"OOHHHHHH! Takoyaki!" Ranma bounced up and down with enthusiasm as she dragged Harry and Cheli over to the small road-side octopus ball stand. "I LOVE THESE THINGS!" Ranma was greeted by the man deftly turning the little balls of batter and octopus in hot cast-iron molds, using nothing more than a pair of long, thin, metal rods.
His appearance inspired confidence in his product. He looked like a long time vendor – a middle age man, combating the elements day after day for his art, making the perfect takoyaki. His grey hair was held back by a bandana with a rising sun motif. Ranma could feel the confidence radiating off the man as only a master of a craft exudes. Ranma bowed to the man and exchanged some greetings before pulling out pulled a wad of yen from her pocket and placed some money on the counter. "Give me four dozen!"
The old man gave a cry of affirmation and quickly set to work. Cheli and Harry watched as the man poured the batter and set to work. Since arriving in Japan a few hours ago, they had barely even made headway into reaching their final destination, as Ranma was zipping around like a kid on a sugar high, forcing Harry and Cheli to sample as many street foods as she could find.
This particular stand was the fourth one in less than two hours. First had been a yakitori stand, then a ramen stand, and some yakisoba. Harry was stuffed already, and Cheli wasn't that as an adventurous eater as he was. Still, it was good, and it was fun to see Ranma so excited about something other than martial arts or magic.
Tokyo was overwhelming. London was a big city, but Tokyo was a metropolis that just took his breath away. They had ported into the Tokyo Ministry of Magic located in Yotsuya, within spitting distance of the Imperial Palace. From there, it had been a walk down a bewildering set of streets as Ranma led them round randomly, following some invisible path only apparent to her nose.
The first batch of balls came out quickly. The proprietor drizzled some mayonnaise, sweet, thick soy sauce, seaweed and shaved dried bonito flakes on them before sticking a couple of toothpicks in the box and handing it over to the salivating Ranma.
She popped one in her mouth and her eyes rolled back into her head. "Ohhh… god…. I've missed these! These arefantastic!" She popped another one in her mouth and let out a small, suggestive moan.
Ranma nodded enthusiastically. "Sorry Harry, but these do things for me you can't possibly hope to match."
"Duly noted." Harry shook his head ruefully as Ranma offered the container to him as Cheli. He took it first motioned for his daughter to take one, but she politely declined with a small shake of her head. Harry shrugged and picked one of the balls out of the container and popped it in his mouth. It burst open in a hot rush of flavor, the tangy sauce melding with the mayonnaise and seaweed. He opened his mouth and let the steam escaping, along with a small moan as the flavors overwhelmed his palette. He grunted.
Ranma smirked with a raised eyebrow. "See what I'm talking about?"
Harry chewed and swallowed. "Cheli, you have got to try one of these!"
"But they have octopus in them." She shook her head. "That's just weird."
"Come on, just one?" Harry offered the container forth again. "I promise you you'll like it."
Ranma received a second dozen from the vendor and proceeded to polish them off with a small series of moans, grunts, and sighs. Cheli looked back and forth between Ranma's histrionics and Harry's blessed out face as he ate another one, and gave in.
Thinking that the worst it could do was kill her, she hesitantly popped one of the balls in her mouth, chewing slowly.
"Well?" Harry had a grin on his face as he waited for her answer.
Cheli gave off a small moan of her own. "I'm gonna have to agree with Ranma on this one. These are… pretty amazing, actually." Cheli reached for another one.
"So, where are we headed, exactly?" Harry asked. Harry tried to ignore the press of the crowds around him, but it was difficult during rush hour. He'd never been surrounded by so many people, all walking with a purpose as they navigated the afternoon commute.
Ranma was oblivious to it, though. She pointed to a location on the map they stood near. Just because the translation spell helped them understand the spoken language, it did nothing to make the characters on the map comprehensible. If it weren't for Ranma, Harry admitted he'd be totally lost.
"Nerima." She pointed it out on the map. "We're here", she pointed to a location some distance from their destination. "We'll take a train to here," she traced one of the colored lines with her finger, "and then we'll walk to the inn."
Harry scratched his head. He turned to look for Cheli. One thing he didn't have to worry about was losing her in the crowd, as her red hair and height made her stick out like a neon sign. Even though she was only fifteen, she was still considerably taller than most of the women streaming through the station, and taller than a good deal of the men. She was currently standing a dozen meters away examining a vending machine in the train station, amusement and consternation clear on her face even from this distance.
She caught her dad looking for her over the crowd and waved before turning back to the machine.
"Why don't we just apparate there?" The crowd was getting to him, as was the heat. August in Japan was miserable. Ranma had warned him it was hot in Tokyo, but he couldn't believe how miserable it felt.
"We could." Ranma shrugged. "But I don't know how to do that yet, and I don't think you'd want to do in an area you don't know anything about, right."
Harry grumbled and agreed. Cheli rejoined them, holding a blue canned drink with white labeling. "You'll never believe this, dad." She held the can up for him to examine. "Guess what this stuff is called?" She was grinning ear to ear as he read the label.
"Po… ka… ri… sweat?" He made a face. "Sweat? Are you serious?"
Ranma laughed. "Oh man! If you think that's strange, I've got to show you this stuff called 'calpisu.'."
"Cow piss?" Harry pointed at the can. "You mean this stuff's for real?"
Ranma grinned. "Yeap! It's a sports drink. When they invented it, the inventors had a shaky grasp of English. They meant to call it Pokari Sweet, but they didn't know how to spell the word right. It's good, though. Go ahead, give it a try."
Cheli popped the top. "I hope it's as good as those octopus balls." She took a sip and contemplated. "Not bad. Kind of like grapefruit." She took another sip and offered it to her dad. "So, what's this cow piss stuff taste like?"
Ranma tried to describe it as she led them through the afternoon traffic to ticket machines. She quickly purchased three tickets and guided them to the turnstiles and gave them each a ticket. Once inside the platform area, she led them to the proper train platform, keeping up a stream of running commentary as best she could.
