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Hearts of Ice

By Krista Perry

Romance / Adventure

Prologue

Cologne was watching one of her favorite daytime soap operas when the letter came. She lay relaxed and content in an overstuffed chair, her thin, wrinkled hands clasped and resting on her stomach. She didn't even blink when Shampoo entered the room with a handful of mail; Hiragi was about find out that Michiru was carrying his baby, and she had been waiting for this moment for weeks.

"Great-grandmother..."

Cologne held up a silencing hand, eyes riveted to the television screen.

"But... Great-grandmother-"

"Hush, child. Whatever it is, it can wait until commercial break."

Shampoo looked at the stack of letters and restaurant catalogues in her hand, shrugged, and set them on the small side table before leaving the room.

As it was, Cologne's hopes of seeing Hiragi's reaction were dashed as Michiru's imminent revelation was interrupted by the arrival of Hiragi's cousin, who came to announce that Michiru's brother, Jinpachi, hadn't really died in the warehouse fire a month ago, and that he had just been discovered recovering from burns and trauma-induced amnesia in a nearby hospital.

Not what she was hoping for, but an interesting twist nonetheless. It was, of course, on that cliffhanger that the episode ended. Cologne sighed and turned the television off with a flick of the remote as she hopped out of the oversized chair with a spryness that belied her ancient appearance.

Her eyes fell on the stack of mail Shampoo had left. Before she could even wonder what her great-granddaughter thought was important enough in the daily post to interrupt her program, she saw the small red envelope lying on top.

Her face went ashen.

She reached for the envelope with a trembling hand, taking quick note of the Chinese postmark, and tore it open before she could think twice about it.

The letter was brief of necessity - written, she knew from personal experience, with the author's own blood. Her eyes took in the kanji; the meticulously painted characters, once bright, gleaming red as the brush swept across the pale parchment, now rust brown.

Honorable Sister.

A full year has passed since you left us to claim your great-granddaughter's wayward husband. Rumor has it that life in Japan has made you grow soft and weak, and that your honor is corrupted by foreign influence; that, rather than acquiring what is yours by right and sacred tradition, you have instead bowed to the will of this outsider male.

The Council's patience has reached an end. You and your great-granddaughter will fulfill your obligations of honor by whatever means necessary and return to us by mid-summer or suffer the penalties-

The letter crumpled in Cologne's fist. Her eyes felt tight and unnaturally dry, and she could hear her heartbeat thudding in her ears. She stood, for long minutes, staring at nothing, her jaw clenched tight.

"Great-grandmother?"

It was a testament to her distraction that she hadn't even felt Shampoo come up behind her. She turned, her expression carefully schooled, and raised an eyebrow. "Yes, what is it, child?"

Shampoo frowned. "Everything... okay? You get letter from home, and..." She trailed off, biting her lower lip, obviously wanting an explanation for her strange behavior.

Cologne forced a smile. "This is just a letter from a friend, one of the tribe matriarchs. We grew up together. She brought back a lot of old memories. I guess I was a little lost in thought, remembering. It's nothing you need to worry about."

Shampoo smiled in relief. "Oh, so glad nothing bad happen."

Cologne nodded, tucking the letter into her voluminous sleeve. "Say, Shampoo, why don't you take Son-in-law some lunch today?"

With a grin and a wink, Shampoo turned on her heel. "Was already planning on it, Great-grandmother. I sure to convince Ranma to take me on date today."

Of course, Cologne thought. The scent of old blood filled her head. No reason he would turn you down like he has the other half million times you've asked him out.

As if he even should have a choice in the matter...

When Shampoo returned later that evening, having once again failed to convince Ranma to leave Akane and take her out on a date - and all this in spite of her superior cooking skills - she was surprised to discover the television set lying in several mangled pieces in the trash bin. When she went to her great-grandmother's room to enquire about the television's demise, she found Cologne sitting amidst stacks of dusty old books, and pouring over several ancient leather scrolls.

Cologne looked up as Shampoo entered the room, and her withered face cracked in a smile. "Shampoo," she said, "you're just in time."

Shampoo looked around the room, puzzled. "Great-grandmother, what all this? And what happen to television?"

"Nothing, just a little accident. Come, look at this," she said, gesturing to the scroll rolled out before her.

Leaning over the scroll, Shampoo's forehead creased as she tried to make out the faded, ancient writing. "What is it?" she asked again.

"I was going through some old Amazon texts, and found this legend that I think you might find interesting. Go ahead. Read it."

Raising a skeptical eyebrow, Shampoo settled herself on the floor next to Cologne, and squinted to make out the faint characters. Several minutes later, Shampoo looked up, eyes gleaming with excitement.

"Great-grandmother," she said. "You know what this means?" Without waiting for an answer, she bent her head over the scroll again, reading intently.

Cologne smiled.

"I suspect it means that we will be going home soon," she whispered.

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