All The World's A Stage

By nightelf

A work of fanfiction based on Takahashi Rumiko's Manga series, Ranma 1/2

Saotome Ranma, Saotome Genma, Saotome Nodoka, Tendou Akane, Tendou Soun, Tendou Kasumi, Tendou Nabiki, Kuonji Ukyou, Hibiki Ryouga, P-chan, Shan Pu, Mu Tsu, Kunou Tatewaki, Kunou Kodachi, Ono Toufuu, and Ninomiya Hinako are copyright 1987, 2018 by Takahashi Rumiko. Tenou Haruka and Kaiou Michiru are copyright 1991, 2018 by Takeuchi Naoko. All other characters are copyright 2018 nightelf. All rights reserved.

Publishing rights:

Japan: Shogakukan Inc. Tokyo

Hong Kong: Jademan (Holdings) Ltd.

North America: Viz Inc.

Chapter One of Four: Their Entrances and Their Exits

Akimoto Ran moved into position, striking a dramatic pose for the opening of the show. She cut a dashing figure in a Victorian-era scientist's suit and lab coat; her brutally short, fiery-red hair glowed amidst the working lights of the stage. She gave a brilliant grin to the waiting crowd, her eyes twinkling with excitement as the lights dimmed in anticipation of the curtain's rise.

Cosmos Troupe was formed to be the most experimental of the Takarazuka Revue's troupes, and her role in the troupe certainly reflected that. Performers tended to specialize, either thriving as otokoyaku or musumeyaku, playing almost exclusively male or female roles within their performances. Officially, she was listed as an otokoyaku; that said, she'd developed into something quite different from the norm. Whether by accident or by necessity, she'd developed a unique repertoire, a reputation that she could take either role as needed. And, in the rare instance where someone in-between was needed, she fit the bill perfectly.

In short, she was the mirror to the gender roles that Takarazuka played with - the zuka's zuka. Which was why she was selected to work with the new troupe, Cosmos. The first show Cosmos officially performed was a dinner show with her as the star; she'd played a leading role in all of Cosmos' performances since.

For the most part, she didn't even need to try playing the male role. The male roles came naturally to her, more naturally than the female ones; in fact, it was her female roles that tended to be exaggerated and comic. Her current lead billing was no exception - a comic, gender-bending version of Jekyll and Hyde.

The opening scenes served as appetizer for the show's plot, a gentle romance between Jekyll and Beatrix Emery; Ran inwardly smiled at the innocent, bright chemistry between herself and Akiko, the musumeyaku acting as Emery. It reminded her of her own teenage years, clumsy romances and stutter-steps into love and relationships, the typical story of the young. Those scenes set the stage for the love triangle to come, as Ran paraded through Jekyll's lab with a singular obsession, working on her formulas and serums. She understood that obsession all too well; anyone who'd gone as far as she had in her specialties understood the dedication and sacrifice needed.

Dedication and sacrifice that, in her case both on stage and in real life, led her to drink the serum.

It was for scenes such as this that she had become famous. The revue had timed how long it took for Ran to "transform", to shift from one costume to another; in one of their recent books about the revue, they even showed time-lapse photos of her costume changes. Such shifts, for most performers, were such that they took minutes, especially for such complicated outfits as a man's suit. Ran, by comparison, could go from wearing a full man's suit to a woman's wig, skirt, and heels - and back - in less than a second. With a few shifts of lighting, she didn't even need to duck out of sight; to the view of the audience, she simply blurred, and became someone else.

In other words, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Hyde was written with her skills in mind. Miss Hyde, of course, would begin to woo a man of her own, in this case her colleague, Dr. Lanyon; the scenes between herself and Haruka, the otokoyaku playing Lanyon, were designed to be steamy, illicit affairs, a dark romance as counterpoint to the light of her relationship with Emery. All throughout the show, as Ran wavered between the respectable, gentlemanly Dr. Jekyll and the scandalous, sensuous Miss Hyde, the question was put forth: who would come out on top?

The answer at the end was typical of the attitude of Cosmos Troupe: neither. In the final scene, she stood there in a wig, slacks, and heels, without the brazenness of Hyde, nor the masculine edges of Jekyll. She was herself, both man and woman, somewhere in between, no longer at any of the extremes, but at a compromise. And, also as typical of Cosmos, both Lanyon and Emery accepted her - and each other. It was the ending she would have hated in her youth, an ending she would have dreamed of now.

It was an ending she'd never have.

The show completed, the bows and encores taken care of, Ran washed off the stage makeup and took off the costume. She took her time to shower away the night's grime and sweat, letting herself melt in the hot water. Preparing for the real world was a routine she'd gotten used to; makeup was a part of that now, as was the right underwear and sanitary products. Her preparations complete, she zipped up the side of her slacks, donned a black fedora, and gave herself one last appraisal in the mirror, checking for any flaws, any imperfections.

Seeing none, Akimoto Ran - formerly Saotome Ranma - picked up her purse, slipped on her shoes at the door, and walked into the Takarazuka night.

After what seemed an eternity, Nabiki sat back in her chair, stunned.

Ranma was alive. Thriving, if the playbill in her hands was any indication. The irony was positively thick in the air - Ranma, born male, playing both male and female roles in an all-female acting troupe. She looked at the kanji characters for the lead's name – the "orchid" of Ran's name, along with the surname of Nodoka's family - and fought to keep tears from welling up in her eyes.

Still, she sat there in her seat, beyond shocked. She'd suspected Ranma's survival… hoped, really… but didn't realize it until the curtain rose and Ran's voice filled the theater. The ending… dear God, how things ended… she couldn't even begin to process what had happened.

