Chapter 12: Revenge is a Dish Best Served...
Ryoga looked up at the street sign just outside the market with a complete lack of recognition, and felt his cheek twitch, just under his left eye.
He'd done it again.
He looked down at the bag of groceries he carried in his arms, his expression twisting in anxiety. Kasumi-san was expecting him to return with the food so she could make dinner. But it was almost dinner time, and he couldn't find his way back to the Tendo dojo.
Heck, it had taken him all morning and most of the afternoon just to find the market.
Well, he found a market...
He turned in a full 360 degree circle, his eyes scanning in all directions, and failed to recognize a single thing. Except the familiar, bemused expressions on the faces of various pedestrians who couldn't help but stare at him, he was so obviously lost and confused...
Ryoga clenched his teeth as his frustration and depression grew. His fingers tightened convulsively on the fragile paper bag he carried, threatening to rend it and spill it's contents across the sidewalk.
I'm never going to find my way back! he realized with growing panic. And after Kasumi-san entrusted me with such a simple thing as picking up a few groceries! Now the Tendo family will have to go without dinner, all because of my lousy sense of direction!
Ryoga's self-esteem shriveled under the piercing, familiar humiliation. It was all right for him to get lost every now and then, but not when people were depending on him. Ryoga clenched his eyes shut, trying to block out the anxiety that was steadily rising in him. But it was no use.
And somewhere, deep in the core of his soul, a familiar, habitual curse broke loose from the smothered depths and rose to the surface of his thoughts with a build-up of rage so great that he couldn't contain it and it burst forth from his throat with a cry-
"Damn you, Ranma! This is all your fault!"
People stared and hastily backed away, giving Ryoga a wide radius. He didn't notice. Because, abruptly, his rage faded. Or rather, it was overwhelmed by a new feeling; a feeling of inexplicable perplexity. Ryoga froze and blinked in confusion.
He felt... ashamed. And sheepish. And he wasn't even sure why. After all, it was the most natural thing to blame Ranma for his misery, since he was the cause of most of it.
A puzzled frown slowly made its way across Ryoga's face. The past few days, ever since the blood spell had been cast on Ranma, he had found himself... thinking differently. As if his perspective had been altered. Could watching Ranma's suffering really have affected him so deeply?
Like now. Instead of his rage towards Ranma building until he was practically incoherent with fury and filled with the desire to pound his rival's head in...
...he found himself thinking that Ranma couldn't be responsible for his predicament. He hadn't even seen him since he left for school with Nabiki that morning. And he could hardly blame Ranma for his lousy sense of direction. He had been getting lost long before he met Ranma.
Ryoga looked down at the groceries in his arms, a strange feeling settling into his gut. It was too weird. Just over a week ago, he would have had a hard time admitting that. Even to himself.
But... ever since he saw the blood spell seep into Ranma, and then watched helplessly as Ranma's spell-induced psychosis caused him to waste away from despair over an imaginary girl... something had changed inside him. Something subtle and hard to pin down. Ryoga found himself actually feeling anxiety on Ranma's behalf. He found himself actually worrying about Ranma. He actually hated to watch Ranma suffer from the effects of the blood spell that seemed intent on destroying his sanity...
That, in itself, was not unusual. The fact that he admitted to himself that he was worried about Ranma, was.
And, in spite of everything Ranma had ever done to torment and humiliate him, he found he couldn't quite bring himself to be quite as angry at his friend...
Ryoga shook his head in amazement. It was as if, in the days following the blood spell, the fog of anger that had clouded his mind for so long had gradually lifted. He felt as if he was thinking clearly for the first time in years.
Well, not clearly enough to find his way around...
Still, everything that had ever kindled his fury towards Ranma didn't seem nearly as earth-shattering and universe-rending as it had just a few days ago. Okay, so Ranma was responsible... indirectly... for his curse. He would never have fallen into that cursed spring if Ranma hadn't knocked him off the cliff over Jusenkyo.
But then, Ranma wouldn't have knocked him off the cliff if he hadn't been so stubborn and stupid to follow Ranma all the way to China just to finish that stupid bread feud...
Ryoga's frown deepened at this new train of thought.
He knew Ranma didn't do it intentionally. It seemed Ranma never caused problems intentionally. He was just a trouble magnet.
The frown softened; even turned up at one corner, changing to the wry smile that he wore often; the smile that spoke of knowing the harsh ironies of life on a personal basis. It seemed that he and Ranma were both cursed, in more ways than just the Jusenkyo curses they had in common: He had a lousy sense of direction, and Ranma... well, Ranma attracted major disasters.
He understood that now; understood that Ranma was as often the hapless victim of quirky fate as he was, if not more so. He had come to understand this in the past few days in a way he never had when he had followed Ranma to China so long ago, fueled by his anger at being betrayed... at being abandoned...
Ryoga paused. Then blinked as the thought came clearly into his mind for the first time in his life.
That was it. The real reason behind his past vendetta against Ranma. The reason he'd never been able to put into words, so instead, he simply uttered his battle cry of "Ranma, prepare to die!"
Ryoga had always been alone. He had grown up alone. His parents, burdened with the same lousy sense of direction they had passed on to their son, were rarely ever home. He didn't have friends at school because he couldn't find the school building regularly enough to make friends. And when he actually could find it, most of the other boys had made fun of him, saying that he must be really stupid to not be able to do something as simple as find his way to school on a regular basis.
Martial arts had been his only recourse, his only solace. And the only way to keep the other kids from teasing him. After all, it wasn't wise to tease a boy who could smash his fist through a few feet of solid concrete without even flinching.
Then one day, when he had happened to find his junior high school, Ranma showed up. Ranma Saotome, who, against school regulations, wore his hair long and pulled back into a pony-tail tied at the base of his neck.
His first encounter with Ranma was when his head became intimately acquainted with the soles of Ranma's feet as the pony-tailed boy snatched the last curry bread from his outstretched grasp, thus starting the infamous bread feud. On top of that, Ranma - unlike the other boys who had long since given up out of fear of his prodigious strength and marital arts skills - teased him for getting lost.
Ryoga felt the familiar rage stir deep in his chest at the memory. Ranma was so arrogant, so sure of himself... How dare he make fun of him?
Then, just as quickly as it came, the rage inside him calmed. That was so long ago. Why should he get all worked up over something that happened years ago?
And, now that he thought about it; as the memory played itself through his mind... Ryoga was surprised to realize that even though Ranma had teased him, the teasing was without the malice that had spiked the words of his other classmates.
It was simply the way Ranma communicated; the only way he knew how to communicate after a life on the road with his less-than-socially-minded father. And Ryoga, whose own parental guidance came in brief spurts of a few days over the span of his entire lifetime, had responded less than understandingly. In his mind, there was only one way to repair the damage Ranma inflicted to his shredded self-esteem.
But Ryoga couldn't beat him up. Couldn't even touch him, in fact. Ranma was too good, too quick. The fight was over in seconds.
