Recap: "Hey, it was no problem, sugar," Ukyo replied. She watched him walk over to the door and slide it open. The sudden urge to ask him to spend the night overtook her, but she pushed it away. What was a little rain to him? As long as he kept under his umbrella, he would be fine. So why should he stay at her place? She opened her mouth to ask, but managed to squish the urge. "Try to visit again tomorrow, okay?" she asked instead.
"Sure, but I can't make any guarantees," he replied, smirking to hide his anger at his non-existent sense of direction. "Bye!" he said, stepping over the threshold of her restaurant, flicking open his umbrella, and disappearing amongst the rainy streets.
"Bye," Ukyo said softly.
"Come on, Ryoga, tell me what's goin' on," Ranma cajoled. "Somethin's wrong with Ukyo and somethin's wrong with you, too. Spill!"
Looking hard into Ranma's storm-blue eyes, Ryoga saw plenty of determination, as well as worry and honesty.
Ranma crossed his arms, signalling that neither would leave the dojo until the young Saotome was satisfied.
Ryoga took a deep breath.
Chapter Four: Philosophies and Fortune Cookies
"It's none of your business, Ranma," Ryoga said with an air of superiority.
Ryoga's eyes narrowed at the outburst. "I meant exactly what I said. What part did you not understand?" he said in an icy tone.
"There's no need to be such a jerk about it," Ranma huffed in retort.
Ryoga's narrowed gaze turned into a full-blown glare. "If you can't see the problem for yourself, then you can't help fix it if that's what you intend to do."
Frowning in confusion, Ranma regarded the other boy. "Whaddya mean by that?"
"Figure it out," Ryoga said, shrugging in a careless manner. "Open your eyes. I'm not helping you; my interference wouldn't help in the slightest anyway."
"Why are you spouting cryptic junk like a fortune cookie?" Ranma asked in frustration.
"Why are you such a blind, dense jerk?" Ryoga asked in reply, muttering too low for the pigtailed boy to hear.
Ranma crossed his arms and stared hard at the Lost Boy. He knew Ryoga was stubborn, but this was ridiculous. "Why can't you just tell me? What did you do to Ucchan?"
"Me?" Ryoga exploded angrily. "You…" he continued, lacing the solitary word with as much venom as he could muster, "you're unbelievable!" Snatching up his backpack, Ryoga sent Ranma one last glare before turning his back and storming away, heedless of the late hour now that the sky was clearing.
"What was all that about?" Ranma murmured to himself. He did not move from his spot on the dojo floor for a long time.
It was late and Ukyo still hadn't gone to bed. She had kept her restaurant closed due to the weather, and had spent the time after Ryoga had left mulling everything over. She was currently sitting on her bed, staring at the toy dog that was sitting in front of her. It stared back unseeingly.
The small toy symbolised so much and it stirred Ukyo's emotions into a whirlpool every time her eyes alighted upon the furry form. Ever since accepting the engagement, Ukyo had been waiting for such a sentimental present. It bothered her that the gift was not from Ranma, but the sincere feelings behind Ryoga's reason were more than enough to wash away her disappointment.
While staring at the toy, Ukyo had been going over how to tell Ryoga her problem. Once alone, Ukyo realised that she did indeed want to tell Ryoga and tell him while she still had the resolve.
"It's the start of the weekend tomorrow; maybe I should track the big lug down to spend the day here in the restaurant. I don't think I'll have the time to spare to go searching; I get a lot of early customers on the weekend. I can't walk away for who knows how long… I need the money. Oh well, I guess I'll wait to see what happens."
Ukyo got up and turned off her light. She gave the puppy one more glance before picking it up and snuggling into bed with it beside her, firmly encased by her arms.
The night passed quickly for those wandering among dreams, the minutes and hours slipping by like water through a sieve. When morning came, as it inevitably did, the sun did its best to banish the realm of dreams from the minds of the slumbering. The sunlight spread over Nerima, its rays gradually becoming warmer, promising fairer weather for the day.