Her heart sunk as she realized another, horrifying thought. To the world, to the audience, it had been comedy - all of her colleagues had chuckled and tittered through the romance scenes and Jekyll/Hyde's identity problems. Nabiki knew better; after all, she had watched Ranma's Jekyll-and-Hyde life firsthand. Nabiki could hear the sincerity in Ranma's voice, the innocent earnestness of Jekyll, the sensual darkness of Hyde, the confusion of that in-between world, and could recognize why the comedy worked: Ranma had believed every line.

In other words, Ranma wasn't acting - and she was the only one in the audience to realize it.

She dimly heard a voice calling her. "Nabiki?"

Nabiki blinked and looked over at Nami, her colleague. "Yes, Nami?"

"Are you all right?" She tilted her head to one side. "I noticed you didn't laugh much through the show."

Nabiki shook her head, a maelstrom of emotions warring inside of her. "I knew the lead when we were growing up. She was… my God, I can't even talk about it."

Nami blinked at the words. Very few things fazed Nabiki; she realized that, to Nami's ears, she must be near panic. "N… Nabiki?"

Nabiki took several deep breaths to calm down. "Nami… there was an incident. When I was in high school. Basically, someone with enough influence to get away with murder started killing people. Including my younger sister." Nami gasped; Nabiki glanced down at the playbill for confirmation. "The lead… Ran… the killer bragged about her death, too. But she escaped. She escaped." Nabiki's tears wouldn't be denied; her mascara made tracks along her cheeks. She managed a brave smile. "She always was a survivor."

Nami's eyes widened, her hand covering her mouth in shock. Nabiki chose that moment to test her shaking legs; she rose from her chair, using the armrest to steady herself. "I need a drink." She carefully eased her way out of the aisle and to the exit, to join up with the others.

What had been a company trip, it seemed, was going in a very different direction.

Nabiki stared blearily up at the night sky, pondering the life she'd left behind, a saucer of sake in her hand. The investment firm didn't skimp, and she was grateful for that; the onsen was top-notch, with quality drinks to go along with the ethereal forest around them.

She needed its tranquility - and the alcohol, too. The thoughts she was having she'd thought long buried. She'd even considered therapy once, but decided it wasn't needed, that she could live with it, that the past was done.

"You seem deep in thought, Nabiki."

Nabiki looked up at her boss, an older woman with a long, thin face and brutally-short gray hair. Hiromi had already known about some of Nabiki's past, including what had happened to Akane. Nabiki shrugged; there was no point in hiding the rest. "I was thinking about the three most terrifying days of my life, Hiromi."

Hiromi took a sip of her own sake. Nabiki knew Hiromi didn't mean to appear imperious, but Hiromi's standing position, along with her concerned frown, presented itself as such. "I'd heard that you were troubled by the Revue show, but didn't hear why." She tilted her head to one side. "Though I can't imagine why the show would trouble you…"

Nabiki gave Hiromi a lazy grin, helped by the alcohol in her system. "Then you've never met Saotome Ranma – or Akimoto Ran, as she's apparently calling herself now."

"Akimoto Ran… Oh!" Her eyes lit up. "You mean…"

"There were two branches of the school of martial arts my family specialized in. One was the Tendou branch. It's now the Ono branch, and the reason why it's the Ono branch, well…" Nabiki took a sip of her sake. "The other was the Saotome branch – though I guess the name of that branch has changed, too, if Ranma was accepted into her mother's clan. It's why Akimoto Ran could change costumes so quickly; speed was one of the hallmarks of her branch of the Art."

Hiromi frowned. "Is she a threat? Did she…"

Nabiki saw the direction the conversation was going, and waved her hand. Hiromi looked after her own; it was one of the things that inspired loyalty within the group - Nabiki included. "No, no! Nothing like that!" She grimaced. "Well, unless you were foolish enough to murder her fiancee."

If anything, Hiromi's gaze intensified. "Who was her fiancee?" she demanded.

"My younger sister."

Hiromi gaped.

"Ranma was raised as a boy; even shows up in the records as a boy. She's been presenting herself as male for a long time." Nabiki smiled inwardly; it wasn't a lie, after all. "It would take a long time to explain, but they were targeted by someone rich enough to have connections and psychotic enough to not care about things like morals." Nabiki's face grimaced in pain, old memories burning to the surface. "Akane was killed, strangled by a gymnastics ribbon; everyone knew who did it, but the killer got off."

"I… I'm sorry," Hiromi forced out. "I knew your sister had been murdered, but…"

"That, unfortunately, was the first act." Nabiki nervously rubbed her thumb against the cup of sake. "I've been going over the events and, if what I think is true, then Ranma was more clever than anyone gave her credit for." She gestured with her free hand. "You see, if you look up the records, Saotome Ranma was last seen on January 17, 1988; she was declared missing, presumed dead, shortly thereafter." She raised her dish of sake. "That morning, Ranma asked if she could borrow my turtleneck sweater. She thanked me, shut the door… and I never saw her again." Her lips twitched. "Until tonight."

Hiromi blinked, fitting the pieces together. "She knew this murderer would go after her, and try to strangle her… so she put some protection against that in her sweater." She sent a questioning gaze in Nabiki's direction. "And faked her death after the attempt?"

Nabiki nodded. "Seems like. When Kodachi - the killer - started bragging the next day that she'd killed Ranma as well, and continued her deranged demands against my family, we knew we were likely next. We were on a war footing. We called in every favor we had, old friends who owed us or the Saotomes - and our families had collected many favors over the years. The dojo could no longer be in our name; it was initially going to go to Ranma and Akane, the heirs of the school, but they were dead. My sister Kasumi married Ono Toufuu - a local chiropractor and martial artist - and the dojo passed to them."

