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The Lonely Horse

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A young boy, barely past his toddler years, stumbled after his father in the forests of Japan. It had been at least a day since the boy had eaten, and he was reaching the point where hunger was so all encompassing that his body couldn’t process it any more. Meals had been scarce the last week before they stopped entirely, so he had little in the way of reserves.


“D-daddy, I’m hungry,” the boy said. His father had always had food before. Sometimes they didn’t eat all that much, but they never ran out . Surely he just had to ask the right way?


The father wobbled a moment, but inertia was stronger than his ability to stop. “Don’t worry... the next village... should be... just... over... thi-“


The man fell, his emaciated form so light that there was barely a sound as he collided with the ground.


Terrified, the young boy ran forward, crouching down to shake his father by the shoulder.


“Daddy. Wake up. Daddy. Daddy... Daddy,” the boy cried, trying to hold back the tears.


“Daddy!!!” the boy shouted, lurching awake and into the present as he sat up.


It took a moment to remember he was 15 now, not 4. That the memory was long passed, even if he’d been repressing it until recently. Slowly, he gained his bearings in reality once more.


All that greeted Sakai Kazuma in the waking world was the sound of rain pattering on the roof of his tent. The blue haired boy tried to ignore the tears running down his cheeks as he sat there, staring into the darkness. After a few minutes he realised he wasn’t going to be getting back to sleep tonight and began to fish around for his digital watch, hoping the little lcd display would give him good news.


4:07 AM


Kazuma sighed. The sun wasn’t likely to rise for at least another hour and a half, maybe a bit longer. Yet he could only handle the stale air of his closed tent for so much longer, and so wiggled over to slide the zipper open.


The rain was beginning to let up, and he hoped that meant the stars would come out soon. This darkness was, if nothing else, boring.


An amount of time blurred by drowsiness passed as he waited for the rain to end. When it reached a point he deemed tolerable he set to work, pulling out a head mounted flashlight to see what he was doing while leaving his hands free for cooking.


“Camping really is so miserable,” the blue haired boy muttered to himself as he set up his gas powered camping stove on the cold and damp ground. “Why do I keep doing this to myself?”


Sorting through his pack he realised he was getting a little low on supplies.


“Bacon Udon soup it is, I guess,” the boy said with a shrug as he pulled his cutting board and ingredients out.


He wasn’t sure if he really considered himself to be someone who loved cooking these days. He’d usually considered it a way to prove himself more than anything when he was younger, but cooking with Youichi... that he’d loved. Now, alone again (as seemed his natural place in the world) it was a mix of being a force of habit and the fact that his own cooking was just better than instant noodles that had him cooking.


He’d begun to heat the pot when he noticed some rustling in the shrubs amongst the trees a couple metres away. Curious, and hoping that it might be a rabbit or some other small animal he could cook, he turned his head lamp off and slunk over to the bushes to see if he could catch it.


The creature was hard to see directly, being a dark colour in the shadow under a bush, but there was something bright yellow attached to it that lent to be spotted easily. The creature also seemed paused in confusion from the rapid back and forth movements it was making.


Kazuma shot his hand in and grabbed the creature by the yellow cloth tied to it. With the creature in hand he flipped on his head lamp to get a better look at it.


“Huh, a little piglet. What the heck are you doing out in the woods?” he wondered aloud.


The creature tried to glare at him, but seemed to find the bright light from his head lamp blinding.


“Too small to have much meat on ya, eh?” Kazuma mused, only to find himself  struggling to hold on as the little piglet flipped out and emitted panicked sounding bweeing. “Yeesh, you’d think you knew the word meat or something!”


The piglet gave another attempt at a glare before turning away. He swore for a moment it looked like it was nodding before pouting.


“I ain’t goin to eat you,” the blue haired boy said, trying to take a reassuring tone. “I can see the bandana around your neck. You’re obviously somebody’s pet.”


The piglet seemed to nod again.


“Man, I’ve been on my own too long, thinking a pig can understand Japanese,” Kazuma mumbled to himself as he walked back to his little kitchen. “Oh good, looks like the pot’s heated up fairly well.”


The young chef had barely sat down when the piglet slipped free from it’s bandana and shot forward to tackle his pot. For a split second the boy wondered why, but what happened next, as the hot water from the pot sprayed out and drenched the piglet, left Kazuma speechless and on the edge of fainting. At least the piglet’s motives were made clear.


“Gah, don’t want a forest fire,” a very nude and muscular teen yelped as he spun around and righted the gas burner. “Phew... though you did a good job cleaning the cooking area beforehand.”


“Y-y-you turned into a human!” Kazuma yelped.


The nude boy glared into the bright headlamp light. “ Back into a human. It’s how I normally am. And turn that dumb light off, it’s practically dawn now.”


