wanted to cry.
In response to her prolonged silence, Mousse let out an exasperated sigh. She heard the soft swish of his robe as he turned, followed by the sound of his retreating footsteps. A few moments later, Shampoo heard him going up the stairs, and then, an audible thud as he restrained himself from slamming his bedroom door shut.
Knowing he was gone, Shampoo finally released the breath she'd been holding back for so long. She wondered how things had managed to go so wrong so quickly. Things had a tendency to go awry around here, but this was different. This was too much to simply brush off within the space of a few days. This time, things had gone too far.
Shampoo went to hang her apron on the hook by the door. She thought about how Mousse was acting. It was almost strange, having him be really and truly angry with her, though she knew part of it was because he was feeling so awful himself. She considered the things he'd said to her, and supposed he was right in a way—she shouldn't have said that it didn't matter; not with the part she had played, not with what had happened to Ryoga. She knew she'd acted wrongly, and even she had to admit that Ranma had done so, too. And yes, she had seen the look on Ryoga's face.
But she'd seen the look on Ranma's face as well.
Shampoo wasn't sure precisely what his motives were, but she was certain that they weren't what Mousse suspected, and she was sure that he hadn't been doing it as some sort of terrible joke. It couldn't be. Because after Ryoga's memory had returned, after he'd leapt at Ranma in full fury, after he'd said those last, terribly sincere little words, Ranma hadn't looked like someone who'd been playing a joke.
He'd looked like someone who had just lost his best friend.
Somewhere in the middle of a city, he was lost yet again. Osaka, perhaps, but it was hard to tell for certain. He was tired—exhausted, actually. He'd been wandering around without food or real sleep for over two days now. Something had happened to activate his curse, but his thoughts were too muddled at the moment to remember exactly what. He'd been near the outskirts of the city when he changed; he'd fallen in a creek or a ditch maybe. His pack was gone, he'd had to leave it eventually when he got too tired to drag it any farther. He hadn't been able to heat up water…why hadn't he been able to heat up water? It was wet, Ryoga remembered. It had been raining the day before, making the grass and any wood too wet for a fire, and he was out of the cartridges that fueled his tiny camp burner. He'd walked to the city in his cursed form, and had gotten hot water somewhere. A tea house? A vendor? Something like that. Lucky for him, he'd changed back with his clothes. But he had no money, and though he was used to being delayed by having to look for his pack, it usually didn't take him more than a few hours to find it. This time was different though, he couldn't even find his way out of here, much less find his possessions. The streets were an increasingly puzzling maze to him, and were only becoming ever the more confusing as his body started using his last reserves of energy to simply keep moving.
Ryoga halted in his steps and leaned against the side of a building he was next to. His head ached, and the bouts of dizziness he'd been feeling since the day before were becoming more frequent and prolonged. There were sharp, stabbing pains in his midsection, accompanied by a dull throb in his lower back as his body protested against the lack of food. Ryoga glanced up to look at his surroundings. He was in some sort of long, shadowy alleyway that was empty but for some battered scraps of newspaper and sparkling remains of broken bottles. He didn't much the like the idea of staying in such a place for very long, but he knew if he didn't rest soon, he would risk losing consciousness in an even worse place later.
Ryoga made his way down the narrow street, keeping one hand on the side of the building for support. After a few minutes of half-walking, half-staggering, he came to a doorway. It was set a good two feet into the wall, and the handle had a large padlock securing it. Judging by the amount of rust on the lock, he guessed that the door hadn't been used in a long time. Ryoga sighed. It wasn't the best of shelters, but it would have to do for now. Trying to ignore the multitude of aches, he eased himself into the doorway, leaning his back against one side and drawing his knees up as far as he needed in order to fit inside. It wasn't the most comfortable of places to sit, but Ryoga knew from experience that it could be worse. He crossed his arms over his chest for warmth and rested his head against the door as weariness overtook him. There was little else he could do but hope that he would find his way out of here when awoke.
Ryoga was just starting to doze off when he heard the sound of feet scuffing on the pavement, followed by a low mutter of voices. He shifted himself awake, realizing that they were drawing closer. But he'd barely opened his eyes to let in what light was managing to filter its way into the alley before a shadow cast itself over him.
"Well now, what do we have here?"
