Hearts of Ice

Chapter 10: Of Love and Insanity

Demons were always messy.

Akane shuddered with revulsion. Even after so long, she couldn't help but grimace as she pushed the still-wriggling pieces of her latest "kill" into a pile with the edge of her katana. The dismembered parts were struggling to reach each other, to fuse back into a whole. They would do it eventually, of course. It was nearly impossible to kill a demon permanently in the Kami Plane, which was actually kind of a relief in a strange way. Even though they were nasty, and sometimes thoroughly evil creatures, she hated the thought of killing anything. Even a demon.

Unfortunately, the only way to completely dissuade a demon from its self-appointed task of kidnapping either Yuki-onna or herself was to completely dismember it. Of course, the moving parts helped dispel the illusion of complete death...

Bleah. Akane looked away as a small blue-skinned ice woman came and began to scoop the demon parts into two separate containers to prevent the thing from completely reforming too soon. She sighed. The servants always seemed to handle the results of her battles better than she did.

"All done, Akane-sama. You can look now." The little ice woman's voice held a distinct note of amusement.

"Ugh. Thanks, Sasaki-san. Do you need help, uh... getting rid of that?"

The little ice-woman chuckled. "That's quite all right, mistress. You did a good enough job that I should be quite safe disposing of it in the usual place. It will be a while before this thing pulls itself back together."

Akane smiled weakly. Demon parts were always discarded far outside the Snow Woman's realm. Which was fine with her. Just as long as the thing came back to life somewhere else, and then made the wise decision not to return. Demons could sometimes be slow learners, though...

"In the meantime," said Sasaki, her white crystalline brows creasing over her winter-grey eyes, "you should take care of your wounds. You have ki burns all over your arms."

Akane looked down at herself, noting the damage in she had taken in battle with mild dismay. "Thanks for pointing that out," she responded wryly, wincing as pain, sparked by awareness, sent sharp messages along her nerve endings.

"That's my job," the little ice woman said with a grin, showing off her teeth, which were clear and pointed like icicles. "You'd never take care of yourself if I weren't around to tell you these things."

Akane laughed a small, embarrassed laugh at the exaggeration as the ice woman left with the demon containers. She had developed a bit of a reputation early on for being extremely stubborn when it came to admitting that she needed help or that she was in any kind of pain. She hated to show weakness.

Still, she'd gotten better at knowing - and admitting - her limits... as well as accepting help graciously when it was offered, rather than snapping back with a retort saying that she could deal with it herself.

That had been a difficult lesson for her to learn. Old habits die hard, and in the mortal plane, it seemed that she was always trying to prove herself. Prove that she was a good enough martial artist. A good enough cook.

A good enough fiancée...

"Uncute tomboy..."

Akane's head snapped up at the sound of Ranma's voice, her eyes wide with hope, and she looked around frantically. Just as quickly, she realized that it was simply Masakazu toying with her again. Her expression crumpled.

"That's not very funny, sensei," she said, her voice a mixture of annoyance and sadness.

A blur of movement, and the tengu stood before her, his black eyes gleaming from his red feathered face.

"It wasn't meant to be funny," he said, not unkindly, as he produced a jar of healing salve. Obediently, Akane sat down and held out her arms, and the tengu began to apply the ointment to her burns. He cocked his head at her. "You don't even realize it, do you?" he asked.

Akane winced at the tengu's touch, then frowned at him questioningly as the salve vanished into her skin, soothing the pain. "Realize what?"

"Haven't you noticed that when I've used Ranma's voice to taunt you during our sparring matches the past few weeks, you haven't lost your temper once?"

Akane sat silently as she digested this piece of information in her mind. She hadn't noticed; not consciously, at least. But now that the tengu mentioned it, she realized he was right. She hadn't lost her temper. Not at him.

And not at Ranma.

The connection was obvious. It had been almost four weeks since Ranma had appeared to her like a ghost as some unknown spell in the mortal plane tried to overcome the blood spell that separated them. After living nearly two years in the Kami Plane, she had all but given up hope that he even remembered her.

But he did remember. He had come for her.

And, seizing the moment, she had finally told Ranma that she loved him.

Akane's expression softened as she remembered the look on his face. The shock in his familiar blue eyes. Shock that was quickly replaced with disbelief, then fearful hope. And finally joy as he...

... almost told her. Akane clenched her teeth in frustration. He almost said the words before the pain choked off his reply, and the failed spell pulled him away from her once again.

It was simultaneously wonderful and awful. Ranma hadn't forgotten her. He was still looking for her. Even after two years, he was still trying to find a way to overcome the blood spell and come to her. And yet the few brief seconds they had been allowed to converse, to see each other, had reopened the horrible, empty longing she had thought long healed over.