Kazuma nodded, he was too confused to argue and flicked off the light.


The older boy blinked and leaned forward. “You’re lost too, aren’t you?”


“What? Why would I be lost?” Kazuma asked, getting a little annoyed with this shape shifting nudist.


The stranger pointed towards the (slightly) younger lad’s mouth. “You’ve got quite the fang there. And the way you’re bangs are sitting.”


“What do either of those-“ Kazuma began to protest, before actually looking at the guy in front of him’s face. “I... wait, why do you look so much like me?”


“Well, my guess would be that we’re related. Usual reason for people looking alike,” the part-time pig replied. “That’s why I figured you were lost. Both my mum and dad have terrible senses of direction, and I’m no different. I honestly don’t quite remember the last time we saw each other...”


There was a loneliness in the other boy’s eyes that Kazuma couldn’t help relating to.


“Well, I’m not lost,” Kazuma replied. “I’m just depressed right now, and I always go off into the woods to get away from everyone when I’m feeling like this.”


The naked teen nodded. “We’re definitely related then. Even if you supposedly aren’t lost.”


“I... can I offer you some clothes or something? It’s kind of distracting to have you sitting there naked while we talk,” the blue haired boy asked.


The other lad blushed a little and moved to cover himself with his hands. “Uh, yeah. My pack shouldn’t be too far away. Short legs as a piglet and all that. Wasn’t raining for that long either. Now, let’s see... The sun’s rising over that way, so North would be... um.”


“How about you stay here, and I go to where it’s at?” Kazuma offered.


“That might be best,” his maybe relative replied with a nervous laugh.


Kazuma smiled as he headed off, trying to back track the signs of a little piglet wandering through the brush. He was struggling to concentrate though. This guy, as weird as he was with the turning into a pig and lack of directional senses, still was a hint at actual family. They certainly looked alike. Heck, they could probably pass for brothers, even if Kazuma was definitely more baby faced and had messier hair. Did it mean there was actually a place for the young lonely chef in this world?


He shook his head and refocused on tracking. He’d find his new acquaintance clothing first and worry about life changing revelations later.


Luckily the shrubs and bushes were pretty dense around here, and his new companion had made no effort to avoid collateral damage. In fact, it seemed like he’d somehow felled a tree at this one point while a piglet (a young tree, but still).


How strong was this guy as a human then?


Kazuma knew the guy was certainly muscular (and half doubted any clothes he’d offered would have fit very well), but how the raw power as a piglet would scale...


The sight of a large pack with a red umbrella distracted Kazuma from the issue for a moment. Only to hammer it home as soon as the young chef tried to lift the pack up. After several abortive attempts, Kazuma gave in and decided to just drag it, vowing to come back for the umbrella later.


Despite not having to do any tracking, the return trip was significantly longer than the journey out and the sun had firmly risen by the time Kazuma returned to camp. He felt his eye twitch as he watched the other guy nibbling away on a raw and uncut green pepper, as if it were an apple.


“I was going to cook that!” the blue haired boy protested.


“Mmrm?” came the other teen’s reply, before realising he couldn’t talk very well with produce in his mouth and swallowed. “It’s perfectly edible raw. And it’s been a while since I’ve had fresh veggies. Like I said, I’m lost.”


“Edible, yes. But it tastes better cooked,” Kazuma sighed. “Anyway, I brought your pack. What do you keep in this thing? Bricks?”


“Nah, bricks take up too much space,” the muscled teen replied, getting up and heading over to sift through his pack. “Stick to lead weights. Leaves more space for necessities while still giving the same endurance training.”


Kazuma let himself flop onto the ground, staring at a tree. “He wants a heavy backpack.”


“I’m a martial artist, I need to turn everything into conditioning,” replied the other lad as he pulled on some underwear. “I’m not the one carrying around a whole produce section and spice rack.”


“I’m a chef,” Kazuma protested.


“Oh. I guess it makes sense then. We both take our vocation with us,” the other said, now pulling on a shirt.


“Yeah... anyhow, getting back to that issue about you being lost, where are you trying to get to?”


“My girlfriend’s farm. It’s near Ueda,” the martial artist replied, making final adjustments to his clothing to get everything comfy. “Ah, nice and warm again.”


“Ueda? That’s, honestly, not too far from here,” Kazuma said. “I could probably help you find your way.”


“You’d do that?” the stranger asked, lighting up with joy.


“Sure. Even if I didn’t want to learn more about you, and your family, I’d be a jerk not to help out someone who was lost,” Kazuma replied.


“Akari’s going to be thrilled. I’ll have made to my home and back to her place in under three weeks!”