"Wait." Hiromi raised a hand to stop Nabiki's tale. "Why couldn't the dojo be in your name?"

Nabiki's mouth suddenly felt very dry. "We were going to declare blood feud on Clan Kunou - Kodachi's clan."

Hiromi boggled. "Blood feud? In this day and age? That's insane!"

"That was my reality," Nabiki corrected. "For three days, Father and I were planning to fight a war, against an opponent who had far more resources than we did, a war that we probably wouldn't survive." She shakily filled her saucer with more sake. "Imagine… you're eighteen years old, about to go to college… and, instead of studying for entrance exams, you're writing your will, and pondering your death poem. I wasn't a warrior, wasn't a fighter; I only had my wits."

Hiromi slumped against the door frame, sliding down into a sitting position opposite Nabiki. "…. Wow. That's… that's messed up. I'm guessing cooler heads prevailed?"

Nabiki gave Hiromi a death's head grin, the sort of smile that would have sent her old classmates running. "Quite the opposite, really. Kunou Manor burned down before we could post the notices. Kodachi kept some interesting chemicals in the house; the firefighters couldn't get close, due to the fumes. Eventually, they just had to let the place burn - with all three Kunous still inside."

Nabiki looked up at the gibbous moon hanging in the sky. The Kunous were long dead, and Ranma was still alive. That, at least, was something to cherish. "The fire started in Kodachi's laboratory. The bi… that person's body was found there, with injuries and residue consistent with an explosion. After an investigation, the fire was ruled an accident." She raised her dish, a toast to any gods willing to listen. "Couldn't happen to a nicer psychopath."

Hiromi raised an eyebrow. "You think Ranma…"

"Don't know. Don't care, really. Ranma's family. And if she did kill Kodachi, she saved lives - including my own." She looked back at Hiromi, and reflected on the similarities between her mentor and the teenaged Ranma she remembered. "You'd have liked Ranma, Hiromi. Completely unrefined – and had no room at all for bullshit. She'd tell you the truth, regardless of what you thought of it." She snorted, laughter and tears mixing in equal amounts within her. "Needless to say, her relationship with my sister – with all of us – well… it had its ups and downs."

Hiromi eyed Nabiki carefully. "You still care for her. Don't you." The last sentence was said as statement, rather than question.

Nabiki didn't bother denying it. "Always will, Hiromi. Can't say I always have - I was a shallow little twit when I was younger." She looked down at her cup of sake, and drained it in one gulp. "But I always will."

"Hey, Mom. I'm home."

Ranma unlocked the door to her apartment, stepped inside, and slipped off her shoes. She padded into the living area, where her mother sat at table, a pot of tea waiting.

Ranma paused for a moment, taking in the scene – her mother kneeling at the table, a spread of cookies on the table, a teapot steaming, two plates and empty mugs on each side, neatly placed as though expecting company. A newspaper set off to one side, which meant that day's paper had an article about the production. The pattern was a familiar one: no matter how late Ranma came home, her mother waited for her with snacks and tea. Circumstance and tragedy had given Ranma an appreciation for small moments such as these; she sat down opposite Nodoka, and waited for her mother to pour a cup.

Nodoka smiled, and picked up her teapot. "Welcome home, Ranma. How was tonight?"

"No major surprises," Ranma admitted as Nodoka poured. "Akiko's growing into the role; she's starting to figure out just how to react to the strangeness. For Haruka, it's old hat; it's just fun when we're on stage. Of course, considering she posed as a boy before ever coming to Takarazuka…"

"Indeed," Nodoka agreed, setting her teapot down. "There's a reason Haruka is where she is. It's the difference between acting like a man, and living it. Some things can't be faked, after all."

"True enough." Ranma twirled a cookie in her hands. "Sometimes I'd like to find Ucchan and just have some of the otokoyaku spend a day with her, just to get a feel for what it's like to live like that. Some of the new girls… they fake it, but you can tell they fake it." A silly thought struck Ranma; the cookie paused in her hand. "Oh, there's a fun thought. If I'd been born a girl, would you have trained me for ten years as an otokoyaku?"

Nodoka sipped her tea without apparent reaction. "Of course not, daughter. Now, musumeyaku, on the other hand…"

The cookie in Ranma's hand dropped to the plate, such was Ranma's surprise. She picked up the cookie, and took a bite. "Considering your own past, would that have been wise?"

"Probably not," Nodoka admitted. "I've often wondered how good a mother I would have been to you growing up… a lot of times, I think I wouldn't have been that good. It's… the stage doesn't prepare a person for some parts of life." She shrugged. "I think I would have been better than Genma, but that's not saying much."

Ranma gave her mother a reassuring smile. "You're still the best, Mom." She looked at the spread of tea and snacks on the table. "Thanks for the tea and snacks, by the way."

"You're welcome," Nodoka replied. She took a cookie of her own, and nibbled on it. A quiet pause settled over the table for a minute as they enjoyed their snacks.

For Ranma, the silence quickly became uncomfortable, and with reason. She took a sip of her tea before speaking. "They're thinking of moving me back to Star next year."

"That's a surprise…" Nodoka's brow furrowed as she picked up a cookie. "Any particular reason why?"

Ranma set her mug down. "Chiyoko is retiring."

"Osamu?" Nodoka asked, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

Ranma nodded. "It's been an open secret for awhile; at this point, though, if Chiyoko wants to be an honest woman, well…"

"I see. Not unexpected, at any rate." Nodoka tilted her head to one side. "Any idea what kind of role they have planned for you?"

