Chapter 11: Best Laid Plans
Cologne gazed contemplatively at the scroll unrolled before her, reading by the light of the small campfire whose glow and heat held back the cool spring night of the Chinese wilderness that surrounded her. She had read the scroll every few hours for the past three days, ever since she left Japan, according to the instructions inscribed in her own handwriting. Only now was she beginning to appreciate the reason why she had written such instructions to herself.
The writing on the scroll described the events of the past week in painstaking detail. From the blood spell that Shampoo cast, using blood from the Ancient One, banishing Akane Tendo to a place where Ranma Saotome could not hope to reach her, and placing spell voices in his mind to reinforce the hopelessness of any attempt to rescue her.
To returning to the Nekohanten, only to discover that Ranma knew they were the ones behind the spell, and the ones to blame for Akane's disappearance and the voices that now plagued his mind.
To deceiving him with the lie that, while in China, Shampoo was kidnapped by a dragon to be a dragon bride, and that the spell was cast by the dragon to make Ranma hate Shampoo, knowing that Ranma would believe she was responsible for Akane's disappearance.
To the blackmailing efforts of Nabiki Tendo, and the taped confession the girl acquired through unscrupulously bugging the Nekohanten.
To the casting of the True Love spell on Ranma, and the revelation that Akane was trapped in the Kami Plane.
To Cologne leaving with the promise that she would return with the Eye of Kami, which would allow Ranma to rescue Akane from the Kami Plane.
The Kami Plane.
Cologne closed her eyes, feeling the small warmth from the campfire flicker against the withered skin of her face. She knew what effect the Kami Plane had on those mortals who became trapped within its boundaries. As well as what effect it had on the friends and family and acquaintances who were left behind. It was a small piece of the vast knowledge of the unusual she had acquired in a lifetime that spanned three centuries.
And now she knew for certain, from first hand experience, that the knowledge she acquired was correct.
Because she could not, for the life of her, remember knowing anyone named Akane Tendo.
And yet the girl existed. She had, apparently, been the main obstacle to Son-in-law's heart, preventing him from marrying Shampoo as he was bound by Amazon tribal law. Yet no matter what Cologne did, or how she focused and meditated, she could not remember her.
Her own memory told her that Ranma had two other girls, Ukyo Kuonji and Kodachi Kuno, who lay claim to the boy as their fiance, and that he had another potential fiancée in one of the two Tendo sisters, to honor an agreement their fool fathers made. Her own memory told her that Ranma was not in love with any girl; that he was more interested in improving his martial arts abilities and finding a cure to his Jusenkyo curse than deciding which female suitor would be his wife.
Her own memory told her that the blood spell Shampoo had cast was to force Ranma to go through a traumatic experience so great that, when Shampoo was there by his side to give comfort and support, he would fall in love with her of his own free will. Her memory told her that it nearly worked but for the meddling of Nabiki Tendo, who caught their confession on tape and threatened to play it for Ranma unless they removed the spell from him.
Her own memory told her that her first attempt to remove the spell voices from Ranma's mind had failed, but that she had bought herself some time by going to China to get an Amazon cure known as the Eye of Kami.
Cologne shook her head in amazement. Her memory paralleled the story on the scroll, yet with all references to Akane Tendo removed. But at least her memory was straight on one point. There was no Eye of Kami. It was simply a ruse to allow her to get away for a while as she...
... gathered ingredients for a potion that would rid Ranma's mind of the spell voices...
No. That was what her mind told her, but according to the scroll, the ruse was to buy time. Time for the Kami Plane to extend its subtle magic and erase all memory of Akane Tendo from the minds of her family, friends, and associates.
If her own memory was any indication, the Kami Plane's magic was working. By the time she returned, no one would even remember that Akane even existed, let alone needed to be rescued from the Kami Plane.
Except for Ranma.
Cologne sighed, holding her tiny, wrinkled hands out to the fire. The problem lay in the spell voices. They continually whispered to Ranma's mind that Akane was alive, but that he would never find her. There was the possibility that his memory of Akane would fade in spite of the spell voices, and that the voices would simply stop making sense to him. But there was also the greater danger that, instead, they would keep Akane's memory alive in him.
She had to find a way to eliminate the spell voices. She had to make sure Ranma forgot Akane completely.
There was a way, but...
Cologne frowned, and used her staff to poke at the dying flames of the campfire. Now was not the time to have second thoughts. She was committed. From the moment Shampoo cast the blood spell, her course of action was set in stone. But now, the game had become too dangerous, too complicated.
It was time for her and Shampoo to cut their losses and run.
She couldn't eliminate the spell voices completely. The only way to do that was to break the blood spell itself, and that was beyond her abilities.
But... there was a potion she could make that would numb Ranma's mind to the point where he would no longer hear the spell voices in his head. The disadvantage to this was that, while Son-in-law would retain his martial arts prowess, the potion would rob him of all functions of higher thought and much of his memory. It would, essentially, leave him with the mentality of a small child.
Then again, with Ranma in such a state, it would be easy to take him by the hand and lead him docilely to the Amazon village, far away from Nabiki Tendo and her blackmail tapes, as well as the other girls who desired to have Son-in-law as their own. Once they returned home, he would be Shampoo's husband and provide strong heirs to strengthen the Amazon tribe. His state of mind hardly mattered, since Shampoo would be the head of the household anyway.
Cologne sighed. Shampoo might be a bit upset at first about the potion's effects on Son-in-law. The whole reason her great-granddaughter cast the blood spell in the first place was so that Ranma would fall in love with her of his own free will. But the chances of that happening now were practically nil. Shampoo would have to be satisfied with Ranma's body. She would never have his mind. Not if what her scroll said was true, and she knew it was. She had written it herself, after all.