Kazuma blinked, before giving his new companion a judgmental stair. How did it take three weeks to make a round trip to anywhere in Japan?


“I, uh, what’s your name anyhow, buddy?” Kazuma asked.


“Oh, heh, right. Hibiki. Hibiki Ryoga.”


“Sakai Kazuma,” the blue haired teen replied. “Oh, and, uh, sorry about the bacon.”


Ryoga shrugged. “I can’t stomachthe stuff anymore, but I don’t expect the rest of humanity to give up pork.”


“I’ll cook up something vegetarian, I guess,” Kazuma said, turning back to his pack and pulling out some more supplies. “I know I’m starving. Then we can get going after we eat, eh Hibiki-han?”


* * *


After breakfast the pair set off, first for Ryoga to grab his umbrella, and then to head off towards Ueda. The curse took up the majority of the conversation for the morning. The blue haired boy made a mental note to be careful if he ever visited western China.


Once it got close to noon they’d made their way down to a road and progress was easier than hiking through the woods.


“I still can’t believe you chased that b’y to another country over bread, that’s right determined,” Kazuma said with a chuckle as he munched on a granola bar.


“An official challenge is a matter of honour. I wasn’t about to let him back out like that,” Ryoga grumbled as he munched on his bag of trail mix. “That and he was being a real jerk again suddenly before leaving.”


“Nah, I understand that. Even if I’m used to cooking challenges, rather than fighting... there’s still a lot of reputation at stake.”


For the first time since breakfast a prolonged silence descended. Kazuma had the impression he should probably say a bit about himself, but whenever he went to think about it his mind went to Youichi. He missed that cheerful idiot more than he should.


“I... do you know your extended family at all?” Kazuma asked. “All I had was my dad, and I barely remember him.”


“Oh, uh, a little. I know my dad has a sister, she sends us postcards from Tahiti. Moved there so she can only get so lost. My mom had two brothers, though the one went missing quite a while back. And, well, with my family that means he’s been really missing. My other uncle actually shows up fairly often. He’s actually not completely terrible with directions and goes around and checks on everyone’s houses, only gets lost from time to time,” Ryoga explained. “Tend to see him around once or twice a year.”


“Your other uncle, the missing one... do you know what he looked like?” Kazuma asked.


“Not really. I’m not always the best with faces,” Ryoga admitted.


Kazuma deflated a little, and the silence returned. The blue haired boy began to wonder if it might be best not to dig. Stay in hopeful ignorance, rather than risk finding out that his new ‘cousin’ wasn’t actually related to him.


“I think his wife died,” Ryoga said at last, while the road crossed over a river valley. “Uh, my missing uncle. I remember my parents talking about it one time. Wondering why he’d been gone so long, and if he’d ever come back. And... he might have had a kid? Then again, it was a really long time ago. I might be adding things I want to remember.”


“Well, thanks for the hope at least,” Kazuma replied.


* * *


They reached the Unryu farm early the next day. There was still a bit of dew on the grass as Ryoga rushed out ahead of Kazuma towards the door. The genuine smile on his companion’s face made Kazuma feel a bit of warmth himself.


When the excited bandana clad boy reached the door and knocked hard enough to splinter the wood Kazuma found himself laughing at Ryoga’s embarrassed expression. The joy in his new friend/cousin was infectious and the tableaux too funny.


Kazuma caught back up just as the door opened to reveal a girl with brown hair (with a few strands of pink). The way Ryoga lifted her into a hug before she could say anything surely identified her as Akari.


After she’d been spun around by an excited Ryoga, Akari was back on the ground and smiling away. “You’re back so quick!”


“I had help on the way back,” Ryoga replied, giddiness and energy in his usual mellow voice. The muscular boy stepped aside a bit to point at Kazuma. “Ran into him in the mountains.”


Kazuma waved a bit nervously, not sure what was going to happen next.


Akari stared at a now slightly flustered Kazuma, before turning back to her boyfriend and then doing a quick second comparison. “I didn’t know you had a little brother.”


“Cousin, actually... probably,” Ryoga replied. “I think he’s my mum’s brother’s kid. The missing brother. But he doesn’t have the family directional issues.”


“H-hi. Sakai Kazuma. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” the blue haired boy said with a nervous bow.


“Unryu Akari, and please, accept my hospitality as thanks for helping my fiancé,” Akari replied with her own bow. “I need to make you both some breakfast.”


“Er, well, we already ate,” Kazuma replied softly.


“Nonsense, camping food isn’t a proper breakfast. Especially not if you’ve been hiking for days. And do come in, both of you. The furo should be good and hot, you can go clean up while I cook something.”