The train arrived after a couple of minutes. They got on the train and surprisingly managed to find a seat, even with all the people struggling to get inside before the doors closed. Eventually the heat, the food, and the overwhelming nature of the visit got to both the Potters, as Harry found Cheli sleeping against his shoulder within minutes of sitting down. He joined her soon afterwards, not aware of having drifted off until Ranma shook them both awake, stating that the next station was their stop.
Once off the train, the turnstile ate their ticket and ushered them out into the street, where pedestrians and bicyclists hurried past, many carrying small bags of groceries or packages. Ranma hailed a taxi and the three piled in. Harry didn't even try to pay attention to what was being said, instead content to stare out the window as they vehicle drove them through the area, coming to a stop some time later in front of a small three story building in a quieter neighborhood.
Ranma paid the driver and they all got out.
"This is a hotel?"
Ranma shook her head. "No, this is a family house. We call them 'minshuku.' It's the equivalent of a pension in Europe. The accommodations and food tend to be better than hotels, but the facilities are communal. I hope you don't mind."
Harry shook his head. "Not at all." Cheli didn't say anything, content just to look around and take in the scenery.
Ranma led them inside, and instructed them to leave their shoes at the front door. She found some slippers for them in a cubby against the wall, picking out three pairs and placing them on first step. By the time Harry managed to get his shoes off and into the slippers, Ranma had moved inside and was engaged in conversation with the host. Ranma indicated they should follow, and soon they were led on a small tour of the building.
The first floor was mainly a communal space with bamboo tatami mats, where they were informed meals where held three times a day. The bathing area was on the first floor as well, along with a small gym and a beer and sake vending machine.
"You can even buy alcohol in vending machines here?"
"Cheli," Ranma laughed, "You can buy anything in a vending machine. I'll show you some of the stranger ones if we have time."
Their room was located on the second floor. Cheli and Harry were surprised to learn that all three of them would be sleeping in the same room, which had little furniture besides a television and a small, low table. The bathroom was only big enough for one person, having a tiny vanity and toilet but no shower. The host showed them where the futons were stored, opening some sliding doors on one side of the room and began to set up the bedroom as they dropped off their backpacks.
Harry pulled Ranma aside as Cheli used the bathroom. "You sure we should all share a room? You don't think it will be awkward?"
Ranma shrugged. "I don't see why it will be." She stood on her toes and gave him a brief kiss. "I'll behave if you can manage to keep your hands to yourself for a few days. Unless you want to traumatize your daughter further?"
Harry shook his head. Cheli came out of the bathroom, mumbling about the toilet spurting water out of the top of the tank when she flushed. Ranma smiled and explained that it was clean water filling the tank, and rather than waste it, you were supposed to use it to wash your hands.
They settled in, relaxing on the futons. Ranma walked around the room down and asked, "You guys want to take a nap until dinner time, or would you prefer to go out?"
Both the Potters were exhausted and opted to stay in. Ranma opened one of the sliding doors that pulled out a couple of robes after checking the sizes. She tossed one each to Harry and Cheli, and pulled out one for herself.
"Here, put these on. They're much more comfortable than lounging around in jeans." She demonstrated how to wear it and tie the cloth belt. Harry changed in the bathroom while the two girls used the sleeping space. Once changed, it didn't take long for the Harry and his daughter to fall asleep on top of their futons.
Ranma watched the two of them sleep. As nice as it was to be back in Japan after so many years, now that the initial excitement had faded, she could feel the tension creeping up into her shoulders. She was worried; it was only a matter of time before her past caught up with her. What ever happened, she didn't want to involve these two in it if possible.
Dinner was an interesting affair for the Potters. They ate on the first floor, along with all the other guests at the minshuku. There were no chairs, and everyone sat on the ground. Ranma and the rest of Japanese patrons simple folded their legs underneath them and sat on their heels. Harry tried but immediately gave up, sitting Indian style instead. Cheli tried to mimic Ranma, but after five minutes her legs fell asleep and she copied her dad.
The staff gave each guest a lacquered tray with legs that held a small portion of each aspect of the meal. Ranma sat between Harry and Cheli. While Harry recognized the miso soup and rice, that was about the extent of what he knew, as the other stuff was completely strange.
"What's this?" He pointed a small composed salad of something that looked a lot like dried worms.
"Burdock root." Ranma took a bite from her own tray.
"It's the root of a type of plant. It's good. The orange stuff in there is carrot."
"And this stuff?" Harry pointed to a small Styrofoam square on his tray. Cheli leaned over, taking note.
Ranma looked at where Harry was pointing. "What? That? Oh. You should try it, but I doubt you'll like it." She paused. "Save it for last, at any rate."
"Why?" The question came in stereo as both Potters asked at the same time.
"It's natou." Ranma's nose twitched. "It's a very… acquired taste." She pulled the cover off the square, and showed it to the two English folk. "It's made of fermented soybeans." She pulled off a small yellow packet that was taped to the top of the lid and opened it with her teeth, squirting the contents on the yellow beans. "You mix up the spicy mustard like so," she demonstrated, "and then either pour it over your rice or eat it straight."
"Smell?" She offered it to Cheli. The teen leaned close and took a whiff, only to recoil quickly in disgust.
"Ewww! That smells vile."
Ranma nodded. "And it tastes worse." She offered Harry a smell. He reacted in a very similar matter as his daughter.
"You like that stuff?"
Ranma shook her head. "Not really. It's not my favorite, but it's a great source of protein, and it's fairly cheap. I had to eat a lot of it growing up." She put the container back on her tray and covered it with the top. "I avoid it now unless I have no other choice, though."
Once a majority of the meal had been eaten, the guests turned their attention from the trays to those surrounding them, and conversations sprung up. Harry soon found himself conversing with a middle-aged couple to his left as Cheli and Ranma were talking with each other. His conversation was the pretty normal for meeting strangers on the road, with questions about where he was from, where he was going, and what did he think of Japan so far.
Honestly, so far he was overwhelmed and stuffed to the gills. But as vacations go, he'd been on a lot worse.
Harry blinked stupidly from where he and Cheli were resting on his futon, watching some insane Japanese game show where the contestants had to drink cold beer, eat cold noodles, and sit on a block of ice. The first one to pee lost.