Ryoga glanced up quickly, alarmed that he'd actually allowed someone to get this close before he was fully aware of it. Standing in front of the doorway was a man dressed in torn jeans and a black jacket. Ryoga couldn't see his face well, both because the man's back was to what limited light there was, and because he wasn't in much of a position to tip his head back very far. Ryoga tried to look past him, and saw that there were more men grouping behind the one closest to the doorway, dressed in similar clothing. They looked fairly young, older than he was certainly, but none of them could be older than thirty, if that. Judging by the way they were dressed and the number of them, they were a street gang of some sort. Ryoga felt a tremor of nervousness trying to loose itself in him, but he fought it back as best he could. Trying not to let his body betray him, he stood up, a task made all the more difficult by the close proximity of the man, who didn't do the courtesy of stepping back to give Ryoga room.
"What do you want?" Ryoga asked, keeping his back to the door as he got a better look at the individual in front of him. His features were sharp and defined, and his eyes were an icy shade of gray that was almost unnerving in its intensity. From his new vantage point, Ryoga could see that there were a full five people in the alley, each of them wearing an expression of cold amusement on their faces. Ryoga felt his uneasiness increase. He knew when he wasn't in much of a condition to fight well, and being in the midst of a group of people looking for trouble wasn't a good place to be while in such a condition. Determined not to let it show, he leveled what he hoped was an equally cold glare at the man in front of him, who Ryoga guessed was the leader.
The man smirked, apparently undaunted. "You're trespassing, little man," he said. His tone was full of the deceptive levity one would expect from someone whose intentions are likely to be of the opposite nature.
"I'm sorry then," Ryoga said, struggling to keep his voice calm. Had he been at his full strength, this entire situation wouldn't be nearly so much of a problem as it currently was a risk of becoming. "I didn't see any signs."
This produced a ripple of laughter from the gang members. "He's got a tongue, don't he Kuma," one commented.
"That he does," agreed the leader, apparently known as Kuma. "Especially for someone who's just been caught in a place where he don't belong."
Ryoga swallowed hard. "Fine," he managed to say. "I'll leave." He tried to press himself as close to the wall as he could in order to get past, but the man shifted forward slightly and extended an arm to block his path.
"I don't think so," he said. "You're trespassing, remember? That means you gotta pay the toll."
Ryoga stepped back slightly. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the others moving forward and tightening the semi-circle they had formed around him. "I don't have any money," he said flatly, hoping that he didn't look as nervous as he felt.
Kuma slid his hand down the wall until his arm was almost level with Ryoga's shoulder. Ryoga risked a glance towards the end of the alley, the path to which would lay clear if he could just get past this one person. But he knew that could change in an instant if he tried to move in that direction, and he wasn't sure he had enough strength in him to make a break for it.
"Well then," Kuma said, and Ryoga turned back to him. "Lucky for you, money isn't the only currency we accept."
Ryoga felt his insides go cold at the man's gaze, which had long since changed from being amused to something far more aggressive and almost predatory. Ryoga stood staring at him for the brief instant it took for his mind to assimilate an idea of what such a look might entail. Then, using some of the precious little energy he had, Ryoga ducked and slipped beneath his arm. He'd barely gotten a step away when a hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him back around. Before Ryoga could react, he felt himself being slammed against the side of the building. The back of his head hit the bricks hard enough to make his vision blacken momentarily. The next thing he knew, he was struck across the face, whether by a fist or something else he didn't know. The blow connected soundly with his temple, knocking him to the ground. He hit the pavement before he could get his arms out to stop himself, and his forehead connected with the unyielding asphalt. Under normal circumstances, Ryoga would've been fine, but the lack of food and rest had put him on the verge of collapse already, and this most recent abuse certainly wasn't improving things. As he struggled to remain conscious, Ryoga felt someone grabbing his arm and pulling him upright. Putting as much force behind it as he could, Ryoga jerked his other arm backwards, slamming his elbow into whoever was holding him.