A smile crawled across Cologne's face as she contemplated her decided course of action. A child-like Ranma with little memory of his past could be easily molded into the perfect Amazon man. All in all, she thought, a plan with very few drawbacks. Now all she had to do now was find the necessary ingredients for the potion.
Akane heaved a shuddering sigh, her face and her eyes dry, all her tears having been spent hours earlier. She sat on her futon and waited, knowing that he would come. Funny, and a bit unnerving at times, how he was able to read her mind that way.
Akane turned to face the tengu. "Masakazu... sensei," she said.
The tengu's eyes glimmered briefly with a smile as Akane reaffirmed that she still wished to be his student. Then his gaze turned serious. "What are you going to do?" he asked.
Akane wrapped her arms around her knees. "I... I don't know. I'm angry at her," she said softly. "She betrayed me. And yet I can't help feeling bad because I know she doesn't mean to hurt me." Her thoughts drifted to the many nights she awoke to the sound of ethereal grief as the Snow Woman mourned for her lost children, and her heart ached with conflicting emotions. She looked up at the tengu, her brown eyes shimmering. "Does... does she plan to hurt Ranma?"
The tengu closed his eyes. "I don't know. Perhaps. Ever since you became her bodyguard and she was able to remove the barrier around her domain and relieve the drain on her powers, she has been keeping her thoughts closely guarded. I do know that she hates him because she blames him for your continued desire to go home."
Akane shook her head and pressed her hands to her eyes. "She wants to keep me here. Then what about the blood spell? It doesn't make sense that she would work at breaking it every day for two years if she wants me to stay."
"That I cannot answer," said Masakazu solemnly.
Akane lifted her hands from her eyes and looked at him piercingly. "Cannot or will not?" she asked, knowing that everything the tengu said was the truth, but that often he kept knowledge from her for reasons known only to himself. Surely he had known of the Snow Woman's true disposition long before she had. She was tired of being left in the dark.
The tengu blinked at her. "Cannot," he answered. His voice was surprisingly sad. "I wish I could give you the answers you desire, but I am... forbidden." His bottomless black eyes met hers, and she felt a tremor run through her as she saw something she had never seen in her sensei's eyes before. Apprehension. Nervousness. Akane blinked in surprise.
"I can tell you this," said the tengu softly, almost urgently. "Part of the blood spell that binds you to the Kami Plane has also protected you in a measure from the spell that the Kami Plane casts on all mortals within its boundaries. The Kami Plane is sentient, in a way. It is very aware of your human presence amongst its eternal inhabitants. It is also aware that you have not succumbed to its spell, and it is... frustrated. Because of this, I have been severely... limited in the help I can give you. Even the incident today, where I allowed you to eavesdrop on the conversation between Yuki-onna and myself was... how should I say? Pushing my luck."
Akane swallowed hard. "I see," she said, trying to hold her voice steady. She had lived here for two years in relative peace - well, not counting the almost daily demon attacks - and yet now the Kami Plane was becoming more frightening by the moment.
"You may do with this knowledge what you will," said the tengu. "But do not ask more of me. Just know that, if it is within my power to do so, I will help you."
Akane felt tears build behind her eyes. It was nice to know that she wasn't completely alone. "Thank you, sensei," she said. She felt a new resolve fill the emptiness inside her. She stood from her futon.
"Where are you going?" asked Masakazu.
"I'm going to talk to Yuki-san," she replied.
Yuki-onna gazed into her frosted mirror. She had been spending more and more of her time the past few weeks looking in on her hated enemy in the mortal plane as the fluxing time dilation that existed between the planes gradually changed. Time in the Kami Plane, which seemed to move faster than time in the mortal plane as a general rule, was slowing down considerably in relation to its mundane companion. Only a single month had passed in the Kami Plane as opposed to the past three days in the mortal realm, whereas before, months seemed to fly by in a few mortal hours.
And now it appeared as if time in the mortal plane was matching time in the Kami Plane almost minute for minute, which made it harder for her to catch every moment in Ranma's life. Because of this, the Snow Woman spied through her mirror carefully every chance she could to make sure the boy didn't make any progress on keeping his promise to find Akane. She sighed. It was inconvenient, but no doubt Kami Plane time would start speeding up once again...
An interesting scene was unfolding before her. It seemed as though the influence of the Kami Plane was finally making itself felt in the mortal world. Akane had faded completely from the minds of her family and friends. Except for Ranma, of course, because of that blasted wisp of dragon blood that served as a transdimensional link between himself and Akane. He was now in process of discovering that he was quite alone in his belief that she existed at all.
"Look, Ranma." Nabiki's voice projected eerily from the mirror. "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."
A cold smile lit the Snow Woman's face as she watched. This was something she would have to watch again. She could almost see the boy's sanity start to crumble as Akane's sister used piercing, if erroneous logic to shatter his conviction that they had forgotten Akane because of the blood spell. He was the one touched by the blood spell, ergo, he was the one with the delusional mind.
It was too perfect. If things kept up like this, she may not have to do anything to interfere at all.
She couldn't help but chuckle softly at the stricken look on Ranma's face as he slowly realized that Nabiki might be right.
She watched with cool amusement as Ranma went to his room, his shoulders slumped in despair. He closed the door behind him, went over to his dresser, knelt down, and opened the bottom drawer. Using one hand to push his clothes aside, he reached in with the other and pulled out a small cardboard box from the bottom of the drawer. Sitting cross legged, he opened the box with trembling hands.