Ranma reached down and pulled the remote out of his hands, shutting off the television. "Bath time. We're going to the public baths. Get up."
"Public… baths?" Both Cheli and Harry looked at Ranma with wide eyes.
"Yeap. Public baths." She pulled out another set of summer kimonos for the pair and put them in a bag, along with some toiletries and plastic wash buckets found in the closet. "You're dressed fine right now. Let's go."
"Do we have to?"
"Yes." Packed, Ranma turned and started tapping her toes. "You can come willingly, or I can drag you there. I haven't had a proper bath in years, and I'm not about to waste this opportunity."
"Yeah, but you don't have to bring us along."
"Trust me. You'll like it."
There was a fair amount of grumbling as Ranma hustled the pair out the room and the hotel. The Potters felt very self-conscious wearing what felt like bathrobes out into public, but nobody gave them second looks for their clothing. They did stare at them as they passed, however.
Cheli finally asked about it. "Why are they staring at us so much?"
"A couple of reasons. The first is because you guys are white. It's still fairly rare to see a couple of foreigners wandering around the suburbs, particularly in a yukata." Ranma hesitated and finally sighed. "The second reason is because of me."
"Yeah. I'm pretty well known around here. I'm sure some of the people probably recognized me." She sped up just a touch. "Nothing I can do about it, though. Come on."
She led them down a small street, and before too long they were standing in front of an unassuming building with open doors, the entrance obscured by a hanging cloth with a split down the middle. Steady trickles of people were flowing in and out, most attired in a simple cotton yukata like they were, and all carrying bathing supplies.
Ranma led them inside and paid for the baths, then divvied up the bathing supplies between the girls and the boys, giving Harry his change of clothes as well. She quickly explained the proper procedure for taking a bath, and encouraged Harry to take his time, because she and Cheli were certainly going to take theirs. He could wait or go on without them; the choice was his.
With that, Ranma pulled Cheli into the women's patrician, leaving a slightly spooked Harry cradling his bathing supplies. He undressed in the changing room and stepped into the bathing area and stopped. First, Because of its size. It was easily as large as his apartment in London, all tiled, with rows upon rows of short tiled walls with small stools and wooden buckets sitting piled up at the end of each row. There were nearly a dozen shower heads and faucets sticking out of each side of the low walls, were dozens of men sat washing and scrubbing themselves clean.
Beyond that, there were a series of pools of various sizes, each with various amounts of steam rising from the surface. Again, a large number of men relaxed in the water, or sat at the edge of the pool, talking and laughing. It looked quite nice, but there was an important detail.
Everyone was completely nude.
Harry tried to surreptitiously hide his nakedness with a small towel Ranma had given him for scrubbing. A couple of men looked in his direction and turned back to their business. He was just another stranger in this sea of flesh, even though he stood out due to his paleness and height.
It was unnerving to be naked around so many strangers, and even more unnerving to have complete strangers walk up to him naked walk up to him and strike up a conversation as he scrubbed. He rinsed and headed to the bath, climbing into the water with a hiss as the heat soaked into his skin.
Okay. So, this was nice. Weird, but nice.
But god…. What a sausage fest. Harry found a nice pattern on the ceiling and concentrated on it, letting his muscles relax as the hot water worked its magic.
On the women's side, Cheli was extremely self-conscious as soon as she stepped into the changing room. Ranma just stripped and tossed her clothing in a basket, then waited until the teen followed her example. The teen blushed - it was weird to be naked with her dad's girlfriend, not to mention thirty or forty complete strangers. Things didn't get any easier in the bathing area, either.
"This is soooo embarrassing!" Cheli sat down and tried to cover her exposed bits with the small towel Ranma had given her.
"Why?" Ranma led the shy teen to a corner and grabbed a couple of bathing stools, placing them quietly on the ground next to a pair of adjacent shower hoses. She sat down next to her and began to fill a bucket with cold water.
"I'm naked with my dad's girlfriend." Her face scrunched up. "Eww, eww, ewww! This is almost worse than you guys making out on the couch!"
Ranma laughed at that. "Well, if it's any consolation, you've seen as much as Harry has, so that should make you guys even, right?"
Cheli's hands flew to her lips, causing her to drop her towel. She quickly flushed and bent down, snatching it up off the floor and trying, unsuccessfully, to cover her self.
"Will you stop that?"
Ranma laughed again. "Take a seat."
"Nobody's looking, Cheli. Don't worry." Ranma smirked. "Besides, if they were going to stare, they'd stare at me." Without her clothes, Ranma's scars were a lot more apparent as the lighter colored tissue stood out prominently against her skin.
Drawing the younger woman's attention to her seemed to work. Cheli momentarily forgot her self-consciousness and began to examine the various scars on Ranma's body. Every inch of Ranma's body had some sort of reminder of previous injuries. Most of them were faded, but a few, like the scar near her kidneys and the one from the dragon, stood out vividly against her skin. She whistled softly.
Cheli reached forward and traced the scar on Ranma's side. "Your own mother really tried to do this to you?"
Ranma nodded. "Yeah." The older woman patted the stool next to her. "Sit."
Cheli looked at the stool dubiously but did as asked. Ranma used her foot and pushed a wooden bucket in her direction, indicating she should start filling it with water. Ranma's was already full, so she turned off the taps and upended it over her head, splashing Cheli with cold water in the process.
"Gaah!" She shot up from her stool with a screech. This time, the bathers in the area did turn and stare at her, wondering what had caused the outburst. Flaming bright red, the teen sat down just as quickly. Cheli reached for the hot water, and after adjusting the flow of cold water to regulate the temperature, began to fill her bucket.
"You could have warned me you were going to do that."
Ranma had already begun lathering up with a bar of soap and her towel. She gave the girl a smirk. "Yes, but it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun."
"I hate you, you know." Cheli pouted and poured her bucket of hot water over her head. "Pass the soap."
Ranma handed over the bar and continued to lather. "Want me to scrub your back?" She hefted her sudsy towel.