"Bastard!" the person shouted, releasing him abruptly. Ryoga managed to get one of his legs out from under him and stood up. The others were moving towards him now, keeping him completely surrounded. One, a tall man with bleached blond hair, lunged towards him. It was only the careless nature of the attack that afforded Ryoga the time to dodge. He retaliated with a straight punch to the man's face, but was dismayed to find that even though it connected solidly, it only sent him staggering backwards instead of flying into the opposite wall. But Ryoga didn't have much time to reflect on it before he was grabbed from behind by the largest member of the group, a greasy looking character who was at least three or four times his size. Two thick arms wrapped around Ryoga's chest and lifted him slightly, pinning his own arms to his sides and preventing him from gaining any purchase with his feet. Ryoga fought against him wildly for a moment, knowing he couldn't keep this up for long. If he didn't manage to get away soon…
A fourth stepped forward, a dark half-grin on his face as he drew back his fist and threw it forward, striking Ryoga in the abdomen. A wave of anger ignited within him, allowing Ryoga to ignore the pain momentarily. Fueled by little else than bare rage, Ryoga swung his leg up and kicked his tormenter in the chest. With gravity now on his side, Ryoga brought his foot back down and connected his heel with his captor's knee. The man let out a grunt of pain and loosened his grip. Ryoga tried to pull himself free, but others were stepping forward now, grabbing him and pushing him back against the larger man, who was recovering all too quickly. Instead of trying to hold on to him again, he stepped aside and helped the bleached blonde shove Ryoga against the wall. Once there, they each grabbed an arm, both keeping one hand above his elbow and the other gripping his wrist. Ryoga tried to twist himself away, but they were both too strong—or he was too weak. He felt their legs press against his in order to prevent him from kicking, effectively trapping all of his limbs. He could feel the roughness of bricks at his back, and he knew there was no place for him to go. The others were quickly regrouping as well; the one he'd kicked was standing again with the aid of the last, a lanky individual with dyed blue hair and a silver-studded face. They stepped forward until Kuma raised a cautioning hand.
"Careful, boys," he said, though he was obviously entertained by the display. "This one's got teeth."
"Little prick," hissed the one, his hand moving to rub his chest. He glared at Ryoga with undisguised malice in his narrowed eyes.
"You practically asked for that, Eisuke," said the man on Ryoga's left, the blonde-haired one. "You saw he can fight."
" 'Could' fight," the leader corrected him, moving to stand in front of Ryoga again. "He's not gonna be doing much of anything, now."
"Let me go," Ryoga snapped, trying to make his anger overpower the gnawing fear he was feeling. He glared up at Kuma, hoping his voice had sounded steadier to them than it had to him. But the man only gave him a chill smile that was followed by more dry laughter from the others. Then, without so much as blinking, he reached out and backhanded Ryoga across the face.
"You're not in much of a position to be making demands, don't you think?" Kuma said, though to Ryoga, the words sounded hazy and far away. He struggled to get a grasp on his reeling thoughts, to figure out something that would get him out of this…
Ryoga felt a hand brush his cheek, the cool fingertips lightly tracing his jaw. The touch yanked him back to awareness, and he jerked away, nearly striking the back of his head against the building as he did so. "Get away from me!" he cried, outraged at what was happening. Anger and indignation rose within him; if only he hadn't been lost for days, he would never be getting toyed with by a group of street slime like this. Yet at the same time, Ryoga felt an icy terror starting to wrap its way around his heart. He was only a few steps above being helpless, and he was uncertain if he'd even remain there for much longer. He was outnumbered and outsized, and though they weren't martial artists, these people obviously had some fighting experience. Pain flared through him yet again, and it took Ryoga a moment to realize that he'd been slapped a second time.
"Shut up," Kuma snarled, his eyes steely. "You've got a big mouth for a little piece of trash that's strayed out of its can, you know that?"
"Go to hell," Ryoga spat, fury overwhelming his sense of self-preservation.
The man's smile returned slowly, and without taking his eyes off Ryoga, he reached into his pocket. There was a flash of silver as the switchblade snapped out of its metal sheath, its surface gleaming in the dim light. The sight of it sent another jolt of fear through Ryoga as Kuma stepped forward and slid a hand under his chin. Ryoga tried to pull away, but the fingers tightened their hold, making his jaw ache.
"Listen up, kid," he hissed through the smile. He leaned in close, causing Ryoga to pull back reflexively, but it was a futile effort given the man's grip. The scent of stale cigarette smoke, musty leather, and the sickly-sweet stench of alcohol surrounded him. Ryoga fought down a wave of nausea as he tried not to look at the knife poised inches away from him.
