ch 19: stalking the hunter

Kozu was like some inexhaustible, endless machine. How he managed to carry me and half run, half jog along while following a trail that was already days old seemed impossible to me, and yet he did all of that without even breaking out into a sweat. It was already noon, but he showed no signs of stopping or needing a rest. I, on the other hand, was ready to fall asleep, and I hadn't even done anything.

I cautiously leaned my head against his broad, strong back, and he inhaled sharply. Feeling his muscles move under my cheek, I could literally sense the energy rushing through his body. If Rav had seen me—at least, the Rav that was temperamental and violent—he probably would have throttled me. But my body was starting to feel the effects of so much crying in one sitting, and my eyes felt like they had been clawed by cats.

We came across our first huge obstacle. Kozu had traced Rav pretty well up until now, but then we encountered the river. It wasn't very wide or fast-moving, and we could easily cross to the other side.

"If we assume he even went across," Kozu explained to me as he set me down on the ground. He rolled his shoulders, joints popping. My arms were starting to cramp, and I stretched while anxiously listening to his words.

"He could have just waded in the river and went along it for some distance before coming out, and on either side," he continued. "In short, there's no way of telling which direction he went, how far along the river he went, and whether he even crossed the river or doubled back. And by now the water will have washed away any trace that was left."

"So you're saying that it's hopeless and we should just go back," I remarked dejectedly.

"I'm sorry," he muttered.

"So am I," I replied. "I had thought you'd be of more help to me. Well, if you want to go back, you can, but I'm going to go after him."

"You?" he snorted. "No offense," he was quick to add, "but there's no way a mere human can track down a Jaeger that has already got a head start of a few days."

"I said I'd do anything, didn't I?" I retorted. "I'll walk all over the entire blessed world until I simply fall down dead, but I'm not going to stop looking for Rav."

Kozu shook his head. "You idiot girl. You're going to get both of us killed."

I perked up. "So you'll still help me?"

Kozu rolled his eyes. "If you ever do meet up with Rav, he has two choices: kill me for helping you, or kill me for leaving you to fend for yourself."

"You shouldn't joke about stuff like that," I scolded him.

"I wasn't joking."

"I won't let him kill you."

"Then will you let me kill him?" Kozu asked, suddenly slipping back into his darker side. "Will you let me kill him and steal his bride from under his nose?"

I stared into his golden brown eyes. The silence dragged on. Finally Kozu shook his head.

"Sorry, I was being stupid," he mumbled. "Hopefully I didn't freak you out."

"I won't let you do that either," I answered quietly. "I don't want either of you to die. If I have to, then I'll just have to lock the two of you in cages, feed you nothing but pudding, and only let you out twice a week, and on different days."

"Right," he scoffed, but the atmosphere lightened like I hoped it would. "How would you manage to get us into those cages?"

"I'd have Aria's help," I replied. "And she could get Roka to help too."

When I mentioned Roka's name, Kozu's face momentarily darkened again.

"He talked to me yesterday," he stated after a moment's pause. "He asked why I was going up against Rav, why I was trying to steal his inheritance away. But it's not like it is Rav's inherent destiny to become head, is it? He's just the one with special powers."

Hearing his words, I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. In his own brother's eyes, Kozu was nothing but a nuisance to Roka, an obstacle in Rav's way to become the leader of the Jaeger.

"What if Rav didn't have all his mind tricks?" Kozu continued softly. "He'd be just another arrogant, annoying brat. And why was it him? His mother was just another regular human."

Kozu suddenly looked up at me. "Forgive me, Ninali," he mumbled. "I shouldn't have said those things aloud, and in front of you."

"No, it's fine," I replied with a slight smile, my voice not even shaking. "I agree. Rav is arrogant and annoying. But can you tell me more about his mother? He never mentioned anything about her."

He thought for a moment. "Eden. That was her name. She was Roka's first love, his first mate, and the fact that she was able to give him a son is a miracle in itself. Some have married as much as ten times without getting a child. She was bright and happy and gentle with everyone, even though she was terribly homesick and felt out of place in the village. Roka adored her, even without the child."

"So what happened to her?" I asked quietly. In my mind's eye I recalled the photo I had seen in Rav's house of his father and mother.

Kozu shrugged. "She died."

"Oh."