Cheli shrugged. "Sure." No conversation passed back and forth between them as Ranma vigorously scrubbed the teen's back, eliciting small grunts of approval as the process cleansed and relaxed her at the same time.
"Oh. Right." Cheli returned the favor, scrubbing as best she could, still uncomfortable with touching another woman naked.
"Come on, but some backbone into it, Cheli. You scrub like a grandma."
With a brief flare of her temper, Cheli lit into Ranma's back as best she was able, determined to remove as many layers of skin as she could.
Ranma just cooed. "That's better." When Cheli finished, she slapped the wet towel across Ranma's back, and returned to her own stool to finish washing the rest of her body. Ranma unbraided her hair and carefully put the tie she used on a small shelf next to the faucet, and wet her hair down with another bucket of water. Cheli followed her lead.
Thoroughly lathered, Ranma started up her shower nozzle and pulled the hose from the wall. "Want me to wash your hair for you?"
Adjusting the water so it was hot but not scalding, Ranma ran her fingers through the teen's hair, working out the soap and keeping knots from forming.
"I've got it from here, thanks."
Ranma nodded and turned to rinse out her own hair. They didn't speak again until they were both completely rinsed and relaxing in the hot baths, sitting neck deep in water that Cheli felt was only a few degrees below boiling.
"I didn't mean it, you know." She said.
Ranma had leaned back in the water, letting her head rest against the edge of the bath, the towel to cover her eyes. "Mean what?"
Cheli relaxed into the water as well. The heat just made it hard to stay angry. "I don't really hate you."
"I know." Ranma didn't even bother to move, or open her eyes.
"It's not fair."
"I'm supposed to tease you and be mean to you and make you feel unwelcome, like you're the intruder in our family."
"Who says you haven't?" Ranma's tone of voice indicated she was amused.
Cheli sighed. "Why do you have to be so damn… likable?"
"I'm not trying to be likable. I'm trying to be me."
"Yeah, well it would be easier on me if you tried to act all nice and sweet so you could try and win me over like some of my dad's past girlfriends. At least then I'd have a reason to hate you."
Ranma was still too content to relax to bother moving. "Sorry, kiddo. Not my style."
"I know." Cheli smiled. "You're the only one who's bothered to stand up to me, and not treat me like I'm some kind of unwelcome fungus."
"Your dad had a lot of girlfriends since your mom died?"
Cheli shook her head. "Not really. I mean, a few, here and there, every couple of years. Nothing really serious, though. I think dad did it mostly to keep Tonks off his case. I think the longest one only lasted a month or two." Cheli smiled. "We didn't really get along well."
Ranma snorted. "I bet."
"So dad's seen you naked?"
"Do you really want to know?"
"I guess not." Cheli paused. "What did he think of the scars?"
"If you didn't want to know, why did you ask me that?"
"I'm just… I don't know. I'm thinking of how I reacted the first time you showed me."
Ranma pulled the towel off her eyes and rolled her head slightly so she could look at the teenager. "He's got a few scars of his own, you know."
Cheli laughed. "I'd forgotten that." But now that she had the older woman's attention, she was curious. "No, really. What did he think?"
Ranma plopped the towel back down on her eyes. "He didn't say anything."
"You mean he didn't notice?"
Ranma flushed a bit. "Ah… he noticed." She pointed at the dragon scar, which ran from her right shoulder and stopped just a couple of inches from her left nipple. "You can't exactly miss this one, unless you're blind."
A companionable silence fell between them.
"Why are you so curious?"
Cheli shrugged, watching the ripples she created in the water run over to the other side of the bath and lap against the tiled walls. "I…" She paused. "I see the way my dad looks at you. He's never looked at anyone like he does you."
"And how's that?"
"I don't know. I think he just sees you. The scars are just part of the package."
Ranma didn't say anything.
"Most of all," Cheli sighed, "I hope one day someone will look at me like that."
Cheli jumped as she felt Ranma's hand squeeze her knee underwater. "You're young yet, Cheli. It will happen." Ranma paused. "And it will be when you least expect it." She stood up. "Come on. Let's get out. Your dad probably finished half and hour ago, and he's probably sitting out in the waiting area like a lost puppy."
The trio was walking back at a sedate pace as the evening cooled off, in no rush to get back to the hotel. A cry of, "Cool! An arcade!" startled the adults out of their own thoughts as Cheli ran past and into the building, peering around with wide eyes before running back out and sticking out her hand.
Harry looked at her blankly. "What?"
"¥5,000 will probably keep me occupied for a couple of hours here." Cheli kept her hand out, looking up at her dad with a smirk.
Harry's reply was cut short as Ranma elbowed him in the ribs and shoved a wad of bills into Cheli's hands.
"You know the way back to the hotel, right?" Ranma asked.
"Yeah! One of you will be in the room right? I don't have a key, so I'll have to knock."
Ranma gave her a thumbs up and nodded. "I should be there. Knock loudly in case I'm napping."
"Got it!" Cheli laughed and winked, but before running back into the arcade she reminded them to banish any smells before she came back.
Harry blinked, unsure of what just happened. Ranma chuckled at his expression. "You've got a hell of a kid, Harry." She wrapped her hand in his. "So… we've got a couple of hours to ourselves. Feel like watching TV when we get back to the room?"
Comprehension dawned on Harry's face. He didn't even bother walking; he just ported back to the room with Ranma by his side.
It was hot and muggy the next day, and the walk up to the temple in the morning sun only made the temperature feel worse. Ranma didn't seem affected by the heat, but Harry and his daughter were used to much milder summer weather. By the time they reached the last landing, they were already sticky and uncomfortable.
Ranma had chosen to wear a more formal but still simple kimono rather than her normal outfit. Catching onto her mood, Harry wore a button down shirt and slacks, along with a summer weight dress coat. Cheli's school outfit, minus the cloak, was deemed formal enough.
Ranma stopped at the top of the stairs and shifted the bundle of flowers in her arms. Just beyond the stairs was the first shrine gate that marked the entrance to the temple, and a second one was visible through it pointing out where the grave markers started.
"Hey," Harry gently placed hand on her shoulder, "are you okay?"
