"Ah, that really hit the spot," Ranma says as she and Akane leave the small izakaya nestled along a side street of Harajuku, right at the outskirts of Yoyogi Park, back out into the chilly evening air.
"Mmm," Akane hums happily, one arm around Ranma's waist as she pulls the shorter girl closer to her, sharing their warmth. "On a night like this, you can't go wrong with oden, huh?"
"Yeah…" Ranma shuts her eyes and leans into Akane's embrace. Even if a bowl of soup (or a hot spring, or freshly-boiled tea) still sometimes leaves her feeling awkward and out of place in her own skin, like she's stuck on the threshold of a transformation that will never quite go through, the feeling that follows it tonight—a warmth in her belly, the closeness of Akane against her, and a non-negligible amount of sake—does its fair share to assuage that. And if it isn't perfect, and leaves her sometimes wondering what kind of life she might have lived but for that fateful day, or whether she really made the 'right' decision, well…it's okay. It isn't the end of everything, and despite it all she's found some semblance of happiness in the arms of the girl beside her.
Still, it doesn't make for a welcome topic to dwell on, and Ranma's mind quickly reaches for another topic. "Oh hey, did you get Hiro's invitation to the thing on Coming of Age Day yet?"
"Oh, yeah. I thought it was a little weird. I mean, it's just a drinking party, right?"
"Well, don't tell anyone, but I kinda got a hunch he's makin' a big deal outta the thing cause he and Dai are gonna go official."
"Eh, seriously? Those two? I mean, I guess, not that I'm in any place to judge…" Akane says sheepishly.
"I mean, it ain't that weird. Ever noticed how they're always together? Don't think I remember the last time I saw just one of 'em."
"Well, you make a good point. But the only times I've talked to Daisuke he seemed to be very, um, interested in me. And you. And Mariko. And, well, Ryoga and Tatewaki—oh."
"My point exactly. You ask me, the guy's alright, he's just a huge hornball. Anyway," Ranma nods vigorously, shaking out the shiver that rattles her slightly, as a brief gust of cold wind snaps at their heels. "Enough about that. Let's go up to the shrine now!"
The pair of them wander along at the idle pace of the people around them, through the first great gate along the path to Meiji Shrine, taking in the beauty of the surrounding forest in a gentle blanket of snow, the occasional stands of decorated sake barrels, and the brightly coloured paper lanterns that guide the way to the shrine complex. With the busy throng of visitors collected at the entrance to the shrine, there isn't much quiet to be had, but they're happy enough to forgo conversation and just stay close.
As they navigate the crowds, Akane's arm around her tightens, and Ranma's briefly struck by the unfamiliarity of the sensation of an arm bending down to cradle her. Ranma was never particularly tall as a boy, but now, at almost 15 centimetres shorter, she's shorter than almost everyone. In her prior relationships, she'd always been the taller of the two, and had often held wrapped an arm around her girlfriend like this. On the other side of the equation for the first time, it's briefly startling, but she finds there's a soothing comfort and protected feeling that comes from it nonetheless, at least enough to assuage the faint jealousy that Akane's height even reaches average.
When they arrive at the centre of the temple complex, they join a brief queue to wash their hands and mouths before their prayer at the shrine proper. When Ranma's turn comes, she ladles out the water into her hands, briefly shocked by the sharpness of the cold water against her skin, but all she can think about as her hands are ritually rinsed is that if she'd tried to come here before, when her curse still triggered, she'd have had to do in this form anyway. For some reason, as she dries off her hands and meets back up with Akane, that thought sparks her to laughter.
"Something funny?" Akane asks.
"Just thinkin' I never figured I'd be here like this," Ranma replies; it's a half-truth, at least.
"What, with a girlfriend?"
Or, ya know, as the girlfriend. "Hey, ya don't gotta put it quite like that. I'm kind of a catch, ya know."
Akane giggles and pats Ranma on the arm. "Well, you hardly need your ego fed any more than it already is, Ranma, but yes, you are." Motioning towards the shrine, she guides the two of them up through the gate into the central sanctuary, where the offertory box awaits their prayers.