They should have been enemies after that first fight. Ryoga thought they were enemies. He had pushed himself off the ground, propping himself up on one elbow to wipe away the small streak of blood from his lip, glaring hatefully at the pony-tailed boy who stood over him.
Ranma grinned, and reached out his hand. "Hey, you're pretty good," he said. "Not as good as me, of course, but that's still the best fight I've had in ages. Better'n sparrin' with my old man, that's for sure."
Ryoga stared at the outstretched hand, speechless and frozen in disbelief. What was he doing? Didn't he know that they were sworn enemies now?
"Come on," said Ranma, reaching down impatiently and hauling Ryoga to his feet. "Tell ya what. For giving me such a good fight, I'll take you to your house. I know you'll never find it on your own." He laughed. "Man, that sense of direction of yours is pretty amazing. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen you get lost on your way from class to the lunch room with my own two eyes."
Ryoga blinked, too stunned at the offer to get angry at Ranma's taunt.
He hadn't been able to find his home in days...
And nobody... nobody had ever offered to help him before...
So instead of taking his revenge, he looked down at his feet and sullenly mumbled his address to Ranma, then allowed the pony-tailed boy to lead him home.
Ranma waved to him from the front gate. "Hey, I'll see you tomorrow morning," he called. "Don't want you to get lost on the way to school again, after all." And he laughed, springing up to walk on the fence.
Ryoga seethed at the laugh, and watched Ranma leave through narrowed eyes. But, deep inside, in a place his pride wouldn't admit existed, he was... grateful.
After that, Ranma showed up at his door every morning like clockwork to take him to school, and then led him home every night without fail. It was the longest stretch of time Ryoga had ever been able to attend school, and he found himself enjoying it.
But most of all, above everything else, he secretly enjoyed his fights with Ranma. Even the infamous bread fights in the lunchroom. Fighting with Ranma constantly forced him to stretch and grow in his abilities as he tried to find ways to defeat him. Then, just when he thought he had him for sure, Ranma somehow came up with a counter-technique, often making up the moves as he went along. It was infuriatingly frustrating, losing over and over again. But it was also a constant challenge; an obsession that kept his mind off the other... less appealing aspects of his life.
He knew Ranma enjoyed the fights as well (especially since he always managed to win). They fought almost constantly. The walks to and from school were more like one long extended battle. And the fights always started the same way. Ranma would taunt Ryoga, and Ryoga would attack him in a rage.
Yet, deep in the core of that rage was a tiny seed of gladness.
For two boys who had never been taught even the most basic communications skills, Ryoga and Ranma spoke the same language: Martial arts. And for Ryoga, fighting with a near equal opponent, an opponent who always forced him to stretch the limit of his abilities, was pure nirvana.
And so it was that, after four days of searching for the vacant lot behind his house, finding it at last, and yet not finding Ranma for the big bread feud duel, Ryoga was devastated.
And then, when Ryoga finally found his way home, Ranma again failed to show up to lead him to school.
Days passed, and no Ranma. When Ryoga found the school again weeks later, he was told that Ranma's father had taken him out of school to go on a training trip to China.
Abandoned. He'd been abandoned by his only... friend.
So, in his anger, Ryoga did the only thing he could think of. He followed to get revenge.
And got lost...
Ryoga started at the sound of his name, and looked up. As he did, he realized that he had been walking aimlessly while absorbed in thought, and that he was no longer standing in front of the market he'd found. But that thought was pushed aside as he looked up at the wall beside him and saw Ranma looking down at him.
He blinked in surprise. "Ranma! What are you doing here?"
A faint smile touched Ranma's lips as he jumped down next to him; a smile that failed to reach his eyes. "Do you even know where 'here' is, Ryoga?"
Ryoga scowled. "I'll have you know that I'm just on my way back to the dojo after picking up a few things for Kasumi to fix for dinner, Ranma," he growled.
"Oh." Ranma reached up, grabbed Ryoga's shoulder, and spun him around. "Well then, if you're headed for the dojo, you should probably be going that way."
Ryoga clenched his teeth, biting off a retort, and glared at Ranma as he fell into step beside him.
Then he realized something. Ranma looked different. Something about his expression. Ranma's face had lost the quiet despair that had permeated his countenance that morning.
"Hey," he said, surprised. "You look like you're feeling better, Ranma."
"I am feeling better."
Ryoga blinked. There was a distinct hardness to Ranma's voice. "So, uh..." he said uncertainly. "The spell voices aren't bothering you anymore?"
"Oh, they're still in there. But I got 'em under control."
Ryoga glanced sidelong at Ranma. Ranma was staring straight ahead. His outward expression seemed calm, but Ryoga noticed that his jaw was clenched tight, and his eyes...
He swallowed. Ranma's eyes were filled with a cold, carefully controlled fury. He could tell immediately that it wasn't directed at him, but... it was an expression he'd never seen on his friend's face before.
It was damn scary.
"You sure?" he asked, shaken.
"Ryoga." That same, level voice. Ryoga knew he wasn't always the most perceptive person on the face of the earth, but it was hard not to notice Ranma's stranger-than-normal behavior. This was definitely not the Ranma he knew. Had the spell voices finally driven him off the deep end?
"What?" he asked carefully.
Ranma looked over at him, and Ryoga blinked, relieved, yet surprised to see that the fury was gone from his eyes, dissipated as if it had never been. Instead, Ranma seemed merely curious.
Yet something still wasn't right.
"Do you remember who gave you that P-Chan nickname?" Ranma asked.
"What?" Ryoga stopped in mid-stride. Ranma had said and done some weird things since the blood spell, but this was totally off the wall.
Ranma stopped as well, and turned to face him. "Well, do you?"
"Of course I do! You call me that all the time, Ranma!" Ryoga yelled. Blood spell or not, Ranma had a lot of nerve twisting that old thorn in his side...
"Yeah," agreed Ranma calmly. "But who gave you that nickname? It sure wasn't me."
Ryoga blinked in shock, then his eyes narrowed. "Yes it was, Ranma," he snapped. "And you did it just to torment me, as usual."
Ranma snorted, and yet he looked strangely satisfied at Ryoga's reply. "Yeah, right. Like I would come up with a name like 'P-Chan' when 'Bacon Breath' and 'Porky' suit you so much better."
Only the fact that he was carrying Kasumi's groceries kept Ryoga from pounding Ranma right there. "Shut up, Ranma! What do you know, anyway? Your memory's all messed up from the blood spell!"
Ranma looked at him, and the sudden seriousness of his gaze silenced him. Underneath that seriousness, Ryoga could feel that seething fury again. A fury so strong, that, were Ranma to let it loose, it would have made one hell of a battle aura. And yet Ranma had it carefully controlled so that it merely flickered in his eyes.
"You could be right, Ryoga," said Ranma gravely. "My brain might be totally scrambled because of the blood spell."
Then he lifted one hand to reveal a small cassette tape he was holding between two fingers. That small, disturbing smile touched his lips again. "But I don't think so."
Ryoga eyed the tape suspiciously. "What's that?"