Ranma collected herself with a shake. "Yeah… I will be." With that, she took a step into the temple grounds and headed for the second shrine gate, leading the other two to the correct marker. Ranma sighed, but wasn't surprised, to find two other people waiting there already.
"Harry? Cheli? Why don't you guys wait here for just a bit?"
Ranma licked her lips. "Because, I don't know if this is going to be civil or not. I'd rather not get you involved if it gets ugly. Okay?" She looked over at Harry and saw him nod slightly and then shift his stance. She glanced down to see his wand resting lightly against his forearm, ready to drop into his palm.
"It shouldn't come to that, Harry." She smiled softly. "But thank you."
He nodded. "We'll wait over here." Putting his arm around his daughter, he pulled her away from Ranma and into the shade of a tree with a clear line of site towards Ranma's destination.
Ranma walked forward to meet the pair of women standing by Akane's grave. Neither had changed much in appearance since Ranma had seen them last. Nabiki still had the same pageboy style hair cut, but she was wearing an expensively tailored suit that showed off her considerable feminine beauty extremely well, without being overtly provocative.
The eldest Tendo sister, Kasumi, looked even more the part of the typical Japanese housewife than she had when Ranma was living under the Tendo roof. She wasn't wearing an apron, but her modest dress and long ponytail looked just like Ranma remembered. Ranma noticed a wedding band on her finger.
"I heard you were in town, Saotome."
"That's hasn't been my name in quite a while, Nabiki." Ranma gave a formal bow to Kasumi after only a curt nod to the middle sister. "Is it Ono now, Kasumi?"
"My congratulations to you both and best wishes. I wish you much happiness in your lives together. Did you get my gift?"
Kasumi nodded graciously. "We did. Thank you, Ranma. I regret I was unable to send you an invitation. I was… obliged to invite Genma and Nodoka to the wedding."
"What, no warm greeting for me, Ranma-kun?" Nabiki arched an eyebrow.
Ranma failed to take the bait. "It is good to see you as well, Nabiki. However, Kasumi was the only one in all that madness who wanted nothing from me but my own happiness. I have too many memories of being manipulated by you to be entirely comfortable with this situation."
For a second, Nabiki's normal smirk faded slightly. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry about that. You suffered more than any of us, I think."
Ranma nodded. "Thank you."
The smirk returned. "What brings you back given that your… Nodoka and Genma are still around?"
Ranma hefted the flowers in her arms. "I wanted to pay my respects."
Nabiki frowned. "Why now? You've never come before."
"I… was not exactly in a healthy state of mind after Akane died."
"Are you now?" That came from Kasumi.
"I'm making progress."
"Again, why now, though?" Nabiki asked again.
Ranma sighed. "Isn't it enough that I love her, Nabiki? I can't change the past. I'm trying to move on." Again, she hefted the flowers. "This is part of that."
"And those two?" Nabiki asked. "Are they part of it as well?"
"Yes." Ranma hesitated. "He's… well, he's a lot of things, really."
"Oh?" Kasumi smiled. "What does that mean, Ranma-kun?"
"First, he's my student. And my teacher. And…" Ranma blushed a bit. "He's my boyfriend."
Nabiki snorted. "Boyfriend? You? Funny."
It happened so quickly that Ranma wasn't even aware of it until after the fact. She was angry. She found herself standing nose to nose with Nabiki, speaking in a quiet tone that conveyed every ounce of her annoyance with the Tendo sister.
"Yes, he's my boyfriend. I've struggled for sixteen fucking years with the fact that I'm stuck as a woman, and now that I'm finally ready to accept it and make a life for myself, I'm not going to let some cold hearted bitch belittle the bit of happiness I've found. We clear on that, Tendo?"
There was a long stretch of silence as Nabiki blinked and leaned away from the irate red-head in front of her.
Kasumi's small exclamation of "oh my," broke the spell. Ranma stepped away from Nabiki, muttering apologies under her breath.
Nabiki looked uncomfortable as well. "I… sorry, Ranma." She laughed softly. "I seem to be saying that a lot today."
"It's okay." Ranma bowed her head. "I should be apologizing as well." She lifted the flowers again. "Do you mind if I pay my respects?"
Kasumi shook her head. "I don't mind. What about you, Nabiki?"
The other woman shook her head. "No, go ahead."
"Is it alright if I introduce my guests to Akane as well?"
Nabiki just jerked her head to the side. Kasumi smiled. "I think that would be wonderful, Ranma. Will you introduce us as well?"
"Yeah, I'd like too." She bent down to place the flowers in front of the grave marker, making a silent promise to come right back and talk properly. Ranma walked over to the tree and gave Harry a reassuring smile and took hold of his left hand in her right, pulling him, and by extension, his daughter, over to the waiting sisters.
"Kasumi, Nabiki." Ranma stepped to the side. "I'd like to introduce Harry Potter and his daughter Cheli." She swept her arm towards the pair. "Harry, Cheli, this is Kasumi Ono and her sister, Nabiki Tendo."
"Tendo?" Harry asked.
Ranma nodded. "Akane's sisters."
"Ah." Harry nodded in understanding. "A pleasure to meet you both. This is my daughter, Cheli." He gently guided the girl in front of him.
The red-headed teen nodded. "Hi." Cheli knew she wasn't really a part of this conversation, so once her introduction was done, she slowly worked her way to the fringe of the circle of the exchange to remain unobtrusive.
Harry took charge of the conversation, as none of the other women seemed inclined to speak. The atmosphere wasn't hostile, but it was certainly charged. "Ranma has told me a lot about both of you."
Kasumi smiled brightly and bowed. Nabiki gave him a calculating glance, taking in his hand entwined around Ranma's before bowing as well. "Only good things, I hope."
Harry smiled. "She's told me how much she misses both of you." He smiled at Kasumi. "Mostly, she told me about how wonderful you were to her Kasumi. I can tell just from meeting you she hadn't exaggerated in the slightest."
"Mr. Potter!" Kasumi blushed lightly. "You are too kind."
Ranma rolled her eyes. "Are you flirting with a married woman, Harry?"
