The grill sizzled and spat while Ukyo shifted the okonomiyaki to keep it from burning. She looked over to the figure that sat parallel to her and smiled wryly at him. He looked pathetic, but like clockwork he showed up at least once a day, usually mealtimes.
"You're lucky I have a no charging old friends policy," she chided gently.
"If not I'd starve," he said and then grinned a little shame-facedly. "Thanks."
She loved that grin; had not been too long since she was in love with his easy-going, lackadaisical smile. When he told her he chose Akane, she wanted to pack up and leave Nerima. After all, he was the reason she came and opened shop, and without him any grounds for staying were gone. She had stormed away from him, leaving him speechless, and ran up the stairs to her overhead loft, immediately tossing out suitcases and throwing clothes in them. Then, she thought of the little corner store where she bought all of her ingredients, the bookstore two blocks away, the cracked sidewalk that led to her restaurant, and her favorite antique store. She loved those too. These places, things made the nomadic life lose its sheen so she stayed.
"How long has it been now?"
"Don't you miss her?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Just a bit?"
He scowled, "Isn't that done yet? My stomach is killing me."
"In a minute. Hold your horses, Ranma."
He looked expectantly at his food, his stomach in his eyes, "You can't ask for more than this. A good friend and a good meal."
"Maybe to have the good wife back?" she prodded. As much as she loathed admitting it, seeing Ranma's and Akane's love gave her hope for her own romantic future. She would not have that hope squashed by their stubbornness.
"You're not going to stop about that are you?" he glowered.
She flipped the spatula underneath the okonomiyaki, flipped it up and onto his waiting plate, and gave him a sardonic grin, "Nope."
o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o
The smell of wakame soup drifted through the kitchen. Kasumi tended the stove while Akane relaxed at the table with her Management textbook. A breeze drifted through the window, cooling the steaming kitchen a bit.
"Hm?" Akane lifted her eyes from her schoolbook and looked over the corner where Kasumi stood. Kasumi looked pensive, her hands wringing the wooden stirring spoon.
"I want to tell you something, but I don't want to upset you."
"What is it, Kasumi?" She frowned.
"News. Good news."
She bit her lip and hesitated, "Then tell me."
"You know Dr. Tofu has been visiting Nerima more often, and we've been spending some time together?" She continued breathlessly, "We enjoy being together, Akane, and he proposed. He asked Father's permission and everything."
"Oh," Akane replied. Her mind was numb for a stray second and then her thoughtstraveled backwards to a moment when she received a proposal of her own; when Ranma looked at her with singularly focused eyes and asked if she would stay by him always.
"I said yes."
She banished thoughts of Ranma from her mind. This moment had no place them.
"This is what I've been hoping for, Kasumi." She bounced up and wrapped her arms tightly around her sister. "It's about time you did something for yourself. Don't think I didn't realize everything that you did for me. Besides you and Dr. Tofu had to happen. He's been in love with you for years."
"Really? I was so worried. I was afraid it would hurt you, and I know things have been tough with Ranma. The very last thing I'd want is to hurt you, Akane. The wedding can wait until things work out and until then . . ."
"Of course not. Don't change any plans because of me. You've taken care of Nabiki and me forever, and put all your plans on hold for us." Akane interuppted."You deserve this and I couldn't be happier for you."
Then Kasumi smiled, a brilliant beautiful expression, one that could only be worn when one's plans and dreams come to fruition. They sat at the table, giggling and talking about the proposal and wedding plans. Kasumi sighed contentedly, before returning back to her meal preparations and Akane returned to her schoolbook.
She briefly wondered why she ever brought homework with her when she came for dinner, "Yeah?" She never made any progress onher heaps of school work.
"He misses you."
"Did he say anything?" She stared down at her book as though it were showing her some intense magic.
"No, but I can tell."
o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o
The market nearly buzzed with activity. Adults were studying the prices of the fruit and produce while kids darted from booth to booth. Ranma frowned. He hated grocery shopping, but since Akane moved out someone had to keep the pantry stocked and with his stomach it was generally safer. The shopping itself was not horrible apart from for the crowds. He hated the throngs of loud people, constantly bumping against and running in front of him, but what could one expect growing up away from civilization.
He gathered only the essentials, bread, cheese, eggs, and some fruit. He could live off the bare minimum between his meals at Ukyo's and Shampoo's restaurants. Still, eating at the Cat Café wasn't safe anymore. As soon as Shampoo caught wind of his and Akane's separation, she was caressing, rubbing, and trying to kiss her way back into his life. Then, there were the fights with Mousse over Shampoo's reignited interest. Ranma sighed at the thought.