Five more years. Truly an agonizing eternity to wait, now that there was the hope that...

Akane sighed. She was eighteen now, almost nineteen. Her blue-black hair fell a few inches past her shoulders. Today Yuki-onna had helped her tie it into a thick French braid so that it would stay out of her eyes during a battle.

Ranma had promised to find her, but the Snow Woman had dampened her hopes that he would succeed. Yuki-onna said that Ranma's quest was impossible unless he found a way to nullify the blood spell that forced them apart. A lengthy, difficult task in the Kami Plane. A nigh impossible one in the mortal plane.

Five years.

Ranma, please don't give up. I'll wait for you...

"Akane-chan."

Akane looked up, blinking tears from her eyes. The tengu looked at her with sympathy.

"The lesson is learned," said Masakazu gently. "I will no longer use Ranma's voice during training, if it causes you such pain."

"No!" said Akane. Then she flushed and lowered her gaze as she realized how sharp her tone was. "Please," she continued softly, looking up again into the tengu's eyes. "I... I want to hear his voice."

Masakazu blinked knowingly. "Even if his voice says unkind things?"

Akane nodded. "Yes. The words may seem unkind, but..."

She paused, and realization flickered across her features. Her breath caught in her throat as a million little things clicked into place. Things that, for some reason, had never been quite clear to her before.

A soft, bittersweet smile slowly lit her face.

"The words may seem unkind," she said, "but they mean something completely different."

The tengu's eyes gleamed. "It seems that more than one lesson has been learned," he said calmly as he sealed the salve jar.

Akane flushed and looked down at her hands.

Just then, the Snow Woman entered the room. Her layered kimono flowed around her tall elegant form, and her shimmering white hair trailed behind her on the floor like a silken wedding train. She smiled. "Ah, Akane, I see you have once again driven off a prospective 'suitor.'"

Akane started and looked up guiltily until she realized Yuki-onna was talking about the demon she had just hacked to bits, and not... She laughed nervously as she felt her cheeks grow hot. "Yes, well," she said lightly, "that's one more down, a half million more to go."

Yuki-onna noticed Akane's high color and peered at her curiously. "Hm. Did I interrupt something?"

"Oh, not at all," said Akane hastily.

"Yes," said Masakazu. "We were just talking about Ranma."

Akane winced inwardly, then sighed and covered her eyes with one hand.

The Snow Woman's smile cracked slightly. "I see. How nice. Well, young Ranma certainly does seem to be the most interesting topic for discussion around here lately. Please, don't let my intrusion dampen your conversation. Akane, when you have a moment, come to my quarters, and I'll work on the blood spell." And with that, she left without another word.

Akane groaned and glared at the tengu. "Sensei, why did you say that? You know how she gets upset whenever anyone brings up Ranma."

Masakazu blinked innocently. "Really? I had no idea. I wonder why that is."

Akane sighed heavily, feeling tears build up behind her eyes. "I don't know," she replied. Blinking back the wetness, she reached for her katana and wiped it clean with a dry rag, caressing the blade with practiced, even strokes before returning it to the sheath strapped to her back. Her hands fell limply into her lap.

"She's been so distant lately," she said thickly. "Ever since Ranma appeared... I know she doesn't like him, but I can't figure out why. It's not like he's ever done anything to her." A wry smile tugged at her lips in spite of her tears. "In fact, she's one of the few females I know who doesn't want to marry him."

Masakazu sat unblinking. "She cares a great deal for you."

Akane looked down. "I know." Her response was barely a whisper. "She's been like a mother to me."

"Perhaps she doesn't want to see you get hurt."

Akane looked up to meet the tengu's gaze, her eyes shimmering, her expression serious. "Masakazu-san," she said with quiet intensity. "I would rather love Ranma and risk the chance of getting hurt than go back to being the half-person I was before I knew him." Then her eyes softened and she chucked self-depreciatingly. "Heh. Wouldn't my family be surprised to hear those words come out of my mouth. Daddy would either collapse from shock or flood the house crying."

Masakazu sat silent for a moment, looking deep into Akane. Then he smiled inwardly. Ah, Akane, how you've changed. He grasped his jar of healing salve and stood. "Well, I'm off!"

Akane blinked, surprised. "Wait..!" But the tengu was already gone. "Sensei..?" She sighed and shook her head. Her master was wise, skilled... and odd beyond belief. Leave it to the tengu to up and leave just when she was pouring her heart out. Maybe eventually she'd get used to his abrupt entrances and exits.

She smiled wryly, brushing the last of her tears away with her fingertips as she stood. Probably not.