"Not at all. She just radiates peace."
"And me?" Nabiki asked.
Harry nodded slightly. "Ranma admires you greatly."
This caused Nabiki's eyebrow to twitch slightly. "Oh really? And why's that?"
Ranma answered for him. "Because you did everything to protect your family. Better than I did. I only got your sister killed."
Whatever answer she'd been expecting, it wasn't that one.
"Would you like to join us?" Ranma pointed with her free hand at Akane's marker.
Nabiki shook her head. "No, I've already visited today. Kasumi?"
"Oh, no thank you. But maybe we can have tea together afterwards?"
Ranma smiled. "Okay. Don't go anywhere, okay?"
The sisters nodded.
Ranma pulled on Harry's hand. "Come on." Ranma walked up to the marker and knelt, carefully rearranging the flowers so that they stood up right and in the best sunlight. Next to her, Harry knelt as well, while Cheli remained standing and off to one side.
"Can you believe I don't even know what her favorite type of flower is?"
"Does it matter?"
Ranma shrugged. "Yes. There are so many stupid little things like that I've always wanted to know. Knowing them wouldn't change anything, but maybe if I'd cared enough to find out then, she wouldn't be here now."
Harry looked over at Ranma and noticed she was crying silently. "True. But then again, I wouldn't be here, either."
Ranma scrubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. "Maybe I'd still be a man."
"Were you ever happy as a man?"
Ranma's tears came faster as she shook her head. "I'm happier now than I ever was then. And I hate myself for it."
"I don't think Akane would want that, Ranma."
"You have no way of knowing what Akane would want, Harry. Don't try and tell me."
Harry sighed. "Actually… I do."
Ranma stared at him, her eyes red from crying.
Harry stood up. "I'll tell you over tea."
The five of them were seated at a low Japanese table inside the temple, cups of tea steaming in front of each person, but all eyes on Harry.
There was no use putting it off. Harry pulled up a bit of magic and touched his finger against his watch. Ranma narrowed her eyes as she recognized magic, then grunted as the watch opened, showing a small velvet lined interior. There was just enough space small, black, rectangular stone resting inside.
Harry plucked it out of the case and snapped the watch face closed. He leaned forward and placed the stone in the middle of the table and sat upright again.
"That's the stone you were looking for, isn't it?"
"I didn't know you found it."
Harry shook his head. "Actually, Ranma, I didn't. You did. When you did that rising dragon blast thingy in the Forbidden Forest, the… creature put his in your hand before it left."
"The flying one."
Ranma's eyes widened. "Oh."
"This is all very interesting and stuff, but what does this have to do with us?" Nabiki was clearly impatient.
Ranma pointed at the stone on the table. "Harry said this thing might be able to cure my curse."
All eyes went to the stone except Harry's.
"Actually," Harry corrected, "I lied."
"Sorry Ranma." Harry smiled apologetically. "This stone has no power over curses. But it does have a very special power, but that power comes with a price."
Nabiki's eyes narrowed. "I think you guys are talking about magic. I'm not sure I want to be involved. Tell me what this thing is or I'm getting out of here. Messing with magic killed my sister, and I don't want to risk anything else happening to my family."
Harry scratched his forehead. "Sorry. This stone's real name is the Resurrection Stone."
Everyone's eyes widened at that. Cheli knew what the stone was, as did Ranma. The two sisters did not, so he explained it. "This stone has the power to call the dead back to the land of the living."
Kasumi and Nabiki gasped. "You mean…"
Harry grimaced. "This stone gives the wielder the power to see and communicate with the dead. You can call back people you know personally. But, the price…" Harry sighed. "It can't make someone live again. You simply pull their spirit back to you, and you hold that spirit in this plane, where they don't belong, against their will."
"So?" Harry shot Nabiki a glare.
"It's not something one should consider doing lightly, Ms. Tendo." He picked up the stone. "For example, if I called back Akane right now, do you think she'd be happy to be here? I doubt it. I'd be ripping her out of the spirit world, trapped here until I choose to release her. Would you want to be ripped out of heaven?"
Kasumi looked sick, and Nabiki recoiled as she realized what that would mean.
Ranma licked her lips nervously. "So why show it to us, if it's such a horrible thing?"
"I made a promise a long time ago that I wouldn't find the stone again." Harry sighed. "I broke that promise for you, Ranma. I wanted to give you an opportunity to say goodbye, but only if you agree that you will only use it this once, and then throw the stone as hard as you can in one direction so that it can never be found again."
"You broke your promise… for me?" Ranma looked stricken. "Why?"
Harry rolled his eyes. "Why do you think, Ranma?"
"Why?" She asked again, her eyes both begging for and dreading the answer.
"I love you." Harry held her gaze. "I want you to be at peace with yourself. If this is the only way it can happen, then I want to offer you the chance."
Cheli chuckled. "Go dad!"
Harry gave his daughter a weak grin. "Would you like to talk to your mother, Cheli?"
Cheli's eyes got wide. "I don't know." She shook her head. "What would I say? I never knew her. What about you, dad? Do you want to see her again?"
Harry pulled off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. He put his elbow on the table and stayed there, eyes closed, as he fought an internal battle with himself. Finally, he sat up again and replaced his glasses.
"No." He shook his head. "As much as I would like to, I refuse to put her through anymore pain. I loved her while she was alive, and I still love her and miss her, but I also love her enough to let her go now. I'm happier knowing that she's free."
Harry stood up from the table. "I'm leaving the stone in your charge, Ranma. The choice to use it is yours, but I want you to promise me on your honor that you will relinquish the stone when you've made your choice. Will you do that?"
"A promise on my honor?" Ranma looked up at Harry.
He nodded. "On your honor. Will you do it?"
Ranma swallowed, then nodded. "Yes. On my honor."
Harry relaxed. "I'm going back to the hotel, then. I'll see you there." He stood up. "Do you want to stay, Cheli?"
The teen hesitated. The chance to see her mother, to talk to her, to ask her the questions she needed to know… At the expense of her mother's pain, her dad's pain, just to satisfy some curiosity? "No. I'll come too."