Ranma bows twice and claps twice, the beginnings of something like a prayer forming in her mind.
If you're really out there, um, hey. I ain't ever been much good at this kinda stuff, ain't ever been much of one for believin', neither, but you could say I had a scare, or at any rate, I feel like there's things out there I can't quite take for granted anymore.
So, I don't know why this all happened to me. Maybe never will, other than the usual crap hand the world likes to deal me once in a while. Or maybe it's fate, and it had to be this way for some reason. Some test of faith I gotta prove. But if you're listening, here's my prayer, or wish, or request, or whatever you wanna call it. Maybe it's the wrong call, maybe it's the right call I made, staying this way, not makin' waves or anything. Maybe it's karma, after all. But please…please don't ever make me haveta make a decision like that again.
She bows again, then glances over back at Akane, who seems not to have taken nearly so long with her own prayer. "Awfully big…wish you got there, Ranma."
"Hey, sometimes you just got somethin' you gotta get off your chest, alright?"
"Yeah, I'll say," Akane mumbles, her eyes drifting away innocently.
"Aw, shaddup. You know what I mean."
"That's true. Well, I guess it's no surprise that you can't even keep your mouth shut when it comes to talking to the gods."
"You're a jerk," Ranma says, in a well-worn, loving tone, and waves away Akane's judgment. "Alright, we gonna get our fortunes or what?"
A small eaved roof hosts a large numbered chest of drawers inset against the back wall; ahead of them, a few people are placing a coin into the collection box and drawing a fortune, but within a few minutes it's Ranma and Akane's turn to take their chances.
Ranma slides a coin into the slot on the large collection box by the drawer of fortunes, then takes the box holding the fortunes and shakes it vigorously.
"You don't have to shake it that hard. You'll break it open at that rate, tomboy." Akane's voice is a warm lilt as she prods Ranma teasingly.
"Please, if anyone's gonna break anything it'll be you and those biceps." Ranma sticks her tongue out back at Akane, only to be startled back into attention as a number pops up from the end of the container.
"48, huh?" Akane reads off the number and glances up at the wall of drawers, numbered from one through one hundred.
Ranma's eyes search until she's found the correct one. Opening the drawer, she withdraws the top sheet of paper from it, and then, after a moment's hesitation, she just starts to laugh.
"What? What did you get?" Akane says, impatiently trying to peer over Ranma's shoulder to get a look at the fortune. When she sees it, far from explaining anything, she's only more confused. "Half-curse? I don't get it. What's so funny?"
"Aw, it's nothing," Ranma says, swatting away Akane's concern, her expression twisted up into a half-hearted smile. When Akane's expression doesn't change, she shrugs and offers a hedge. "Ya might just say I got a hunch about these things too."
"Okay…" Akane pouts, her eyes drifting away from Ranma and the collection box, seemingly lost in thought. Ranma's eyes catch on her, and she wonders briefly if she's made a misstep. "Honestly, Ranma, I wish you'd explain yourself a little more sometimes. I know that it isn't always easy, and I know that this kind of relationship is sort of new, for both of us. But you don't always have to keep everything bottled up inside you."
A thought bubbles up in Ranma's mind, basking in the irony of the moment. The decision she made, to take the Musk sealing curse, was supposed to let her live her life free of this, no longer bound by the constant need to hide one life or another, to just make the best of the life that would remain to her. Yet she's found that an 'honest life' doesn't come so easily to her either, when the history of her new life has been made entirely in the last several months, and part of who she is will always be defined by the person she was for the twenty years before that.
"Maybe…" Ranma starts, then falters as an old, unwelcome baritone inside her finishes the sentence. Maybe you're just as bad as your old man, Saotome. A liar and an asshole, who just got away with conning the girl you love cause ya didn't have the guts to tell her the truth when it mattered. And maybe now ya just gotta live with that, cause it's too late to go back and fix it.
Her expression holds steady, but inside she cringes, knowing the voice isn't entirely wrong. There's no way that Akane would believe it to begin with, and even if she would there isn't a way of saying it without hurting them both. Maybe that's the half-curse she's holding in her hands.