Kazuma gave an awkward thank you before heading off in the direction the girl had pointed. It was odd, but he felt so much warmth coming from her. It was almost like visiting the Hinode Eatery, but he felt less like a trespasser thanks to the excuse of his blood relation to Ryoga.


It took awhile for the two boys to scrub the dirt of the road off themselves, and the warmth of soaking in the tub felt good on Kazuma’s sore legs, so he took his time with that.


By the time he was dried off and dressed in some fresh clothes, Kazuma could tell their brunch was nearly finished going off of the delightful smell wafting in from the kitchen. The young chef made his way to the dining table Akari was already serving up the rice, pickled veggies, and some chicken cutlet.


“Wow, that’s quite a bit,” Kazuma said as he approached the table. “You have to let me do dishes or something else as thanks for all this.”


“Bringing Ryoga home early deserves more reward than just one little breakfast, don’t worry,” Akari replied, her infectious smile getting to the lonely chef.


“I’m glad my nose is good with directions, because you cooking is something I wouldn’t want to be late for, sweety,” Ryouga said as he joined them, moving to give Akari a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek.


The brunette blushed a little as the three of them sat down to start the meal. Kazuma waited a moment, not wanting to be the first to dig in, and noticed that Ryoga seemed lost in staring at his fiancée. Akari was, however, quite happy to pick away at the smaller serving she’d prepared herself, though she stole a few glances at Ryoga too.


Kazuma couldn’t help smiling as he turned his attention to his meal. Taking up the first few bites he found himself filled with a new wave of warmth from the food. Well, perhaps more accurately, the love that had been poured into the food. Even though he’d never met Akari before, nor had he ever been to this farm, the meal fit that ‘home cooking’ feeling so perfectly that he suddenly wanted to stay here forever.


He could probably handle being a farmer, he’d had a pretty significant vegetable garden with the Ajiou for a bit after all. It would help him avoid the question of what to do with himself. Most especially whether or not to go back to Tokyo and apologise to Youichi for what he did...


“So, you’re a chef?” Akari asked, pulling Kazuma back to the present.


“Oh, uh, yeah. Curry is my specialty, but I know quite a few other dishes.”


“I hope my cooking is up to your standards then,” Akari said, her tone indicating genuine curiosity.


“It’s excellent,” Kazuma replied. “I can tell you have a real passion for cooking.”


“Ah, well, I try my best,” the farmer girl replied. “Of course it’s raising the pigs and training them that’s my real passion.”


“Training?” Kazuma asked.


“Pig sumo wrestling,” Ryoga replied, breaking into a laugh at Kazuma’s confusion. “Don’t worry, I didn’t know it was a thing until I met her either.”


“The sport is growing,” Akari said defensively, though she seemed to be playing it up for a bit of comedy. “There’s 9 farms involved, and talk of a new one opening up north.”


“Baseball had better look out,” Ryoga added, chuckling a little more.


“You would think the best coach in the league would respect his sport more,” Akari said, giggling as her attempt at a serious facade collapsed.


“You’re...oh, with the curse,” Kazuma mumbled, the pieces fitting together. “Does that mean you can talk to pigs?”


Ryoga shook his head. “No, not really. I can hear the differences in their noises a bit better in cursed mode, but I can’t speak to them. I don’t think they quite have language like we do. Good at copying something I show them though.”


Kazuma nodded. “I’d certainly like to see how a training session goes. It sounds really interesting to watch.”


“Well, that’s the plan for the rest of the day, so feel free to come join us in the barn,” Akari replied.


* * *


Watching the pigs train had been interesting for Kazuma. He hadn’t realised they were quite so flexible. He had felt a bit guilty about the way his instincts had caused him to assess the likely meat quality of many animals though, but he was a chef. (And cooking game roosters was one of his specialties.)


Training was over now though, and Ryoga was off cleaning up again while Kazuma helped Akari with preparing dinner.


“Are you sure you’re okay with peeling the sweet potatoes?” Akari asked. “It feels like a bit of a waste to put a chef in charge of something so mundane.”


“Don’t worry, it’s good busy work. Keeps my mind of... things,” Kazuma replied, a bit distantly.


“Might I pry as to what kind of things?” the joyful girl asked.


With almost anyone else, Kazuma would have walled up. His thoughts were his own, and not to be shared. But it wasn’t anyone else, and Akari’s gentle joy couldn’t be resisted.


“I just worry... we don’t actually know that I’m Ryoga’s cousin. What if we’re just strangers who happen to look alike?” Kazuma asked. “Then I’d be here under false pretences.”


“Maybe you’re his blood relative, maybe you aren’t. You’re still both kindred spirits. I... well, let’s put it this way: I was lucky, I was given a family from the start. But some people have to find their families instead. Ryoga has a friend named Ranma who’s living with another family, but has slotted his way in so perfectly you’d think he grew up with them. And that’s a way family is sometimes,” Akari replied matter of factly.