The sun's rays were impeded by the walls of a tent, but Ryoga groggily opened his eyes anyway, his internal clock informing him that it was morning. After his hasty departure from the Tendo dojo, Ryoga had walked around in the dark for a while until he came upon one of the vacant lots scattered throughout the Furinkan ward of Nerima. There were several various bits of construction leftovers stacked near one of the four fences, a couple of cement cylinders were partially sunken from their weight pressing down the last time the ground was muddy. Ryoga had pitched his tent about a third of the lots' distance from the fence opposite the side the cylinders and crates were, knowing from experience that it was the best spot to set up camp.
Giving a small groan over the sleep he had lost because of Ranma, Ryoga stubbornly shut his eyes again for thirty seconds before he was forced to admit defeat. He heaved a sigh, crawled out of his sleeping bag, and set about his morning duties. When Ryoga was properly awake, he fished out some food for breakfast and sat inside his tent to eat it. For some reason, he didn't feel up to sitting out in the early morning sun.
He ate slowly, trying to preserve the calm moment for as long he could. As he chewed his last mouthful of breakfast, Ryoga replayed last night in his head. The Lost Boy thought he had done an admirable job concerning his behaviour around Akane and nodded slightly, silently vowing to keep it up. Akane would surely turn away from Ranma once he had complete control over his strength and emotions! A dreamy expression crossed his face and Ryoga quickly shook his head. He could not afford to let himself get carried away anymore.
When he felt that he could drag on the moment no longer, Ryoga frowned and began rolling up his sleeping bag. Again he moved slowly. Once it was rolled up, he tied it to the top of his backpack before sitting down and staring at it absently. For some reason that he could not fathom, Ryoga did not want to face the day.
It made no sense to the cursed teen, especially considering the wonderful progress he had made with Akane yesterday. Perhaps it was already time for another trip away from Nerima?
No, that was the coward's way, and Ryoga was tired of running from things.
Making up his mind, he shouldered his backpack, took a deep breath and stepped out of his tent. He quickly packed the tent away and slowly walked in a random direction, paying close attention to his surroundings. Ryoga had no desire to suddenly find that he had wandered out of town.
Ryoga also had no desire to run into Ranma, so he was going to avoid the Tendo Dojo if he could, even if it meant that he would not see his beloved Akane. That left two choices, though one was very unappealing. One option remained.
Ryoga was going to search for Ucchan's Okonomiyaki.
An hour later Ryoga was still in town, though he was, as usual, completely befuddled as to his exact location. Ryoga didn't like to think of himself as being lost, he was just geographically misplaced. He glanced up at the sky.
The sun was shining, doing its best to burn away the rain clouds left over from last night. Ryoga liked the sun. Even if the sky was covered by clouds, the sun was always there and such a constant was a major thing to the cursed martial artist. It was the same reason he liked the moon, though the lunar orb seemed sadder and lonelier to look at.
Nights, to Ryoga, were dark and solemn, even if the moon was bright and full. He never travelled during the night if he could help it, and unwanted thoughts always intruded into his mind while he was alone in the dark, usually aided by the fact that, more often than not, he camped in a creepy forest or some spooky woods.
Would anyone miss him if he never wandered back to Nerima? Would anyone know if he was killed by a landslide in his sleep or something?
These were the kinds of thoughts that haunted him in the darkness, though the light made them flee back to the black abyss for a short while. They would always come back and be chased off. It was a cycle that Ryoga didn't know how to break.
He was incredibly grateful that the grey clouds of yesterday had faded to mere wisps of white, allowing the sun's kiss to caress the Earth over Nerima. Everything seemed a tiny bit better and brighter on sunny days.
Two birds flew overhead, singing their joy to the world while they danced about each other. Ryoga watched them enviously then turned his head away with a soft snort. He continued walking, keeping an eye out for anything even remotely familiar.
"Oh, hello Ryoga," a cheery voice chirped from behind him.
He spun around and found that he was facing Akane and Ranma. He mentally swore. "Hello Akane," he replied after a moment, acknowledging Ranma's existence with a withering glare.
"I'm glad we ran into you," she said, purposefully ignoring the glare aimed at her fiancé, "I was hoping to talk to you before you left again."