Ranma picked a peach from the fruit he bought and took a juicy bite from it just as a hurried woman bumped into his side. She walked on, ignoring him completely. He followed her with a sour gaze before turning back to the main stretch of shops. Then the unexpected.
Akane . . .
Akane licked her ice cream cone, enjoying the afternoon off from her studies. Her friends Shizuka and Minoru invited her to grab a bite to eat and catch an afternoon movie. Minoru suggested grabbing some dessert to cap off the end of a perfect vacation day from their studies and treated both girls to some ice cream.
It had been a wonderful afternoon, the best since that horrible fight with Ranma. It was nice to shed her unhappiness, even if it was only for a few hours, and to be surrounded by people that did not remind her of the sadness. She was able to laugh today, truly laugh, and it let a little delight back into her heart. She had missed this, being young, going out with college friends, getting to explore the city.
Minoru tapped her shoulder, asking her a quick question, and smiled down at her. Shizuka caught the action and smiled gently to herself. Akane knew exactly what her friend was thinking; she had guessed at it too. Minoru had a crush on her. He never said anything and he knew she was married, but he also knew the marriage was unhappy. Akane knew he would never make a move unless she sent a clear signal, but he had been there for her in the last four weeks, been there in a way Ranma had not. She smiled back at him.
"Hm?" Akane turned to Shizuka, curious at her high-pitched tone.
"Isn't that. . ." She pointed straight forward.
Ranma . . .
He stood in the road, a bag of fruit hanging limply at his side and eyes wide in what she guessed was surprise.
"Could you guys give me a minute?"
Minoru studied Ranma intently before speaking, "We'll be over at the vegetable stand. Just call if you need us."
Ranma watched the two of them walk away with a stony face before looking back to Akane. They stood for a moment, at least ten feet away from one another, tongue-tied and unsure. He looked at her so steadily that she straightened her shoulders, trying to look composed.
She walked towards him, "Hey."
"I didn't know you'd be here," she fumbled for words. "I didn't know you shopped here I mean."
"I never really come here. I'm just taking a day off from school stuff."
"Who're they?" Ranma pointed to Shizuka and Minoru who happened to be peeking over his left shoulder.
"Just friends from school. They invited me out so I went."
Ranma nodded, but offered nothing more.
"You doing okay?" she prompted.
"I'm okay. You?" His cheeks were a bit flushed.
"Busy with school but okay."
"And classes at the dojo?"
"Good. Roka's starting to show some off his potential."
Akane smiled genuinely in satisfaction, "I told you he'd come along."
"Actually you yelled. We got in a fight over it." Ranma replied, smirking a bit.
"Well, I knew I was right. I can spot talent too!"
"I know," Ranma agreed. He paused, not knowing what he should say. He shoved his hands into his pockets, "So what do you think of Kasumi's news?"
"I'm happy for her. I think I always expected her and Dr. Tofu to end up together. It's just right, you know?"
Akane frowned; his face was stone and there were no lines or flicker in his features to read. She twisted the end of her hair and looked away. This was ridiculous, like they were gawky teenagers again, unable to fashion their thoughts into words.
"I guess I need to be going. I'm glad . . ." she halted. She looked towards her friends who were pretending to be disinterested in the conversation, studying some onions a little too closely. "It's good to see you, Ranma," she finished lamely.
"Yeah, I need to finish up here," he gestured awkwardly to the shops. "I'll see you around?"
"I might stop by the apartment."
"Where are you staying on campus?"
"The Hashi dorm. I told you that."
Ranma glowered, "No, you didn't. I had no idea where you were at."
"Sorry. I thought you knew."
He kicked up some dust with his foot, "I should've asked Kasumi." He thenlooked away from her, embarrassment coloring his cheeks. "By the way, where are the pictures of Rori?"
"I took them with me," she replied, entirely flustered. "You didn't want to look at them after . . ." she swallowed the lump of those words.
"Oh, no problem I just wondered."
"No, I'll bring them by." She felt a bit ashamed that she did not ask him before she took the photos, but she couldn't have left them. They were her physical proof that Rori existed, her reminder and heartbeat.
"Then I'll see you around I guess." He turned away from her with no further goodbye and walked down the street.
"Bye!" she yelled.