Then, reaching in carefully, almost reverently, he pulled out a length of dark, blue-black hair tied with a white ribbon.
Ranma's face was pale, his dark hair spiking over haunted blue eyes that shimmered with tears of despair. He stroked the silken strands with shaking fingers.
"Akane..." he whispered. And began to sob quietly.
The Snow Woman laughed.
Another sob, wrenching and full of pain.
Yuki-onna's head snapped up. That sound hadn't come from her mirror...
The Snow Woman spun around, the mirror darkening behind her...
And found herself facing Akane.
Akane stood in the middle of her quarters, staring at the now-dark mirror. Tears streamed silently down her face, her brown eyes wide in a mingling of disbelief and grief...
... and fury.
Yuki-onna's stepped back in shock, leaning against the mirror to keep from collapsing as the strength drained out of her legs. "Akane," she said hoarsely. "How... how long have you..."
"Long enough," Akane replied. Her words were ghost-like, barely audible, without any force behind them, yet Yuki-onna reeled as if from a physical blow.
"Akane." Her voice was pleading. "I can explain..."
"You..." Akane's voice was low. The barest flicker of blue battle aura began to show itself around her trembling form. "You laughed at him. I knew you resented him, but... How could you take such delight in someone else's suffering? How could you laugh, when he's so obviously in... in pain..." Akane's voice cracked, and she blinked back the blinding tears and shook her head back and forth, her jaw clenched tightly, as if in denial of what she had just witnessed.
"Please understand, Akane..."
"Understand?" Akane laughed bitterly through her tears. "My family," she said, her voice rising in volume and pitch, "has forgotten me. They've forgotten me! Ranma is the only one who remembers me, and he thinks he's going crazy because of it, and you laughed at him!" Her aura was flaring brightly now.
"Akane..." The Snow Woman's voice was quiet with despair.
"You knew this would happen! You've been watching Ranma and my family through your mirror for two years! You knew it and you didn't tell me! You lied to me!" Akane stood shaking with fury.
Yuki-onna flinched, a look of anguish etching itself on her smooth white face.
Akane seemed to deflate abruptly, and her battle aura died down to nothing as she looked at the Snow Woman. She raised her hands to brush ineffectually with her fingers at the continuing flow of tears from her eyes.
"I trusted you," she whispered. "I thought you were my friend. I even thought of you as... as..." She swallowed and looked at the floor.
Yuki-onna wanted to say something... anything... to fix everything that was falling apart around her, to remove the sharpness from Akane's gaze and words, to win back the love and trust of her kindred spirit, her... daughter...
But no words came.
When Akane looked up, her eyes were wet, but determined. "I'm leaving," she said softly, hoarsely. "I'm going to find someone in the Kami Plane who will break the blood spell so I can go home. You'll have to find someone else to be your pet mortal from now on."
And with that, she turned and walked quickly away.
The Snow Woman, numb with shock, reached out her hand. No... "Akane..."
Akane, don't leave me...
But she was gone.
In one day. Masakazu was gone, and now, Akane was gone. She had lost them both.
The Snow Woman sat silently and stared at nothing as tears of ice slid unnoticed down her face.
"R-Ranma! H-hold on! W-wait up a s-sec!"
Ranma paused in running to glance behind him. Nabiki stood gasping for breath, her book bag pressed to her chest with both hands as she gulped in air. She glared at him as she slowly straightened, then winced at a pain in her side.
"You don't... have to run... so fast," she said, her chest heaving as she got her breath back. "Besides, we're already late. A few more minutes won't kill us."
Ranma just looked at her. He'd never had to slow down for Akane.
He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. No! I can't think about that. His thoughts had been whirling in chaotic circles all morning as he tried to reconcile his memories of Akane with the reality that surrounded him - a reality that said she didn't exist - and all he'd managed to do was develop a colossal headache, as well as a strong doubt regarding the state of his own sanity.
Part of him wanted give up. It would be so much easier to believe Nabiki. It would be so much easier for him if he simply accepted the possibility that Akane was nothing more than a figment of the blood spell, a magical concoction designed to manipulate his memory and emotions. If he did that, then he could resign himself to learning about the unfamiliar reality he found himself occupying, knowing that his memories... and his feelings... were magically induced.
But another, deeper part of him screamed at him that his memories were true. That Akane, and his feelings for her, were the most real things he'd ever known.
And that disturbed him more than anything. Did that mean he was right about Akane, and everybody else was wrong? Or did that mean that he could no longer distinguish between himself and the blood spell that had invaded him?
"Ranma?" Nabiki was looking at him, her brow creased slightly with worry. Ranma looked a bit glazed. Her mouth turned down at the corners as she realized it might not have been such a hot idea to have him come with her to school today.
Ranma blinked, and his eyes focused on her. "Sorry," he muttered softly. "I guess I'm just used to running with... I'll slow down."
Nabiki didn't miss his correction. That damn blood spell... "Are you going to be okay?" she asked, her voice surprisingly gentle. "You can go home if you don't feel up to this."
Ranma shook his head firmly. "No. I can't just sit around and do nothing." The corner of his mouth turned up in half-smile full of irony. "If I did that, I'd really go crazy."
Nabiki eyed him critically for a moment, and then her gaze softened. "All right," she said, capitulating. "Let's go then. But let's walk, okay?"
Ranma looked as if he wanted to protest, but then he sighed. "Okay," he said.
Nabiki immediately wished she hadn't asked him to walk. Even though it annoyed her that he left her in the dust, running had seemed to revive a bit of the old spark in Ranma. But then anything was better than watching Ranma waste away at home as he pined after his imaginary blood spell girl. Still, telling Ranma to just walk was like... like clipping an eagle's wings.