"You were?" Ryoga said with a trace of hope. Had Akane come to tell him that she was breaking the engagement? A scene of Ranma being kicked out of the Tendo's played in Ryoga's head, only to be abruptly cut off. Ranma would not be with her if it were true. Ryoga's chest suddenly felt constricted. Had she come to tell him something that his poor heart of glass could not take?
Akane nodded. "Yes, I wanted to talk to you about Ukyo."
"Uh, okay," Ryoga hesitantly replied, not knowing what to expect. Ranma was looking at Akane with a fair bit of badly hidden surprise, so whatever Akane wanted to say would also be new to Ranma. That didn't help much in figuring out what though.
"I just wanted to know how things are between you and Ukyo. She seemed okay yesterday, but I want to make sure," Akane said, watching Ryoga's face carefully for his reaction.
Ryoga blinked and wondered what to say, eventually settling on, "Things are fine."
Akane was a little taken aback by the short and rather unhelpful answer. "Oh, well, that's good then," she said somewhat lamely.
"You sure there's nothing wrong?" Ranma piped up.
Red swam across Ryoga's vision as anger coursed through him. His right fist lashed out without warning. Ranma's quick reflexes saved him from a possible concussion, but the force of Ryoga's jab left a line across his cheek that oozed red. Akane gasped at the suddenness and viciousness of the attack and took a couple of steps back, away from the immediate crossfire zone.
Since Ranma's head was on the right side of Ryoga's fist, he brought up his right leg without moving his clenched hand, trying to trap Ranma between the two limbs. Ranma ducked his head under the outstretched arm and rolled away to Ryoga's left.
"Whoa, settle down, man! What was that for?" Ranma asked indignantly. "I only asked ya a simple question!"
Ryoga's arm and leg returned to his side, though he looked no less angry. He stared at the pigtailed boy disdainfully. "I'm not the one you should be asking," he ground out semi-calmly. He didn't want to completely lose his temper and say something he shouldn't, especially with Akane only a few feet away.
"There ya go sounding like a fortune cookie again! Why can't ya just give me a straight answer?" Ranma burst out.
Akane stared at the pair quizzically. Ryoga looked unfazed while Ranma was plainly getting frustrated. Compared to normal circumstances it was almost a complete role-reversal.
Ryoga was relishing the moment. It was not often he got one up on Ranma and he enjoyed every time that he did. "I'm giving you answers that are straight enough. If you'll excuse me, I have better things to do with my time today than waste it on you. It was nice to see you Akane."
"Oh, uh, goodbye…" Akane said with a start.
"Hey! Where do you think you're going?" Ranma called out to Ryoga's back.
The Lost Boy paid no heed and continued walking away. Angry thoughts in his head tore at each other like a pack of hyenas. Ryoga had to talk to Ukyo as soon as possible. After fifteen minutes of walking around in blind anger he stopped. Turning his head to try and get his bearings, he saw a shop curtain to his left that proudly displayed the words 'Ucchan's Okonomiyaki'. Ryoga almost sagged with relief, thanked whatever deity had guided him here, and entered the building.
The shop wasn't full, though it wasn't empty either. There were a few people sitting at the tables chattering away about this and that, discussing their everyday lives over the course of the past week or so. Ukyo found her customer's chatter rather mundane and most of the problems they complained about were actually fairly trivial.
There were times when Ukyo listened and times she tuned out, depending on her mood. She had been listening to two women discuss a light bulb in one of their houses that needed changing, and which of their husbands would most likely agree to replace it. Her attention was diverted when someone walked in, though her customary greeting died on her lips upon sighting the person.
"Ukyo! Wow, am I glad I actually made it here!" Ryoga exclaimed with a tight smile.
"Oh, Ryoga, come in and sit down!" Ukyo said happily, gesturing to the seat at the counter directly in front of her.
The bandanna-clad wanderer took the proffered seat and set his backpack beside the stool. He heaved a barely audible sigh as he let himself relax and get comfortable in the cosy atmosphere. "If he hadn't moved, Ukyo, if he hadn't dodged… I think I would've killed him," he said in a low tone. He took a deep breath and held his head in his hands, letting the last of his anger drain out of him.