Kazuma paused from peeling his potatoes to think the matter over. “I... I don’t know. I was left in the care of a man I grew up with, but we never became family.”


“So he wasn’t your family. That doesn’t mean a family isn’t out there for you. Maybe it’s here. Maybe it’s somewhere you wish you were when you’re out camping?” Akari offered.


“Where I wish I was,” Kazuma muttered, his mind filling with the smells, sights, and sounds of the Hinode Eatery... and the realization he was was remembering those times he’d been cooking alongside Youichi.


“Oh, is that a blush? Is there someone special you’re thinking about?” Akari asked, trying to keep an eye on him while also chopping some carrots.


“I... maybe,” the young chef muttered, before letting out a sigh. “Even if it was an option with that person, I kind of ruined it. I was always pushing away, and... well, we had quite the fight before I left. It’s a right mess now.”


“Heh, I’m sure it’s got nothing on Ranma and Akane. Those two are in love, but drive each other nuts... oh, that reminds me! Maybe don’t let Ryoga know I said Ranma was his friend. The two still insist they’re rivals,” Akari said, giggling a little bit. “Friendliest rivals I’ve ever seen.”


Luckily for Kazuma, Akari became distracted by the need to start the stir fry and she missed his blush getting even stronger.


* * *


Two weeks had gone by. Kazuma had had to help search for Ryoga once or twice, but otherwise things slid into a clean routine. Farm life was a good way to keep busy and keep his mind off the option of going back. Off having to apologize.


His cooking was certainly proving popular with the Unryus and their neighbours. He’d started to wonder about opening a restaurant out here and enjoying the quiet life.


At least until Akari approached the Osakan chef as he was working on dishes that morning.


“We need to go in to Tokyo for some equipment this weekend,” she said, her tone so perfectly innocent as always. “It would be a good opportunity for you to apologise to your ‘someone special’... and maybe let Ryoga and I meet this mysterious person you seem to always think about, but never want to talk about? You’ve been so good to us, I just want to see you find your happiness.”


Kazuma blushed a bit. “I... well, I don’t really know how to give a good enough apology.”


Akari’s lip scrunched up in an adorable look of concentration. After a few moments she lit up with an idea. “I know! We’ll call in Ranma to help. He managed to help Ryoga get over his nerves when Ryo-chan and I first met. He’s a really good guy, and keeps helping until things have worked out.”


Kazuma briefly debated arguing, but he could see the way Akari’s eyes were sparkling. He couldn’t say no. “Alright, we can try.”


“Yay!” Akari shouted before running off towards the dining room. “He said yes! Ryo-chan, go phone Ranma! We’re going to play matchmakers!”


Kazuma couldn’t quite make out Ryoga’s reply, but his cousin sounded a little more nervous than Akari about the prospect.


* * *


The trio were sitting in Roppongi Station, waiting for Ranma to arrive in from Nerima before heading up to Taito. Kazuma had been informed that punctuality wasn’t one of Ranma’s strong points, so they weren’t sure how long they’d have to wait. More time to think really wasn’t helping the young chef’s nerves.


“So, we’re in Minato ward,” Ryoga mumbled as he stared at his map. “And that’s the red dot... red dot... oh, there it is. And we’re going to Taito ward, which is... north, right?”


Akari nodded happily.


“And on a map that’s... up. So, somewhere around... hmm,” Ryoga grew lost in thought, an impressively intense look of concentration on his face.


Kazuma looked over to Akari, waiting for the cue to help out. The girl held up a couple fingers and mouthed ‘two minutes’.


“I think I found it!” Ryoga suddenly exclaimed. “Because you said it was also east, and that’s right... so, here, right?”


The other two teens looked at where he was pointing and both gave quiet ‘wows’.


“Good work, Ryoga. I knew practice with some instruction would help,” Akari replied, pulling out a green marker to mark Taito ward. “So, which stop are we getting off at?”


Ryoga paled as he looked at the seemingly endless lines of Tokyo transit. “I don’t even know where to start.”


“I suppose that’s fair. Tokyo’s got too many lines and stations,” Akari said, giving a gentle look of reassurance. “We’ve got a tournament in Sapporo in a few months. Their metro is much simpler, you’ll probably be able to work that one out.”


Ryoga let out a sigh of relief. “Simple is good.”


“Yeah, I’ll be honest that I’ve gotten lost on the Tokyo metro once or twice myself,” Kazuma added. “Spend more of my time in Osaka, can’t remember both metros.”