She was going to say something, to tell him to go on ahead without her, but then she realized that he was no longer next to her. Startled, she looked around and saw that he was balancing on the fence next to the drainage ditch. And then, after a graceful leap, he was walking on the wall on the other side of the sidewalk. Then he was at her side again, only to be on the fence a moment later. She realized that he was keeping pace with her, but was simply covering a lot more ground while he was at it.
Nabiki smiled. This was more like it. She should have known Ranma couldn't hold himself back to just walking.
Ranma jumped to the sidewalk in front of her again, only to get hit in the face with a ladle full of water.
"Glaahh!" he sputtered as his curse took effect. The old woman took no notice of him as usual, and continued cleaning her sidewalk.
Ranma looked down at his woman's body in shock for a moment, then sighed heavily. "Aw, jeeze," he groaned, an octave higher than usual. "Why couldn't Jusenkyo be part of my messed-up memory?"
Nabiki shook her head, trying to conceal a smile that, before the blood spell mess, would have been a smirk. "Honestly, Ranma, I thought a martial artist like you would have learned to avoid that old woman by now."
Ranma glared at her as he re-tied his belt to fit his tiny waist and swiped the water from his dripping red bangs. "Yeah, well, I was distracted," he growled unhappily.
Nabiki stifled a chuckle. "Come on," she said. "We'll get you some hot water at school."
When they reached the school yard, however, Nabiki noticed a young man, who appeared to be about college age, standing off to the side on the school grounds. She turned to Ranma. "You go on without me," she said, keeping her tone light. "I've got some business to take care of."
Ranma looked at the young man suspiciously. "What kind of business?" he asked, raising a delicate eyebrow at her.
"Nothing you need to worry about." When Ranma continued to give her the evil eye, she sighed. "Look, Ranma, it's okay, really. It's for a good cause, even. Now go on before you miss all the morning classes and Hinako-sensei decides to drain you in spite of your excuse notes."
Ranma agreed... reluctantly. "Well, I gotta find some hot water anyway," he said.
"Okay. See you at lunch, Ranma." And with that, Nabiki walked off towards the strange man.
Ranma watched them go. What in the world are you up to this time, Nabiki? he wondered.
His thoughts were rudely interrupted as he was suddenly glomped from behind, his arms pinned firmly against his sides. "Oh beauteous pig-tailed girl! How I despaired of ever casting mine eyes upon your heavenly visage again! When these noble ears caught the evil wind that the foul sorcerer Saotome was justly enchanted, yet knowing thusly that he has linked thy life with his own through dark magics, I feared lest I should never see you agai-!"
Snarling in fury, Ranma writhed desperately in Kuno's iron grip and managed to wrench one slender arm free. Reaching back, he grabbed Kuno by his shirt front and yanked hard, flipping the kendoist over his head and slamming him solidly into the ground, knocking the breath out of him, and effectively cutting off his speech.
"Stay away from me, Kuno," Ranma growled, standing over him and clenching his small fists at his sides. "I'm not in the mood to deal with you today, so just leave me alone, or I'm gonna have to beat you to a pulp."
"But pig-tailed girl!" Kuno wheezed. "I came not only to rejoice at your return, but to beg forgiveness at thy feet! Most convenient, since here I lie, and at thine own hand."
Ranma blinked, stunned, and looked at Kuno with wide eyes. It was an expression he would have consciously avoided a lot more in his girl form if only he knew how cute it made him look. Kuno was positively entranced.
"Wha...? Forgiveness? What the hell are you talking about, you idiot?" Why am I standing here talking to Kuno? Ranma thought incredulously. I should just pound his head in and be done with it. Yet, even though he hated to admit it, there was a comforting familiarity in Kuno's abhorrent obsession. Here was something that hadn't changed with the onslaught of the blood spell, and, irritating though it was, it was something he recognized as part of his former life.
It felt good to beat up Kuno again.
Kuno lay on his back with his arms folded across his chest and gazed up at him with adoring eyes. "Alas, the quandary of true love! Know now that my heart ever belongs to thee, my pig-tailed goddess. And yet this very morning as I roused myself from sleep, mine eyes beheld a most amazing sight! For, next to thy most sacred images on the walls of my bed chamber, I found images of a creature most fair! Delicate and beautiful as the blooming lily, yet fierce and powerful like a tigress. Truly, I can see no other explanation as to how these images came upon my walls than that the girl herself, longing for my person from afar, cast aside her fears of rejection and entered my chambers at night, stealing with such silent grace as to not awaken me from slumber. Thereupon, she placed her images next to thine, thinking not to compete with thine exquisiteness, yet hoping to arouse the fiery passions of this devout heart."
Kuno then clenched his fists, tears streaming from his eyes. "Oh, the pure love and fierce beauty of this mysterious maiden, who has yet to make herself known to me!" He turned to Ranma. "And yet, how can I abandon thee, who art yet so fair, to the horrible machinations of the evil Saotome?" Kuno sat up and thrust his fists in the air. "Oh curse you cruel Fate, to force such a dilemma upon this faithful soul! I would date them both!"
Ranma's jaw had sagged open, and his mouth was dry with astonishment. Unfortunately, Kuno mistook his expression for one of hurt betrayal. Which he would have done even if Ranma had been dancing around in ecstatic happiness.
"Fear not, my beloved. You need not be jealous of this sweet and innocent admirer. My great and noble heart has room enough for the both of you."
Normally, this would have been Ranma's cue to punt Kuno into the stratosphere. Actually, Ranma was so stunned, he'd already missed this cue several times.