"Ryoga, what are you talking about?" Ukyo asked slowly in a calming manner.
"I…ran into Ranma and Akane a few minutes ago," he said hesitantly.
He seemed reluctant to say more and she didn't want to push him, especially after he had only just calmed down. The chef took his reluctance to speak as an indicator that the encounter didn't go well. Horribly, in fact, if one took into account his earlier statement. Since he said Ranma dodged, the pigtailed teen obviously wasn't dead, though Ukyo had mixed feelings whenever she thought about him lately.
"I know I've said that I've wanted him dead before," he said, his eyes gazing forward, unseeing. He was speaking so softly now that Ukyo leaned further over the counter, her nose only a couple of inches from his. "I know I've said it heaps of times. I don't want to become a murderer!"
He looked up. His hurt, pleading eyes caught hers. A little voice inside Ukyo's head urged her to take his hand within her own; do something to comfort and reassure. This was obviously hurting him, so Ukyo put a finger to her lips, letting him know that he could stop talking. He shook his head a fraction to each side.
"The truth is," he went on haltingly, "the truth is that I'm scared. I'm terrified, Ukyo."
"Of what?" Ukyo asked anxiously.
Ryoga's gaze lingered on her face for a moment longer before he turned, unable to meet her worried sea-green eyes. "Me," he whispered with a wavering voice as tears pricked the corners of his eyes.
"What?" the chef whispered sharply.
"I've been letting my anger get the better of me for so long now that it takes control. You've seen me, Ukyo. You know the damage I can do. What if I went too far before I could snap myself out of it?" His eyes had a dark, haunted look about them, and their intense depths chilled Ukyo to the core.
Without thinking, desperate to get rid of that haunted look, she slapped him lightly. He gasped, raising a hand to his cheek more out of shock than any actual pain, and looked up at Ukyo with hurt and confusion written all over his face.
"I guess I deserved that," he mumbled, transferring his gaze to his lap, where he was twisting his fingers around one another in anxiety.
"You did," Ukyo firmly replied, "but not for whatever reason you're thinking of. I hit you because you're an idiot. Again, for a different reason than the one you've got in your head," she said as Ryoga's head snapped up.
"And how do you know what I'm thinking?" he asked, though there was no real sarcastic sting behind the words.
Ukyo sniffed, drew back, and folded her arms. "I'm a girl. I just do," she answered blithely.
Ryoga snorted lightly and rolled his eyes, obviously not buying into her reason.
"All you need to do is train yourself to stay calm and not get angry while fighting," Ukyo said with a grin.
The corners of Ryoga's mouth slowly twitched upward until the chef was rewarded with a large radiant smile aimed solely at her.
Ukyo's room was furnished almost as sparsely as her kitchen. Ryoga thought it would be rude of him to gawk since it was her bedroom, so he did his best to keep his eyes firmly on Ukyo's hair. Akane's hair had been that long when he had first met her. He realised then that after it had been cut accidentally, she had never tried to let it grow long again.
Why? She had been terribly upset at first. Did she keep it short to stop him from feeling guilty? No, that wasn't it. He was just a weird stranger to her then, and she had been only too happy to hit him when he told her to.
He shook his head a fraction. It was a trivial matter and he could not afford the distraction right now. He had hesitantly followed her up here after she had closed the shop later that afternoon. They stopped smack in the middle of her not-so-roomy bedroom. She gestured for him to sit then did so herself.
"What do you know about meditation?" she asked suddenly, the question cutting through the silence.
"I know the basics," he replied. "I used to do a bit of meditation years ago, before I really started to get lost."
"At least we won't be working from scratch then," Ukyo said with a nod. She set a candle in a small dish before him. She had one in every room along with a box of matches in case of a blackout.
Ukyo struck a match and lit the candle. "You are like this candle, Ryoga. When you're angry, you burn anything that gets close enough. And, just like this candle flame, you have practically no control and eventually burn out, leaving you empty and exhausted. Am I close?"
Ryoga simply nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
"Without any outside influences, the flame stays straight, calm, and doesn't hurt anything," Ukyo continued as though she had never stopped. "I want you to concentrate on the flame. Empty your mind of everything except it. You must become it; calm, with no distractions or influences to send the fire in any direction. Do you understand?"
