A/N: Thank you all so much for your patience with me and my story. I hope you guys like this chapter.
Standard disclaimers apply.
I stood against tempests;
The cold was unrelenting even
As I offered them my ceasing voice.
And they devoured
Every last drop.
Chapter 4: I Know You
He was hungry for Kasumi's cooking. He wanted a long, hot bath. He wanted a warm, cozy bed. But Ranma didn't want to come home. Besides all the comforts Nerima could provide, there was nothing that could make him go back.
I don't miss Akane, he told himself.
How many days had it been? He'd lost count already and he couldn't care less. He had no particular destination, a mere wanderer searching for purpose and identity. Once, he knew his purpose and he had a firm grip on who he was, but Akane had taken all that with her when she left him in that train station, the engines still roaring in his ears, her words forever etched in his mind, his heart fallen empty and broken on the train tracks.
He wondered if anyone was trying to find him. It was likely that Shampoo would be doing just that but he was confident she wouldn't succeed. Saotome Ranma wouldn't be found when he didn't want to be found. He smirked at the idea.
He was going to return when he'd become strong enough to beat Happosai with a flick of his finger. He was going to return when he'd found a cure for his curse. He was going to return when he'd become good enough for Akane.
He pushed that thought aside. Of course he wasn't doing this for Akane. Why would he waste all of his precious time for that stupid tomboy? She wasn't worth all that anyway. She left him and in Ranma's mind, that was all she had done.
And she had said it: I love you.
The words rang strangely in his ears. His anger blurred any other memory he had of her but those words sounded clear in his head. I love you.
Why would she have said that when she was about to leave? Ranma was convinced she did it out of spite. It was her way of getting back at him for always making her angry, for those names he had called her, for those times he refused to eat her cooking. She knew it would drive him crazy, to have him believe she cared for him so that some guilt-stricken notion would visit him every night, telling him that he had broken her heart and that he had ruined her life. If it were true, then Akane could have the last laugh and slap it to his face; she had succeeded in tormenting him with thoughts of what if's and should have's and maybe's.
Growling, Ranma stoked the fire with a stick. He was boiling hot water for himself. It had rained that morning and he had been female the whole day. His backpack lay beside him in a dusty heap.
On his other side, he had already spread out his sleeping bag. He stared at it and was surprised to find himself drawing out a long, deep breath. No matter how much he denied it to himself, leading a hermit life wasn't as easy as he thought it was. All he did was train, walk, eat, bathe and sleep. Oh, and occasionally he had to fight off predators. And another fact remained constant: he was lonely. He hadn't had any contact with a human being for days, possibly weeks, and it was starting to madden him a bit. He was afraid he'd start talking to his hand or rocks and trees if he kept this solitary life much longer.
The thoughts of Akane and that day at the train station didn't help much to ease the loneliness he felt. He hadn't even talked to anyone about it, choosing instead to vent out his frustrations through kicks and punches. The challenge Akane's leaving planted in his mind egged him on. He wanted her to be sorry she ever left, wanted to prove to himself that she was wrong in doing so. He needed to see her regret ever making him feel so worthless.
He poured the hot water over his head, feeling the familiar tingle streak down his spine to accommodate his change. His shirt hung from his shoulders perfectly and he felt the waistband of his pants tighten.
Almost automatically, he reached into his pockets and fingered the object there. He shook his head in defeat and decided he had to get rid of that habit.
A rustle to his left alerted his senses of possible danger. He stood up abruptly, preparing to dodge an attack, whether human or animal. To his surprise, a pretty girl stepped out from the shadows.
She said something in Chinese and Ranma narrowed his eyebrows in bewilderment. "Nani?" he said stupidly, dropping his stance. The girl didn't look like she was about to attack. She held a laundry basket on her head.
"Who you?" she replied in broken Japanese. Carefully and apprehensively, she set her basket on the ground.
"I'm just a wanderer."
"I see. Training, yes?" She smiled brightly at him and Ranma instantly felt at ease with her.