"You... you still have pictures of Akane..." he whispered. Nabiki said that the blood spell could have created physical evidence to convince me, to match my memory, but... even Kuno's pictures?
Before he could think on that further, the spell voices chose that moment to break through his mental defenses. They swelled up painfully from the depths of his mind. "Augghh..." Ranma groaned and clutched his head, sinking down to one knee.
Kuno immediately went to sweep him up in an embrace. "Pig-tailed girl! What ails thee, my lo-" His face met Ranma's fist, and he collapsed once again to the pavement.
Ranma squinted his eyes shut and tried to focus, glad, at least, that he'd managed to halt Kuno's advances for the moment. He knew he couldn't concentrate and push the spell voices back with Kuno glomping on to him...
Kuno lay on the pavement looking up to the cloudless sky. "Oh, that my indecision has brought such pain to my beloved pig-tailed goddess! Mystery maiden, I foreswear thee! Until you make thyself known unto me face to face, I cannot love thee! Truly, my fire-haired beauty has seen fit to display her devotion..."
Ranma ignored Kuno's ramblings. Finding his center, he forced the thick, black spell voices from the forefront of his mind. They retreated reluctantly, clawing painfully for purchase in the middle of his thoughts. But they did retreat, much to Ranma's relief.
He stood shakily and glanced at Kuno, who still lay on his back soliloquizing. Ranma grunted. "Later, Kuno," he muttered, and ran towards the school in search of hot water, trying to ignore the ringing in his ears left by spell voices.
Nabiki halted around the corner of the high school building when she was sure they were out of anyone's sight or hearing range. She turned to the young man. "All right, Shiotani. What's the report?"
The man named Shiotani bowed deeply to Nabiki. "There is something... odd going on, Tendo-san. It's just a little thing, it's probably nothing, but since you demanded a report on anything unusual..."
"Just get to the point," she said.
"Well," the man held out a tri-folded sheet of paper. "The list of instructions you left with each of the distributors... We noticed that some of them don't make sense. Nobody noticed it before, but now... We thought you should know about it, and wondered if you wanted us to release the tape."
Nabiki frowned, her eyes narrowing as she took the paper from the man and unfolded it. She scanned it briefly.
Her eyes widened, and the blood drained from her face.
"Tendo-san? Is everything okay?"
Nabiki swallowed and looked up. "I..."
"Do you want us to release the tape?"
"No!" Nabiki closed her eyes and steadied herself. "No. Don't release it yet. I have to think about this, figure out how this could have happened. There's still a chance that this is just... I have to be sure." She opened her eyes and handed the paper back to Shiotani. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention."
The young man looked at Nabiki, and hesitantly raised an eyebrow. "Are... are you sure you don't want to release the tape? You said..."
"I'm sure," she snapped. Then she straightened, and her calm demeanor reasserted itself. "I'll get back to you on this within the next 24 hours," she said. "Until then, hold the tape. It... it could do more damage than good if you were to release it now."
The young man bowed, but his eyes were troubled. "Very well, Tendo-san. I shall inform the others."
A male, slightly damp Ranma entered the classroom with no small amount of trepidation. Hinako-sensei paused in the middle of her lecture and favored him with a sickeningly cute glare as, with a sharp flip of her hand, she produced a five yen coin perched perfectly between her index and middle fingers.
"Ranma Saotome, you naughty delinquent!" she piped in her child-like voice. "Not only have you skipped school for the past four days, but you show up an hour late for class! You need to be disciplined. Happo five-yen satsu!"
"Wait, wait!" yelled Ranma as she began to drain his ki. He dug into his pocket and pulled out the notes from his father and Doctor Tofu. "I wasn't skipping school, I was... sick. See? I have notes from my doctor even."
Hinako paused in draining his ki to examine the notes. "Hmm," she said at last. "Very well. Take your seat, Mr. Saotome."
Ranma breathed a sigh of relief and sat down behind his desk, trying to ignore the stares he was receiving from his classmates. The last thing he needed was to have his ki drained. It was taking almost everything he had to hold the spell voices at bay. It worried him. He wondered if they were getting stronger, or if he was getting weaker.
"Hey Ranma." Ranma turned at the whisper to see Daisuke, his friend who sat across from him, leaning over his desk. "Were you really sick? We heard that Shampoo girl had cast some weird Chinese spell on you."
"Yeah," added Hiroshi, who was sitting behind him. "We heard that it totally made you fall in love with her, and that you two were going to run off to China."
Ranma glared at them. "Don't be stupid," he said. "Shampoo didn't do nothin' to me. It was some dragon in China. And I ain't in love with her," he finished.
"So what did the spell do to you, then?"
"Yeah, we heard you were really out of it."
Ranma scowled fiercely. "Jeeze, you guys are nosey! Can't a guy have some privacy?"
"Come on, Saotome. You can't leave us in the dark. Whaddit do to you?"
"None of your busine-"
Ranma suddenly found himself choking on chalk dust from the eraser that had just smacked against the side of his head.
"Mr. Saotome, for talking in class, go stand in the hall." Hinako-sensei's child face was pinched in a severe frown.
"But... but I..." Ranma stuttered. He realized with a sinking feeling that he had raised his voice while trying to get his friends off his back.
But before he could protest further, Hinako's coin flashed between her fingers. "Now, Mr. Saotome."
Ranma sighed. "Yes ma'am."
Aw, man, I shoulda stayed home.
Standing in the hall holding buckets, Ranma leaned against the wall and looked over his shoulder. This, like his encounter with Kuno, was familiar. But then, according to his memory, he usually got in trouble for fighting with Akane.