"Maybe I oughta tie this damn thing up and get outta here," Ranma finishes half-heartedly, then shakes her head. "Sorry, 'Kane. I ain't any good at this sorta thing. Why don't ya get your fortune while I get ridda this?" She hands the box over to Akane, and heads off to knot the bad-luck fortune against one of the nearby metal bars.
When she returns, Akane holds a paper in her hands, with a small smile.
"Half-blessing," Ranma grins back. Yeah…maybe that's what this is, after all.
Her eyes meet Akane's as she melts into the taller girl's warm embrace, and she's welcomed with a deep kiss.
By now, if only from the many times her mother's slotted her into it for measurements and minor alterations, Ranma's used to the restrictive feeling of wearing her mother's vintage long-sleeved kimono, a pale ensemble with a constellation of shimmering, silver-threaded multi-coloured flowers, and the elaborately knotted, patterned golden obi and fur stole that accompany it. Instead, it's the meaning that it's freighted with that weighs on her heavily as her eyes drift outward, towards the hundreds of other young women dressed in similar kimono, and the young men in western suits or traditional hakama. Here, more than anywhere else, the gulf between who she was and who she is feels most apparent, and it's hard for her not to feel a twinge of loss. Not because the men's outfits are especially appealing—Ranma's vanity allows her to admit that the ornate furisode is a big step up in appearance from a bland suit and tie, at least. But seeing, in the brute dichotomy of "women here, men there", the life she might have led contrasted so sharply with the life that she leads now, it's hard not to think of how a version of her might have fared, if none of this had come to pass.
Glancing over to the girl beside her, she's offered a smile and a hand. Ranma returns both, squeezing Akane's hand affectionately, before glancing back up at the stage. Atop the rostrum in the far end of the arena, a balding man standing at a podium concludes a speech on the responsibilities of adulthood, leaving the crowd of newly-christened adults to scatter to the four winds.
"Well, that was boring. Remind me why we came to this again?" Akane shakes her head judgmentally.
"You know how Ma gets, she'd lose it if I skipped outta something like this, specially the whole fancy getup. 'Sides, pretty sure the whole point to deckin' ya out in so much of this crap is so ya can't get outta here even if ya wanted to." Ranma replies drily, affecting the slow shuffle the kimono forces her into.
"Yeah, unless you're a guy," Akane says drily.
"Fuckin' guys," Ranma grouses, keeping the laugh of deep irony to herself. "Say, speakin' of which, wonder where those bastards all ran off to…"
"You aren't getting rid of us so easily, Teach." A warm voice is soon followed by the appearance of two young men in sharp, tailored suits. One has a shock of voluminous light brown hair cascading into his wide, almost childlike eyes; the other, a sharp part in his short, dark brown hair, looks on with a thin-lipped smile.
Ranma grins. "Hiro, Dai. You guys look, well, like you'd survive if the building caught fire."
"Yeah, at the cost of looking like a bunch of faceless goons. How's a guy supposed to stand out like this? Especially when all the girls are this beautiful!" Daisuke puts on a face of mock despondence.
"If you weren't such a horndog, maybe that wouldn't matter so much," Hiroshi quips, dragging Daisuke back by the arm with a grin.
Akane snickers, but when she glances away briefly, her eyes catch on another pair of familiar faces approaching the group.
"Surprise!" Mariko, in a kimono and obi set with lush pastels of green, yellow, and pink, nevertheless crashes into the arranged semi-circle of the group with a grin, dragging along a tall man with a forest green haori and striped hakama that, as Ranma looks over them, suit him unexpectedly well.
"Oh. Ryoga, Mariko! You're looking wonderful."
Mariko extends two thumbs up. "And you four are too cute!"
Ranma turns from Daisuke and Hiroshi to greet the new pair, waving at Mariko with a smile and then prodding Ryoga playfully. "Nice threads, P-chan. You playin' stand-in for Kuno today or what, loverboy?"
"If it's all the same, you can leave me out of your bizarre fantasies, Saotome."