Ranma shook her head. "Not yet. We'll see how this show goes, first."

"Well, the reviews I've read have been good ones." Nodoka picked up the newspaper next to her, glancing at the article. "I'm just glad they finally found a way to use that clothing trick of yours to good effect."

"Well… It is kind of fun. Speaking of fun... we got permission to do a bit of promotion at the train station tomorrow. Haruka, Akiko and I going to go into makeup a little early, then head down to the station. We're going to perform the waltz, then hang around in character for awhile." She twitched her eyebrows. "The reactions should be interesting."

"Oh, my… Should I come and watch?"

Ranma shrugged. "If you like. It should be entertaining, at least." She took one more sip of her tea, then rose from the table. "I should go to bed. I need to get up early."

Nodoka nodded. "Good night, daughter."

Nabiki sat in Takarazuka station waiting for the train back to Tokyo, nursing a cup of tea and her thoughts.

The night and morning hadn't provided any answers. She wasn't even sure what the questions were. What did she want from Ranma? Drinks for old time's sake? An explanation of what had happened? Was that even appropriate?

"You didn't get much sleep, did you?"

Nabiki glared over at Hiromi. "Did you expect me to?" She crossed her legs, and sat back in her chair. "At this point, I don't even know what to think." She took a moment to rub the fatigue from her eyes. "I don't even know what to feel at this point, Hiromi. I mourned her, Hiromi. Mourned her. And I felt guilty as hell for a long time that I lived and they didn't."

"And now she's alive." Hiromi sipped her own tea. "You had to have suspected."

"Suspicion is not the same as proof," Nabiki countered. "I… I hoped, after the end… that Ranma had survived. That she'd come back. That, well… we'd find a way to stay a family. It could never be like it was - that wasn't happening with Akane gone - but I thought she'd at least come back if she survived."

Hiromi sighed. "Look at it this way. She survived a murder attempt by making her killer think she'd succeeded. With something like that… I'm not sure I'd come back. Given how the police acted, I'm not sure I would take the chance if I were in her position."

Nabiki's voice was suddenly hoarse. "I hate not knowing what to do."

Hiromi smiled knowingly at the words. "You always do. You have always hated not knowing anything, as long as I've known you." She tilted her head to one side. "Look at it like any other problem. What do you want? Start with that."

Nabiki made a face. "The problem is, I don't know what I want. No clue. None at all. It's not like she's going to come waltzing back into my life…"

An elegant waltz began to play from the PA speakers. Nabiki's eyes narrowed. "That is SO not funny."

"I don't know," Hiromi supplied, a grin on her face. "I think it's…" Her voice trailed off as she looked behind Nabiki; her jaw dropped.

Nabiki frowned. "What?" She recognized the song; it was the same waltz the Revue had played during Ranma's performance.

It was at that point that the vocals began - and Nabiki instantly paled.

"She's right behind me, isn't she?"

"Just watch," Hiromi suggested.

Nabiki turned around. One of the climactic scenes in the show was a battle for Jekyll/Hyde's soul; Emery and Jekyll would sing a verse, then Lanyon and Hyde, back and forth, an acting tour de force as Ranma shifted from one character to another. After several verses, the roles would mix, as would Ranma's costume, with Ranma's clothes and identity blurring together in the confusion. How Ranma was able to keep track of the costumes was beyond her; the combinations alone were bewildering.

One thing that hadn't changed about Ranma: presence. She could still own the room - or station, in this case. She just gave everything to what she did; even as the station hovered around them, she performed as though only three people existed in her world. It seemed as though she adjusted reality around her wherever she went, regardless of what anyone else or the universe thought.

The trio finished their routine; Ranma stood there, a schizophrenic mix of clothing on her, her necktie held in Emery's hand like a leash, a shapely stocking-clad leg wrapped around Lanyon. The station erupted in applause; Nabiki found herself joining in.

"Way to go, Ranma!" she shouted, then covered her mouth. Ranma, after all, had been dead for over a decade.

That said, no one paid any mind to the slip. The trio broke their pose and bowed to the crowd, then began conversing in character with the fans. Nabiki raised an eyebrow at Ranma's antics; occasionally, she would shift from one to another, the reserved, gentlemanly Dr. Jekyll giving way to the sultry Miss Hyde - sometimes in mid-sentence. Ranma played the crowd well, talking, joking, occasionally offering one man or another in the audience a sip of Jekyll's new potion - "It'll certainly bring out a different side to you!" - one person took her up on the offer, only for her to exclaim, "Hmmm. Must be a bad batch" - Ranma turned to the side, toward her -

"Hello, Milady! And how are you today?" Jekyll-Ranma appeared before her, hand elegantly offered. Nabiki held out her hand for Jekyll to kiss - but it was Hyde who left a lipstick print on her knuckles.

"I am well, thank you." She smiled. Ranma had to have recognized her to do this - which gave her an opportunity. "Miss Hyde, are you familiar with the work of Doctor Ono?"

Hyde-Ranma put a finger to her chin. "I've worked with many a doctor… Ono? Ono Toufuu, perhaps? Dreamy dark eyes behind those glasses, silky long, midnight-black hair that he puts in a ponytail, and a body to die for? And oh, my, those hands…" Nabiki nodded, eyes twinkling at Ranma's performance. Ranma stage-whispered to the crowd. "Oh, ladies, you haven't lived until you've felt Doctor Ono's hands on you. One time, with just one touch, he left me so weak in the knees… I was completely helpless. Oooh, yes, I remember Ono…" She instantly shifted into her Jekyll persona. "… indeed, a worthy colleague and scholar. The things he's able to do with regard to energy flows and pressure points in the human body is extraordinary. How is Ol' Toufuu doing these days?"