"Proof." Ranma slid it into his pocket and patted it protectively.
"What the hell are you talking about?" asked Ryoga, fighting to keep the anger from his voice. Ranma was definitely creeping him out. "What do you mean, 'proof?'"
But Ranma didn't appear to be listening. He just continued walking, staring ahead with a thoughtful, yet slightly troubled expression on his face.
Ryoga watched him in silence, a feeling of foreboding building in his gut.
"You were... in love with her, you know," Ranma said at last, quietly. A strange convoluted expression of anger, regret, sadness, and nostalgia played across his face. He snorted softly. "Huh. I hated it, hated how you could say it, and I... couldn't. And it drove me crazy, the way she never caught on to your curse. And you..." He raised an eyebrow and frowned, still staring straight ahead. "You were always sneaking into her..." He cut himself off, and glanced over at Ryoga.
Ryoga was looking at him, his eyes wide and worried, with a tinge of panic in them. Oh man oh man. Ranma's completely lost it. He's talking about that imaginary girl in his head. He's completely lost touch with reality. What do I do now?
It was almost as if Ranma could read his mind. He smirked, but his eyes were sad. "But then, you don't even remember that, do you," he said. "Even though the last time it happened was just over a week ago. Nobody remembers. Except me."
"Ryoga." Ranma cut him off abruptly. "I'm not crazy. Yes, I'm the one with the blood spell in my head. But whatever has made everybody forget Akane isn't the blood spell. It's something else. I don't know what, but..." Ranma's gaze hardened and the fury blazed in his eyes once again. His hand reached down unconsciously to cover the cassette tape in his pocket. "...I'm pretty damn sure I know who's behind it."
He stopped walking. Ryoga blinked, and realized that they were standing outside the gates of the Tendo dojo.
Ranma suddenly turned to him, and looked into his eyes. Ryoga was startled by the intensity he saw there; such a contrast to the bleak hopelessness he saw in Ranma that very morning. He wasn't sure which was more frightening.
"I'm gonna get her back, Ryoga. I don't know how, but I'm gonna find a way. And when I do, you'll probably remember her again. But I want you to know right now, once and for all - Akane is my fiancée. And if you try to interfere again..." Ranma trailed off, then looked down, his dark bangs covering his eyes. His voice was firm, yet he sounded almost... reluctant. "Well, you're gonna have to fight me."
Ryoga blinked, not knowing what to say. This was completely out of his realm of experience. Ranma actually wanted to fight him for the imaginary blood spell girl? "Uh... That's okay, Ranma," he said soothingly. "She's all yours."
Ranma was silent a moment, then looked up. To Ryoga's great surprise, Ranma's mouth had turned up in a half smile. He clapped Ryoga on the back. "Good," he said, and then chuckled softly. "But somehow I get the feeling you're gonna regret those words. 'Cause, when the time comes, I'm gonna remind you of them. Then we'll see what happens."
"Well, here's the dojo. See you later, Ryoga."
Ranma turned to leave. Ryoga shook himself out of his astonishment and grabbed Ranma's arm with his free hand, clutching the groceries in the other. "Hey! Where do you think you're going?" Ranma was obviously in no shape to be off by himself. Who knew what his delusions would lead him to do?
Ranma looked down at his arm where Ryoga grasped it in a steel grip. "Let go, Ryoga," he said. When he continued to hold on, Ranma frowned. "Look, I'm just going to check a couple of things out, okay? I was duped, and I'm not gonna get duped again."
The fire was back in Ranma's eyes. Ryoga could see that it still wasn't directed at him, but he could tell he was in for a serious fight if he didn't let go. But there wasn't time for that. And even if there was, he couldn't take the chance that he might lose, leaving Ranma with no one to watch out for him.
So he didn't let go. "Come on, Ranma," he said, trying to keep his voice calm. "Kasumi's going to make dinner as soon as I give her this stuff. You don't want to miss dinner, do you?"
Ranma relaxed slightly.
Ryoga couldn't believe it. He'd said the right thing!
"Don't worry about it, Ryoga," Ranma said. "I'm not gonna do anything weird. I'm just gonna... visit Doctor Tofu. Then I'll be back."
Ryoga frowned. He was going to visit Doctor Tofu? That wasn't so bad... He relaxed his grip a little. "You promise you'll come right back?" he asked.
Ranma laughed shortly. "Jeeze, Ryoga, you sound like you're my mom or something."
Ryoga flushed and let go of Ranma's arm. "I do not!" he protested hotly. "See if I ever worry about..." He trailed off and grit his teeth as he realized what he just said.
Ranma laughed again, yet surprisingly refrained from teasing him on the inadvertent admission. "You know," he said wryly, "I almost kinda like it this way. At least it's a hell of a lot better than you trying to kill me all the time." His smile turned rueful. "Too bad you had to forget Akane for it to be like this. I hope that when I get her back..."
Ryoga shifted the groceries to his other arm, more out of mental than physical discomfort. "Just hurry back from Doctor Tofu's, okay?" he said irritably. Perhaps Doctor Tofu could help Ranma regain his senses, at least temporarily until Cologne came back from China with the cure. It was a good thing she was due back tomorrow. "Don't do anything stupid."
Ranma nodded and grinned. And if it weren't for the look in his eyes, he would have looked a lot like his old care-free self. "Don't worry, Ryoga. I'll come right back," he said, then turned and ran off into the growing darkness.
Ryoga watched him go, and wondered, with a sick feeling in his gut, if he'd done the right thing to let him leave.
The phone rang.
Nabiki reached over with lightning speed and grabbed it. "Hello?"
"Ukyo! Any luck?"
Ukyo's voice was suddenly worried. "Nothing. I was hoping you would tell me he'd come home."
Nabiki's smooth features creased in an anxious frown. Damn it, Ranma, where are you? "No, nobody here has seen him since this morning. But I'm hoping he might show up for dinner."
Ukyo sighed heavily. "Okay. I'll keep looking for him. You'll call and leave a message if he shows up, won't you?"
"Of course. Good luck."
"Thanks. I'll need it. I... I'm afraid that if Ranchan doesn't want to be found, the chances are I won't find him."
Nabiki was silent a moment. "Don't give up, Ukyo. You'll find him." It was more of a gentle order than encouragement.
Ukyo understood. "Okay," she said softly, trying to sound hopeful. "I'll call you. Bye."
Nabiki hung up the phone on her desk.
And stared at the tape in her hand.
She hadn't listened to it.
She was worried about Ranma. But she wasn't sure if she was worried that he was lost somewhere, slowly losing his mind because of the blood spell...
...or worried that he was completely sane.
She looked at the tape.
She thought she already knew what it said. But then, she thought she knew what instructions she had written for her distributors. And the instructions she'd read that morning, in her own handwriting, were a far cry from what she remembered actually writing down.
But it came pretty damn close to substantiating Ranma's claim that Akane, his imaginary blood spell fiancée, was real. Was her little sister. And that they'd all forgotten her.