Akane... Ranma's eyes misted in frustration. Was she real or not? Was she a figment of the blood spell, or his... his fiancée, trapped in the Kami Plane, waiting for him to keep his promise to find her? All of the questions and fears and doubts of the morning rose up in him once again. He wondered about Kuno and the mysterious pictures. It was easier to believe that Kuno had forgotten Akane than that the blood spell had created the pictures just to fit Ranma's memory...
Or was that just his wishful thinking?
Ranma groaned silently. It came down to which was more plausible - the blood spell creating physical evidence to fit his memory, or the blood spell erasing Akane from the minds of everyone who knew her. Either one sounded far-fetched, and yet it had to be one or the other... Didn't it?
If the blood spell wasn't responsible for what was happening, either to him or to everybody else, what was?
It was too confusing. Too many questions, and no answers in sight. Ranma closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind. The spell voices tickled the back of his consciousness, trying to break through to the forefront of his thoughts. He ignored them.
Instead, he thought of Akane. Not caring if the memories were real or not.
With his eyes closed, he could almost imagine her standing next to him in the hallway. A smile tugged at his lips as he pictured her, glowing with indignant anger and threatening to splash him with her bucket of water after he had teased her over some frivolous thing...
His smile faded. He had teased her so often, said things without thinking when he should have kept his mouth shut. All because he was too damn scared to admit that he... cared for her. That he would die for her. That the thought of losing her forever made him crazy with grief...
He knew he had hurt her. Going too far with the name calling, or making fun of her martial arts abilities or her cooking...
He would eat a whole room full of her cooking if it meant he could see her again.
His thoughts went back to the brief moment when he saw her in the Kami Plane. How... how beautiful she was, even when she was crying. How her deep brown eyes glistened when she told him that... she loved him.
Ranma felt his heart tremble in his chest. In spite of everything he'd done to her, all the pain he'd caused her because he was too afraid to show her how he really felt, she loved him.
And now he might never get the chance to tell her the truth. Because she was either sealed away from him in the Kami Plane, or didn't exist at all.
Ranma looked at the floor as his vision swam with tears, and his fists clenched tightly around the bucket handles. It's not fair. Why does this stuff always happen to me? First I get saddled with this stupid curse, and now...
The bell rang, and the students of Furinkan High came swarming from the classrooms into the halls.
"Hey, look, Ranma's back."
"Really? I heard he was enchanted or something."
"No way. Again? How many times can a guy get cursed?"
"Hey, Ranma, is it true?"
"What's wrong with him? He's just staring at the floor."
"Maybe he's in a trance..."
"Naw, he's faking. He just wants attention."
"As if he didn't get enough..."
"No, that's not it. I heard he was enchanted to fall in love with some imaginary girl that he made up in his mind."
"Oh jeeze. That's sick."
"Shut up, idiot. You want him to hear you?"
Ranma set the pails down, not looking up, his dark bangs hanging over his face. If everybody saw the unshed tears in his eyes, they would all get the wrong idea. This was that last thing he needed to deal with.
It had been a mistake to come...
"Oh man, did you see that? Ranma just jumped out the window."
"Aw, you're just jealous..."
Ranma ran across the school yard in a flash and was gone, not knowing where he was running to, and not caring.
Nabiki stood on her tip toes and scanned the lunch mob. No sign of Ranma. That in itself was worrisome, since he almost always managed to snag the food he wanted, and usually made a spectacle of himself while he was at it. She saw one of the guys that he hung out with and snagged his arm.
Hiroshi turned, and, when he saw it was her, he blanched. No doubt thinking of the money he owed her.
She grinned predatorily. "Don't worry, 'Roshi. I'm not here to collect on your... substantial debt. I'm trying to find Ranma. Have you seen him?"
Hiroshi put his hand behind his head in relief. "Uh, gee, Nabiki, last time I saw him he came in late for class, and then Hinako made him hold buckets in the hall for talking."
"Didn't you hear?" said Daisuke, coming up behind Hiroshi. "Ranma jumped out the window and took off after the first morning class. People who saw him said he was acting really weird." He looked at Nabiki inquiringly. "So, do you know what happened to him? I mean, he lives with your family, so you gotta know, right?" Knowing what it took to get Nabiki to divulge information, he reached into his pocket for his wallet.
I'll tell you for 1,000 yen. The words were on her lips, but never made it out. Instead, she gazed at him levelly. "You can't afford that information," she said. "Trust me. The price is way too high."
The two boys stared at her in amazement as she turned and walked away.
Why did I do that? They would have paid, both of them. They're dying to know what's going on...
She pushed those thoughts aside as an unfamiliar tightness filled her chest. She left the building and looked around the crowded school yard. There was no sign of him, no flash of red Chinese shirt, no bounce of dark pig-tailed hair.
Ranma, where have you run off to?
Please be okay...
She needed to talk to him, to make sure he was safe... and sane. Although she wasn't sure how talking to him would help, exactly. She herself felt disjointed and confused. She didn't understand what was going on, and that scared her.
Her thoughts kept returning to the instructions she had given to each of her hired "distributors" a few days before.
How, when she read the instructions again today, she found the very specific instruction that Ranma was to hear the tape if he or anyone else, by mysterious means, had their memory altered in any way in regards to one Akane Tendo, her little sister.
And the instructions were in her own handwriting.
A sister. A sister that she didn't know anything about, because she was nothing more than a figment of the blood spell in Ranma's mind.
A sister that Ranma loved...
If Akane was real, then Ranma was engaged to her...