"Quite well," Nabiki offered. "He's likely moved since you last saw him; his clinic is in a larger location in the Nerima district, a dojo near Furinkan. At any rate, he's had some experience with cases similar to yours. You should come by and visit him sometime; I'm sure you would enjoy it."

Ranma nodded. "I will have to look at my schedule, though I would definitely welcome his…" Ranma shifted into Hyde persona, "…insight." The last word was said with a decidedly unwholesome purr. "I will have my maidservant contact him, to arrange a… meeting with him. Yes, a meeting. Until then…" Ranma moved away to talk with others in the crowd; Nabiki's heart rate returned to normal. She'd forgotten just how intense Ranma could be.

Her colleagues from the firm gathered around her, giving her quiet pats on the back for her act. Hiromi simply looked at her. "Nabiki, was that normal for you?"

Nabiki brushed some imaginary lint off of her outfit. "Hiromi, compared to my high school days, that was positively sedate."

"And that you just invited her to your family home was pure coincidence," Hiromi whispered conspiratorially.

"Why not? She lived there herself for a year or two. And if a reunion was going to happen… it would be there." Nabiki reached out, grabbed her cup of tea, and took a satisfying swig, finishing the cup, before throwing it into a nearby trash bin. "One thing about life with Ranma: nothing is ever normal."

"Truer words were never spoken, Nabiki."

Nabiki froze, and slowly turned around. She knew that voice.

The woman that stood there was older than she remembered; of course, thirteen years had passed since they'd seen each other. Her dark brown hair had acquired streaks of gray; she'd developed wrinkle lines around her eyes and mouth. The woman gave a gentle smile to the room, one that Kasumi and her had seemingly patented, but Nabiki herself had never quite mastered. Her clothing was more modern than she remembered; gone was the kimono and sword, replaced with a comfortable blouse and slacks.

Nabiki rushed over, and did something she never would have thirteen years ago: she gave the woman a hug.

"Auntie! How have you been?"

"I've been well." Nodoka smiled; Nabiki idly noticed the crow's feet around her eyes. "I lived and worked in Takarazuka in my own youth; after what happened, I thought it best to bring us back."

Nabiki glanced back at Ranma, who was still working the crowd. "So I see. So… Akimoto Ran?"

Nodoka's eyes twinkled with mirth. "Akimoto is the family I was born into. When everything went so very wrong in Nerima, going back to Takarazuka seemed like a good refuge for us. To muddy the waters, my parents officially adopted Ranma into the family, giving her a new identity, a new life."

Nabiki frowned as another thought entered her consciousness. "And Genma?"

"Died five years ago while training." Nodoka shook her head. "It always saddened him that he was never able to unite the Schools. He may have acted with bluster, but he always blamed himself deep inside." She reached out, and grabbed Nabiki's hand. "So. How is your family?"

Nabiki paused for a moment. "Hmmm…. let's see… you were there for Kasumi and Toufuu's wedding, right?" Nodoka nodded; Nabiki took the opportunity to pull out a wallet full of pictures. "Well, they have three children now. There are the twins, Ranko and Akane - they're eleven - and Katsuo, who's eight." A wry grin crossed her features. "They keep Sis busy. We decided to teach all three of them the Art, including Toufuu's school and our own; after what happened to the last generation, as grisly as it sounds, having more than one person knowledgeable in the Art is a good idea." She flipped forward to another photo, this one of the dojo itself. "We put a second story on the dojo; Toufuu has his clinic on the first floor, while the dojo itself is now on the second." She looked back over at Ranma, still performing, as she put away her wallet. "I take it Ranma still doesn't need to worry about hot water?"

"Not since Herb tried to claim her as a bride…" Nodoka sighed wistfully. "Other than the dating, I don't think she minds anymore."

"Dating?" Nabiki raised an eyebrow.

"It can be hard for people to separate Saotome Ranma the person from Akimoto Ran the performer," Nodoka supplied. "Several women have wanted more of the latter than the former."

"Ah." Nabiki could relate to that; she hadn't had much luck in dating either.

"Nabiki." Hiromi's voice cut through their conversation, instantly garnering Nabiki's attention. "I don't mean to intrude, but our train leaves in five minutes. We should start boarding."

"I..." Nabiki looked between Hiromi and Nodoka, torn between mentors.

Nodoka nodded sagely, clearly understanding the source of Nabiki's hesitation. She opened her purse and pulled out a business card, offering it to Nabiki with both hands. "Ranma's business card."

Nabiki accepted the card, and looked at the information printed there. "Wow. Times really have changed."

"What do you mean?" Nodoka asked.

Nabiki tilted her head to one side. "I never thought of Ranma ever having email, or a cel phone. She always seemed… stuck in time to me." She put the business card away, then looked in her purse for her own. "Here. The first one is my work card; the second is for the Dojo."

"Thanks. I'll see that Ranma gets these. In the meantime… you have a train to catch."

Nabiki nodded. She began to look around…

"Your luggage?" Hiromi rolled Nabiki's luggage toward her before putting a hand on her hips in exasperation. Nabiki blushed, feeling like a newly-minted employee.

"I'll talk to you later, Auntie. Bye!" Nabiki briskly followed Hiromi to the platform to catch her train; they managed to board with a minute to spare. Nabiki took her seat, closed her eyes, and finally allowed herself to relax.