Even worse, her handwritten instructions implied that she herself had been worried about that very thing happening.
Nabiki rubbed her hand against her eyes. She might be able to find out for sure. All she had to do was listen to the tape.
Then again, the tape might not even mention Akane. From what she remembered, all it contained was Shampoo and Cologne discussing the fact that they cast the blood spell, and that they might be able to remove it, if necessary. The tape might not prove anything.
Why am I so reluctant to do this? she thought angrily, knowing the answer even as she asked the silent question.
She thought of the first time she'd seen Ranma. In girl form, draped over Genma-panda's shoulder like a sack of rice, protesting loudly. She remembered how disappointed she'd been when she found out that the fiance daddy had arranged to marry either her or Kasumi was actually a girl. And she thought of how... disgusted she'd been, when Ranma's curse was revealed. How could either she or Kasumi be expected to marry a half-man? And a half-man who was a year younger than her, as well?
She'd never held much stock in arranged marriages. But when daddy had told her that Ranma was coming from China to meet them, deep underneath her fiercely independent, clinically calculating intellect that insisted that romance was for the weak-willed and the perpetually needy... she had secretly hoped that the fiance would be someone... special.
Ranma turned out to be special, all right. Way too special for her discriminating tastes.
And yet, over the past year, she had watched Ranma, and had come to know him as more than just a gender-changing freak of nature and magic.
He was strong. And drop-dead gorgeous - when he was male. Those sleek muscles... those blue eyes... his athletic grace...
Nabiki sighed and shook her head. There was much more to Ranma than just his body. Unfortunately, it had taken her a long time to realize that, since she'd spent so much time capitalizing on said body - both the male and female half - and very little time getting to know him.
Still, she had, in spite of all efforts to remain aloof, come to know him. And in doing so, had come to understand in a measure, not only why so many girls had fallen in... lust... with him, but also how a few rare, perceptive girls, like Ukyo, actually loved him for who he was.
A small, knowing smile flickered briefly on her face. She knew that whoever Ranma married would be one very lucky woman - in more ways than one.
Her smile faltered. Even so, she hadn't seriously considered an engagement to Ranma. Not until this past week, at least. After all, their interests were too diverse. She was smart, canny, and she had big plans for her future in society.
Ranma was... a barbarian. But an honorable barbarian. A sweet, naive barbarian, whose posturing machismo was a thin cover for his deep insecurities. He was so self-conscious about his curse...
But his curse didn't matter.
Didn't someone once say that opposites attract?
Nabiki groaned in frustration and slammed her fist on the table. She looked at the tape.
Real or not, Ranma loved this Akane girl.
But... Akane might not be real...
If she was real, that meant...
Nabiki pressed the heels of her hands against her temples. Her instincts were screaming at her. She was missing something. Something vital. She clenched her teeth. Her desires were interfering with her ability to discover the truth. She hated that feeling, hated not being in control, hated knowing that her normally keen perception was being colored by her emotions...
Akane couldn't be real. Think of Ranma's behavior... acting desperate, lovesick, heartsick... He's never acted that way before now. It's got to be the blood spell...
Just play the tape...
Nabiki felt a scream of frustration building in her. This whole week, especially the past few days had been so taxing. Matching wits with Cologne was not an easy task. And even though she succeeded in getting the confession from the old ghoul and the bimbo, she couldn't help but feel...
The past week. She'd only started thinking seriously of an engagement with Ranma this past week. Since the blood spell.
Why only the past week? Why had her feelings changed?
Nabiki felt her eyes widen, and her heart began to pound.
No. Not her feelings. Her feelings were the same. Why had her thinking changed?
Perhaps Ranma wasn't the only one who had been affected...
Perhaps... there was more to this than just the blood spell at work.
Nabiki grit her teeth. Perhaps she'd underestimated Cologne.
According to Ranma, Akane was supposed to be her little sister. Her sister, to whom Ranma was engaged. Whom Ranma... loved.
If that was true, and she had forgotten about this sister; about this sister's engagement to Ranma, then there would be nothing to keep her own feelings from...
With trembling fingers, Nabiki slipped the tape into her stereo, put the headphones on, and pressed 'play.'
"I tell you, great-granddaughter, that boy is practically yours. When he finally accepts the fact that he'll never see Akane again, he'll fall right into your arms, and you'll be there to comfort him and be his wife. Then your honor will be restored, and we will all return home together."
Nabiki continued to listen, her face an expressionless mask.
She refused to allow the tears that brimmed in her eyes to fall.
Kasumi walked up the stairs, intent on telling Nabiki that dinner was ready. She stopped outside the storage room and frowned slightly at the little wooden duck that bore the name "Akane."
She shook her head. Tomorrow she would have to do something about all that stuff that Ranma had managed to drag in there to make the storage room appear as though it were a girl's room. She didn't think it was healthy to have it around much longer, since it only served as a constant reminder of Ranma's blood-spell induced... illness.
Poor Ranma, she thought sadly. The boy's been through so much... It's not fair.
She reached out to take the duck nameplate off the door.
Kasumi turned to see Nabiki, who had just come out of her room. "Oh, Nabiki. I was just coming to tell you that dinner is ready."
"Has Ranma come back yet?"
Kasumi shook her head. "I'm afraid not. But Ryoga said he saw him right before he returned with the groceries. He said Ranma was on his way to see Doctor Tofu."
A spark of relief flashed through Nabiki's eyes so quickly, Kasumi wasn't sure if she'd imagined it. Then Nabiki nodded briskly, her natural business-like demeanor slipping on like a comfortable sweater. "Good," she said. "I'm glad we know where he is. We need to go get him."
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Is everybody downstairs, Kasumi?"
"Well, yes, they're waiting for dinner..."
"Good." Nabiki put a hand on Kasumi's arm, and looked at the duck nameplate her sister had been about to remove. "I've just discovered something that everybody needs to know."
Ranma didn't go to see Doctor Tofu.
He stood outside the Nekohanten, his fists clenched tightly at his sides as he struggled to control his fury. Nabiki's words from nearly a week ago rang in his mind...
Just make sure you get them to reverse the spell before you kill them, Ranma.
Shampoo and Cologne had lied to him. And he had fallen for it. Taken the bait, hook, line and sinker.
Ranma's battle aura began to flare around him, but he focused, and forced the fury-fed energies back down.
Who knew how Akane had suffered because of the time he had wasted, sitting around, waiting to receive help from the very two who were responsible for the blood spell that had spirited Akane away, trapping her in the Kami Plane...
It was his own fault. He should have known he couldn't trust the old ghoul. And Shampoo... Shampoo had played some sneaky, underhanded tricks on him in the past, but those had always been virtually harmless, aside from the blows to his pride. For her to do this...
No. He had to control his temper. That was how he had been fooled so easily last time, because he wasn't thinking clearly. He had to stay calm.
For Akane's sake.
He reached out and opened the new front door of the restaurant - the one that replaced the door he had shattered with his fist almost a week ago - and went in.