Yuki-onna stood facing her mirror. The mirror swirled with frost and magic as images sped over its reflective surface.

"Yuki-chan."

The Snow Woman started in surprise, and the mirror darkened. She turned to see the tengu standing in her doorway. "Masakazu-san," she said coldly. "What do you want?"

"I think you know what I want."

Yuki-onna tossed her mane of shimmering hair and snorted angrily. "What are you going to do? We are in my domain now. You cannot stop me. And don't think I don't know that you've been helping him. I know that you blocked the spell voices from his mind. Well, you'll be interested to know that they've broken through your barrier." The Snow Woman smiled cruelly.

The tengu cocked his head at her and his eyes flashed. "That may be. But at least I slowed the spell down. I bought them some time."

"Them?" The Snow Woman clenched her slender white hands into fists. "I think you mean him."

"I mean them." Masakazu spoke without anger. "Ranma and Akane love each other, no matter how much you try to deny it. I want to help them. You want to help yourself. Your motives are purely selfish, Yuki-chan, and they will end up destroying not only you, but Akane as well, and everything Akane loves."

The tengu's words were soft but powerful. Yuki-onna reacted as if she'd been slapped. She stared at him with wide eyes, then slowly began to shake her head in denial. Icy tears of frustration slipped from her eyes and slid down her white cheeks. "I would never hurt Akane," she said hoarsely.

The tengu's eyes softened. "Then I beg you, Yuki-chan. Let it go. Leave Ranma alone. Fulfill your promise to Akane. Break the blood spell and let her go home to her family."

Yuki-onna shook her head, her eyes closed. "I am her family."

Now the tengu shook his head in frustration. "No. You are a lonely, bitter woman who has grown tired of eternity. You want to keep Akane for yourself, even if it means sacrificing her happiness."

"You don't understand..."

"No. You do not understand. You are deceiving yourself." Masakazu's voice was firm but gentle. "Akane is not your daughter, Yuki-chan."

Yuki-onna's head snapped up, and there was cold fire in her eyes. She trembled as she struggled to contain her fury. "She is happy here." Her voice was a low rasp through clenched teeth. "She was happy here, until he..." She broke off, unable to continue.

Masakazu gazed at her, his bird-like expression unreadable.

The Snow Woman's expression hardened. "Get out," she said. "Leave my home and do not come back. Akane is no longer in need of your training."

The tengu stood silent a moment, his black eyes glittering. "You presume too much, Yuki-onna," he said finally. "This may well be your domain, but it is not for you to tell me when my student is finished with my training." Then, in a smooth, quick motion, he turned to leave. "You will not see me again, unless you change your mind," he said quietly. "I would not lose your friendship, but it appears I have no choice. You are not the woman I once knew."

His voice hardened slightly. "Even so, I will not sacrifice my friendship with Akane simply because you are willing to throw everything away in your desperate, vain attempt to fill the void in your life. I will continue to train her whether you wish it or not. If she will still have me as her sensei," he added.

And with that, he was gone, leaving the Snow Woman staring at her empty quarters.

She stood for a moment looking after him, then sank to her knees, feeling strangely hollow.


Akane stood frozen in silent disbelief after inadvertently eavesdropping a few feet from the entrance to the Snow Woman's quarters, all thoughts of the daily untangling of the blood spell forgotten. There was a rush of air, and the tengu moved past her with such speed that all she saw was a blur of rust-colored feathers.

She stood a moment longer. Then she heard the Snow Woman moving about inside her room, and the noise galvanized her into motion. Swiftly, silently, she ran away.

Masakazu had known she was there. She was sure of it. And he had said those things, knowing she would hear. Knowing she would hear the Snow Woman's response as well.

Hot tears spilled from her eyes as she ran blindly through the crystalline corridors of the Snow Woman's home, her sobs echoing off the pristine white walls, the sense of being betrayed weighing heavily in her gut. In one brief moment, the Snow Woman had changed in her eyes from kindly benefactor to manipulator, to possessor. And the Snow Woman's household changed from a home to a prison. For the first time in nearly two years, she felt truly trapped. Trapped in the Kami Plane by the one person who had the power to free her.

Akane stopped running and collapsed to her knees as overwhelming loneliness and homesickness welled up in her like a black tide. She shivered uncontrollably, her arms wrapped tightly around her body, as if feeling the cold of this place for the first time.

What do I do now? she thought in despair. The image of her family came to her mind; of her father and sisters, whom she hadn't seen for two years. Of Ranma. She blinked as she thought of his final words to her as he faded away: That he would find her.

Steam rose from her tears as they fell steadily against the cold floor. Oh Ranma! she thought. Please find a way to keep your promise...