Ranma snickers. "Well, thank god Kuno's older 'n the rest of us at least. I don't wanna think about what ol' Blue Thunder would do if he saw me all done up like this. I mean, I'm hard enough to resist on my own, but this is a step up."
"Okay, you can stop complimenting yourself now, Ranma," Akane elbows Ranma. "It's in bad taste."
"What? It's true, I can't help bein' cute. Tell me I'm wrong."
Akane sticks out her tongue in mock spite. "You are the furthest thing from cute, you incorrigible tomboy."
Ranma feigns an expression of righteous indignation. "Hmph, jerk."
"Okay, far be it from me to break up a lover's quarrel," Hiroshi cuts in, "but it's quarter after two, and we promised the parents we'd be over by two to get some pictures taken. So, keep the drama in a bottle for a couple hours, and grin and bear it for a few picture poses, alright?"
"A few picture poses" turns out to be the majority of the afternoon, as every one of their parents wants their chance at a dozen photographs with every possible pose, peripheral acquaintances, siblings and parents drifting in and out of the scene. The hours drift by in a haze of Mariko's ever-present peace signs, Daisuke's dramatic sighs of impatience, Ryoga periodically wandering off, and everyone's smiles turning more and more rigid and pained with the passage of time. By the end, even just standing around in the cumbersome outfit begins to exhaust Ranma, and the newly-made adults agree to reconvene in a few hours in more casual attire, leaving Ranma back with her mother for the time being.
Disrobing from any kimono, let alone a fully-appointed Coming of Age Day furisode, is no small matter, and Ranma appreciates the attention that Nodoka gives to helping her remove it, even if it comes with a strange new familial intimacy. Other than a little assistance with putting on a sash before Tanabata, it's been more than a decade since her mother has done something like help her into or out of an outfit, but it's all the more unfamiliar as it lays bare the obvious differences in just who and what she is now, not only to herself but to her mother. If it fazes Nodoka, she doesn't show it, and her expression warms from stoic diligence to that motherly smile of hers as she undoes the delicate knots in the obi, then the pair of koshihimo holding up the kimono. When all of the ties of the kimono are undone, Ranma slips it off, then briefly darts to her bedroom to exchange the nagajuban for a more comfortable outfit, returning in a jumper and a pair of jeans.
"Thanks for the help, Ma. No way I was gettin' outta that thing alone."
"It's no trouble at all, daughter. In truth, it feels a little bit nostalgic, somehow."
Nodoka nods. "Twenty-four years ago, I was standing right where you are now, as my own mother helped me out of my kimono after the ceremonies of the day. She was often…candid, when it came to expressing my responsibilities as a daughter, but there was never any doubt as to her love, or her pride in me. I want you to know, Ranma, that for all of your troubles, I am proud of you all the same."
"Aw, Ma, don't get all mushy now…"
"Nonsense. If I'm permitted to be mushy on any day of the year, it's the day when my daughter becomes an adult."
An adult, huh?
Even if the word settles strangely on her heart, she supposes that's what she is, now. Looking back at her past selves, they seem so foreign, so distant now that they might as well be long-lost friends. Maybe some part of her still aches thinking back of the boy she was, and the man she'll never come to know. But loss is a funny thing, and mixed in with the throb of sorrow is a curious conviction that rises up to meet it, that if fate, or destiny, or chance alone are what brought her to this moment, that it's been worth it.
Sitting back down beside her mother, she encircles her in a tight hug, and somewhere in there, at the deepest level, she feels it. If it meant she wouldn't have had Akane in her life, or this closeness to her mother, or even the lessons she's learned, or the discoveries she's made about who she is, then that other life wouldn't have been hers. And in this life, there's a place for her, one which, for better or for worse, Ranma wouldn't trade for the world.
A few weeks later, Ranma strides into Shakujii Station with a shiver. On any given day that wouldn't be so out of place, except that today she's alone.