He turned and lifted his hand briefly before he passed Shizuka and Minoru. Ranma looked at Minoru, passing something through the quick glance, a warning perhaps or maybe just curiosity. Whatever it was, it was not decipherable but she felt her breath hitch and a subtle tremor in her chest.
o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o
Ranma started out of the tangle of his bed sheets. He breathed heavily and scanned the room quickly, taking in the shadows that played along the wall. It was the damned dream again. His heart slowed, and got out of bed to warm some milk. This routine was common nowadays, and warmed milk helped him to relax and summon sleepiness back to his mind and limbs.
He padded to the kitchen in the darkness. Ranma moved out of habit, grabbing the milk and pan with his eyes half shut. The dreams had taken a darker turn. Rori called out to him, begging and pleading for him to do something to fix her. She was still beautiful, a perfect blend of him and Akane, but her exquisite face crumpled with tears. He wanted so badly to wipe them away, to make her happy and whole. To return her to where she belonged, Akane's empty arms.
He had the darker dreams before Akane left, but then he could roll over and see her beside him. Never could he bring himself to tell her the dreams or to touch her, but to know that she was there was something. It gave him strength. He did not realize that until after she walked out.
He navigated his way to the refrigerator, pulled out the milk, and began the regular practice. Ranma sighed and ran his hand through his already ruffled hair. Things were complicated. He missed Akane's presence, her subtle and still a bit unskilled way of caring for him, but her departure gave him freedom. No longer did he worry about forcing himself to speak to her, or worry about Akane finding him pouring over Rori's belongings, or even dealing with Akane's moments of weakness. He hated to admit it, but when she left relief flooded his heart.
"Damn it," he whispered. "I'm too tired to think."
He longed to leave Nerima, at least temporarily, but he had the dojo to run and the Tendo and Saotome clans depended on the revenue. And, the thought of returning to Nerima and not having Akane to tenderly take his hand, smile, and then wink at him when he returned was a disappointing idea. Even more heartrending, he always longed to return from a training trip to have his wife and daughter welcome him home.
And now, that wish atrophied and was whittled away by the sharp ends of the two missing pieces of that want.
o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o
Akane looked out the window, wishing for an escape, diversion, earthquake, anything. She had come at Nodoka's invite, but her mother-in-law had yet to show. Genma sat at the table, regarding her coolly. She did not even bother to explain. To him, she needed to be the quintessential martial artist's wife, caring, strong, silent, and able to swallow hardship and personal pain. In his mind, she had no business leaving Ranma for any reason.
She sighed, sick of the silence, "Mr. Saotome, can I ask you a favor?"
"What?" His tone was flat.
"I know you don't like me very much right now, but the favor isn't for me. It's for Ranma." She straightened her skirt and spoke plainly, "He's hurting right now and won't let anybody help, but it's your opinion and acceptance he wants the most. I know it is. He'd never admit it, but it's true. I know you've been hard on him since Rori, and you need to stop. Telling him to toughen up isn't helping."
She stopped and tried to gather Genma's reaction to her words. He stared at the table.
"Whether Ranma and I work out our problems or not, I want you to stop. After what you put him through all in the name of the art, you owe him that much."
"Is that all?"
"That's all." She tilted her chin proudly.
Genma left the room, not bothering to spare her a glance on his way out. Akane shifted awkwardly; a bit afraid she had gone too far. She always did that, spoke first and then regretted her brashness.
"Hello," Nodoka called from the doorway. "Sorry I'm late. I was helping Kasumi plan the dinner for the wedding."
Nodoka dropped the stack of cookbooks she held and settled into a sitting position on the floor, "You're wondering why I asked you to come."
Akane nodded in affirmation.
"I wanted to talk to you about Ranma."
"What about him?" she asked weakly, playing with her hands.
"I want nothing but your and his happiness. He's not happy, dear one. It's gotten worse since you left."
"He looked okay when I saw him," Akane reasoned.
Nodoka frowned, "He told me about that. He said you looked happy, that you had new friends. A male friend."
"No," Akane sputtered, "I have male friends, but not like that. I wouldn't do anything like that." She tripped over her own tongue, "What did he tell you?"
"I didn't mean to insinuate anything, but he wouldn't tell me anything other than you found new friends."
"I know you're trying to help, but I can't force things between me and him," she felt attacked and struggled to keep from blushing. Akane kept her voice even, "I tried, but we have problems. Big ones. Things that started way before Rori. We both have tempers and we can't talk to each other. We're both stubborn."
"But you can learn. You both can, together."