Ranma woke with a start, drenched in sweat, voices ringing loudly in his head. He moaned and pressed the heels of his hands to his temples as he sat up groggily. Spell voices, he realized. While he had slept, they had gradually emerged from the back recesses of his mind where he had confined them the night before.

Gritting his teeth, he concentrated and pushed them back again so that he could think clearly. Even then, his mind felt fuzzy from lack of sleep. Something had happened the night before, something strange and terrifying. And yet his sleep-fogged brain couldn't quite remember what it was. Something about Akane. Something worse than her just being gone...

The smell of Kasumi's cooking wafted from downstairs, and his stomach growled noisily. When was the last time he ate? He couldn't remember. Pushing himself to his feet, he staggered sleepily into the hall.

He paused outside Akane's room, looking sadly at her wooden duck nameplate. For a moment he was tempted to go inside, just to check to see if she was there sitting at her desk or lying on her bed, and his hand stretched towards the door knob. But from the back of his mind, the spell voices whispered their insistence that she was still gone, that he would never see her again...

Ranma blinked and shook his head, letting his hand fall back to his side. He knew the room on the other side of the door was empty. Despondently, he turned and went downstairs.

"Ah, Ranma, my boy! Good to see you up and about. Feeling any better this morning?"

Ranma looked up to see Soun Tendo kneeling at the breakfast table next to Genma-panda, who was busy wolfing down food with inhuman speed. Kasumi, Nabiki and Ryoga were also eating. Kasumi smiled at him. "Good morning, Ranma. I saved some breakfast for you."

Ranma looked at the group, blinking in bafflement. "Thanks, Kasumi," he said automatically. He looked at Soun, whom he hadn't seen since the night of the blood spell when Akane's disappearance had rendered him bedridden with grief. "Uh, I'm feeling better," he lied. "How are you feeling, Tendo-san?"

"Oh, fine, just fine. Isn't that right, Saotome?" Soun elbowed the panda in the ribs, and the panda paused briefly in inhaling his food to look up and grin. "Yes," he continued, "it was a nasty cold, but not even illness can keep a marital artist down for long."

Ranma began to get a bad feeling in his gut; a feeling of déjà vu from the night before. "Cold?" he asked. Nobody was paying attention.

"Please, Ranma," said Kasumi. "Sit down and have something to eat. You must be starving."

Ranma obeyed numbly, kneeling across from Ryoga and next to Nabiki. He failed to notice the ecstatic looks his father and Soun cast at each other.

"So you're really feeling better, Ranma?" asked Ryoga, looking at him over the rim of his miso soup bowl. "You've got control of the spell voices and everything?"

Ranma nodded, picking absently at his food with his chopsticks.

"Good. You really had me worried for a while there, buddy."

Ranma frowned. "Buddy?" Since when had Ryoga called him buddy? He was usually calling him 'enemy of women,' or something along those lines.

"Pass the soy sauce please," said Nabiki. The soy sauce was right in front of Ranma, but he was staring at Ryoga. "Hey, Ranma. Wake up. I'd like the soy sauce." When he still didn't respond, she nudged him in the arm. "Today, if possible."

He blinked, as if coming out of a dream, and handed her the bottle.

Nabiki gave him a measuring look. "Ranma, what's wrong? Are you sure you're okay?"

"I... don't know," he replied honestly, half-heartedly lifting food to his mouth with his chopsticks. "Something's not right..."

"Well, let's not worry about that now," said Soun, grinning from ear to ear. "Ranma, since you've got those spell voices under control, and since you're all here," he said, looking around at those seated at the table, "Genma and I have an announcement to make. Ranma, you have lived with our family for a year now, and it is your father's and my decision that it's time for you to honor the agreement we made when you were born."

Ranma looked at Soun in shock, his chopsticks frozen in mid-motion to his mouth. "What?! You can't be serious! How can I do that when she's not even-"

"Now, Ranma, you knew this was coming, so it should be no surprise. Yes, we have decided that you shall marry my youngest daughter Nabiki. As of now, she is your fiancée."

Ranma's chopsticks snapped in half. Nabiki choked on her miso soup.

"Oh, how wonderful," said Kasumi, beaming happily. "Now you will really be a part of the family, Ranma!"

Ryoga smirked as he looked at the new couple's horrified expressions. "Hey, congratulations, you two!" he said.

Ranma's mind was suddenly clear of fog. The memory of the previous night and his conversation with Nabiki and Ryoga came clearly, painfully into his mind. "You... you can't do that," said Ranma hoarsely. "What about Akane? She's supposed to be my fiancée!"