"It was a normal day like any other, and she simply died," he stated emotionlessly. "Roka was devastated and nearly went mad, and even tried to kill his toddler son. Then Rav read his mind and begged him not to do it, and from then on Roka has cherished Rav as his gifted child."

I could only imagine how terrified Rav must have been, reading such terrible thoughts from his own father. It was little surprise, then, why they didn't get along. Did everyone in the family have such a sad past?

"I know he loves Aria, and that she makes him happy," Kozu added. "But I don't think he'll ever be able to forget Eden. Honestly, maybe that's why he favors Rav so much. Because he reminds him of her."

Eden. From my vague memory of the photograph, I could see no trace of her in Rav. He wasn't gentle, wasn't very happy most of the time. Did Rav even remember his mother?

Rav. I missed him so much. Hearing stories about his past, stories he never shared with me, only made the ache worse. Why did he have to be all gallant and leave for the sake of giving me another chance to be happy? Didn't he know that I loved him?

He didn't, my brain reminded me. You never told him such a thing.

That was it. As soon as I found Rav, I would hit for leaving—hit him several times, hard, on his knuckle-brained head—and then tell him. It was long overdue, anyways.

And the baby? Unthinkingly, I placed a hand to my abdomen, but I didn't feel a bulge. It was too early, even if it was true. I hadn't felt ill once since the last time, so I really didn't think it was anything to be worried about. I mean, Rav and I had only mated once. Well, more like several times in one period of time. But still.

"Well, let's go while the sun is still up," Kozu announced, stretching. I nodded in agreement and took a single step towards him, then immediately crumpled to my knees and vomited out the contents of my stomach. I hadn't eaten since last time, so all that came out was bile, but my stomach was still churning afterwards.

"Ninali, are you alright?" he asked worriedly.

"Fine," I gasped, going to the river to wash my mouth out. That made it the second time in a day. Was I sick? Tears suddenly fell from my eyes once again, smacking the rippling surface of the river currents.

I didn't want to be pregnant. No, I would be perfectly fine carrying Rav's baby, but I didn't want a child who would have no father. Every second I sat here feeling sorry for myself, Rav was getting farther away, but I couldn't stop sitting here and crying. What if we couldn't find Rav? What if Rav wasn't there to protect us, to protect the child? I didn't think the Jaeger were heartless, but what if the child was a girl? What would they do to her? I didn't want to give her away as a bride to some stranger twice her age.

Where are you, Rav? My brain screamed silently. Why aren't you here when I need you most?

Move forward, a voice in my head replied. It was a sweet, angelic, childlike voice, like the pure sound of chimes swaying in the wind. I felt calmed just listening to the reverberations of such a sweet sound, even as I began to think that I was finally going insane.

Move forward, the voice stated again. There was a voice. Inside my head. Talking to me. Well, then I would talk back to it.

I can't, I replied to the voice. I'm weak. I can't go on without Rav anymore.

Move.

No, I won't move on, I answered heatedly. I love him. Even if he abandoned me, even if he was happy to be rid of me, I'll never let him go. I'll keep chasing him down until he is finally forced to take me back in order to make me stop. I will not move forward in my life without Rav. I need him.

Move…straight. Cross the water.

For a moment, I was stumped. Perhaps, just perhaps, in the wild throes of my insanity, I may have misunderstood the little voice that was whispering to my tormented mind. Perhaps, when that little voice had told me to "move forward," it had meant literally. Like, to literally move forward in a straight line.

"Ninali? You're quiet. And we're losing time," Kozu piped up behind me. I turned back to him with a wary smile.

"You're going to think I've gone off the deep end, and you can call me crazy silently in your head, but a voice inside my head just told me to cross the river, so I'm going to do that."

"A voice?" he asked skeptically, wrinkling his nose. "I think you're suffering from dehydration. We need to find a village, since we didn't exactly remember to bring any provisions."

"We're crossing the river," I stated firmly.

"Fine, fine," he assented, raising his hands in surrender. "But I think you're losing your mind."

I think he was right.

There was a village not too far away from the other bank of the river, and while Kozu slunk off to hide, I entered alone. I didn't have any money, and there was none conveniently left in the pockets of Rav's pants, but I had nabbed a few plants close to the river that I could sell for some food.

While negotiating with an old woman for some bread, she suddenly leaned towards me in a conspiring whisper.

