You can’t live on bread alone
It was fall.
The air was pleasantly cool and fresh. That year, summer had been especially sticky, moist with its thick humidity. The light breeze and cool temperature felt like pure bliss after months on end of feeling trapped inside a hot air balloon.
It wasn’t so prominent in the city, but the forest was already freshly dyed with its glorious palette of autumn colour. The leaves swirled overhead in the chilled breeze, flickering like flames. The sun broke through the fire above and dappled the ground, covered in a dusty layer of ashes long fallen from the sky that were crunchy underfoot.
It’d all be so pleasant, if not for the company.
Ryoga didn’t bother to look behind him, for the extra crunching of dead leaves was enough to tell him that he was not alone, for once, walking through the forest. He bit his tongue. He’d already lashed out countless times that day, and it wasn’t getting him anywhere. Although he did get a little lonesome now and then on his expeditions (his gracious term for ‘getting lost’) but when he craved the company of another, a man wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.
Especially not a man like Ranma Saotome.
Not that he was exactly much of a “man”, but that wasn’t the point.
Although, he supposed it wasn’t as bad as he thought it’d be at the start of all this, when Ranma had run after him just as he was leaving the Tendo Dojo. He had his large travel pack on his shoulders, claiming he’d be accompanying Ryoga on his trip. Ryoga had, of course, argued. Ranma, stubborn as always, stood his ground. And so it was that the two were walking through the forest in the mountains, far from the bustling streets of Furinkan.
The trip had so far been—dare Ryoga say it—pleasant. The word sounded ridiculously out of place, especially used to describe the company of Ranma. But if Ryoga had to be honest, it wasn’t nearly as awful as his mind wanted to make it out to be. He supposed that after six years, things would tend to settle down a bit. Strangely enough, there were days that Furinkan seemed as calm and still as a millpond. With that in mind, Ryoga wondered why Ranma had suddenly decided to come along with him. It’s not like he had much to run away from these days.
The hill they had been trekking finally lowered into flat ground, and soon they broke out of the trees and into a bright, open clearing. They came to a stop, looking around the open space.
“Perfect!” Ranma hooted suddenly, causing Ryoga to jump. “Looks like home t’ me!”
Ryoga scoffed, shifting his pack onto one shoulder as he walked out into the clearing. “Then let’s set up camp.”
They threw down their packs in the middle of the clearing and began to pull out supplies. Ryoga pitched his tent while Ranma set out cookware. Ryoga had set up his tent so many times that it went up in minutes. After he nailed down his last peg he looked up to see Ranma; sitting in front of the fire and ripping open a cup of ramen, while a kettle heated up on a small gas burner beside him.
“Aren’t you going to pitch your tent?” Ryoga asked with a frown. Leave it to Ranma to think of food over shelter.
“Nah,” Ranma replied, ripping the packet of dried toppings open with his teeth, spitting the foil off to the side.
Suddenly Ryoga was behind him. He punched Ranma so hard on the back of the head he dropped the cup of dried noodles he was pouring packets into.
“You’ve gone on training trips your whole damn life,” Ryoga steamed. “And you forgot your tent?”
Ranma rubbed the back of his head while he looked down forlornly at the fallen cup of ramen. Some of the noodles had broken and had scattered out onto the grass. “That ones’ yours, porkchop.”
“How do you forget your tent?” Ryoga seethed, ignoring him.
“I was in a rush, an’ probably assumed it was still in my pack, but Pops musta had it in his. We only got the one, y’know,” Ranma grumbled, picking a dried leaf out of the ramen cup before setting it beside him. He reached into his bag for a second cup. “Y’don’t have to get yourself into such a big damn conniption about it, Ryoga. It’s just a stupid tent.”
“Well, I sure hope you didn’t forget your sleeping bag, too, ‘cause if you think you’re sleeping in my tent, you’re dreaming, Saotome.” Ryoga huffed, plopping down adjacent to Ranma before the fire.