Soun's face darkened. "Akane?" he asked. He turned to Genma, his demon-head flaring. "And who, exactly, is Akane? Don't tell me you sold Ranma for food again, Saotome!" The panda shook his head frantically.

Ranma leaped to his feet and grabbed Soun by the front of his gi. "Akane happens to be your daughter, you idiot! You engaged me to her, and now she's missing, trapped in the Kami Plane by this stupid blood spell! How can you possibly forget your own daughter?"

Soun quailed as Ranma's battle aura flared red around him. "Now, now, take it easy son..."

Nabiki sighed. "Ranma, I thought you said you were feeling better."

Ranma released Soun and turned on Nabiki. "I am feeling better! It's all of you who have gone crazy!" He turned to Kasumi, wild desperation lighting his eyes. "Kasumi, you remember Akane, don't you? She's your little sister, she's my age with short black hair, and she's a real tomboy except when she smiles, and her cooking is toxic, and I've been engaged to her for the past year, and..." He trailed off as she stared at him blankly.

"I'm sorry, Ranma, but I don't know what you're talking about," she said. She frowned worriedly. "Perhaps we should have had Doctor Tofu come over last night after all."

Ryoga shook his head, looking at Ranma in consternation. "I think he needs a shrink, not a chiropractor."

Ranma was too shocked to even respond. He stood numbly, looking at the people surrounding the table, his friends, his family. No no no, this can't be happening. They really don't remember Akane, not even Tendo-san... "It... it's part of the blood spell," he said finally. "Somehow, it's made you all forget her..."

"What's all this about?" asked Soun, confused.

[I have no idea,] said Genma-panda, shrugging.

Nabiki looked at Ranma as he gazed in disbelief around the table, a dozen conflicting emotions warring within her, yet she kept her expression carefully neutral. This was all wrong, this wasn't the way it was supposed to be. She had suspected that Daddy was going to spring this engagement on her and Ranma to honor that so-called agreement he and Saotome-san had made so many years ago. She just didn't think they would be so stupid as to spring it in the middle of this whole blood spell mess. With their narrow, linear way of thinking, they probably thought that the problem with the spell voices in Ranma's head would either just go away or be inconsequential if they got their two kids married.

Nabiki frowned slightly at the thought. She remembered that she and Ranma had once played at being engaged, after she manipulated him by telling him that she loved him. He had been so shocked, and so afraid of hurting her feelings, that he had gone along with it and played the dutiful fiance. At least he did until he got tired and angry after she kept renting him out by the hour to his other fiancees, or for hard manual labor that required ridiculous feats of strength and agility. It had been very profitable while it lasted, though...

Still... She wondered what it would be like to really be Ranma's fiancée. No, not just his fiancée. He had a million of those wandering around, it seemed. But... He was one of the best-looking guys in town, with a handsome face and a great bod. He had courage and honor, and his martial arts skills were unparalleled. That, combined with his natural naiveté and charming, clumsy ineptness when it came to women, made him undeniably appealing. Okay, so he was cursed to turn into a girl every now and then. Not to mention the very important fact that he was poor as a church mouse. But then that hardly mattered, since, whether he knew it or not, she always managed to make a substantial profit off of him...

She cut the thought off as Ranma turned and his eyes met hers. She winced a little as he seemed to search her face, and, not finding what he was looking for - recognition of this Akane person, apparently - he dropped his gaze to the floor. He looked so... so lost. She felt a little twinge inside her chest. Those spell voices must really be tearing up his mind, she thought. Okay. Think about the engagement later. Right now, help Ranma.

She stood from the table to face him. "Ranma," she said. "Listen. The blood spell was cast on you, not on any of us. You remember that, don't you?"

Ranma didn't answer. Just a barely perceptible nod as he looked at the floor, his fists clenched at his sides in frustration.

"Then it doesn't really make sense that we're the ones with the faulty memories, does it?"

Silence. Then a low whisper. "I tell you, Akane's real. She's not a figment of my imagination, or of the blood spell, or whatever."

"Then why don't any of us, who weren't touched by the blood spell, know anything about her?" she asked quietly. "It's like Cologne said. The spell was supposed to make you hate Shampoo by making you think she had taken away your most precious possession. Since you didn't have anything like that that would make you upset enough to hate Shampoo, the blood spell created something and placed it in your mind with these spell voices, and that's all this girl is. Akane doesn't exist. She never has existed. She's just part of the blood spell."

Odd, realized Nabiki suddenly, that the blood spell would create a girl to be the thing Ranma loves most. Maybe he's not as shy about women as I thought...

Suddenly, Ranma's head jerked up. "Her room!" he shouted, and grabbed Nabiki by the wrist.