A now more confident Ryoga began to fold his map up, only to have his confidence slowly evaporate as he realised he’d folded a crease the wrong way and had to undo half the process to retry. Finally he got everything in the right place and put the map away. Kazuma stifled a chuckle at the process, though was glad for the distraction provided.


“Yo! If it ain’t my favourite punchin’ bag!” a female voice called out.


Ryoga groaned and turned to the source, with Kazuma following his gaze to spot the short redhead in baggy clothes not far away.


“Yeah, yeah. Very funny Ranma, just ‘cause I can take a hit better than you,” Ryoga grumbled.


Kazuma blinked. This was Ranma? Not what he expected, but then again... after the Bonburi Brothers and Yoshiko, Kazuma wasn’t sure he should have made any hasty assumptions.


“Wow, he really does look just like ya,” the redhead was saying, leaning a bit too close to Kazuma’s face.


“Sakai Kazuma, uh, sir,” the young chef said with an awkward bow as he stood up from the bench.


“Sir? I... right, they’d‘ve talked about me as a guy. Yeah, I’m definitely a guy. I’ve just got a bit of a condition. Don’t worry though, it ain’t contagious or nothin’,” Ranma replied casually, laughing away. “Reversible too, thank the kami.”


The idea of this ‘condition’ being contagious briefly filled Kazuma’s mind with the slightly unsettling thought of being transformed somehow. Though, after a moment’s reflection he did have to admit it would make matters with Youichi ea—easier...


Suddenly he paled as he realised that he’d managed to avoid giving out the little information tidbit on Youichi’s gender to Akari and Ryoga. They were going to think he had something wrong with him? Panic set in to the point he was moving on auto-pilot as he followed the others onto the train.


As they slid along the tracks towards the moment of truth, Kazuma tried to calm himself down. They were friends with this Ranma guy, who was, for some reason, very feminine looking. So, maybe they were accepting of ‘non-traditional’ life choices?


Kazuma decided to break the news softly, only to find Ranma and Ryoga locked in an intense discussion of martial arts. In fact the discussion seemed to be a form of sparring, the discussion was so intense. Kazuma found himself without an opening to interject his own issue, while Akari listened intently to the other two, apparently following the conversation far more easily than the young chef could manage.


Before he knew it, they’d arrived at Naka-Okachimachi station and they were shuffling out. He was fast running out of time...


“So, which way is it ta yer girlfriend’s place?” Ranma asked, causing the blue haired boy to blush furiously.


“I... well, about that... you see,” Kazuma stumbled. He just had to spit it out. But... he didn’t want to risk losing his newfound family if he explained things poorly... What was his plan?


“Kazuma? Kazuma!” a familiar voice shouted.


Turning, Kazuma’s eyes confirmed it was who his ears had told him it was. Those bright cheerful blue eyes, the dark shoulder length hair, and smile that could light up a room. Ajiyoshi Youichi.


The fanged chef silently chided himself for forgetting just how close the Hinode Eatery was to the metro station. It really wasn’t surprising that Youichi would be walking around nearby.


Kazuma risked a glance at his companions, and the way Ryoga and Ranma had paled did not bode well. Akari though, she was smiling away as she almost always did.


Suddenly Kazuma found himself pulled into a hug as Youichi very nearly tackled him, and the blue haired boy was blushing furiously.


“Oh man, Kazuma! You’ve been missin’ way too long,” Youichi declared, his Shitamachi accent as strong as always, “You can’t do dat to a friend. I’ve been mad worried about ya.”


“I, uh, didn’t think you’d want to see me after... well, after I punched you and, uh, everything,” Kazuma replied nervously.


“Everyone was emotional. You had de best reason to be upset of any of us, really. Stop always bein’ so hahd on ya’self,” Youichi replied, finally releasing his hug and noticing who Kazuma had been travelling with. Ryoga caught his eye, likely for the obvious reason. “Oh! You have got to be related to Kazuma, got de same cute little fang look goin’ on.”


“Y-you look... and he looks... and,” Ryoga stammered, glancing between the two young chefs and the redhead beside him.


“We’re pretty sure Kazuma and Ryoga here are cousins,” Akari explained, sliding herself in front of Ryoga. “I’m Akari, Ryoga’s fiancée. And the redhead is Ranma, Ryoga’s rival.”


“Rival?” the cheerful young cook asked, before turning towards Kazuma. “Must be your cousin den, Kazuma.”


The fanged chef blushed again. He’d come all this way, he had to confess his (admittedly a little confused) feelings, “Maybe, but, um... Youichi, I...”


Nervously, Kazuma’s eyes drifted towards his travel companions. For reasons he didn’t understand Ryoga and Ranma were now both blushing and refusing to look at one another, but Akari was smiling and giving him a reassuring nod. Filled with some confidence off the brunette’s eternal optimism, Kazuma took a deep breath and made the plunge.