"You're gonna keep your mouth shut and do what I tell you," Kuma ordered. "And if you don't, I'm gonna carve my initials into that pretty face of yours. Understand?"
Ryoga stayed silent, his heart frozen in his chest. His arms were starting to throb painfully where the rough hands were pressing into the flesh, reminding him that he had very few options. He tried desperately to think of something, anything, that would help him. He felt so weak, and his entire body was flooded with various forms of pain, all of his muscles aching and burning with tension. Even a Shi-shi Hokodan was impossible when he couldn't so much as bring his hands together, not to mention focus when fear was flooding through him like this…
Kuma leaned back slightly, letting go of Ryoga's face. "That's better," he said. He slid his hand down and hooked his fingers on the fabric of Ryoga's shirt, then brought forward the knife. Ryoga held still for a moment, not entirely sure of what was going to happen. He glanced around nervously, taking in the cruel leers stamped upon all the men's features. Then he felt the knife begin to slice through his shirt, leaving no uncertain terms as to what they planned to do with him. The cold sharpness of the blade touched his chest, leaving a trail of pain followed by a thin wake of blood. The full reality of the situation suddenly became horrifically clear, loosing a wave of absolute terror through his trembling body. Utter panic rose in him, sending a rush of adrenaline through his veins.
"No!" Ryoga gasped, his dark eyes widening. With a desperate yank, he managed to untangle one of his legs. He instantly brought his knee up with all his might, not caring that it only struck Kuma's hip instead of his midsection. It was still enough to send the man staggering a few feet back, giving Ryoga precious time. One of the men holding him leaned forward to steady their flailing leader, momentarily forgetting to maintain his grip. Ryoga twisted frantically in an effort to get loose, his desperation increasing the strength of his movements. He broke free an instant before the recovered and enraged Kuma dove at him, knife upraised. Unable to avoid the attack, Ryoga threw his arm up in a block. The blade slashed into his forearm, sending a flare of heated pain through him. Nonetheless, he managed to raise his leg in a kick, connecting his foot solidly with the man's shoulder. More were rushing towards him now, and the man grasping his other arm turned, swinging his fist. Ryoga dropped into a crouch and the intended blow sailed over his head. He glanced down at the surface of the street, now bare inches away, and plunged his hand into the pavement.
The asphalt exploded, sending a hail of black in all directions. The men jumped backwards, trying to cover their faces as pieces of rock and hardened tar rained against them. Ignoring the startled shouts and curses of the gang members, Ryoga leapt to his feet and ran, knowing he had mere seconds before they came after him. He turned the corner and dashed down the street, drawing forth every last bit of energy he had, never slowing or even looking back to see if he was being followed.
Ryoga ran on and on, his breath coming in ragged gasps as his body fought to keep moving. Finally unable to go any further, he stumbled and fell to the ground. His heart was pounding, and his head throbbed mercilessly as black spots danced before his eyes. Ryoga fought to slow his labored breathing, a task made more difficult by the sharp, stabbing pain in his side and the uncontrollable trembling of his body. After a few moments, his vision began to clear and some of the pain in his head receded. Ryoga slowly pushed himself to his feet, despite the raging protest of his muscles. He glanced around at his new surroundings, and saw that he was in some sort of marketplace, though the streets were deserted. It was hardly surprising, considering the early evening hours were setting in, and the sun was no longer visible in the sky.
Ryoga swallowed, trying to rid his mouth of the metallic aftertaste of blood and fear. He finally turned to look over his shoulder, and was relieved to see no one was there. He glanced at the store he was standing closest to, noting how the surface of its large front window mirrored the last violet reds of the sunset. Ryoga stepped closer and gazed at his reflection in the darkened glass, taking in the sight of his dusty, tear-streaked face, marred with darkening bruises, his torn and disheveled clothes, and the bloodied gash on his forearm. Then he turned away and began walking.
Later, when he would find his pack and get back on the road, he would tell himself it didn't matter how he'd gotten the bruises, or how his shirt had been ripped, or what the wound on his arm was from. He would have to fix the clothes, and keep the cuts clean until they healed. But that was all.
Anything else simply didn't exist.