Ranma looked up from his task of opening his own cup of ramen, eyes wide. “You’re gonna make me sleep outside?”
“Hell yeah I am.”
“But it’ll be cold!”
“Well, you should’ve thought of that before you forgot your tent, dumbass.”
“Aww, c’mon, Ryoga…be a pal, would ya?” Ranma made his eyes as big as possible. “We’re friends, ain’t we? You wouldn’t let a friend freeze to death.”
“We’re hardly friends.” Ryoga snapped.
“But you do admit we are at least partially friends.” Ranma countered.
“Not even a little?”
Ranma had started to bounce around him, peeking over Ryoga’s shoulders. Ryoga started to quake with bottled fury.
“We are not friends!” he snarled.
“Not even a teensy, weensy bit?”
Ryoga growled in frustration, ruffling his own hair. “If I say yes, will you please shut up?!”
“Well, considering that’s where I was goin’ with all this, sure, I guess so.” Ranma said simply, suddenly sitting back in his own spot.
Ryoga deadpanned. “You are such a jerk, Ranma.”
Ranma grinned. “I get that a lot.”
The kettle started to shriek. Ranma took it off the burner and poured boiling water into the two cups of ramen. Passing Ryoga his (slightly dented) cup, the two sat in silence for a while as they waited for their noodles to cook.
Darkness was slowly slipping over the clearing. Stars began to blink in the twilit sky as the dark trees cloaked the last of the sun’s rays.
Ranma cracked his neck moving his head back and forth, breaking the silence. He bumped his fist off of his shoulder.
“Man, that hike made me sore,” he groused, rubbing his shoulder tenderly.
Suddenly, he perked up, and looked at Ryoga with a grin. “I think there’s a hot spring nearby!” he said cheerfully. “If I’m rememberin’ this forest right. It was just east from the waterfall.”
Ryoga flipped up the lid on his ramen, poking at the noodles with chopsticks. “Is that so…” he said distantly, stirring the noodles around.
“Have a good ol’ soak, catch a few Zs, then up bright an’ early to train!” Ranma crowed. “Sound good?”
“Yeah, except for that bit about you getting up ‘bright and early’…” Ryoga jeered.
Ranma slurped up his noodles haughtily. “Hey, I’m a growing boy. I need my beauty sleep.”
“Ranma, you’re twenty-two. I’m pretty sure you’re done growing.” Ryoga muttered. “Besides, your growths’ been stunted since junior high, considering you’ve only grown about 5cm since then.”
“I have not!” Ranma yelled.
“Hmm, you’re right. Maybe you haven’t grown at all.” Ryoga said simply, staring at him blankly.
“That’s not what I meant!” Ranma bellowed. “I’ve totally grown!”
“Well, we were the same height once, and now I’m taller than you. Explain that one, Saotome.” Ryoga was smirking now, enjoying Ranma’s torture.
“Well maybe if I walked all over Japan gettin’ lost, I’d grow taller, too!”
“I think it’s hereditary, idiot.” Ryoga muttered. “Walking around doesn’t make you taller. Now, shut up and eat so we can find that hot spring before it gets too dark.”
Ranma glared at Ryoga an extra second, but not one to ignore a waiting meal, went back to his food. It was quiet, save for the sound of noodles being slurped into hungry mouths.
After they’d eaten, Ranma packed both of their toiletries into a small rucksack. They headed into the trees toward the hot spring, which was easy enough to find. Ranma lead them toward the river, which was only a few minutes walk from where they’d set up camp, and they headed upstream in search of the waterfall. Just as the forest was turning darker, they began to hear the rush of the falls. Heading east after crossing the river, sure enough they eventually came across a small hot spring.
“Awright, it was here!” Ranma said excitedly as they passed through the trees.
They walked closer to the spring and Ranma set out their bathing supplies, hanging the rucksack on a tree branch. He tossed a towel to Ryoga and they quickly undressed and washed off, eager to get into the hot water as the evening air of autumn chilled their skin.