"You know about them foxes, girl?" she asked.

My heart quickened. "Do you mean the Jaeger, ma'am?"

"Yah, yah," she quipped. "Anyways, no one will believe me, but I saw one of 'em outside yesterday while I was going for a walk. Everyone says to me 'Ol' Greta, you're crazy,' but I'm sure I saw un. He had long red hair that looked like it was on fire, he did, and even though I didn't see no ears, no regular folk has red hair like that."

"Oh that sounds dangerous," I replied evenly. "Do you remember which way he was going?"

She fixed me with a beady eye. "Now why would a sensible girl like you wanna know that? Jaegers is dangerous folk."

"Yes ma'am," I humbly agreed. "But you see, I'm traveling, and I don't want to bump into him.

She nodded understandingly. "He was going west. But you'd be better off staying the night, you don't wanna run into one of those folk."

"Thank you, ma'am, but I should be going while I still have daylight to spare," I replied quickly.

"Well, take care," the old woman grumbled. I took my bread and dashed out of the village, lingering about out of sight of the village gates and calling softly for Kozu. He emerged and I hurriedly told him about what the old woman had said about Rav.

Kozu cursed. "We'd better hurry," he muttered, picking me up on his back again.

"Why? Is it bad?" I asked concernedly.

"The only thing west of here is the sea," he explained as he ran. "If Rav gets on a boat, that'll be the end of everything."

My heart pounded in my chest. We were somehow only a day behind him. He was so close, and yet as far away as ever.

We will find him, my little voice stated. Hopefully we would, before I completely lost my mind.

When it was too dark to see, we had to stop. We had ended up in another stretch of forest, so Kozu climbed a tree (with me still on his back) and set me down.

"By the way, I might be a little scared of heights," I mumbled meekly.

"It's a strong tree," he replied. "The branch won't break."

"I'm not worried about that," I answered. "I'll probably fall off of it."

"Oh," he muttered. With the thick canopy of leaves above us, it was already close to pitch black around us. I heard Kozu scuffling about on the branch, and then luminous golden eyes suddenly came out of the darkness. I jumped and shrieked a little.

"I'm just going to hold you," he mumbled awkwardly. "To keep you from falling out."

He picked me up bridal style in his arms and settled down with his back against the trunk. Holding me lightly with my legs dangling over the side of the branch, his arms would keep me from falling if I dozed off. I could feel the heat radiating off his body. He had exerted so much energy today, and all without eating.

"Here, I have food," I began, taking the bread out of its bag and breaking it in half.

"I don't need it. You should eat," he answered.

"Take it," I insisted.

"No."

I huffed, squinting in the darkness. All I could see was the faint glow of his eyes.

"What are you doing?" he asked. Going by my sense of hearing alone, I shoved the hunk of bread towards his mouth. The muffled sounds he made next meant I had been successful.

"I don't you to pass out," I remarked coolly, biting my own piece of bread.

"Yeah, yeah, you have to go after Rav," Kozu answered, his mouth full of food.

My next comment died in my throat. Kozu was going through so much for me, just to help me find his enemy. He didn't have to do that. He could have stayed and become the head of the village.

Through a thinner layer of leaves, I could see the faint glow of the moon. Tonight was the full moon, when Kozu and Rav would have fought each other, fought to kill. It hadn't turned out that way tonight, but I couldn't help but wonder what exactly would happen once we caught up with Rav. Would he still insist on killing Kozu? Though I already knew the answer, still I flinched at the thought, especially since I knew what Rav would expect of me. Why did it have to come to this; why did I have to support Rav as he killed his uncle?

Rav's uncle was so unlike him, it was almost funny to think they were actually related. While Kozu had his outbursts, and with the memory of his hands tightening around my neck still lingering in my mind, Kozu was generally quiet and unthreatening when not provoked to anger. He was older, of course, and you could tell in the distant look he sometimes had in his eyes that he was reflecting on all the pain and sorrow he had felt and caused.

Rav knew suffering, but not like Kozu did. Kozu had watched his lover die by his own hands, had been distanced from the family as Rav took his place at Roka's right side. And his new interest is already taken by his nephew, my brain commented.