She gasped as, with a yank, he began pulling her down the hall towards the stairs. "Ranma, what are you doing?"

"Come on, you guys," he called back to the dining room. "Akane is real! I can prove it to you!"

Kasumi, Soun, Genma-panda and Ryoga all looked at each other in bafflement. Then they got up and followed.

"There! See?" Ranma stopped outside a door in the hallway. "Look for yourself. The blood spell was only cast on me, right? Well then how do you explain this room?"

Nabiki stared at the wooden duck nameplate, identical to hers and Kasumi's except that it bore the name "Akane." She looked at Ranma and raised an eyebrow.

"Go on," he said. "Open the door and see for yourself."

Shrugging, Nabiki reached out and turned the knob, opening the door.

She gasped. On the other side was a girl's room. The flowered blankets on the bed and the school uniform and dried flowers hanging on the wall said as much. Next to the window was a study desk, with papers strewn across it as though someone had left in the middle of doing homework. A set of barbells lay on the floor next to the bed. Well, thought Nabiki wryly through her surprise, it figures that Ranma's fantasy woman would be into weight lifting.

"Oh my," said Kasumi as she and the others came up behind them. "Ranma, what have you done to the storage room?"

Ranma blinked at Kasumi in shock. "What have I..? I haven't done anything! This is Akane's room!"

"Ranma, where did you get all this?" asked Soun, frowning slightly. "I know you're upset with this blood spell business and all, but this is going a bit overboard, don't you think, son?"

Ranma clenched his teeth, and his ki began to flicker brightly around him. "I'm telling you, I didn't do this! Look!" He went over to the desk. "This is Akane's homework! Do you think I would do her homework?"

The others just blinked at him.

Ranma looked around desperately, trying to find something that would jog their memories. His eyes fell on the picture that hung over the head of Akane's bed, sitting in the frame that he'd bought her for Santa Day. He ran over and grabbed it off the wall. "Look," he said pleadingly, "this is her, right there. This proves that she's real! See?" He held it in front of Soun's face, but he just looked at it blankly. Nabiki took the picture from Ranma's hand and examined it.


She frowned. It was the picture that had been taken of the whole gang after their shipwreck and encounter with Prince Toma's floating island. "Sorry, Ranma, I don't recognize her. Besides, this girl could be anybody. She's probably one of the girls that Prince Toma kidnapped."

Ranma opened his mouth to protest, but Nabiki stopped him. "Look at all the people in this picture, Ranma," she said. "There's Ukyo and Shampoo right next to you. But if this girl's supposed to be the one you love, why is she standing clear over there away from you?"

Ranma blinked, a stricken expression on his face. "I... I..."

Nabiki shook her head. "Look, Ranma, I don't know where all this stuff came from. Maybe you put this here while under the influence of the blood spell or something. Maybe the blood spell created some physical evidence to help convince you. It doesn't matter. It doesn't change the fact that none of us were touched by the blood spell, and you were. You have to accept that, or you're going to drive yourself crazy worrying over a missing girl who doesn't exist."

Ranma looked into the concerned faces of his friends and family, and felt his resolve crumbling. No, it can't be! But... what if she's right? What if there never was an Akane... What if it's all the blood spell...

No Akane... A tremor ran through Ranma. If Akane wasn't real, then all his memories of the past year of his life were a lie. He tried to think of what his life would actually have been like, since he showed up at the Tendo Dojo, without Akane there. But he couldn't do it. Akane was an ingrained part of almost everything he did, from the first time he sparred with her as a girl in the dojo, all through their turbulent engagement, to this very moment as he thought of her being trapped in the Kami Plane.

But Nabiki might be right. The blood spell might have re-written his memories. Akane might be nothing more than a magical influence on his mind; a creation made specifically to become the sole purpose of his existence, only to have it taken away...

It almost made sense in a strange way. He certainly couldn't recall feeling as... passionate about anyone until he met Akane. Whether she was pounding him into the pavement or smiling in that way that made him feel all funny inside, nobody evoked emotion in him the way Akane did.

Wasn't that magic?

Blood spell figment or not, Akane was a part of himself that he didn't want to lose.

The spell voices whispered in the back of his mind.

**Akane is alive, Akane is alive...**

**You'll never see her again...**

His father, the Tendos, and Ryoga, all looked at him with worry on their faces.

It was too much to bear. Ranma's shoulders slumped, and he turned and walked from the room.

"Ranma?" Ryoga's voice, hesitant and concerned, followed him down the hall. Funny how, without Akane to fight over, Ryoga seemed to be his best friend now. It was kind of nice, and he wondered how they had become friends. He couldn't remember. He went into his room and closed the door behind him.