Ryoga nodded again, still keeping his mouth shut.
Ukyo got to her feet. "I'll be downstairs cleaning up. Just yell if you need me." The chef strode out of the room, her eyes lingering on Ryoga's back for a moment before she gently closed the door.
Ryoga turned to look at the door, staring at it oddly for a few seconds. He turned back and let his gaze be drawn to the tiny fire, now calm once more after Ukyo's passing had sent it flickering. It was very delicate, the slightest breeze breaking its straight stance. He would have to control his breathing, keep it soft and slow.
Had Ukyo planned it that way?
His eyes went to the door for an instant, but he flicked them back to the candle, inhaled deeply and slowly, and tried to tune his senses to focus on nothing but the little flame.
It was a lot harder than he initially thought. He could hear birds outside, twittering away without a care in the world, and his mind began recalling all the strange and beautiful birds he saw on his travels. He wiped the images from his mind and replaced them with the lit candle, trying his hardest to ignore the chirping.
The cleaning had been finished over an hour ago, but Ukyo had stayed downstairs doing homework. She wanted to give Ryoga enough time and space to really practice his concentration before she disturbed and distracted him. She was starting to get very bored, and it was also beginning to turn dark. He would have to leave soon if he wanted enough light left to set up his tent.
However, there was certainly no guarantee that she would see him again for another fortnight as soon as he step foot beyond her door. One day of training every couple of weeks or so was not going to cut it. Maybe he could camp in her backyard?
Ukyo decided to ask Ryoga and headed up the stairs, halting momentarily at the door before easing it open. Ryoga was still sitting exactly where she left him, though he didn't react to her presence. She stepped into the room and tip-toed across the floor to sit on the other side of the candle. It was still burning, though it only had a couple of minutes of life left.
The fanged teen's gaze was glued to the flame and Ukyo could see the tiny fire reflected in his dark hazel eyes. He showed no sign of knowing she was there. She had disturbed the flame, however, and a slight frown marred Ryoga's face until it centred itself. Ukyo held her breath and realised that she couldn't hear Ryoga breathing. She slowly let her breath out when she noticed his chest shallowly rising and falling.
Oh good, she thought, he had figured out the breathing part of the exercise.
Ukyo stayed there, watching Ryoga as studiously as he watched the candle, until the wick finally ran out and the flame grew smaller, flickered feebly, and died.
The absence of the flame made the room seem darker than it actually was. Ryoga blinked rapidly to dispel the effects of staring for so long and looked up, jumping with surprise upon spotting Ukyo. He mumbled something about not seeing her there and averted his eyes. It was then that he took note of the darkening sky through the window.
"How long have I been up here?" he asked in vague disbelief.
"A little over an hour," Ukyo replied.
Ryoga quickly got to his feet, almost knocking over the wax-filled dish in his haste. "Sorry Ukyo, but I have to go before I lose the light. Thanks for all of your help today!" he said, turning towards the door.
"Ryoga, wait!" Ukyo blurted. He stopped, turned his head, and gave her a partially impatient questioning look. "About that… How would you like to stay here?"
Ryoga's eyes grew wide, a fierce blush stained his cheeks, and he opened and closed his mouth soundlessly like a starved fish. "S-s-st-stay h-h-here?" he stammered, blushing so hard he reminded Ukyo of the candle flame he'd been watching.
The chef then realised her mistake. She frantically waved her hands back and forth in front of her body. "No! No, no, no! I don't mean here, here! Not inside, you know; outside. In the backyard. In your tent." She spoke very fast, in a nervous babble, and it was all Ryoga could do to keep up.
His blush began to fade as he nodded, an indecipherable expression replacing the embarrassment. "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. It would take ages for me to find this place again otherwise. I'll just go set up my tent then, if you're sure you don't mind…"
Ukyo shook her head. "No, no, you go right ahead. I wouldn't have offered if I wasn't serious." She fidgeted a bit, feeling like she was walking on eggshells. "You can use the bathroom if you want to wash up," she said, carefully keeping her tone light.