It was the dinner rush. Shampoo and Mousse were serving customers as fast as they could manage to prepare the food.
Ranma hesitated, but then realized he didn't care if this encounter took place in public. He'd waited too long anyway.
A few customers near the entrance noticed him, noticed his countenance, and quietly excused themselves from the restaurant.
Shampoo caught sight of him on her way to serve a patron, and her expression lit up. "Aiya! Ranma, you come visit Shampoo?"
Then she saw his face.
She paled. The bowl of ramen she was balancing on her hand slipped from limp fingers to smash on the floor.
Ranma's blue eyes burned into her own with a fury so intense, she was afraid it would consume her right there.
Ranma didn't trust himself to speak just yet, so he kept silent. Just as well. The shattering bowl of ramen had alerted the other patrons to oncoming disaster, and they were quickly making themselves scarce.
Mousse came up behind Shampoo and peered at him through his glasses. "Ranma? What are you doing here? What's going on?"
Ranma glanced at him, then back to Shampoo. "Ask Shampoo," he said hoarsely. "She knows a hell of a lot more than she's been telling."
Mousse bristled. "How dare you speak about Shampoo that way! Especially after everything she's done to help you with the blood spell!"
Shampoo wasn't listening to Mousse's defense. She was staring at Ranma's fists. They were clenched at his sides, white-knuckled. Slowly, from the palms of his hands, blood began to seep through his fingers where his nails were digging into his own flesh. Ranma didn't appear to notice.
"Well, Shampoo?" he said. His voice was carefully flat.
"S-Shampoo not... know what you talking..." she managed weakly. Oh gods, his eyes... She'd never seen such fury, such betrayal, not even the first night she returned after casting the blood spell. And Ranma's deadly calm, as opposed to his normal fiery temper, was the most frightening thing of all.
Back-up plan, back-up plan... What was it? Shampoo's eyes were fixed on Ranma's bleeding hands... She seemed mesmerized by the tiny red droplets that were slowly working their way from between his fingers and down Ranma's white knuckles.
He was hurting himself, and he was so angry, he couldn't feel it Oh Ranma I'm so sorry what have I done please forgive me all I wanted... Her thoughts were a jumbled babble as panic and despair swelled within her like a rising tide.
Backup plan... Oh!
"Ranma." Her voice was shaking, matching the rest of her body. She was trembling uncontrollably. Another lie. Another lie to cover the lies. She hated it. It was never supposed to be like this. "What wrong, Ranma? You... you angry at Shampoo? Is... dragon's spell to make you hate Shampoo working?"
That should have made him pause. Should at least have given him second thoughts, making him wonder what the source of his anger really was.
That's it, Ranma. Whatever has made you angry is just the result of the blood spell. That's all it is. Magically induced emotion that you can overcome, because you're so strong, and brave, and honorable...
Ranma's cold countenance cracked, and he grimaced as if in pain, the faint red flicker of a barely suppressed battle aura flaring around his form. He unclenched one bleeding hand and reached into his pocket.
He pulled out the tape.
Shampoo felt her world shatter.
Ranma knew everything. She had failed.
Ranma held the tape out. "Do you know what this is, Shampoo?"
She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She felt her throat close off, and she sank to her knees as quiet, heaving sobs began to wrack her body.
Ironically, tears wouldn't come.
"Shampoo, what's wrong?" Mousse was torn between his concern for Shampoo, his fury towards Saotome, and his general confusion as to what was happening. "Shampoo, are you alright? Ranma!" Mousse turned in what he hoped was Ranma's direction. "What have you done to Shampoo?!"
Ranma just looked at Shampoo. At her reaction. At the final proof.
So he was right. Nabiki had been using this tape to blackmail her. And Shampoo had done something wrong, had slipped up somehow, because he had been given the tape.
He wondered what she'd done.
"Ranma! You shall pay for what you've done to Shampoo! Prepare to die!"
Mousse launched himself at Ranma, steel blades flying from his sleeves.
Ranma ducked smoothly, dropping to the floor, and, with a lifting kick, sent Mousse flying over his head and into the wall behind him.
Ranma jumped to his feet. "Stay out of this, Mousse," he said in a low voice, watching as the Chinese boy slid down the wall head first. "This is between me and Shampoo."
"Saotome," wheezed Mousse as he rolled over and pushed himself up to his feet. More blades flicked out from his sleeves, ready to launch. "I won't let you hurt her."
"I'm not gonna hurt her," said Ranma softly. But Mousse wasn't listening. He charged again. In one swift movement, Ranma moved out of the way and brought his elbow down hard on the back of Mousse's head as the boy moved past him...
Mousse's eyes went blank as he lost consciousness and collapsed to the floor.
"Sorry, Mousse," whispered Ranma. He turned and looked at Shampoo who was staring at him, misery and guilt etched harshly across her features.
Ranma felt his anger sliding away under a wave of desperation.
Yes, he was still angry at Shampoo. Furious at Cologne. He knew the truth at last. But at the moment, he didn't care that Shampoo cast the blood spell. That wasn't what mattered.
"I..." Ranma's voice cracked. Shampoo knelt before him, sobbing silently, as if awaiting judgment. "I don't wanna fight you, Shampoo. I just want you to remove the blood spell." A note of pleading seeped into his hoarse voice as tears built behind his eyes.. "I just... want you to bring Akane back."
Shampoo's heart rent it two
She knew who Akane was. Not because she remembered, but because of the detailed account of the circumstances of the blood spell great-grandmother had left for her. She knew she had cast the spell specifically to get rid of this girl... this obstacle.
The grief she saw in Ranma's eyes because of this forgotten girl was worse than the anger, if such a thing was possible. And all she wanted when she cast the blood spell was for Ranma to look at her with love.
"Ranma..." she whispered. "I so sorry..."
"If you're sorry," said Ranma brokenly, "then remove the blood spell."
Shampoo shook her head, her eyes wide. Now the tears came, welling up and spilling down her cheeks. "I no can..."
Ranma fell to his knees and gripped her by the shoulders. His bleeding hands stained the crisp white of her apron. "You have to, Shampoo! You did this to me!"
She continued to shake her head, her expression a rictus of guilt and grief as the tears streamed down her face. Ranma's face twisted in desperation and anger, and his fingers involuntarily clenched on her shoulders, making her wince in pain. "Please, Shampoo!"
"Is no cure..." she whispered. "Is no cure..."
Ranma's eyes widened in horror. He released Shampoo's shoulders and sat back heavily on his heels. "No... cure?" His throat constricted as cold tendrils of fear and despair once again threaded their way around his heart. The droning mantras of the spell voices rang in the back of his mind fatalistically, singing their song of hopelessness to his soul. "You mean... there's no way to break the blood spell?"
Shampoo was silent. But she didn't have to say anything. Ranma could see the truth in her eyes.
He felt his body and mind go numb with shock. No cure...
And the spell voices, strengthened by the surge of despair, raged up and out of Ranma's careful mental barriers. Ranma gasped in pain at the sudden onslaught, and clutched his temples with his bleeding hands.