The others stood in uncomfortable silence. Finally, Soun cleared his throat. "Nabiki, you're his fiancée now, and you seemed to be getting through to him. Perhaps you should go talk to him."

Nabiki stared at Ranma's closed door and shook her head, a strange feeling eating at her gut. "I don't think so Daddy. Ranma needs to be alone right now to think things through. And you and I need to have a talk about this fiancée thing." Soun looked around nervously, and Nabiki rolled her eyes. "But not right now," she said.

Right now, I'm going to my own room to lie down until this headache that I've just developed goes away.

She sighed, and went into her room, closing the door behind her and leaning against it wearily. She listened as the others slowly went back down stairs.

She stood, looking at her bed a moment. Then she changed her mind and sat down at her desk, which was covered with various electronic equipment. Plugging her earphones into an elaborate system, she reached over and flipped a small, obscure switch, then listened carefully.

She couldn't hear anything. Not that she really expected to. Poor Ranma, she thought. He's probably in shock. I know I was kind of harsh, but it was the only way to convince him. Imagine, him thinking that he's engaged to some non-existent girl named Akane...

Then she heard something, so faint she wasn't sure if she'd imagined it. Until she heard it again.

A soft, shuddering sob.

Nabiki blinked. He's... crying?

She pulled off her earphones, her heart pounding in her chest, and she stood from her chair. Oh man. Why, oh why did I do that? she thought with flustered anger. That was so stupid of me, I can't believe I did that. Nabiki, you idiot, what else did you think you were going to hear, with him in there by himself after what you just said to him? As if he's not going through enough right now...

Ranma...

She stood for a moment in indecision, then walked out of her room and down the hall, pausing outside his door. She raised her knuckles and rapped softly. "Ranma?"

There was no answer.

She slid the door open quietly. He was sitting with his back to her in the corner of his room by his dresser. The bottom drawer was open. His hunched shoulders shook with another quiet sob as she stood watching. Swallowing, she closed the door behind her.

"Ranma," she said, her voice catching in her throat. "I... I'm sorry. I know it's hard with this blood spell and all, and I was a little harsh back there..."

He didn't respond. Just sat there, hunched over, his pigtail hanging limply down his back. Slowly, she walked up behind him and looked over his shoulder.

In his hands he held a length of thick, blue-black hair, tied with a ribbon. As she watched, his tears fell into the silky strands and were absorbed, disappearing completely.

"Ryoga accidentally cut her hair off when we were fighting," he whispered. "She was so mad 'cause she'd been growing it to be long like Kasumi's hair. I didn't think she'd forgive me. But then Kasumi trimmed it so that it looked so... cute... I almost... didn't recognize her... at f-first..." His voice trailed off hoarsely into silence even as another glistening tear fell into the lock of hair.

Nabiki didn't know what to say. This was far beyond her realm of experience, and she'd never really been the comforting type. She stood there awkwardly, suddenly wishing for a bit of Kasumi's ability to deal with these kind of things.

"I know she's real, Nabiki," Ranma said quietly. But the fear and doubt in his voice belied the firmness of his words. "I don't care if you think that this is just part of that damn spell."

Nabiki blinked in surprise as she felt tears build behind her eyes. "It's... okay, Ranma," she said awkwardly. Like hell! she thought, her racing mind unable to ease the strange ache building in her chest. I'm watching you lose your mind because of this stupid blood spell...

Ranma stiffened, and for a moment, she almost regretted saying anything. After all, he was always going on about how he was a guy, and how guys don't cry, and he probably hated her for seeing him like this...

Then Ranma raised his head slightly. Nabiki saw his face in profile, his expression shadowed under his dark bangs. She blinked in shock as she recognized an emotion she had never seen on Ranma's face before; an emotion she never thought she'd ever see on his face.

Hopelessness. It flickered across his tear-streaked face, seemed to permeate his entire countenance.

Nabiki felt suddenly cold. She had seen Ranma feel anguish before; the Chiisuiton disaster, for instance. But she had never, ever seen him... give up.

His eyes were filled with intense despair, extinguishing the fire of confidence that normally burned there as he stared blankly at nothing. Yet, even as his face told of his inner misery, his hands tightened on the thick lock of blue-black hair as if he was holding onto a lifeline; as if to let it go would mean the end of his existence.

Nabiki felt her heart contract painfully in her chest. She was way out of her depth. What had possessed her to come in here in the first place? This... What could she possibly do to make this better?

A hug? No. She was not a physically demonstrative person by nature, and she knew that Ranma wasn't much better. Besides, the only person who ever threw her arms around Ranma on a consistent basis was Shampoo, and that was a person she didn't want to think about at the moment.