His scent enveloped me gently. It was different from Rav's; spicier, more like a man than a moody teenager that Rav acted like. And his hair was short and neatly cut, not flowing wild all over the place. Kozu was also capable of self control, unlike a certain someone. After all, when he had been the verge of strangling me, he had stopped himself and even felt sorry afterwards. Rav couldn't hope to have that kind of attitude.

Even as all these thoughts ran through my head, bashing Rav while lifting his uncle up on a pedestal, a sad smile curled about my lips. I could see myself now, with a child in my arms, beaming up into the loving face of a husband with short, orange red hair, a man who wouldn't throw me against walls as often as the wind changed. We would have struggles, but with his level head and our mutual effort, we could overcome anything.

My smile widened as my eyes filled. How many times did I have to tell this to myself, to the vague, hopeful visions that danced through my head? Kozu was not the one for me. He was too steady, secure, strong.

Rav was passionate. No, not towards me, so much, but towards all of life. He was willing to jump in without thinking, without sitting back and calculating all the risks. He was quick to argue, quick to uphold his beliefs and morals, however crooked they were. He wasn't afraid of speaking his mind, of hurting someone else's feelings in the process. He didn't really understand tact, or knowing when to stop, or when to give up.

He simply wasn't capable of living a mediocre life. He needed action, needed to act, needed to feel everything to the utmost capability. Yes, he was violent. He was moody to the borderline of being bipolar, and perhaps even beyond that. He wasn't capable of merely feeling; he needed to fill himself until he was bursting at the brim, to fill himself with experiences, with feelings, with life. His body held so much emotion, and was capable of so much emotion, that it scared me out of my wits.

Rav was the one. He may have always been the one, all this time, the one destined for me as soon as he saw the little girl struggling to survive on her own. He was flawed, he was abusive, he was temperamental, he was greedy, he was demanding, he was most likely insane…All the same, that's what I wanted.

People could judge me, say that I was the worst kind of idiot for putting up with him. They'd be absolutely right. It didn't matter to me. Take your pick of the calm, gentle, steady ones that populate this world. For me, there was only an imperfect, violent, insane Jaeger.

"You really should get some sleep," Kozu commented quietly. I closed my eyes.

Yes, sleep would come, and with it would come morning, and we would continue on our mad chase. It was mad to think we could hope to find him, that we could hope to stop him before he escaped to the sea. He was perfectly capable of traveling through the night, while we the pursuers had to stop—mostly for me, but it would be twice as hard to track him in the dark.

It was a futile chase, most likely ending in failure. And yet, what if I had simply given up, accepted the fact that Rav was gone? What if I had stayed in the village, married Kozu, and supported him as the head?

You'd regret it, I told myself simply. Every day you woke up, every breathe you took, every night you fell asleep beside Kozu…you'd spend every waking and sleeping moment regretting it and missing him.

It was as simple, as idiotic, as pathetic as that.

A/N: As Ninali bashes on herself, I'm sitting over here in front of my laptop trying to imagine what it would be like if Rav actually saw the two of them, all cozy in a tree and snuggling. Since I'm worried that Kozu will get several important things maimed and mutilated (I'm talking about his ears. I'm honestly only referring to his ears.) I figured I'd spare poor Kozu the torment. So, as always, I'm curious as to what my readers think as they buckle down for yet another twisty loop on the rollercoaster of plot. Ninali with Rav, with Kozu, or ending up all by herself in a small mountain shack talking to cats all day long? (Or foxes, since that would suit the storyline better.)

I couldn't help but notice some of the readers are beginning to side with Kozu in lieu of violent bipolar Rav, so I want to know what y'all think of this chapter and Ninali's thoughts. I had in mind a quote by Kerouac that goes something like "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn…" I'm not entirely sure if this is an honest description of Rav's character, but there must be some reason that he acts like he has PMS or something…maybe it was the fact that his dad tried to kill him O.O

While I'm blathering, what do you think of the strange voice? I was going to make it italicized, but Ninali's thoughts are italicized and the voice is something else….but if I made it bold, would people get confused between it and the author's notes? So I opted for bold and italic ;)

And while I'm at it, I may as well ask: Is it weird that in this world where there is no obvious signs of technology or modernization, that there would be such things as indoor plumbing and skinny jeans? Just wondering, because it doesn't make sense even to me.

As always, all my love to my readers. Hope everyone is having a good winter break~