Shampoo cried out. "Ranma!"
Mousse lifted his head groggily from where he lay prostrate on the restaurant floor. "Sh-Shampoo..." He pushed himself to his knees and saw the blurry images of Shampoo and Ranma kneeling across from each other. Ranma was trembling as he desperately struggled to focus enough to push the spell voices back, but Mousse didn't notice that. All he saw through his thick lenses was Shampoo crying.
And the bright red blood stains on her apron. Matching the smears of blood on Ranma's hands, pressed on either side of his head.
A murderous glint flashed through Mousse's eyes as he stood shakily. "Rannmaaa!" he growled fiercely. "I don't care if you are under the influence of the blood spell! You shall pay for hurting Shampoo!"
Shampoo looked up to see Mousse standing over an unresponding Ranma, his blades poised to launch from his sleeves. "No! Mousse, stop!" She jumped up and leaped in front of Mousse, shielding Ranma with her body.
Mousse froze as he looked into the tear-stained face of the woman he loved. "Shampoo," he said, stunned. "What are you doing? Why are you protecting him when he's hurt you like this?"
"Mousse," she said softly, and she lowered her gaze, unable to meet his eyes. Her voice was leaden. "Ranma no hurt Shampoo. Shampoo... hurt Ranma."
A chill ran through Mousse at the unnatural, dead tone of her voice. He looked over at Saotome, noticing for the first time how Ranma seemed to be in an agony greater than any that could be caused by a simple flesh wound, as he desperately clutched his head...
Ah, Mousse realized. The spell voices again.
Then he froze. Shampoo... hurt Ranma?
Suddenly, all the little suspicions he'd held at bay for so long surged to the forefront of his mind, and Mousse stared at Shampoo, his eyes widening behind his glasses. He'd suspected... But no, Shampoo wouldn't... She was too honorable for...
"Shampoo." he said. "You didn't..."
She nodded. Her voice was quiet, miserable, yet strangely resigned. "I cast blood spell, Mousse. I pay blood price. I trade my blood for dragon blood."
Mousse looked at her, wanting to disbelieve with all his heart. But he couldn't. Because he could see in her face that it was true.
He looked past her shoulder at Ranma, who knelt, groaning, seemingly oblivious to the two people watching over him as he continued to clutch his temples in pain.
Mousse felt something twinge inside him. An unpleasant thought rose unbidden. This... is what Shampoo does to the man she... loves?
The thought left him cold, and he pushed it from him.
"Is he going to be okay?" he asked at last.
"He fight spell voices," answered Shampoo listlessly. "I put spell voices in head so Ranma know Akane alive, but no can find her. They supposed to fade away when he... give up on her and fall in love with Shamp... with me. But Ranma no..." She trailed off into silence and watched helplessly as Ranma battled the unnatural forces she'd placed inside him.
Mousse frowned. Shampoo was speaking as if Akane was a real person, and not just a blood spell figment created for Ranma to obsess over...
But then... it hardly made sense that Shampoo would cast a spell that would make Ranma fall in love with some imaginary... girl...
"Shampoo," said Mousse firmly, in spite of the sick feeling building in his stomach. It was the same feeling both he and had Ranma shared on the day the blood spell hit. "Who is Akane?"
Shampoo knew exactly what he meant, and she answered accordingly, in the same lifeless, defeated voice. "Akane Ranma's... fiancée. She trapped in Kami Plane, and Kami Plane make everybody but Ranma forget her."
Mousse closed his eyes. So Ranma had been telling the truth. He really had lost the girl he loved. And now he was apparently fated to have the spell voices in his mind permanently, since there was no way he would ever fall in love with Shampoo now, and she seemed to believe that was the stipulation for his release.
Mousse felt bad for Ranma. Even the jealous voice inside him, that normally would have been screaming that Ranma brought this upon himself because of his womanizing ways, was silent.
"Shampoo, there has to be a way to break the blood spell," he said, opening his eyes and looking through his glasses at the curled-up blur that was Ranma. He could hear that the pig-tailed boy was using breathing techniques to focus and even out his breathing, and was gradually relaxing; evidence that he was pushing the spell voices back once again.
"Shampoo..." She wasn't listening to him. She was just staring at Ranma, her violet eyes no longer wet, but dull and lifeless, like a doll's eyes, as she numbed herself to the evidence of her crime before her. "Shampoo..." He took her by the shoulder, to shake her out of her stupor.
She turned and slapped him hard across the face.
"Go away, Mousse."
Mousse rubbed his cheek where her hand print was forming. She had hit him harder than that innumerable times before. Hit him, pounded him, caged him while he was in duck form... And he loved her in spite of it all.
He still loved her. But, for the first time in his life, he felt himself growing angry at her. At her actions, self-centered and unthinking. The blood spell, an abomination of dark magic... and now this...
"You selfish little..."
"You stoop to using forbidden magic, casting a blood spell on Ranma, then intentionally lie about it... And you even see him suffering because of what you've done to him!" Mousse's eyes flashed behind his glasses. He could hardly believe that he was yelling at Shampoo, and defending Ranma of all people. "Even now, all you can think about is yourself! How you are going to suffer because Ranma discovered your treachery and ruined your plans to trap him."
It was a hard truth. Hard for him to admit that perhaps Ranma wasn't the one chasing Shampoo. But he could not delude himself in the face of such evidence. Shampoo wanted Ranma. So badly that she was willing to sacrifice his happiness to satisfy her own. Mousse looked her in the eyes, fighting the part of him that wanted to throw himself at her feet and worship her in spite of it all. "It's time to for you to stop thinking about yourself, Shampoo," he said hoarsely, "and start thinking about how to fix the damage you've done."
Shampoo blinked again, stunned. Her hand raised again, lashed out...
Mousse caught her wrist in his hand. Then caught the other.
Shampoo looked up at him, struggling uselessly, trying to free her hands from Mousse's surprisingly strong grip, anger flashing across her face as her eyes shimmered with tears. He returned her gaze, his blue-grey eyes sad, but firm behind his thick lenses.
Shampoo tried to wrench her arms free again as she looked into his face. "Mousse, you stupid-!"
Then she let out a low sob, her anger crumbling away under a wave of grief, and she sagged into him, weeping into his chest.
Mousse froze. Then, slowly, he released Shampoo's wrists. Her hands went to the front of his robe. Not to hit or pound him, but to clutch desperately at the cloth over his chest as she shook, her tears soaking the fabric. He hesitated only a moment, then carefully put his arms around her, gently stroking her long silken hair.
He'd waited a lifetime for this moment. He let the moment stretch into minutes, allowing Shampoo to release her emotions. He only wished...
Ranma knelt next to them, groaning quietly as he battled the spell voices within.
"It's... okay, Shampoo," said Mousse. "I know you'll find a way to fix things. I know you'll find a way to break the blood spell. Even if you have to pay another blood price, I know you'll do it."
Shampoo suddenly stiffened in his arms. He looked down at her, relaxing his hold, wondering if she was going to push him away.