Harry was surprised. "Really?"
The teen nodded. "Yeah. I don't want to put you or her through that just to ask a couple of silly questions." She stood up and walked around the table to give her dad a hug. "I've got you, and that's enough for now."
Harry wrapped his daughter in a hug and kissed the top of her head. He choked out a strangled, "thank you." He collected himself by clearing his throat a few times. "If you want to use it, all you have to do is pick it up in your hand, and then turn it over three times. That will summon the spirit to you. Unfortunately, I don't know how to release the spirit, though. I died last time I used that."
With a quick nod to the remaining women, he and Cheli made their way out of the temple.
Ranma, Nabiki, and Kasumi sat staring at the stone for a long time, nobody moving, tea completely forgotten. The three women were finally able to tear their eyes away from the stone long after their tea turned cold. With a shiver, Kasumi sat up straight.
"I will not use it." She stood and nodded her head sister. "Nabiki." Coming around the table, she knelt and gave Ranma a hug. "I've missed you, Ranma. Will you try to visit more frequently?"
"Yes, I'll try."
Kasumi smiled. "Good. Tofu would love to see you again. You're always welcome at our home."
"Thank you, Kasumi. That means… a lot to me."
Kasumi gave her another tender smile and kissed Ranma on the forehead. "Take care, little sister. I love you." Kasumi stood from her hug. "He's a good man, Ranma."
Ranma swallowed, not trusting herself to speak as she watched Kasumi exit the temple.
Nabiki and Ranma sat in silence for a long time, both contemplating the stone.
"Do you love him?" Nabiki asked.
Ranma looked up at Nabiki.
"Is that a 'no,' an 'I don't know,' or something else?"
Ranma cleared her throat. "That's an 'I don't want to answer.'"
"Why?" Nabiki place her elbows on the table, studying Ranma's face, rather than the stone. "Are you still afraid of me?"
Again, Ranma shrugged. "A little."
Nabiki sighed. "I'll apologize again, if I have to."
"Don't." Ranma shook her head. "Please."
"Okay." Nabiki stood as well, staring at the stone on the table. Finally, she let out a long sigh, feeling like she was letting go of a suitcase full of cash. "I'm not going to use it, either. There's nothing Akane could tell me that I don't already know."
She too, came around the table and knelt next to Ranma. "Kasumi called you her little sister."
"Just so you know, Ranma… I feel the same way. I've missed you, too." Nabiki looked away, reaching up with her right hand to wipe her eyes. "Will you keep in touch this time?"
Ranma nodded, not even bothering to wipe at her face as the first tears made their way down her face.
Nabiki gave the red-head a hug. "I love you, Ranma. I don't want to lose anymore family if I have to."
Ranma returned the hug, barely able to hold on as her body was wracked by sobs. Nabiki joined her a moment later. Ranma lost track of time, but the sun had started towards the horizon by the time she was finally under control. Nabiki looked just as bad as she did, but the older girl managed to laugh and pull a handkerchief out of her suit pocket and wipe off the red-head's face.
"God, you're a mess."
Ranma laughed, causing a small river of snot to run out of her nose. "Have you looked in a mirror lately, Tendo?"
This caused both of them to start laughing until they cried once more, holding on to each other. This session didn't last as long, and soon enough they were both back under control, but exhausted.
Nabiki pulled out a business card. "Call me collect, okay?"
Nabiki copied Kasumi's actions earlier, kissing Ranma on the forehead. "Kasumi's right about him, Ranma. He's a good man."
"Better than you were, even."
"Now you're pushing it."
The trademark Nabiki smirk was back. "I've got to go, okay? Take care, little sister."
Ranma nodded. "Okay, big sister."
Nabiki smiled. A genuine smile. "Do you need help with your name?"
"What do you mean?"
"We could offer you a place on the Tendo family register, if you wanted. Daddy would love to have you."
"Mr. Tendo's not siding with my… Genma on this?"
Nabiki shook her head. "He hasn't talked to him since the day they attacked you."
"Huh. I didn't know that."
"How could you if you never came back?"
Ranma sighed. "I didn't want to be reminded of everything here."
"I know." Nabiki smiled again. "I understand. Just don't wait so long next time, okay?"
"And call me soon so we can talk about adopting you."
Ranma looked at the business card in her hand, her eyes to bleary from crying to make out the characters. "I'll call you tomorrow, okay?"
"Okay." Nabiki waved. "Till then."
"Later." Ranma didn't watch her leave.
Finally, it was just her, and the stone. She picked it up and examined it carefully. Such a small little thing, with the barest outline of a circle inscribed on one side. Three turns in her hand. That's all it would take. Three little turns and she could talk to Akane. She'd be able to tell her everything she'd wanted to know, hear everything she needed to hear.
She stood up from the table and walked back out to the grave marker, standing in front of it as the sun started to sink below the horizon.
Would Akane be angry?
Would she be happy?
Ranma looked down at the stone in her hand, thinking over everything that had happened today. The setting sun threw Akane's marker in to sharp relief as the last of the light reflected off the polished surface.
Just three little turns.
Ranma realized it was a question of love.
Ranma opened the door to her hotel room and saw Harry napping on his futon while Cheli watched TV with the sound turned down. Cheli hopped off her own futon as Ranma came in, worry evident on her face.
"You okay?" She whispered. "You look really tired."
Ranma smiled half-heartedly. "I am really tired."
Ranma pulled the teenager into a hug. The girl, of course, protested, but didn't pull away. "Thanks, Cheli."
"For what?" The girl mumbled into Ranma's shoulder.
Ranma shrugged. "I just felt like saying it. Don't expect it to happen again anytime soon."
"Okay." The girl pulled away. "For what it's worth, you're welcome."
Ranma smiled and shuffled over to Harry's futon. One of Nabiki's questions kept running through her head.
Did she love him?
She lay down beside him and put her head on his chest. He woke up at the sudden pressure, but Ranma used her free arm to push his head back onto the pillow before slinging it over his chest.
God, she was tired.
Did she love him?
She shifted a bit to get comfortable.
"You aren't going to do the nasty while I'm in the room, are you?"