"Aa," he bowed down respectfully. "Am I intruding your territory or something?"
The girl giggled pleasantly and replied, "Yes. This our tribe's territory."
Ranma raised his head and sighed. "Oh, ok. I'll leave then."
"Stranger no leave!" she chuckled. "Wanderer welcome here."
"Really. But I need name."
"Saotome Ranma. What's yours?"
"It's a good name. An Juan." Peace. Graceful. The name rolled of his tongue in a way that made his stomach jump.
His eyes were straining to keep reading. The sun had faded to a deep red along the horizon and Ryoga was depending on a streetlight to accommodate his prying.
Well, he didn't like to think of it as prying.
There were things in that journal… things he never knew Akane ever thought about. Things that were secret and things that made his stomach churn with anger, confusion, sadness, compassion, and yes, jealousy.
Rubbing his eyes, he fought to keep calm.
Will I ever stop being lonely? I've walked these same blasted streets for years and still, no one knows me. Everyday is like the abstract painting of a god that has no love for me—colorful, vibrant and meaningless. And everyday I have to pretend to stand in awe before it. Everyday I have to hide behind the face of the Akane Tendo they find amusing.
Ranma… Ranma came and I thought that maybe someone up there did like me. He just always seems so valiant and strong and I am now realizing that I'd begun to expect him to be my salvation. When I'm in trouble, I always expect him to be there when I turn around, just waiting for me to say the word so he can come and rescue me. I guess it's because he gives off this aura of invincibility. Sometimes, I forget that I exist too. And that I exist not just so he can have something to protect.
Sometimes I forget to be me. Having to pretend to want to hit something for every little damn thing does that. Having to pretend… pretend. Always pretending. Always, always pretending.
Never, never just living my life.
Ryoga closed the journal and stood up.
She wouldn't find Ranma. She'd always had a problem with gauging a man's skills. Shampoo had a tendency to underestimate people outside of her tribe.
And now she was paying the price.
"I should have known airen wouldn't let me find him," she said in her native tongue. "You've been playing with me all along." I'd always been able to find you. "I guess you're serious about it this time, huh."
She was tired and frustrated and a few days back, a boar had managed to place a nasty wound on her side. It ended up roasting over her campfire that evening of course. The gash was still sore but she had dressed it quite well and it was healing adequately.
Shampoo sighed and leaned back against the tree she was sitting under.
Although no one quite knew the real reason behind Ranma and Akane's sudden departure, she was quite convinced that Ranma should have informed her. He was, after all, her fiancé too. It infuriated her that he would just leave and not let her know why. And it infuriated her that it was because of Akane.
No matter how much the Chinese Amazon didn't want to admit it, the situation was proof of Akane's unspoken (and unaccepted) claim on Ranma. The boy left because of Akane. Ranma left Nerima because of something Akane had done— something that hurt him deeply. And he wouldn't have been so affected if he didn't feel any sort of attachment to her.
Shampoo knew this and still she continued her search, for how many days she did not even know anymore. As the long days passed, her anger for Akane deepened but along with it, a growing acceptance of the defeat she knew was inevitably coming and yet persisted to drown itself in denial.
But of course she was never one to back down and watch another take something that she believed was rightfully hers. And she wasn't going to give up without a fight.
Shampoo planned to go back home as soon as the first ray of sunlight peeked over those goddamned trees.
Nodoka was as scorching mad as when she found out about Genma and Ranma's curse. Well, that time, she had chased her husband all over Nerima with her sword.
For three straight days.
Genma was infinitely grateful to whatever force it was that allowed his wife's energy to finally subside. He'd lost a considerable amount of pounds too. Ranma was fortunately spared because Akane managed to convince his mother that he wasn't responsible for all their bad luck and that Genma was the one to blame.
Nodoka woke up gagged and bound three days later and after great lengths of time of nervous stuttering and sweating, deliberation and explanation, she finally found it in her heart to forgive her moronic ass for a husband in hopes for a better future as a complete (and happy) family with her long lost son.