“Youichi, I think I like you... as in like like. And I don’t know what to do about that, and I understand if you don’t—“ Kazuma stumbled to an awkward stop as Youichi hugged him again.


“About time ya clue in. I’ve been tryin’ to floyt wit’ ya almost as long as I’ve known ya,” Youichi said, laughing as he broke the hug.


“Wait... really?” Kazuma asked.


“Pin pon! Of course, ya dummy,” Youich replied, slapping Kazuma on the shoulder. “And you three, tanks for bringin’ him back. Couldn’t have been easy. Dey really shoulda named him Kazuraba, not Kazuma, seein’ as how he’s more like a mule dan a horse in his stubbornness.”


“I’ve told you I don’t like those horse jokes,” Kazuma muttered, feeling majorly embarrassed.


“I resist when I can, but sometimes it’s too easy,” Youichi replied. “Anyway, you tree look hungry, come on, I’ll take ya back to de restaurant.”


“I’ve got a bunch a confused feelings right now, but I never say no ta free food,” Ranma said, lighting up.


“A gal after my own heart, except I’m taken now, sorry. Anyway, come on, it’s just a couple blocks dis way. And Kazuma, your eatin’ today, I’ve got a meal I’ve been wantin’ ta cook for ya,” Youichi announced.


The way was short, and Kazuma knew it well, so he took of the rear, in a little bit of a daze that things were going so well. He watched the other three hurry after Youichi, noting how Ryoga had taken Akari’s hand and was still avoiding looking in Ranma’s direction. Kazuma didn’t understand it, but he also didn’t dwell on it, his eyes being drawn up towards Youichi and feeling his heart quicken.


Only a couple minutes later they’d arrived. The Hinode Eatery was a small and simple restaurant, filled mostly with retired working class men eating and chatting away at this hour of the morning. And, to Kazuma, it felt like home.


“Youichi! And-oh! Kazuma, you’re back!” Mitsuko said. The short haired waitress came rushing over to the five of them. “You wouldn’t believe how worried Youichi was about you!”


“H-hi there Mitsuko,” Kazuma replied, guilt eating away at his gut.


Some girls were shy about their feelings, but Yamaoka Mitsuko was not one of them. As such everyone, except (somehow) Youichi, knew she was hopelessly in love with Youichi. Kazuma had no idea what to say to the girl whose crush he had just ‘stolen’, only knowing that, with her temper, it was best to tread lightly.


“Dis is Kazuma’s cousin... Er, sorry, I got a little distracted with everyt’ing, what were your names again?” Youichi said.


“I’m Unryu Akari, this is my fiance and Kazuma’s cousin, Hibiki Ryoga. Well, probably cousin, since both their families are a bit poor on the communication front. Finally, Saotome Ranma, who’s been Ryoga’s friend since middle school,” Akari said, resting her head on Ryoga’s shoulder.


“Could you find dem a table, Mitsuko? I’ve got to get cookin’,” Youichi asked.


“Sure thing,” Mitsuko replied. “Just over here nearer to the kitchen.”


Watching Youichi head off Kazuma suddenly remembered something important and rushed over, grabbing the other boys hand. As soon as they made contact he felt a surge of warmth that eroded his fear that everything was all about to go wrong.


“What’s up, Kazuma?” Youichi asked, his blue eyes filling with concern.


“I, just... no pork, okay? Akari and Ryoga don’t eat pork for... well, a couple reasons,” Kazuma replied.


“Oh. Got it! No pork,” Youichi replied with a smile and a two finger salute. “Well, I’d best get to work... and I’ll need my hand for that.”


“Oh! Yeah, sorry,” Kazuma replied, releasing his grip.


A pleasant version of butterflies fluttered in his stomach as he sat down with the others, taking the empty seat beside Ranma.


“So, uh,” Ranma began, fiddling with a strand of red hair and looking anywhere but Ryoga’s direction. “The waitress is cute. Always liked girls with short hair.”


“Akane would just love hearing you talk about other girls that way, I’m sure,” Ryoga grumbled while studying the wall beside him.


“Mitsuko’s a bit dangerous, just as fair warning. Girl has a hair trigger temp-,” Kazuma noticed the nervous looks in Akari and Ryoga’s eyes. “She’s behind me isn’t she?”


“Your tea ,” the short haired girl hissed, slamming the tray down and glaring at Kazuma.


Though the glare lasted only a fraction of a second until some of the hot tea managed to splash out onto Ranma. Kazuma and Mitsuko both stared in shock at how the short redhead suddenly took on the form of a handsome young man with black hair.


“And I thought Yoshiko was confusing,” Mitsuko muttered under her breath, while blushing furiously.