No. It can't be. It's just more physical evidence created by the blood spell, she reasoned. Like the room. That's all it is. If I had a younger sister, I'd remember her, I'm sure of it.
But the explanation, which had made so much sense before, now seemed hollow and forced. The doubt was there, weighing heavily in her stomach. And Nabiki scanned the crowd of students, searching for Ranma with a new understanding of what he might be feeling as, for the first time, she doubted the validity of the world around her.
Nabiki turned to see who was calling her name, and saw Ukyo running towards her. The chestnut-haired girl wore a long figure-flattering cream sweater and black tights, and held a flat square box balanced on one hand.
"Nabiki," she said as she reached her. "Have you seen Ranchan? I heard he came back to school today, and I wanted to bring him some lunch."
Nabiki looked at the cute, cheerful okonomiyaki chef, and felt faint stirrings of... annoyance deep within her. "I haven't seen him since this morning," she said briskly. And if I knew where he was, I certainly wouldn't tell you.
Ukyo frowned. "Come on, Nabiki. You know everything that goes on around here, it seems. You can't tell me that you've lost track of him. Okay, how much do you want?"
Nabiki bristled and felt herself losing her cool. "I don't want your money," she said tightly. "I don't know where he is. I'm not his keeper, you know."
Ukyo blinked in surprise. "Sorry... I just thought-"
"You thought wrong."
Ukyo stared at Nabiki. The frost coming from her gaze nearly chilled her to the bone. Jeeze, what's with her all of a sudden?
"Where Ranma?" The shout that split the air announced the arrival Shampoo as her bike came to land next to a startled Ukyo and Nabiki. In one hand, the purple-haired Amazon held a Chinese take-out box by the handle.
Shampoo leaped off her bike and glared at Ukyo and her box of okonomiyaki. "You, not-nice girl! What you do with Ranma? Shampoo bring him lunch."
Ukyo crouched in a battle stance, her eyes narrowing. "Oh no you don't. I've already brought him some okonomiyaki."
"Girls." The word was soft, but piercing, and effectively silenced the two would-be combatants. They turned and looked at Nabiki, who stood with her eyes closed and her arms folded across her chest. "He's not even here, so you're both wasting your time." Her eyes opened, and she fixed Shampoo with a baleful stare. "Especially you," she said. "You have a lot of nerve, coming after Ranma like this."
Shampoo paled, knowing that Nabiki still had her taped confession, but held her ground, also knowing about the deal she had made with Cologne not to play it for Ranma unless they couldn't break the spell. Great-grandmother still had a day and a half to come back from China with a cure. "What Shampoo do for Ranma is none of your business," she said.
"Wrong, Shampoo. Nabiki's right," said Ukyo, glaring at the Amazon. "It's all your fault Ranma is suffering with this blood spell. Even if you really were captured by some dragon - which I seriously doubt, I might add - Ranma wouldn't be in this mess if you didn't keep claiming he was your husband."
Nabiki raised an eyebrow at this. Apparently, Ukyo wasn't as naive as she thought. Then again, she had good reason not to believe Shampoo.
Shampoo clenched her teeth as tears suddenly built behind her eyes, and she looked back and forth between Nabiki and Ukyo. "Shampoo no care what you think," she said softly, fighting the overwhelming feelings of guilt that rose within her. "Ranma believe Shampoo. That all that matter."
"Ranma believe Shampoo," Nabiki mimicked, gazing at her stonily. "But for how long?"
Shampoo blanched. Nabiki wouldn't go back on her word, would she? If she did, Shampoo would lose everything. But then if she did, great-grandmother wouldn't be bound to leave the Tendo family alone...
No. Nabiki cared about her family's welfare too much to break her word. "Shampoo not know why you care, sneaky girl," she said. "You no love Ranma. You use him. You sell pictures of girl-type without him knowing to make money."
Nabiki didn't realize that her hands had curled into fists. So I've used Ranma to make a bit of profit now and then, she thought. It helps pay for the food that he and his free-loading father eat at the dojo. That doesn't mean I don't...
"Well then," she said, the calm of her voice belying the whiteness of her knuckles. "It should interest you to know that this very morning, our parents formalized the engagement between Ranma and I. He is now my fiance, and I am his legitimate fiancée, since the deal made between our parents pre-dates all others Genma may have made. And your ridiculous Amazon law doesn't count either, of course."
Shampoo and Ukyo stared at her, stunned.
"You... you can't be serious," said Ukyo. "You don't really intend to marry Ranchan, do you? I mean, you don't... You never even..."
Nabiki turned her cool gaze on Ukyo. "I think that's between Ranma and myself, and none of your concern."
Shampoo's stunned expression slowly dissolved to anger. In the past few days, this brazen Tendo girl had practically destroyed any chance of happiness between herself and Ranma, and now she had the audacity to claim to be his fiancée? To mock the ancient laws of the Amazons? Shampoo's violet eyes sparked, and she drew herself up to face her enemy. "Feh," she said sharply. "If sneaky girl think Ranma marry her, she more fool than I thought. Ranma never marry girl so cold and heartless."
Ukyo's eyes widened, and she glanced between Nabiki and Shampoo nervously. She noticed that their little group encounter was attracting stares from all over the school grounds. She held her breath, and wondered if she should intervene on Nabiki's behalf if things got violent, which was a strong possibility considering the battle auras the two girls were suddenly giving off. After all, Nabiki didn't have any fighting skills that she knew of...
Nabiki stood silent a moment, meeting Shampoo's gaze. Her expression didn't change, but her eyes flashed fiercely. "Whether or not Ranma and I decide to honor our parents' agreement has yet to be decided between us," she said in a low voice. "But this I can tell you. Ranma will never marry you, Shampoo. He has never thought of you as more than a friend. And soon he may not even think that of you. So you'd better get used to the idea."