Still, she couldn't just stand there and do nothing. And Ranma needed something...

Gathering her courage, Nabiki reached out and gave Ranma's shoulder a tentative, gentle squeeze. "Ranma..."

Nabiki's touch was like a spark in the darkness, pulling Ranma back from the dangerous ledge on which he teetered precariously. He didn't move, but his eyes focused again, to her relief...

"What am I gonna do, Nabiki?" Ranma's voice trembled; was barely a whisper. He looked down at the thick lock of hair. "I... love... Akane."

The words seemed to hang in the air, almost tangible. Nabiki didn't know what to say. It was as if Ranma's simple, awkward confession of love for his imaginary blood-spell girl had robbed her mind of coherent thought.

Ranma raised his head slowly, staring straight ahead. An amazed, yet frightened look shimmered in his widening eyes, as if he himself was only now becoming aware of the words that had just escaped his lips.

At that moment, Nabiki felt as if she wasn't even in the room. It was just Ranma. Ranma, and the sudden revelation that was filling his wide blue eyes with a million different emotions, each more powerful than the last...

... until he seemed to crumble before her eyes. Ranma sagged over, clenching the lock of hair and holding it to his chest as a low sob escaped his throat.

"Nabiki," he whispered brokenly. "I love her... and I never told her... She doesn't know. And now she's either trapped in the Kami Plane where I can't get to her and everybody has forgotten about her except me, or she doesn't exist at all except in my own mind." A tear escaped his wet eyes and slipped down his shadowed cheek. "I never told her."

Nabiki's eyes burned, and her throat felt dry. She hated this. She hated seeing Ranma like this. The cold, rational part of her, the part that knew Akane didn't really exist, wanted to force Ranma to accept reality. Wanted to slap him upside the face and tell him to snap out of it and join the real world.

But looking at him... seeing his very real grief and despair... she couldn't.

Because she knew that it wouldn't do any good.

Ranma believed that Akane was real. And he... loved her. But that wasn't the real tragedy, it was only the evidence of the tragedy. The real tragedy was the blood-spell that now ruled Ranma's mind, his memory, his soul. His whole life was now based on a lie. All of his vitality and confidence seemed to have been sapped away in just a few days. All because of the blood spell Shampoo had cast so that she could claim Ranma as a trophy husband to take back to her Amazon village.

Nabiki clenched her fists at her side, and thought of a certain tape she still had in her possession. Cologne, I swear, if you don't come back and cure Ranma of your blood spell in two days, you and that Chinese bimbo are toast.

But what could she do for Ranma now? She couldn't just leave him here and wait for Cologne to come back with the cure. Ranma was dwindling, spiraling down into his blood-spell induced delusions. She could tell by the way his white-knuckled hands still clung to the lock of hair that he claimed was once Akane's.

He needed to get out and be with other people. He needed to get back into the swing of his life as it was before the blood spell hit. Otherwise, he really would go crazy.

"Ranma," she said quietly. "Why don't you... clean yourself up and come to school with me this morning. You've been out for four days because of this whole mess, and I think it would be good for you to go and get your mind off... this."

Ranma raised his head slowly and blinked at her, as if just realizing she was still there. Slowly, his eyes cleared. "School?"

"Yeah, school," she said, smiling slightly, trying to ignore the haunted look on his face. "You know, the big building where a lot of kids and a few adults go to watch you fight Kuno? It's been a few days. I bet he's just aching to kill you for keeping his pig-tailed goddess from him for so long."

Ranma stared at her with a stupefied expression as he realized she was trying to cheer him up. This was a side of Nabiki he hadn't seen before. "Nabiki..?"

"What are you looking at me like that for?" she asked, feigning indifference. "My profit margins are down five percent because you haven't been there to beat Kuno in your ritual morning fight." She left her tone light enough to let him know that she was kidding... just barely. She had actually lost and spent more money because of this whole fiasco than she had in the past six months combined.

Ranma blinked. Then, slowly, the corner of his mouth turned up into the pale ghost of a smile. "I... Okay, Nabiki. That sounds like a good idea."

She smiled. A real smile, the kind that rarely lit her face. "Good," she said. "Think you can be ready in time? We have to leave soon."

Ranma nodded, a glimmer of his old life coming back into his countenance. But his hands still clutched the lock of dark hair. "I'll be ready," he said.

Nabiki stood and looked at him seriously, not quite willing to leave out of fear that he was just humoring her so that she would go away...

Ranma seemed to understand what she was thinking. "Really," he said. A hint of gratitude seeped into his voice. "I'll be ready."

Nabiki left Ranma's room with a strange, light feeling in her chest, and traces of her smile still on her face.

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