It's funny when she thinks of it; it's become so unusual for her to spend a day on her own, that setting aside a day for it is something to mark. Yet, somehow, it's not the same kind of solitude that she felt before all of this started, when weeks might have passed between doing anything other than sparring with Ryoga, doing meaningless busywork for the sake of Genma's empty dreams, or the occasional training session with Nodoka. In those days, in hindsight, the unintimate days of cashier work and waiting tables, even when they involved seeing hundreds of people pass by in a day, they were lonely.
But today, she's just on her own, and for the moment, that suits her just fine. It's not that she lacks for company; her friend group has expanded with time, from Ryoga and Ukyo, to Akane, Mariko, Daisuke and Hiroshi. Kuno's mellowed some with time, and even matters with Shanpu have improved some from their low point. At the very least, Ranma no longer glances around nervously in expectation whenever she steps out onto Ikebukuro Station, as she's doing now, switching trains so she can make it out to Bunkyo Ward, where a promise to herself and herself alone waits to be kept.
Catching a train on the Marunouchi line, Ranma settles back in for the second leg of the trip, eyes drifting out to the other passengers. Even now that the question of who she is—or at least what she is—is more or less settled, although it's been cut more and more as of late to make room for wariness of would-be gropers, she hasn't lost the habit of glancing out at the other passengers, the men and the women alike, and trying to imagine who they might be, and how she measures up. She wonders—do they lead honest lives? Do they lie to the ones they love? Are they lies of malice, or lies of comfort? And how about herself?
Well, that's why I'm headed out here, ain't I?
Nestled between aging tenements, commercial streets, and freshly-built high-rises, Yushima Shrine cuts a strange figure, the relic of another world lost in time and space and brought to the barren, paved streets of Tokyo. The wooden construction of the shrine complex is familiar, in the way that many Shinto shrines are, but Ranma isn't here to pray. For today only, January 25th, the shrine sells a particular charm, one that—among all the possibilities—has piqued her interest more than the rest.
Glancing around her, and noticing the dozens of people of all ages carrying around the carved little charms, she wonders if maybe she isn't quite so alone after all.
"Are you looking for something, miss?" To the side of the shrine's main pathway, an older man with a carving knife sits behind a small stall with an assortment of charms of varying sizes, all of them vaguely cylindrical and featuring a bird motif.
Ranma's eyes glance up to meet his, and she holds up one of the charms on display. "These are the liar-bird charms, huh? I did a bit of reading up about 'em, but how are they supposed to work?"
The old man grins. "Ah, a newcomer then? Well, you begin by taking one of these," he holds up a charm to his mouth, "and whisper in the lies, secrets, and regrets you have. This little bullfinch will spin them all into a song of truth for you to follow and carry with you for the year that follows. Then next year, you come back, bring the charm here, and leave those lies and secrets behind, and start again for the new year."
"Sounds…a little messed up, when ya put it that way. But hey, ain't like that don't kinda fit me neither. So sure, why not. How much for one of these little guys?"
"Hmm…" He takes a critical eye to Ranma. "You seem like a serious girl. I tell you what, you promise to come back next year with the charm and exchange it for a new one, and you can take that one with you, my treat."
Ranma looks down at the charm, then back at the old man. "Alright, sure, why not. Thanks," she says, gesturing to the charm in her hands. "So, same time next year?"
"Same time next year."
As she strides away from the shrine and back out into the real world, she holds the hollow end of the charm close to her lips. "Man," she whispers in, "have I got a story for you."
A huge thank you to uragaaru for all of her incredible patience, editing, reviewing, and advice on this. Without it, this fic would have doubtlessly been weaker for it. Additionally, I want to thank everyone from the Ranma Discord and everyone who's commented here for their feedback as well.
I'll be taking a break for a while to get started with my next project, but I hope to have something to show everyone soon. It's tentatively titled Cute Little Fang: a world that quickly veers off the canon trajectory when Ryoga's knocked into the Spring of Drowned Girl instead. For those of you hoping for more of this story, I'm happy to say that, while I won't be working on it right after this, there are plans for a sequel to Ordinary Lives in the works.
Thanks again to everyone. This was a fun ride for a first Ranma work, and I hope everyone enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.