Her life had taken a turn for the strange. Again.

And this time, she was just fine with it.

"Damn, that was fun." Haruka took a bite from her lunch in the dressing room, her eyes alight with energy; Ranma smiled knowingly as she more methodically ate her own lunch.

Ranma had learned a long time ago that a performance was like a fight. Adrenaline started to flow through the body, gathering the energy it needed for what it perceived as a threat. If the body still had energy after the threat was done, then she would remain excited and energized. If not, then she'd usually need either rest, food, or both. Akiko had once referred to it as the difference between nervousness and excitement; to her, it was just the same words in a different language.

In this case, the trio had performed for a half-hour at most. They still had plenty of energy. Ranma took another bite of her lunch, then put her chopsticks down.

"Thanks for agreeing to do this, guys," Ranma said. "It just sounded like fun to do this in a public setting. And the promotional aspects…"

Akiko's eyes lit up as she daintily ate her lunch. "It was a good idea. We're so used to the stage that sometimes we forget that our characters are - at least in theory - something outside the stage. How would Beatrix act to someone waiting for the train, or a random person on the street?"

Haruka grinned lecherously. "I had a lot more fun romancing the women there. Let's face it; Lanyon's a bit of a pervert. It's always interesting to see how they respond to his advances."

"Is Michiru okay with it?" Akiko asked knowingly.

Haruka fingered the simple gold ring on her left hand. "Michiru has long known that the act is a part of the job. It's never been more than that - and I had to warn Tomo off a few years ago - and she's fine with that, as long as I make it up to her later." She stared off into some far-off space, a goofy grin adorning her lips; for a moment, Ranma was reminded of Dr. Lanyon, her alter ego in the production. "And, well… I've gotten very good at making it up to her later." Haruka shook herself from her clearly-lecherous thoughts, and looked over at Ranma. "How about you, Ran? I saw you having some fun with switching back there…"

"It was…" Ranma's face twisted as she took a moment to find the words. "In my case, I ran into an old friend from high school. She knew what I was like back then, so she could play along with me."

"An 'old friend'?" Akiko asked, an eyebrow raised. "Is it that kind of 'old friend'?"

Ranma snorted. "Her, no. Her sister, on the other hand…" Her mouth suddenly turned dry. "It's a long story. I've actually tried writing my own production based on those years."

"Ah, so it's literally a long story." Haruka's gaze pierced into Ranma. "So. Comedy, or tragedy?"

Ranma just looked at Haruka. "It's me. What do you think?"

"Tragedy, then," Haruka conceded. Her eyes took on a mischievous cast. "So this is the girl that broke Ran's heart?"

"This is the girl that I had to identify at the morgue," Ranma responded flatly.

"Oh, shit," Haruka replied. Silence hung over the dressing room for a minute.

After what seemed an eternity, Akiko broke the silence. "So what was she like, Ran?"

"Akane?" Ranma's eyes misted over. "Wow. Well, she was a martial artist, like me -"

Haruka snorted. "Leave it to Ran to talk about martial arts first. Face? Who cares. Killer bod? Meh. But can she punch through a wall… now THAT'S important!"

"Well, it is!" Ranma replied testily. "There were two families that practiced my family's style of martial arts; hers was the other. And she did have a nice face and 'killer bod'. Short dark hair - no, Haruka, not what you think - cute face…. when she smiled, it was like the whole world lit up. She was fiery and passionate, sometimes overly so; when she believed in a cause, she'd fight for it to the very end." She looked down at the table, her fingers drumming to her own beat, the movement of the fingers absorbing her thoughts. She didn't want to look her friends in the eye at that moment. It still hurt too much. "I still miss her," she finally forced out.

Ranma felt a hand touch her shoulder – Akiko's. "Ran, do you mind if we look at what you have written so far? We might have some ideas on how to improve it."

Ranma nodded shakily, still not willing to meet their eyes. "Yeah. I can do that. Not sure you'll believe all that happened… but I can do that."

"Should be fun to read," Haruka grinned. "I mean, we don't really have much of an idea of what you were like then. Might be nice to have just a nice high-school romance to perform." She grabbed her cup of tea as though it was a beer mug, raised it to her lips, and took a manly gulp. "Besides, it's not like Ran's going to have to change from Jekyll to Hyde in this one, right?"

Ranma stopped at Haruka's words. Her mouth moved up and down as though trying to formulate some sort of response. After several seconds, she just shook her head and grabbed her tea, hiding any facial expressions behind her mug.

Some things, she knew, couldn't be easily described, couldn't be easily believed. The year-and-a-half she'd spent in Nerima definitely qualified.

Nabiki sat on the couch in her Tokyo apartment, her legs crossed on the leather seat cushion, her laptop glowing faintly on the coffee table in front of her, her eyes closed in thought.

Ranma was back. Transformed in name, transformed in reputation, transformed in life, but still Ranma. Unfortunately, all of that – past and present – left her with a problem she didn't know how to address.

How should she even talk to her?

She'd been trying to write an email ever since coming home from work. Nothing sounded right. She tried formal: "Hello, Ranma. It has been a long time since…" only to discard it. For Ranma, formality was an act, a show to put on; it certainly didn't fit in an email. She tried bubbly. "Hey, Ranma! Great to run into you at the station! How are things?" Anything approaching bubbly died with Akane.

She honestly had no clue as to what to do. Supper hadn't given her any answers, nor had an examination of Ranma's post-Nerima career. She'd wasted an evening, and had nothing to show for it but more questions.