Ryoga shuddered, bringing his awareness to the present again. He glanced up at the window, noting the darkness lying in wait behind the glass. He thought of what might be lurking in certain spots of that darkness and shivered again, glad for the first time to be inside Ukyo's house.
Ryoga hugged his knees to his chest, wishing he hadn't remembered that. Some things were best forgotten.
Like his entire, miserable life.
He squeezed his eyes shut, preparing to lower his head into his arms, but something made him jump nervously. Ryoga glanced over his shoulder. There was nothing there, of course, just the wall, same as before. He sighed inwardly, disliking the vaguely familiar sense of paranoia stirring in him. There was no reason for it really, he was here, not lost in the middle of Osaka or wherever he'd been all that time ago…
Ryoga paused at the thought.
All what time ago?
When…when had that happened? He pushed a hand through his bangs, his thoughts spinning. A moment later, he lifted his head, realization dawning on him. He glanced down at his arm, then grabbed the sleeve of his shirt and pulled it back. In the middle of his forearm was a long, thin scar; the freshly healed tissue still red and defined, and not possibly more than two months old.
Ryoga moaned and covered his eyes with his hands, a wave of nausea flowing through him. He didn't need to look at his chest to see the sister scar that would be there, thinner and paler since it hadn't been as deep, but it would be there, clear as the one on his arm. To know that it had happened so recently…he had nothing to comfort himself with, nothing that might let him convince himself it couldn't happen again. He couldn't tell himself he was older or bigger or stronger, because he wasn't. He was still seventeen, still cursed, still prone to getting lost, and there was nothing to keep him from ending up lost and hungry and weak in a dark alley prowled by people who'd like to…
No, Ryoga told himself, slamming the door on that line of thought. It hadn't happened. It hadn't happened. Nothing had happened.
"Nothing happened," he murmured out loud, though to his ears the voice seemed not his own, and did little to reassure him. He struggled to put it out of his thoughts, to keep the door closed. He'd built mental walls around this before, he could do it again…
Except he couldn't. Not this time. When it had happened, he'd been able to detach himself from the whole event enough to almost deny its existence entirely. But how could he detach himself from a memory? A memory that could only be his? There was no escaping it now; he simply didn't have the wherewithal to construct the necessary emotional brickwork yet again.
Ryoga felt the all-too-familiar sting of tears in his eyes. Even distracting himself with other things was out of the question, for the only distractions were nearly as bad. Which was better—thoughts of fresh hurt and ruined hopes, or memories of fear and past ordeals? What kind of a choice was that?
Ryoga trembled slightly and tried to get a hold of himself. It was hardly a choice at all, but what could he do? Pick an option, or have one picked for him by his restless subconscious. There hardly seemed to be a point.
Unless he made a new option.
Ryoga lifted his head. He couldn't control what he remembered, but he could control some of what he might be distracted by.
And distance from certain reminders couldn't hurt, either.
Night fell slowly, stealing in from beyond the edges of the horizon and covering over the last of the lingering daylight with shadows. After the reds and golds of the sunset had faded away, the sky shifted to increasingly deeper shades of blue, then indigo, and finally black.
Within the brightly-lit dojo, Akane paid little attention to the arrival of night. She was sitting on the smooth wood of the floor, dressed in her yellow gi and breathing a little heavily from the series of katas she'd just been through. She knew that if she'd been concentrating more on what she was doing, her breaths would've remained more in time with her movements and would not have escaped her as it had. But her mind had been full of thoughts that had nothing to do with her katas.
Akane sighed, wondering if Ryoga was doing any better than Ukyo had said the day before. She'd tried calling once she got home from the Cat Café, but Ukyo hadn't picked up the phone. Akane had taken it as a sign that she probably had her hands full. She'd considered going over to the restaurant this afternoon, or at least calling again, but something had kept her from doing either. For one thing, she suspected that Ukyo had gone easy on her when telling her about Ryoga, particularly after Akane had found out exactly what the powder had done. She figured that Ryoga was probably much worse off than she'd thought—and worse than Ukyo had let on—and Akane was afraid that if she called or showed up there it would somehow make things worsen even further.