Ranma snorted. "I'm still a virgin, ya know."
"Watch TV and shut up."
"Aye Aye, Captain Bligh!"
Ranma felt Harry's neck tense as he looked down at her. She grinned up at him and pushed herself up to an elbow so she could whisper in his ear.
"Don't worry. I intend to remedy that problem as soon as we're alone." She kissed his cheek and flopped back down to relax.
Yeah. She did.
Cheli broke eye contact first, glancing around the room. "So… are you shagging my dad for his money or his fame?"
Harry had just enough time to stand up before Cheli came barreling around the corner and cowered behind him. Ranma stalked into the room, a faint blue glow rising from her body and her hair standing on end as if being blown by an invisible breeze. Harry knew that if Ranma intended to hurt Cheli, she wouldn't have given the girl such a visible warning. Even so, the sheer power emanating from the older red-head was enough to make Harry feel weak-kneed, even if it wasn't directed at him.
"I take it you pissed her off?"
Cheli nodded vigorously and gulped.
Morbid curiosity made Harry ask, "What did you say?"
She told him. Harry blinked at his daughter a few times, trying to comprehend what she had just said. When it finally registered, he smoothly stepped away from his daughter.
Cheli looked at her dad in horror. "Traitor!"
Harry shrugged. "I suggest you apologize before Ranma catches you." Cheli took off at a dead sprint. Ranma gave him a tight smile before stalking after the teenager. Harry heard Cheli's bedroom door slam shut and felt the tingle of several shielding charms being cast on the door.
The red-head raised an eye-brow at Harry quizzically.
"Let me know if she doesn't apologize, okay?"
Her grin wasn't pleasant, but then again, neither was Harry's.
"I'mgonnadie I'mgonnadieI'mgonnadieI'mgonnadieI'mgonnadie…" Cheli frantically threw up as many shielding charms on her door as she could, and followed it with a locking charm and a charm to seal the door shut. She levitated a bookcase towards the door and transfigured it into a brick wall, completely sealing off the entrance. She didn't care if the Ministry caught her doing underage magic – they'd understand that it was a life or death situation. She climbed onto her bed and pointed her wand at the door, straining to hear any sounds from the other side of the wall. If she was going to go down, she would go down fighting!
The original idea for this story was inspired by a conversation with a friend of mine who's works in neurobiology/psychology. Her field of specialty is how brain structures affect behaviors. We got into a long involved dialogue about trans-gendered and cross gendered people, and people born with both male and female sex organs. The theory is currently that sexuality is determined in the brain well before birth, so a child with male and female sex organs might be biologically attracted to men. However, if the gender assignment surgery is done and the wrong gender is chosen, then you have some very confused children who grow up assigned a gender that is not what they are "biologically" assigned.
My original intention for this story was for Ranma and Harry to meet, fall in love, and for Ranma to unlock the curse at the moment she decides she can live as a woman. Then, you've got two people who are in love, but in the wrong gender. I doubt that their relationship would survive, as Harry would not be attracted to Ranma's male form, but Ranma wouldn't want to give up his newly reclaimed masculinity. So, Ranma would be faced with a choice – give up his masculinity forever (and be unhappy and/or resentful of Harry), or to accept his masculinity, as is his natural inclination, but doom the relationship.
The point would be that even thought the relationship didn't work out, both would realize they were capable of love again, and thus pursue love again, independent of each other.
Then I made a mistake.
I made Jusenkyou alter the physical structure of the brain. Ranma's female while female, not just a male brain in a female body. Even though he's had sixteen years of male upbringing, with a female brain he'd be able to make the switch, as it were, and bat for the other team, not because it would be against his nature, but because his nature would be augmenting the process of accepting.
So it turned into this little love fest. I still intend to write the alternate (and original) ending I intended soon. The prologue will remain the same, regardless. Nothing in this story resolves itself, which I like. Nothing is certain, which I like. It resembles real life – you make choices, completely unaware of how they will turn out or their consequences, but you live with them because you have no other choice.
Even given that this is not how I envisioned ending this story, I'm still quite happy with the over all result. One reason I finished the story now is that my job is transferring me. It will be highly unlikely that I'll be able to post any more fiction for the next couple of years, so I wanted to resolve this piece at least. Second, I like the fact that this turned out the way it did – a character drama, not a lot of action, just character development and dialogue. But I'm also done with this piece. I don't want to work on it anymore.
So the questions remain. Did Ranma talk to Akane? Will she accept the Tendo name? What about her relationship with Harry? I'm willing to discuss these questions with people over PM's, but I won't spell it out in the fic.
This was the original little blurb that started the conversation with my friend about the biology of sexuality. I wrote it back in 2006, and it was sort of the guiding inspiration for the entire bit.
What did she have now? She had problems. She had gender issues, problems with emotional attachments, and scars both physical and mental that wouldn't ever heal.
But for the first time, she had hope, and a future. For the first time, she looked forward not just to tomorrow, but towards the rest of her life. She had peace and a potential friend Saffron. She knew that Akane didn't blame her. She had a crazy old bat that treated her with respect and dignity, and was grooming her to be a leader and solve the problems of those around her, rather than be the cause of them.
She looked at her right hand. The feather glowed softly in the night, casting a red glow onto her face. Ranma pulled her left hand out from under her hand and stared at the engagement ring on her finger. The diamonds, rubies, and sapphire in the band absorbed the light and glittered, mirroring the white, blue and red stars above.
And she had love. Ranma Saotome, man amongst men, was going to be the bride of the century. Ranma would have a name again, and that name meant that she belonged. It certainly wasn't what she had started out to find, but then again… Like Harry said, if magic made sense it would be science. If you only believed in it hard enough, anything was possible.
A muffled pop announced Harry's arrival. "Dinner's ready."
"Thanks." Ranma sat up and banished the feather to a subspace pocket. "I'll be down in a minute."
She nodded. "Yeah." Harry turned to apparate away. "Harry?"
"I love you."
He cocked an eyebrow. "What brought that on?"
"Nothing." She smiled. "See you down stairs in a minute."
She looked back up at the stars when he left.