“Brrr!” Ranma chattered, rushing toward the hot spring, rubbing his cold arms. “Last one in freezes t’ death!”
Ranma quickly slipped into the spring, letting out a long, loud sigh of relief as he sank deeper into the steaming water. He was already up to his chin as Ryoga walked up to the edge of the spring and joined him. He let out his own sigh of contentment as the water deliciously pierced into his aching muscles.
Ryoga glanced over as Ranma dunked completely under the water. After a moment, he burst through the surface, and ran his hand through his soaked ebony bangs, then shook off the excess water.
Droplets hit Ryoga’s cheeks.
He stared longer than he should have.
“So,” Ryoga’s voice came out like a croak and it bothered him. “Why did you suddenly decide to tag along with me this time, anyways?”
“To train, of course,” Ranma replied simply.
“I know that, you dolt,” Ryoga sighed. “I mean…why now? And why with me?”
“Well, uh...” Ryoga didn’t miss Ranma’s slight hesitation. He quickly slipped into a light, blase tone as he continued. “You know I consider you t’ be my only rival, Ryoga. An’ it’s been a while since I got any decent training in. I’ve just been goin’ on jogs, bustin’ bricks, beating up practice dummies…it’s all so boring!” Ranma leaned back on the rocks with an aggravated sigh.
Ryoga’s face was solemn. “You may be a martial artist, Ranma, but you have duties outside of that in your life, as well.”
Ranma looked at Ryoga with a raised eyebrow and a quirky frown. “Oh, ho? And who’re you t’ start givin’ me life advice, P-chan?”
“Be quiet. I mean you have an obligation to your fiancée,” Ryoga snapped. “You two almost got married when we got back from China. That was six years ago. Don’t you think you’ve ‘postponed’ this marriage long enough?”
“Shut up, man. It ain’t none o’ your business.” Ranma grumbled. He refused to meet his gaze.
“Here you are, relaxing in a hot spring miles away from Akane, while she’s probably at home lying in bed wondering why you haven’t gotten down on one knee and—“
“I said it ain’t none of your business!” Ranma had lurched onto his feet, glaring at Ryoga.
“You’re running away again, aren’t you?” Ryoga said calmly, unaffected by Ranma’s sudden lash out.
Ranma staggered, his eyes wide. Then, he frowned deeply, and flopped back down into the water with a messy splash.
“…It’s just—” Ranma started sharply, paused, and then continued much more quietly. “…complicated, okay?”
Ryoga sighed again. “It’s not complicated,” he said. “You’re just making it out to be that way.”
“What would you know about it?” Ranma snapped.
“Because I was there myself,” Ryoga said quietly. “With Akari.”
Ranma looked up at Ryoga and blinked. “You…? But—“
“I broke up with her a few months ago.”
Ranma’s mouth fell open. “You what?” he gaped. “But, Ryoga! She was…you were…she was in love with you, man!”
“I loved her, too,” Ryoga murmured. He paused for a moment, as if to consider his own statement. Then, he shrugged. “Maybe. At one point. I cared for her, anyways. The same way I did for Akane. I still love them both. But…I’m not in love with them.”
Ranma opened and closed his mouth like a fish, unable to speak.
“I’ve known that for a long time, but I’m a coward and I was never able to admit that to Akari. She always knew something was wrong, however, and knew I’d say it in time. So, when I did, she was sad, but…she didn’t cry. She knew I’d take it back if she cried.” Ryoga was looking up at the sky, remembering.
Ranma frowned. “You idiot. How could you not have loved Akari? She thought the world of you, and you lead her on for six years an’ then dump her?”
Ryoga laughed without humor, still staring up at the sky.
“You’re such a hypocrite, Ranma.”
“Aren’t you doing the exact same thing to Akane?” Ryoga muttered, looking back at Ranma with hard eyes. “At least I didn’t tote Akari around for years with a few bonus fiancées hanging off of me for good measure.”