On top of that, Akane was also feeling troubled over the conversation she'd had with Ranma on their way home. He'd been in a touchy mood, which she supposed was somewhat understandable, especially after she'd started questioning him nonstop on matters he obviously didn't want to be asked about. She'd had to know why he hadn't told her about Ryoga's curse, and she'd hoped Ranma would tell her that Ryoga's past hadn't been such a bad thing to remember. But Akane knew she hadn't really had much right to be asking about other things. Ranma had made it plain to her on prior occasions that aside from the bread fight, he had no wish to talk about anything else that had gone on between Ryoga and himself. She'd surmised early on that there was more to it than he'd told her—there were too many things that weren't explained by a drawn-out scuffle between two little boys over cafeteria food for there not to be. She'd even tried asking Ryoga about it once, but he'd simply said something about there not being much to tell since she already knew about the bread, and then changed the subject.
Akane rubbed her eyes. She supposed it wasn't really any of her business, but it might help her understand why things had taken the courses they had.
Like why Ranma had started this entire thing in the first place.
That had been puzzling Akane from the start. What were his motives? Why had he tricked Ryoga, when there didn't seem to be much in it for him? Had Ranma wanted her to find out about Ryoga's curse? That didn't seem right, there were a hundred different ways he could've done that and all of them easier, and besides, he'd always worked so hard to keep her from finding out that it didn't really make sense that he'd suddenly change his mind. Had he been hoping to make Ryoga dislike her or vice versa? And if that was his aim, then why? Besides, Dr. Tofu had told them that people with amnesia usually regained their memories, so Ranma had to know that couldn't possibly work very well. Had he done it just for the sake of tricking Ryoga? That didn't seem right either—it was true that Ranma seemed to like teasing Ryoga well enough, even to the point where it bordered being hurtful, but to do so this way…that bordered real cruelty, and Ranma wasn't like that. Not to mention that he seemed sincerely upset over how things had turned out.
So what could it possibly be?
Akane pushed herself to her feet and made her way outside. The grass was cool and wet beneath her feet, and she could see softly rounded dewdrops clinging to the blades by the light of the moon. She glanced over her shoulder at the roof, making sure that Ranma wasn't there—she knew he'd been spending time up there lately, apparently as a means of avoiding everyone. Or maybe he was making it easier for them to avoid him.
Akane walked over to the koi pond. She gazed down at its mirror-like water, and the reflection of the glittering stars spilling across the night sky above. A bright leaf drifted down before her to settle on the surface, sending out a myriad of silvery ripples that made the water-trapped stars shimmer. A few moments later, the pond returned to its former glassy stillness, and she wished things were back to normal.
Akane knew it was a vain hope. Too many things had already changed, and this very moment still others were shifting like sands in the wind. Besides that, Akane was beginning to wonder just how good 'normal' had actually been. She wasn't so naïve as to be completely unaware of the things that had been pressing up from beneath the surface for months and months; the underlying tensions that had repeatedly been put aside, ignored, or left unaddressed because it seemed easier to just let things be for the moment. Now that some of these were being brought to light, Akane had a feeling that more would follow. But maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Maybe they could still fix things.
Akane straightened up again. Cologne had told them the extent of what the powder had done, and Ukyo herself had said Ryoga wasn't doing well. That made helping him the number one priority to Akane, now more than ever. But doing nothing wasn't going to help anything. And that made Akane determined to do something.
Tomorrow, she would go to Ukyo's. And she would talk to Ryoga.
No matter what.
Ukyo scowled slightly as she rummaged through the cabinet hanging over the bathroom sink, searching for something that might help settle Ryoga down enough for her to make him eat. She let out an irritated sigh and slammed the little door shut, unable to find the sought-after anti-nausea medicine or anything else that might prove useful, then stalked into the kitchen.
After whatever had happened to him yesterday, Ryoga had refused to talk to her much, claiming he was tired. Ukyo had decided that if he wanted to play that game it was fine with her, so she'd given him a cup of tea laced with a fair amount of the valerian extract she kept around in case of insomnia. Consequently, he hadn't so much as stirred from where she'd put him on the couch until around noon. Having successfully made him get some real rest, Ukyo had figured the next order of business was to get some food in him. She'd hoped to find something that would help keep it in him—in the event that she managed to convince him this time around—but after a quick search of the kitchen drawers, it became apparent that she was fresh out of little bubblegum-pink tablets that were supposed to do that sort of thing.
