A Trail a Mile Wide

Chapter Three: Letters from China

 

"Uh, Ranma…" Ryoga cleared his throat.

Ranma didn't look up from where his head was buried into Ryoga's shirt, his face pressed into the cloth so tightly that Ryoga could feel Ranma's sobbing breath on his chest.

Ryoga sighed, "Ranma, let me go. Just for a sec…"

There was a silence that was so full of pain and anguish that Ryoga winced when he heard it.

Then Ranma moved away, his eyes hard and cold, letting nothing show. Only the wetness of his cheeks showed he'd been crying a moment before. Moving his mouth into a sneer, Ranma gazed at Ryoga, "I should have known better." He shrugged, "Oh well. It doesn't really matter."

Ryoga rolled his eyes even as he stood up and rummaged around in his pockets. "Baka," he commented quietly, "After all the hell you put me through, I really should make you suffer more." He pulled a bunch of crumpled papers out of his pocket and held them out to Ranma, "But here you go."

Suspiciously, Ranma eyed the mess, "What are those?"

Ryoga flushed, "They're yours. Just take 'em, okay?"

Mine? With a blink, Ranma returned his gaze to Ryoga's face, trying to figure out what was going on inside the other's head. The redness across Ryoga's skin deepened as he shifted uneasily under Ranma's examination. But he didn't move. Finally, Ranma reached out and took the papers. After some smoothing, he realized they were envelopes. Four of them. Two rather thin, one extremely thick. And they all had his name on the front… but there was no address direction, or post marks…
"Uh, I'll be off now," Ryoga's voice was accompanied by the sounds of shuffling feet.

Not looking up, Ranma smoothed a thumb over his name inked in a distinctive style on the thickest envelope, "Ryoga, don't you dare leave!" He flipped through the envelopes again and pointed to the ground next to him, "Sit."

"Uhh," Ryoga cleared his throat, "I think I should go…" He flinched back at the icy expression in the sapphire blue eyes and he hurriedly sat down on the grass next to Ranma.

"You asshole," the voice was mild, the eyes were furious, "You've been to China." Ranma put the envelopes down in his lap, "And you've talked with them…" Like a quickly striking snake, Ranma's hand darted out and grabbed the front of Ryoga's shirt, near his throat, "And you still barge out here and accuse me of deserting her! You slimy little toad! I outta wipe the ground with you!!"

With a quick move, Ryoga brushed the hand off his shirt. He stared at Ranma for a moment, his own brown eyes almost remote before he gave a quirky grin and laid back against the grass, "If I'd given you the letters first, you wouldn't have fought me."

Ranma rolled his eyes and allowed his angry expression to fade, "Baka. I was really worried."

"Read the letters, Ranma."

"What's in them?"

Plucking a blade of grass from beside him, Ryoga stuck it in his mouth as he shrugged.

"Ryoga…"
Ryoga sighed, "Ranma, they didn't tell me. They didn't even mention your name once, even when I asked. Okay? I don't know. The way they were all avoiding it… well, I was getting worried. And then when I finally find you, you're flirting with Ukyo like nothing had ever happened. Damn it, Ranma – I really thought you'd let her go."

"Flirting???" Ranma bowed his head. Ryoga, if only you knew… With a sigh, he opened and read the letters, starting with the two who had the least to say and eventually making his way past Kodachi's flowery epistle to Akane's epic.

… … …

When Ranma finally folded the letters and looked beside him, Ryoga was sound asleep and had apparently been that way for a long time. Ranma didn't have the heart to wake him and instead just watched. He watched: Graceful chin with an angle just right for framing the pale lips. The little nose above it. Black tousled hair falling over his forehead and blending with the thick black eyebrows. The yellow headband, designed to keep the sweat out of his eyes, which were currently closed. Ranma spent a moment tracing the designs over the yellow band. The solid black rectangular dots were scattered almost indiscriminately, and yet there was still patterns. No rectangle ever crossed through another, though some met in half-boxes or sometimes t-shapes, or were by themselves. Ranma leaned forward and brushed some of the hair to one side. Yep, there was even one pattern that looked like a 'z', though he didn't see any others.

"What are you doing?"

Ranma lowered his gaze the necessary inch to meet Ryoga's now open eyes and he felt the flush spread through his face as he jerked his hand back. "I was, uh, looking at your bandanna."

With a snort, Ryoga sat up. His gaze left Ranma's to look out over the park. With a yawn, he stretched his arms, carefully avoiding hitting Ranma, before he looked back. Ranma's blush hadn't faded, and Ryoga gave him a baffled look in return. With a shrug, Ryoga reached up and pulled off a bandanna and handed it to Ranma.

Ranma took it, glad for the chance to get his confused thoughts off his friend, why am I so flustered? It's not like we haven't spent quiet times together before. The moments the friends shared after their battles were rare and precious to Ranma. To be able to relax and just listen to Ryoga's descriptions of his travels and findings… Ranma spread the bandanna out over his knee, "So, you were in China?"

"What was in the letters?" Ryoga obliquely asked for a trade.

Pulling out the thinnest one, Ranma handed it over.

Ryoga read it out loud, "When the curse has left you, come to the Valley and be welcome for training. Cologne."