"Auntie, I don't want to disrespect you, but when Ranma and I married we did it because we were pushed. We were too young, we both knew it, but we went along with it. We weren't ready and Rori just proved it." Akane paused, tears filling her eyes, "We were so mean to each other. I don't think either one of us cared if we hurt each other because we were so hurt ourselves. After all that, I don't think there is a whole lot left to fix." Akane bit her lip, berating herself for her gush of information that truthfully was not any of Nodoka's business. "Sorry about all of that," she apologized, "I've just had a lot of time to think things out."
Nodoka sighed, "Do you miss him?"
"Do you still love him?"
Akane looked at Nodoka squarely, "You know I do."
"Then I don't understand why both of you are so willing to throw that away," Nodoka spoke sternly. "If you want to fix things, start there. Take time to heal, but realize that tossing love away nothing more than foolishness."
Nodoka stood and exited the room, probably to find the bruised Genma. Akane grabbed her bag and left the Saotome home, her pride and feelings battered by the lecture. It was not as though Ranma were banging down her door to win her back. Things were different now, their problems deeper and actions punctuated by despair, and family pressure would not solve it. Still, knowing what Ranma felt in her absence would be nice. She wondered if he really noticed she was gone and whether he wanted her by his side, in his home, and in his bed. It had been over a month now and he showed no signs of longing or yearning in the market.
No, their problems weren't simply going to right themselves no matter how much their families pushed and prodded, and that was just the way it was.
o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o
And that was just the way it was.
Nodoka pushed Ranma while Genma kept unusually silent, Soun would hint of a reconciliation on occasion, Nabiki offered nothing on the subject but did visit Akane in the dorm frequently, Kasumi kept slipping Ranma's name into casual conversation amidst wedding preparations, and it made no difference. Neither made any move to mend fences, take back harsh words, offer apologies, try to explain actions or motives, or seek to help the other. And all the while, time continued to tick and tock.
Time passed slowly for them both as though someone was halting its temporal flow, structuring a dam to stall it's lapsing.
To Ranma, time stretched out his movements, made him slow and took away his focus. It continued to numb him, making each daily activity more difficult. A pressure sprouted in his chest, continued to grow, until in carved out a niche close to his heart. The weight of it, expanded making his limbs heavy and his mind slow. Until some days all he could think of was her.
Rori, Rori, Rori . . . .
Thought about her small breaths, her tiny fingers, and her bright soul until it ate away at all other thoughts, leaving one nagging thought left to bite at his heart.
I need help. Somebody please help.
He could never ask. His pride. Akane might have helped. She had pulled herself together. When he saw her that day in the market she looked happy and full of life with that boy. He grumbled darkly afterwards, wondering how she could put everything behind her so easily and take up with someone new, but he vaguely remembered moments when she presented him with offers of assistance. Now, that chance was beyond his reach, and he continued reassuring himself that he was strong. He was the greatest martial artist of his generation and had proved that fact ten times over. So he repeated the simple mantra in his head again and again.
I don't need anyone.
To Akane, time was filled with activities aimed to distract. She spent time with college friends, went to the movies, shopped, ordered out of her dorm room, worked part time, did homework, and did all the other college things she gave up after marrying Ranma. She did have fun, but brimming outside her occupied mind were thoughts of Rori and Ranma.
Over math homework she thought, Is he doing okay?
During a study session with Minoru she thought, The date of her death is soon and it still hurts like new.
During a pizza break with Shizuka, Yuka, and Sayuri she thought, I miss you, Rori.
She looked out her dorm window, resting her head against her arms. Minoru had been more attentive lately, knowing that the anniversary of Rori's death was less than a month away. Even the Yuka and Sayuri would remind Akane just how sweet, understanding, funny, and cute in a scruffy sort of way Minoru was. And even now, he did not push or ask questions. He was just there, silently making himself someone she could depend on and trust.
And still. . . . .
Things were not right. The world did not seem right, but it kept on rotating, forcing time to weave its path slowly.
o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o
Sorry it has taken me so long to update. My life is in a state of flux right now and everything is crazy, but I promise that I'll finish the story. I wish I had the time to name all of my reviewers by name and thank you all for you comments like I promised, but I don't. Once things settle down, I definitely will thank you all one by one. But please know that Iadore and appreciate everyone who reviews and I really do take all your suggestions and thoughts to heart.
I hope this chapter is worth the wait. I've written bits and pieces whenever I had time and then rewritten and deleted good portions of it and then at one point completely restarted the whole thing. This was the toughest chapter to write and it's still full of gloom and doom. There will be light amongst the darkness, that I can promise. So I hope it was worth the read and please review because I am crazy for them.