She looked up at him, her eyes wide and wet. "Wh-what you say, Mousse?" she asked softly.
He blinked. She wasn't clobbering him for holding her. "I... uh... said that I know you'll make things right..."
"No, stupid!" She seemed more anxious than angry. "About dragon. You say I have to go back to dragon!"
Had he? He couldn't remember. "I... er, mentioned the blood price... I think..."
"Aiya! That it, Mousse! That way to break blood spell! Ancient One more than powerful enough to remove spell cast with own blood!"
"Ancient One?" gasped Mousse. He dropped his arms to his sides in shock. "Shampoo, you got dragon blood from the Ancient One?"
Beside them, Ranma moaned and raised his head, slowly opening his eyes as the ringing aftereffects of the spell voices lingered in the forefront of his mind. He looked over at Shampoo and Mousse. With his hope of breaking the blood spell crushed, pushing back the spell voices had taken the last ounce of his remaining will. And they had not been confined peacefully. Ranma felt as if his mind had just been scrubbed raw with a wire bristle brush.
He winced as he pushed himself to his feet. "Do you mean it, Shampoo?" he asked. "Can this Ancient One really break the blood spell and bring Akane back?"
Shampoo looked at Ranma and paled, seeing him on his feet again, seeing the anxious, determined look on his face. "Ranma..." she said. "I... so sorry... I go back to China and get dragon to break blood spell... Ancient One, he oldest of dragons, very powerful. He can break spell."
A touch of hope flickered in Ranma's eyes, but it was still dampened by seriousness. "He can," he said. "But will he?"
Shampoo looked down. "Shampoo... not know. But have to try." She looked up, and her eyes were shimmering with tears. "Can Ranma... forgive Shampoo?"
Ranma's face betrayed no emotion. "I have to know something," he said at last. "The blood spell... Who's idea was it? Yours or Cologne's?"
Shampoo paled even more. Seeing this, Ranma's expression hardened slightly.
She suddenly felt Mousse's hand on her shoulder. Her instinct told her to turn and clobber him.
But she had no right. He had shown honor in the face of her lies...
Lies. No more lies.
She looked Ranma in the eye. "Is great-grandmother's idea," she said softly. "But she not force me. She give me choice. I chose. I cast spell. I... sent Akane away, and I put spell voices in head. I... sorry." So inadequate. What apology could make up for what she'd done?
Ranma trembled, his eyes closed, his bleeding hands clenched into fists once again. His battle aura flared, a bright, greenish-blue tinged with fiery red.
Shampoo stood silently, ready to take whatever Ranma threw at her.
But then his battle aura died down. His trembling stopped, and he visibly swallowed his anger. He stood silently for a long moment, his dark bangs hanging over his eyes.
"Why?" he asked finally. His voice was barely a whisper. "Why'd you do it?"
Shampoo closed her eyes and a tear slid down her cheek. "Wo... ai ni..." she whispered. She felt Mousse's hand on her shoulder tremble and slide off.
Ranma winced. "I... don't love you, Shampoo." His voice was soft, without malice.
"I know." This, above all else, the most difficult admission of her life.
He raised his head finally. "How can I trust you? How can I know that you'll help me rather than try to trick me again?"
"Because," Shampoo swallowed and steadied herself. What else was there to say? She opened her eyes and looked at him. "You not Shampoo's husband, Ranma. Mousse..." Her voice cracked. "Mousse is Shampoo's husband."
There was a stunned silence.
Suddenly Mousse was in front of her, and Ranma was looking over his shoulder at her incredulously.
"Really, Shampoo? Do you mean it?" Mousse asked. His eyes were wide with hope and disbelief.
She looked at him. "Shampoo no love you, Mousse," she said, her voice and her eyes sad. "But you defeat Shampoo. You hold arms and keep me from striking you."
Some of the hope died in Mousse's eyes. "Shampoo..."
"Shampoo... You don't have to do this," said Ranma.
"Yes," she replied, quiet and determined. "Is punishment for pain I cause you, Ranma."
Mousse shriveled. Ranma just stared at her.
"Now I go to China to face Ancient One so that he remove blood spell."
Ranma frowned. This was what he wanted. For Shampoo to remove the blood spell. To get Akane back. But for her to suddenly decide she was married to Mousse...
She seemed to know what he was thinking. "Is more than punishment, Ranma," she said, her voice surprisingly calm. "Is Amazon law. If two men beat Amazon woman, and one man is outsider, Amazon man take precedence over outsider man, to keep strength in tribe. Mousse is Amazon man. You is not. You no need... worry... about me anymore."
"No talking. Is done."
Mousse looked at Shampoo silently, not knowing what to say. He had hoped for so long... But for it to be like this... Somehow she seemed further away from him than ever. His heart ached.
Ranma looked back and forth between Mousse and Shampoo. "I'll... let you work this out between yourselves," he said. "But for now..." He turned to face Shampoo. "I'm coming with you to China. I wanna make sure this spell gets lifted, even if I have to face this Ancient One myself."
Shampoo nodded. "We prepare tonight and go first thing in morning." She paused, and a look of trepidation flickered across her face. "Is best to leave before great-grandmother return. She will be... angry."
Ranma snorted derisively, and the old fury flashed in his eyes. "I don't care what that old ghoul says or tries to do. If she tries anything, I'll rip her head off. But I do wanna leave for China as soon as possible." He turned to walk out the door. "I'll be back at first light," he said. "Be ready to go or I'll leave without you."
Shampoo winced at the hardness in his voice. Seeing this, Ranma's face softened slightly. He sighed. "I'm glad you want to make up for what you've done, Shampoo. And I haven't forgotten all the times you've helped me in the past. But don't expect me to just fall on the floor in gratitude, because in one week you've come close to destroying my entire life. And if you think about tricking me again, just remember. I'll find a way to break the blood spell with or without your help."
And with that, he turned and walked out the door.
Shampoo watched him leave, a great emptiness swelling inside her.
Mousse cleared his throat. "Shampoo..."
"Mousse. Go pack things, okay?"
He sighed. "Okay, Shampoo." He turned away from her. And spoke in their native Mandarin. "*But I hope that someday you will think of me as a reward for your redemption... rather than as a punishment for your sin.*"
She didn't respond. He walked quietly out of the room and went upstairs.
Shampoo looked out the store windows and into the dark night. Oh Mousse, she thought, her eyes shimmering. I hope so too.
In the Kami Plane, deep within the Snow Woman's abode, a demon laughed.
The Shadowcat was clearly pleased. It's eyes burned like yellow lamps as it looked at the Snow Woman's mirror. Within the swirling ice magic that sped across the mirror's surface, it could see a dark-haired pig-tailed boy running along the top of a fence under a moonless night sky.