“Shut up, that whole ‘fiancée’ thing was put t’ bed ages ago.” Ranma retorted strongly.
“Yeah, everyone seemed to find a commonplace after the events in China,” Ryoga said. “But you didn’t.”
Ranma snorted, looking away. “Whatever,” he muttered.
“Anyone else with as much chaos as you in their lives would be relishing in all this humdrum,” Ryoga remarked. “Leave it to you to be the exception.”
Ranma pouted. His eyes flickered to Ryoga then away again.
“I know you’ve never been one to settle down,” Ryoga went on. “But that doesn’t mean you can just up and leave town whenever you feel trapped, instead of telling Akane how you feel. If you don’t want to marry her, then stop stringing her along.”
Ranma’s brow furrowed deeply, his eyes far away. The two were quiet for a long time. Ryoga waited, but Ranma wouldn’t meet his gaze, and remained silent.
“We’ve soaked long enough,” Ryoga muttered. “Let’s head back."
Ryoga couldn’t sleep. Considering the lack of snoring coming from behind him, he knew Ranma was awake, too. Ryoga glared in the darkness at nothing, irritated. Why couldn’t he just sleep, damn it all?
“Ryoga?” Ranma’s voice broke through the silent darkness quietly.
Ryoga sighed loudly. “What?”
“Did you an’ Akari ever have sex?”
Ryoga whirled around and bolted upright, looking incredulously down at Ranma, who was still laying down with his back to him. “Where the hell is this coming from?” he exclaimed hotly.
“I thought guys talk about stuff like this,” Ranma replied calmly. “Are you gonna answer the question?”
“They do…I guess. But you don’t.” Ryoga said awkwardly.
He saw Ranma’s frame shuffle in the dark tent. Ranma shrugged. “First time for everything,” he said. He continued to talk in a low, even voice. “Speaking of first times…”
Ryoga scoffed, looking away. “I told you, I always knew I didn’t truly love her. You think I could do that with someone I didn’t really love?”
Ranma looked at Ryoga over his shoulder, then sat up slowly. “You never did it? You never even thought about it?” he asked, sounding genuinely curious.
“I may have wanted to treat Akari with the respect she deserved, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a man,” Ryoga said impatiently. “Of course I thought about it.”
Ranma stretched out his legs and bent forward, touching his toes under the sleeping bag, and said nothing.
“What about you?” Ryoga said, turning the tables. He looked over at Ranma, who was still stretching.
Ranma held his stretch, and shook his head. “Nope.”
“But you’ve thought about it.” Ryoga said it more like a fact than a question.
“I guess,” Ranma said with a shrug.
“Do you want her?” Ryoga went on.
Ranma paused. “I want to...” he began quietly, slowly. “But not with Akane.”
Ryoga blinked at him, genuinely surprised. He opened his mouth to reply, but no words came forth. He shut his mouth again. Suddenly he was afraid his gaping mouth would act like a megaphone, amplifying the sound of his racing heartbeat.
Ranma released his stretch finally, and sat up straight. The two sat in the tent in silence for a while.
“So, even though you’re not with Akari anymore,” Ranma went on. “Do you think about it still?”
Despite himself, Ryoga laughed lightly. “When you’re alone, you think about it more. There’s just not a face to put to it anymore.”
“Be weird to try an’ picture yourself bangin’ someone with no face.” Ranma quipped lightly.
“Shut up. That’s not what I meant,” Ryoga said, bumping his fist off Ranma’s head. “I meant…there’s not a constant face. The image always changes.”
“But is there a face that’s…” Ranma searched for a moment. “Reoccurring?”
Ryoga looked at him. “Where is this going?”
“Nowhere,” Ranma said. “I’m goin’ to sleep.”
With that he lay back down and flipped over, his back facing Ryoga again. Ryoga remained in place for a while, staring at the back of Ranma’s head. He sighed, and flopped down onto his back. He tried to listen for Ranma’s breathing to become slow and heavy, but before he heard any difference, his eyes fluttered closed and he drifted off.