Nabiki rose from her couch, and walked to the coat rack at the entrance of her apartment. When she had no clue, she did have a clue as to who to ask. She rummaged through the chaos inside her Coach bag to pull out her cel phone. She unconsciously smoothed out her sleep pants and crossed her legs as she sat back down on the sofa, a habit from years of talking with clients while making a phone call.

"Ono residence!"

Nabiki had never gotten skilled at telling the difference between the twins' voices; she opted for misdirection. "Hey, it's Nabiki. How are things?"

"Auntie Nabiki!" The voice immediately brightened; that tended to suggest Akane among the twins, but she wasn't completely sure. "Mom said you were taking a trip with your company for a few days."

Banal, bland, 'How's the weather' talk was something Nabiki could do; in this case, it certainly beat the alternative. She naturally fell into normal conversation. "We went to an onsen near Osaka. We saw the sights, did some shopping, went to a show… the usual." A pang of guilt strummed across her features for a moment. "Well, not quite the usual. Is your mom around?"

"Hmmm… not quite the usual." Nabiki immediately revised her initial estimate; Ranko was the quieter, more calculating one of the twins. "You met a guy, didn't you?"

Nabiki sputtered for a moment. "Ra…Ak…Hey!" She took a moment to gather her wits. "I did not 'meet a guy', thank you very much."

"Oh, so you met a girl!" the voice crowed. "Please say you met a girl… I've got a thousand yen riding on this…"

"I… wait, what?" That last statement threw Nabiki for a loop. "What do you mean you have a thousand yen riding on this?"

"Well…" the voice on the other end sounded positively sheepish. "Sis and I made a bet as to why you hadn't gotten married yet. Sis said it was because you hadn't found the right boy. Um… I said it was because you liked girls." The voice paused for a second. "Which is just fine! There's nothing wrong with that!"

Nabiki palmed her face in her hands. "Great. I've got my nieces betting on whether or not I'm a lesbian. Ranko," and she was sure it was Ranko by this point, "it's not that simple. There's a lot to appreciate in both men and women. You have friends that are girls and friends that are boys, right?"

"Well… the boys are still rather immature…"

"They don't grow out of that," Nabiki countered. "But they're still interesting." She felt her heartbeat quicken. "I did meet an old friend from high school, though, and I need to talk to your mom about it."

Ranko cooed. "Oooh, is this going to be one of those romances where the 'old friends' get together and rekindle an old flame?"

If Nabiki could have glared daggers through the phone, she would have. "Just put your mom on the phone, okay?"

Nabiki felt like crawling under the coffee table when Ranko shouted, "Hey, Mom! Nabiki's calling for some dating advice!" Her own sister's bemused tone did not help matters once she picked up.

"So. Nabiki. How was your trip?" Kasumi asked, clearly innocently, clearly not.

Nabiki couldn't help but respond. "Was good, for the most part. We went to the Koyokan Bettai Azale; it's an incredible place. You should take Toufuu there for a night or two if you want to get away from the kids for awhile. We also did some shopping in Osaka, and saw a Takarazuka Revue show."

"Oh, I see!" Kasumi crowed. Nabiki sighed; it was clear to her who Ranko had inherited her speaking mannerisms from. "And has dear Nabiki-chan fallen into an illicit affair with one of its 'actors'?"

"Not quite, sis." The fact as to who she'd met - what she had to do - came crashing down on her. "Um… sis… are you sitting down?"

The change in tone clearly caught Kasumi's attention. She waited a second before responding. "Yes, I am… what's going on?"

Nabiki took a deep breath. "While I was away on my trip… I ran into Ranma."

Silence hung in the air for several seconds, eventually interrupted by a too-young voice in the background asking, "Momma, why are you crying?" A few seconds more, and Nabiki heard the sound of a deep, gathering breath.

"Are you sure?"

Tears started welling in her own eyes at the question. She glanced at the browser window open on her laptop, showing the Revue's web site, 'Miss Hyde' vamped up and in the arms of some otokoyaku. "Yeah. She's an actress in the Takarazuka Revue; look up their 'Dr. Jekyll and Miss Hyde' show on the internet, and you'll understand."

"Dr. Jekyll and Miss Hyde?" Kasumi almost choked the words through the phone.

"Yeah, of all the roles, she ends up with that one, I know." She shook her head. "I ran into both her and Auntie Nodoka in the train station the next day; we exchanged cards, and a basic agreement to meet."

"What about Genma?" Nabiki could almost picture Kasumi's frown as she asked the question. The reputation that the man had among the Tendou sisters was mixed, given the actions he'd taken in raising his child. "Father is going to want to know."

"Died five years ago, apparently," Nabiki supplied. She sighed. "I've been trying to write an email to her to invite her to the dojo, but… don't know what to say."

"I… see." Kasumi gave a shuddering breath. "What are you thinking right now?"

Nabiki winced. Her sister would ask that – one of too many questions she didn't have the answers to. "Other than not knowing the words to invite her? I'm not sure I can think right now. I mean… so much happened that I don't know where to begin parsing through everything I'm feeling. At this point, I'm just trying to find the words for the email."

"I… I can relate to that," Kasumi whispered. "I'm not sure what I'm feeling right now, to be honest." A long pause for a moment almost left Nabiki wondering if her sister was still on the line. "Nabiki…" Kasumi finally spoke, "the only advice I can give is to be yourself, and be honest. No formality; just be honest with her. Don't ignore the past - none of us can - but don't choke on the past, either."

"O… Okay," Nabiki replied.

"By the way, sis…" Kasumi's voice took on a worried tone. "You're not thinking of starting a relationship with her, are you?"

A voice cried in the background, "It is a girl!"; Nabiki ignored it.