Ranma's eyes went wide. "You're kidding," he breathed out, "It'll leave on its own?" He blinked, "She didn't forget me? I can…"
Absorbed in his own shock, it took Ryoga a moment for Ranma's words to sink in, "Huh? You haven't read them?"

With a shrug, Ranma pulled out the other thin paper and handed it over too, "I could read Kodachi's and Akane's. The other two were chicken-scratch – worse than yours."

Ryoga rolled his eyes, he knew his writing was at least legible, which was better than Ranma's attempts at writing – Ranma left out half the characters. He glanced at Shampoo's letter and frowned. Then he pulled out Cologne's again and looked between them, "You can't read these?"

Ranma shook his head, "Just my name on the front."

"Huh. Another one of her weird tricks."

"Huh?"

Ryoga waved the paper in the air, "It's not in any language I recognize, but I can definitely read it. She did something funny to me when I first fell into the village, so that must be part of it." He cleared his throat, "Shampoo's says, 'Niihoa Ranma! Shampoo miss ex-husband. Find self soon, yes? Then you visit and we play.'"

Ranma glanced sideways, "It's a letter in an unknown language and she still speaks in broken sentences?"

With a shrug, Ryoga gave him both letters back, "Read it for yourself."

"I told you…" Ranma's words trailed off as he saw the words there. But he knew a minute ago he couldn't… "Is this one of those weird dreams that I've been having where I think I'm free and then I wake up and find I'm still alone?"

"Oh, like you know the meaning of that word."

"Ryoga…" Okay, it probably wasn't a dream. In his dreams, Ryoga was usually nicer. Ranma sighed, "How is she? For reals?"

"Happy." It was Ryoga's turn to sigh as he pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his chin on them. He looked away into the distance as his eyes unfocused with the memories. "She's really happy. All the little ones just adore her and she teaches them our styles and they teach her theirs, and they laugh… I rarely see her angry any more. She kept telling me over and over again how free she feels, that she was stifling in Japan and all the customs, and the expectations. Every now and then she and Shampoo spar for old-times' sake, but they both are laughing and joking as they do so… And she doesn't have to cook; the community dinner is brought over once a day by the men, and all three groups would sit down in this big hall and it would get noisy and fun – that's the only time I'd ever see Mousse and Kodachi, 'cause they live over in the third village, the married couples' side. Mousse laughs a lot too, and is friendly and fun to hang out with. Kodachi has… well, she hasn't calmed down, but the Amazons love her. She fits right in with their ideas about fighting and they're teaching her all these nasty poisons and techniques – if you disable the enemy before the battle, that's more of your people who are saved. Tatawaki just shrugs and says better them then us—"

Ranma interrupted, "Kuno? What's he doing there?"

Ryoga blinked, looking in surprise to Ranma, "He went for the wedding. He should be back… uh, what day is it?"

"Tuesday." At the look in the annoyed brown eyes, Ranma hurriedly expanded, "The sixteenth."

"He'll be back in four days, if his stupid boat doesn't spring a leak on the way." Ryoga frowned, "Why didn't you know he was gone?"

Ranma glanced to the ground.

"Ranma…" Ryoga remembered the desperation in the way Ranma had held on to him. "What's wrong?" Why do you dream of being free?

"I never knew…" With a half-sob, Ranma pulled his knees up and hugged them much like Ryoga was, but his was a gesture of desperation, "I didn't know how much Akane protected me. Not until she was gone."

"Protected???" Ryoga blinked in sheer startlement.

"She always stood by me, even when she had no reason to. Fetched me hot water before she even knew me. Defended me from Kuno…, from Kodachi…" Ranma crumpled the cloth of Ryoga's headband in his fist. "From all of them. She didn't ever press me, not like the others, and when they pressed, she was there between us to protect me."

When the silence had stretched out, Ryoga narrowed his eyes, "Ukyo?"

A shiver went through Ranma's body, "She won't let anybody near me. I'm hers alone, now. She's even trying to get me to learn okonomiyaki. She wants me to take her on dates. She wants me to drop by the restaurant and help every bloody day after school." Ranma paused, then wailed, "I can't stand it!" He dropped his head on his knees.

Ryoga pinched the bridge of his nose, "Why don't you just say 'no'?"

"Because I can't stand to see her cry."

"Oh for…" Ryoga sighed. A sad face was Ranma's ultimate weakness. Never mind the moxibustion -- this was real. "Too kind for your own damn good." And too bloody trusting by half. Look at us sitting here when I nearly killed him a few minutes ago. Ranma, why do you always do this to me? I just want to hate you… but you're always so happy to see me; and you still don't get it, do you? You never have understood what you did to me. Ryoga was starting to get mad again. He hated remembering the ruination of his life. Abruptly, he stood up, swinging his pack over his shoulder and glancing out across the park, "Ranma. Learn to say 'no'. She won't die from it. And neither will anybody else."

"Ryoga!" Ranma bounced up, hovering like an anxious puppy, "You're not leaving, are you?"

"There's no reason for me to stay." At the look on Ranma's face, Ryoga toughened his heart. This, he has to do on his own. And I have to go because he's going to drive me batty if I stay!

As they stood there for a moment, looking at each other, there was a sudden rumble in the air and rain started pouring down on them. With a grin, Ranma picked up both the pack and the pig and turned for home, "You'll stay for tonight."

The pig bit his hand, hard.

 

 


 Notes to Chapter 3:

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