"Uh, thanks, that's really nice of you," Ryoga said a little awkwardly, but honestly. He began walking backwards, uncomfortable with her being so near while he was in her bedroom of all places, especially after the generous gesture she had just made. "I'll have a quick bath after I put up my tent. Which I'm gonna do right now because it's getting dark, so yeah," he said, his speech unintentionally speeding up the more nervous he became.
He bumped into the doorframe, startling himself so much that he almost whipped around to demolish the wall. It took all of his willpower not to do exactly that. Instead he turned around slowly, pointedly ignoring Ukyo, and walked out of the room somewhat stiffly. As he descended the stairs Ryoga organised his thoughts.
Ukyo's offer had been completely platonic. If she had invited him to stay inside the house, well, that was a different matter entirely. There was nothing wrong with borrowing her bathroom for a bit; he had helped himself to the Tendo's bathroom often enough. The problem was that he didn't know Ukyo as well as the Tendos. Sure, she had inadvertently spilled her heart to him, but that didn't mean he really knew her.
The more he thought on it, the more he realised all over again that he didn't know Akane that well either.
He located his backpack without too much trouble and slowly headed away from the front door, figuring that he'd run across the back door sooner or later. After five wrong turns, two of which were the same door, he stumbled into the laundry and could see the backyard through a small window.
Ryoga deliberately took several short steps away from the door, walking backwards and keeping it directly in his line of sight in a further attempt to prevent accidental wandering. Now roughly in the middle of Ukyo's little yard he dropped his backpack and set up his tent with his usual efficiency. With his task complete a few minutes later, Ryoga gathered his bathroom supplies and slowly but surely made his way back into the house.
After some meticulous navigation, and three wrong turns, Ryoga arrived at the head of the stairs. He immediately spotted Ukyo standing in the hallway. She unceremoniously pointed at the door she was standing next to and Ryoga got the hint right away. Ukyo stepped back and watched impassively until he had one foot in the room before she wandered off and left him to his own devices.
Ryoga reached behind and closed the door without taking his eyes off the bath. As the hot water started running, Ryoga slowly began to strip, throwing his boxers on top of the rest of his clothes just as the bath became full. He turned off the taps and lowered himself into the water, breathing a sigh of contentment.
Ryoga hadn't realised how tense he was until dull aches made themselves known as his muscles relaxed. Did his run-in with Ranma really affect him so much? He always got keyed up when he confronted the pigtailed boy, sure, but this seemed deeper. He had been angry and anxious for the better part of the day and it had obviously taken a worse toll than usual.
Perhaps it was a combination of his usual frustration with Ranma, his new approach concerning Akane and this strange new path he found himself walking down with Ukyo? Whatever it was, it had taken a fair amount of energy, leaving Ryoga feeling a little drained.
He felt like he could go ten rounds with a mad boar and not even work up a sweat; his physical energy was as full as ever, so it had to be something else. Ryoga decided not to worry about it and sunk an inch or two further into the steaming water.
Two weeks ago he had been placed in this bath, as a pig, by Ukyo. Two weeks ago Ukyo had poured hot water over his little piggy body. Two weeks ago he had transformed back into a human, completely naked, right in front of her. Two weeks ago Ukyo had seen who Ryoga really was. Two weeks ago she had accepted him, curse and all. Two weeks ago Ukyo had become his one and only true friend.
He patted the side of the bath with a certain degree of fondness.
Disclaimer: I do not own Ranma ½. I can't draw people, so how in Rassilon's name do you think I could produce the manga or anime? (Though I am practicing!)
A/N: As I seem to say every author's note, "I'm incredibly sorry for the long wait!" I haven't abandoned this story, I've just been writing small snippets of fics every now and then. Considering how many I'm currently in the process of writing, that means I don't get much done on any of them unless I only take one notebook with me at any one time. (Though my notebooks contain two fics; one at the front and one written in the back.)
Oh, and Mike 5 Tone… unfortunately this site wipes out email addresses or I would have gotten back to you.
Still, I hope I haven't lost my touch with this story. I know a few people were enjoying it quite a bit and I hope all of you like this chapter just as much, if not more. Please review and let me know what you think.