Oddly enough, that question was far easier to answer. "Sis, I don't know. I don't know anything right now. Ranma is Ranma is Ranma. Dating her is like dating a force of nature. I might not, but I might get swept up in the tide."

A soft chuckle came from the other end. "Yes, Ranma's like that, isn't she?" The swish of paper being flipped came to the phone. "Should I expect her next weekend?"

Nabiki's fingers moved toward her laptop. She scrolled down to verify the dates of the show. "I'd probably see about two weekends from now, Kasumi. Next weekend is the last weekend for the show in Takarazuka, but it'll take a few more weeks after that for the Tokyo show to start up."

"Okay. I'll start to make the arrangements." The line paused for a moment. "Oh, and sis? Be careful. I love you."

"I love you too, Sis. Say hello to everyone there for me, and tell them I'll be there in two weeks."


"Bye." Nabiki closed her cel phone, and turned back to the computer. She had a better idea of what to write; she just hoped the words were within her. A swipe and a click of the mouse brought the mail server up. Her fingers flew across the keyboard before she could think about their implications.

Ranma -

It was good to see you in Takarazuka; it has been a very long time. I've looked at your schedule; as the show seems to end next weekend before coming to Tokyo, how does a visit to the dojo two weekends from now sound? You were always - are always - a part of our family, and you and Nodoka are always welcome here.

Love, Nabiki.

Nabiki paused for a moment, her hands frozen above the keyboard, her mouse cursor poised over the 'send' button. She took a moment to glance around at her apartment, at the life she'd built for herself. The Western-style furniture, the tasteful decorations and knick-knacks, the row upon row of books lining one wall. They were her refuge, a fortress built to shield herself as much from the past as from the world around her. Irrational as it was, inviting Ranma into her world again felt like throwing all of what she'd built at risk.

The thought lanced through her mind: Ranma was worth it. She hit the 'send' button on the email, closed the mail program, and walked away from the computer before she could change her mind.

Ranma lay on top of her apartment building, staring up at the stars.

It had been too long since she'd done so, she realized. The stars were her few friends while on the road; most of her days ended staring up at a riot of stars in some remote training area. Tokyo hadn't held much in the way of stars - the lights were too bright - but they had enough, and that time alone on the roof of the dojo was enough.

Joining the Revue had reduced the number of evenings such as this. The opportunities had simply reduced over time; also, for some odd reason the occasional fan would worry that she was attempting suicide. She allowed herself a small smile in remembrance at their reactions when, on one occasion, she had stepped off the ledge - and then gracefully bounded from windowsill to windowsill on her way down. That said, the incident (and the Revue) had warned her off of such antics, so she'd been reduced to finding more mundane ways of thinking about her life.

At that moment, though, she didn't particularly care. She needed time to stare up at the stars, to think, and maybe to cry a little.

The Revue, for her, was a refuge. Always had been. Mom had seen her emotional state after the mess in Nerima was done; she knew enough to know that the stage could help Ranma cope, at least until she found a way to go on. So she'd enrolled at the Revue. She'd quickly stood out; in terms of talent, she had the whole package - her acting, voice, and dance marks were near the top of the class. To her, it was an extension of her Art and her life; to most of her classmates, she was practically a boy already. She worked her way through the Revue ranks, eventually becoming one of Star Troupe's top otokoyaku. When the Revue began to form a new, experimental troupe, she'd been one of the first tabbed for it; she'd reached the pinnacle of her profession.

Heh. She always was the best.

For her, the revue had always been a way to both mask and excise the pain. She could be Edward Jekyll for a night, or Oda Nobunaga, or the spirit Ariel, and no one would blink an eye. Her own pains, her own doubts, could be excised through these characters; a thousand people could watch her burn out her heart, and applaud her for it. It wasn't enough to go on forever, but it was enough for now.

Or, at least, had been enough, up to now.

With Akane… most days were okay. Most days she could go on with her routine, the training-practice-performance cycle that had been her life for the past decade. Keeping busy helped keep her mind off of things; the stage let her emote any pain away. That was most days, anyway.

Ranma really should have expected one of the Tendous to show up at some point; she herself would have bet on Kasumi showing up, rather than Nabiki. The reaction had most definitely been a delayed one; she'd been Jekyll (or Hyde) at that moment, and couldn't be Ranma for awhile. But… when she did come back to herself… everything hit. Nabiki and Akane had looked a great deal alike; though Nabiki's hair was more brown than Akane's black, their facial features were quite similar, enough to make her wonder and dream.

In other words, as she'd looked into Nabiki's eyes, it hadn't been difficult to imagine what Akane would have looked like at that age - and what she and Ranma could have shared together.

Fortunately at the time, Ranma had buried herself in her role. The switch to Hyde had been instinctive; playing the minx - a role so very far from her ordinary self - had allowed her acting to take control of the situation. Nabiki had always been one for playful banter; the station was simply a stage like any other, Nabiki simply another actor within.

But, when she'd had time to think and to remember, to take in that achingly familiar face… everything came crashing down. She would never let it affect her performance on the stage - like any good professional, she considered that sacrosanct - but, for once, the stage had proved wanting. The scars continued to bleed without respite; old agonies came to visit, ghosts speaking of time lost, lives lost. On nights like that, only the sky would truly listen to her, only the heavens understood.

So, in search of a piece of understanding, Ranma talked with the stars, waxing poetic for a life that had long passed her by.

Authors' note: This will be the first of a four-part work. The parts are written, and have been commented on by prereaders; I will be releasing them about one a week until complete.


August 25, 2018

We'll miss you, Chi.