Ukyo clenched her teeth for a moment, trying to keep her frustration in check. The last thing she wanted was to make this mess worse, and she certainly wasn't going to let that happen as a product of her misplaced annoyance. Ukyo took a few deep breaths, trying to release her tension with her exhales. Then she noticed something that made her breath catch in her throat.
Ryoga's pack was missing.
Ukyo stared at the spot where it had been for a long, tense moment, trying to think.
I was in the shower, she remembered. He was asleep again, so I thought it was Ok. He must've woken up…damn it, I left the door half open so I could hear him if he went past or something…
Ukyo tried to still her whirling thoughts. She was jumping to conclusions; she might've moved it herself and just forgotten, or maybe Ryoga had wanted something out of it, all she had to do was go check…
She turned around and ran down the hallway, turning the corner into the living room so quickly that she nearly sent herself careening into the sofa. Steadying herself, she glanced down…
And saw nothing but the discarded blanket on the floor.
"Damn it," Ukyo murmured. She bent down and picked it up, feeling tears burn her eyes.
It was warm.
Dropping it, Ukyo darted to the window. Gripping the sill with her hands, she leaned out and looked up the street, then down. Several blocks away, she spotted a figure wearing a dark yellow shirt and carrying a backpack.
"Ryoga!" Ukyo cried. The figure halted, and turned.
He looked up at her, his dark eyes meeting hers for a long moment. She opened her mouth, wanting to tell him to come back, but she was caught up in looking at his face and the silent expression of anguish written across it.
Then he turned, rounded the corner, and vanished.
"No," Ukyo said breathlessly. "Wait…"
She would go after him. Ryoga was sick and hurting and upset and whatever else, she couldn't just let him wander off…
She could call Akane and the others. They would help. Ukyo went back to kitchen and lifted the phone from its hook. He wouldn't be happy about it, but it was for the best…
Ukyo thought of the look in his eyes. Sadness. Betrayal. Pain.
This isn't going to work, she realized suddenly. No matter what Akane might've said, or how Ranma might try to explain, Ryoga wasn't—couldn't—handle it right at this point. She understood now, and could see that he needed not only to sort out what had happened, but everything else that he'd been through as well. There was no way for him to do it other than by himself—anyone he might've considered looking to for help had broken any trust he might've once had in them, and Ukyo doubted he would rush to hand his heart back over to those who had mistreated it so callously. All of them had known there was a degree of fragility beneath the surface, and they'd been pushing the boundaries for a long time, convincing themselves that Ryoga's physical strength and tough words signified something different than what was really there. Now, Ukyo realized, they'd finally pushed too far, and she knew she'd have to let him go.
She didn't like the idea of him being on his own for several reasons, but if getting away from the sources of his hurt was the only thing that would keep away the breakdown she sensed was threatening, then it was necessary. She hung the phone up absently.
"Jackass," she murmured, her throat feeling constricted. "You could've…you at least could've said goodbye…"
But then, of course, she would've tried to stop him. Ukyo sighed. Ryoga had a tendency to make entrances—he was continually bursting in unexpectedly with some dramatic words or an attack of some sort. But over time, she'd come to realize that his departures were often the opposite—he slipped out or wandered off, almost always when no one was watching, making few or no waves as he did so. Ukyo went over to a window and looked out at the empty street. She wondered how long it would be before she saw another one of his entrances. A while at least, he wasn't likely to want to come back any time soon…
I forgot that I hate my life…
No, Ukyo concluded, Ryoga wouldn't be coming back any time soon.
Before anyone says that what happened in the flashback wouldn't happen to someone like Ryoga, hear me out. I know he's strong and skilled, and I know he's experienced and can take care of himself. But he's also young, prone to getting lost, and therefore prone to ending up in dangerous situations. Even for someone with remarkable endurance like his, a few days without adequate food, water, and rest can and will make him very weak and vulnerable. Given the number of times in the series that Ryoga is attacked or set upon during his travels, and given the number of times he's shown suffering from excessive fatigue or even passing out, I really can't say I find what goes on in the flashback to be unlikely. Actually, I think it's probably more likely than not that he would have something like this happen to him eventually—law of averages, one of the times that he's attacked is eventually going to coincide with one of the times that he's in bad shape and unable to defend himself