Shampoo cried out in fury, then crouched with a snarl. "Tendo Nabiki! I kill!"
Ukyo tensed, ready to intercept Shampoo-
"Remember the tape," Nabiki said sharply, not moving a muscle.
Shampoo froze. She stood trembling in her battle crouch, her fists clenched, her eyes tearing with frustration as she glared hatefully at Nabiki.
Then, with out warning, Shampoo's expression crumbled and she let out a low sob. Turning, she yanked her bike off the ground and sped off, leaving Nabiki, Ukyo and the ramen behind in a cloud of dust.
They stood in silence a moment.
"Uh..." said Ukyo. What on earth just happened?
"Look, Ukyo." Nabiki turned to her. Ever perceptive, she hadn't missed that Ukyo had planned to intercede on her behalf. She looked at the okonomiyaki chef, her expression calm. Yet her eyes glimmered with some unidentifiable emotion.
Ukyo blinked in surprise as she realized Nabiki was on the verge of tears.
"Ranma will marry whomever he chooses," Nabiki said steadily. "I'm not going to force him to honor the agreement our idiot fathers made almost seventeen years ago. Besides, I've never been one who likes to be bound by traditions as archaic as arranged marriages. So if Ranma decides to marry you, that's fine with me. I'll support him."
Nabiki's neutral expression quirked at the corners, and her mouth turned up in a tiny, self-depreciating smile that matched the wetness in her eyes. "But if, for some strange reason beyond my comprehension, he decides to stick to our fathers' agreement, I don't think I'll complain too loudly. I hope you don't begrudge me that."
Ukyo stared at Nabiki in wide-eyed disbelief. Then, she found herself returning the smile, blinking back her own tears, her expression softening with sympathy. "I should have known," she said. "He's gotten to you too, hasn't he."
To her astonishment, Nabiki flushed and lowered her gaze. Ukyo chuckled, a bit sadly. "That's my Ranchan," she said, sighing. "The human fiancée magnet. And now he's even got an imaginary fiancée, thanks to this horrible blood spell."
"Yes," said Nabiki, refusing to think about the other possibility. At least for the moment. She straightened. "That's what we should be worrying about right now. Ranma's not going to be in any shape to do anything unless that blood spell is broken. He looked okay when I last saw him this morning, but I've been told that he ran off after the first class."
Ukyo's expression creased with sudden worry. "Well, then, let's go find him, shall we?" She gestured in the direction of the of the neighborhood.
Nabiki nodded. "Okay." They headed off the school grounds together.
Nabiki trailed off hesitantly.
"Yeah," said Ukyo. "Me too."
Nabiki glanced at her, wondering if Ukyo really knew what she was going to say.
She smiled a little as she realized it didn't matter.
Ranma sat under the bridge on the bank of the canal, staring sightlessly at the barges floating past, his ears not hearing the gentle lapping of the water against the shore line.
It was so hard to think. Nothing made sense anymore. Ranma felt his mind gradually shutting down in self-defense against the onslaught of spell voices and reality paradoxes that were assaulting him. He didn't even know how long he'd been sitting there, unmoving, staring at nothing, withdrawing deeper into himself where it was safe.
A long time, probably. His legs felt a little cramped.
Ranma blinked and turned slowly to the young man who had just walked up to him. A part of his mind that was still active vaguely recognized him as the man Nabiki walked off with this morning. He blinked again, willing his eyes to focus, but was unsuccessful.
The man knelt next to him. "Here," he said, handing him a small package. "I've been instructed to give this to you. If Tendo-san says anything, tell her I was simply following her original instructions to the letter, which included ignoring any instructions she gave afterwards that sounded suspicious, or went against the original agenda."
Ranma stared blankly at the package in his lap.
"Hey, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Ranma responded automatically. Lifelessly.
The man frowned. "Aren't you going to open it?" When Ranma didn't move, the man sighed. "Okay, whatever. I'm supposed to make sure you listen to this, so here, let me have it." He took the package from Ranma's limp hands and opened it to reveal a small cassette player with headphones attached. He put the earphones over Ranma's ears and pressed the play button.
"There," he said. "I've done my job. See you around, kid." The man walked away, knowing from experience that the less he knew about what was on that tape, the better.
Ranma sat, his besieged mind barely registering the words that sounded in his ears at first.
Fortunately, it was a long-playing tape, and Nabiki had made sure the whole thing was filled with the vital conversation, repeated over and over.
Gradually, Ranma's eyes began to clear.
The Snow Woman stood at the edge of her realm. Behind her lay a white crystalline wasteland; above her an unmercifully cold and clear night sky. The piercing stars gazed down on her without pity.
Two weeks, and Akane had not returned. Yuki-onna raised her slender white hands and pressed them against the prickly energy of her barrier. Beyond the barrier lay the mists of Kami that separated the different realms from each other. It was into those very mists that Akane had ventured two weeks previous without a backwards glance for her former friend and protector.
All because of that boy...
The mists in front of her began to stir.
Ah, she thought. It comes at last.
The mists swirled and parted. From the darkness emerged a pair of narrowed yellow eyes with slitted pupils, and the flicker of black ki. The Shadowcat padded silently up to the edge of the barrier in front of the Snow Woman.
**I am here, Snow Woman.** It sent the words into her mind. **I am curious as to why you, who has abhorred my kind for so long, have sent me such a gracious invitation.**
The Snow Woman smiled at the demon, her frost-blue eyes glinting. "I have a proposal for you," she whispered.