Kazuma came to his senses and realised he was blushing too. Suddenly he understood the term of ‘having a type’ and flung his eyes down to the table. He’d just asked Youichi out, he couldn’t go and start checking out another guy. At least he now knew it wasn’t him confusing friendship for romantic attraction, like he’d thought for so long.


“Heh, might want to tell cook boy I could use a bigger serving now,” Ranma said, padding some of the tea off with a napkin.


“I... I’m so sorry! I’ll go get you some towels!” a blushing Mitsuko announced, rushing off into the kitchen.


A moment later Youichi appeared at the window between the eating area and the kitchen. The baby faced cook stared at Ranma a moment.


“Dat’s not sometin’ you see every day... explains one or two tings... Don’t worry, I give everyone large servings!” Youichi shouted across.


The next couple minutes as they waited saw Mitsuko doing her best impression of a stop sign, she was so red from embarrassment as she tried to help dry Ranma off and offered to take his shirt to wash. The pigtailed boy accepted, which only caused the girl to blush more as she saw his well toned arms before running back to do the washing promised.


Kazuma decided to distract himself from the wonderful sight of Ranma’s biceps by trying to find small talk to have with Ryoga.


“Phew, it got hot back there,” Youichi announced as he emerged from the kitchen with several bowls of curry and his topped stripped to an undershirt as if to compete with Ranma.


While the short chef was in decent shape he couldn’t equal the physique of a martial artist and Kazuma found himself smirking at Youichi’s unwavering competitiveness.


“So, I hope you all will like my new and improved chicken curry,” Youichi declared confidently as her served out the meal.


* * *


While the exceptional lunch the three had enjoyed had put Akari in a better mood, she remained quite disappointed in the other two she was travelling on the train back to Roppongi with.


“You two handled yourselves quite poorly back there,” Akari said, hoping her discontentment was clear in her tone. “Especially you Ranma, with how Akane has mentioned you two going on plenty of ‘girl dates’. Yet you both got so awkward just because Kazuma happened to like a boy.”


Both boys blushed and slipped into defensive body language.


“It wasn’t about him likin’ a boy,” Ranma protested.


“Yeah. If he’d liked a girl, but she was a loud, short, and outgoing redhead it would have been just as awkward,” Ryoga added.


“How does—oh! I suppose Youichi did somewhat look like Ranma, now that you mention it. So that was all it was?” Akari asked.


“All it was? That’s quite a lot. Especially when somebody keeps going girl mode and flirting with me, and then they talked about flirting,” Ryota said, pouting visibly.


Ranma turned with a huff to look in the opposite direction. “Real full of yourself, ain’t ya, P-chan? I was always just after food or information.”


“That’d better be all it was about,” Ryoga grumbled, wrapping an arm around Akari and pulling her closer. “I’m very happy with Akari. Also, straight... Er, not that there’s anything wrong with not being straight... or anything. Just, well, that option isn’t for me.”


“Oh trust me, I’m well aware of that, calm down piglet. I just like messin’ with ya,” Ranma muttered, staring at the far corner of the metro car.


* * *


Kazuma swallowed nervously as he and Youichi sat across from Youichi’s mother and stepfather. Noriko and Yoshio were both understanding people, and everything else had been going well today, so Kazuma was hoping they’d both accept the news.


“It’s a shame your old restaurant was sold,” Marui Yoshio said. “Do you have somewhere to stay now that you’re back in town?”


“I was tinkin’ he could stay with us?” Youichi offered. “My room’s big enough for two.”


Kazuma tried not to blush too much at that offer. “I’m sure I could find a place to stay right quick, but would probably need to crash here for a few days?”


“Both of us cookin’ would make the restaurant run way smoother,” Youichi pointed out. “Plus, I do like havin’ you around. Dat’s de reason I said yes today.”


“Said yes to what?” Noriko asked.


“Snaggletooth here finally asked me out,” Youichi replied happily.


“It’s a fang,” Kazuma muttered under his breath.


“Wait... what?” Yoshio asked, looking at the rest of the table with confusion in his eyes.


Noriko for her part smiled softly. “If you’re happy, Youichi, then I’m happy. Though... it does put into question the idea of you two sharing a room.”


Kazuma turned as red as a tomato. “We’re both in high school! We’re not going to get up to anything!”


“Mhm, plus the walls are literally paper thin, so we couldn’t be sneaky about it if we wanted to,” Youichi added with a mischievous grin and an elbow to Kazuma’s side.


The blushing Osakan struggled to regain any semblance of composure. “W-we’re way too young for any of that!”


“Well, whatever happens, at least I don’t have to worry about any surprise pregnancies,” Noriko said, giggling a little.


That managed to get Youichi to join Kazuma in blushing.