And now that same moronic ass for a husband she had so benevolently forgiven was hell bent on getting even more drunk than he already was and was currently sitting on the couch, spitting out all sorts of tuneless and unrecognizable songs to the already raucous television. All this while her son was out somewhere in the world, probably drowning in misery, possibly fighting off some monster, and absolutely leaving no trace or message pertaining to his whereabouts whatsoever.
For more days than she cared to count, the bastard people liked to refer to as Genma had been driving her up the wall. And today, he had finally succeeded. As a matter of fact, she wasn't anywhere near the wall anymore and had flown off and past the ceiling.
A vein twitched in the poor woman's temple.
The ass in question promptly fell off the couch in unrefined terror. Uh-oh, he thought and almost instantly, he sobered.
"This is all your fault," she growled, stomping off towards him. He cringed and scrambled under the coffee table laden with numerous jars of sake. And only moments ago I was using this table as a footrest, he mused bitterly.
"H-honey, calm down!"
"Calm down? Calm down! Calm down while our son is out somewhere and probably starving to death! My poor Ranma… He must miss his mother's cooking! And this is your fault!" she cried vehemently.
"What! Why does it always gotta be me? The boy took off on his own!"
"You pushed them to this! You and Soun! If you had just let them talk things out for themselves…"
And so began another agonizing night for, presumably, the biggest ass in Nerima.
Another day. Another tedious day of walking along the same corridors, the same streets.
Seeing the same faces. And not one of those faces was the one she wanted to see the most.
Oh, there were times when she wasn't thinking of him, but those times were brief and surreal. Most often than not, she found herself withdrawing from other people (except Takumi, who always seemed to know when and how exactly to talk to her). Sometimes, she thought that maybe things could get better and that maybe she was learning to be alone, learning to accept the fact that she would always be alone, but those times were also brief and surreal and she would lay awake in her bed at night thinking how foolish and idealistic it was of her to entertain thoughts of better tomorrows.
Endless thinking, thinking, thinking.
"Tendo," a croaky voice stopped her in the hallway. He was leaning on one of the lockers and staring at her.
She turned and recognized the boy Takumi had told her to stay away from a few days back. "Akimoto Ekiken," she replied.
"I'm surprised you know me."
"You're more popular than you think."
He chuckled—a low, dangerous, unpleasant sound. "I've been watching you." He had been keeping an eye on her. Somehow, there was something about her that tickled the back of his mind. He was strangely drawn to her. Maybe it was her odd disposition—she was friendly and cheery enough but there was a peculiar coldness about her that allowed her to seem withdrawn and yet let her stand distinctly in a crowd.
"Why, pray tell?" she challenged him.
"Are you sad, Tendo?"
"What's it to you if I am?"
Ekiken sighed and stood straight. He was quite short but still taller than her. He stared directly into her eyes, waiting for her flinch. Instead, Akane held his gaze. He had light brown eyes that were steady and… dull. They would have been beautiful eyes if they hadn't looked so predatory.
"Let's stop these questions right now. We're not getting anywhere," he said, the hints of mischief replaced with a dangerous seriousness. "I like you, Tendo. And because I do, I'm helping you out a bit."
Akane looked at him in confusion and he just smirked, taking something from his pocket and handing them to her. Akane stared at the pills in her palm and looked back up at him.
"I'm not taking this. You're asking the wrong pers-"
"Akimoto Ekiken never makes mistakes. It's no big deal. It's on me. For now," he said, turning his back to her and walking away. "I don't like to see pretty things sad, see."
Akane just stared after him in shock.
A/N: Wow! Happy New Year, guys! Sorry for the long delays. I hope you're not getting bored.
Of course, An Juan is another original character. 'An' means 'peace' and 'Juan' means 'beautiful' or 'graceful'… Yep. You guessed it. She is absolutely going to be Akane's opposite.
Watch out for the next chapter all right? Have a good year everyone! And thank you for all the wonderful reviews. They help out a lot… so review some more! Heheh.