**Ah, yessss,** it purred. **I am familiar with this one. He is my strongest initiate. Very powerful, his spirit. He feeds me well, those too few times his fear activates my gift and connects his soul with mine.**
The Snow Woman smiled and ran her long white fingers through the Shadowcat's fur, feeling the gnawing tingle of the demon's black ki down to her cold bones. "Pity," she said, "that you can only be summoned briefly to the mortal realm by mortal fear. Otherwise, you could dwell there, and keep the boy in a perpetual state of terror."
The Shadowcat chuckled knowingly. **It is true, I can only be summoned. But I know of no reason I cannot be sent...** The demon cat's tail twitched in anticipation.
"And if I provided a way, what then? The boy has broken your trance each time."
**He cannot do it himself,** answered the demon. **Only two people have managed to break my hold over him. One is dead. The other...**
The Snow Woman's smile turned grim. "The other will return to me once his mind is purged of human thought and memory, breaking his hold over her once and for all."
The Shadowcat blinked dismissively. **It seems such a small reward, a pet human girl, in return for giving me this strong one.**
The Snow Woman's eyes flashed. "That is no concern of yours," she said.
**Of course not. But on the subject of breaking trances... There is the little matter of his Jusenkyo curse. The shock of his transformation has also shattered the connection between us on numerous occasions.**
A slow, cold smile crawled across the Snow Woman's bloodless features.
"Leave that to me."
Doctor Tofu arrived shortly after Ukyo. Nabiki greeted him at the door, after making sure that Kasumi was irretrievably absorbed in cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. Without a life-threatening emergency forcing the doctor to have a clear head, she knew he was susceptible to his usual infatuation-induced fog. She didn't need the smitten man shredding the evidence before it was presented.
"Has Ranma come home yet?" he asked.
"Not yet," she replied soberly. "Did you bring everything?"
Tofu patted a satchel at his side. "I've got everything right here."
She nodded. "Good. Between that and the stuff I've managed to find, it ought to convince them."
They walked into the living room, where Ryoga, Ukyo, her father, and Uncle Saotome sat waiting for them.
Ukyo had her arms folded crossly. "We're wasting our time here," she said. "We should be out looking for Ranchan." She glared at Ryoga. "I can't believe you just let him run off like that."
"Hey! He told me he was going to Doctor Tofu's! Besides, I didn't even know you were looking for him!"
"Quiet, everyone." Nabiki motioned for silence. Everybody looked at her. She looked at Doctor Tofu.
He sighed. "Apparently, some of you are having a hard time believing Nabiki when she says that Ranma's blood spell girl, Akane, is real. I must admit, when she called me looking for Ranma, and then told me of her suspicions, I was skeptical. But then I did a little research on my own and found out some very disturbing things."
He reached into his satchel, pulled out an ancient leather book and opened it to a marked page. "Ranma keeps claiming that Akane is trapped in the Kami Plane. Well, I did some reading, and found this." He put the book down on the table. Everyone craned their necks to look at it, then frowned when they saw it was written in Chinese.
Tofu cleared his throat. "This is a very ancient book, written centuries ago by a very wise priest. He was an expert in creatures unnatural, and the worlds from which they come. Here," and he pointed to the page, "he speaks of the Kami Plane, where Ranma claims Akane is trapped. He says that mortals unfortunate enough to travel to the Kami Plane gradually forget the mortal world, and are forgotten as well by those they leave behind."
He looked piercingly at those surrounding the table. "This fits perfectly with what Ranma has been telling us all along."
"So... it's not the blood spell? It's the Kami Plane?" asked Ryoga.
Ukyo was noticeably silent, but her expression was one of dismay.
"Impossible," muttered Soun. "Magic or not, I would never forget my own daughter."
"And I thought I would never forget my own sister, daddy," said Nabiki. "But guess what? I did. You did. We all have forgotten her. Ranma may have the spell voices in his head, but they were right all along. He was right all along. Akane is real. And she needs our help."
"Yes, I'm afraid she's right," said Tofu. "After reading this, I checked my own files and found this." He pulled out a thick folder filled with loose papers. "These are medical records, kept in my own handwriting, detailing a medical history of one Akane Tendo for the past 17 years." A small smile pierced the disturbed look in his eyes. "It appears, Tendo-san, that Akane was extremely active in martial arts. She came to see me each time she was injured. I find it amazing that, with such evidence before me, I cannot remember her at all."
Soun took the medical file and looked at it with wide eyes. "Can it be..?"
"There's more," said Nabiki. "While I was waiting for Doctor Tofu to show up, I checked out that room upstairs. I found a lot of interesting stuff, including these." She pulled out some photos, and began laying them down one by one on the table. Soun and Genma picked them up to examine them.
They were pictures of the family, before mother died. In the first one, Soun stood behind his wife, his hand lovingly on her shoulder. A young Nabiki and Kasumi stood on either side of her. And on her lap, she held a little black-haired toddler with expressive brown eyes and a cute smile.
Soun stared at the pictures in shock. Ryoga and Ukyo glanced at each other with growing uneasiness. Nabiki noted their reactions - especially Ukyo's - and debated whether or not to put down the final picture.
She sighed. Ukyo had to find out and accept it sooner or later... "Here," she said. "This one's especially... entertaining. I didn't think anyone had ever taken a picture of Ranma when he was under the influence of the Nekoken, but look at this." She slapped the picture down.
Ukyo's eyes went wide. "That's... Akane?"
Ryoga's eyes were wide as well. "Th-that's Ranma? Wh-what's he doing?"
Nabiki smirked. "It's called 'kissing,' Ryoga. You should try it some time." She chuckled as Ryoga flushed seven different shades of red.
Soun and Genma snatched the picture off the table and peered at it.
"That's my boy!" said Genma. "Showing a little initiative!"
Soun started up with the water works. "My daughter! I have a daughter I can't remember!"
Nabiki smiled grimly. "I think you'll all agree that the evidence is indisputable. Akane is real. Our next priority is to find Ranma, and let him know he's not going crazy."
"Thanks, Nabiki, but I already figured that out."
Everybody turned, stunned, to see Ranma standing in the hallway.
He smiled a little, still looking at Nabiki. "But I guess I have you to thank for that anyway."
Nabiki blinked, trying to get her brain back into gear. "What?" He walked up to her and put a cassette tape in her hands.
"So, thanks," he said, enjoying the horrified look that rippled across her face as she looked down at the object in her hands. "I feel much better." He looked at the others, who were staring at him, jaws agape. "And it's nice to know you all believe me now."
Nabiki blinked. Her distributors had given him the tape. Not a bad thing, since she was planning on playing it for him herself. But that meant he knew about Shampoo. And that meant...
"So that's where you were..." she said, looking up at him. He appeared to be in good shape. She raised an eyebrow, refusing to be ruffled further. "Tell me, do we need to make funeral arrangements, or is there anything left of Shampoo to bother with?"
There was a gasp around the table.
Genma was the first to recover. "What's this?" he asked. "What's going on?"
Ranma turned to the others. "Shampoo cast the blood spell," he said quietly. "Nabiki got her and the old ghoul's confession on tape. I just went to see her, and she told me herself. And no, I didn't kill her or fight her or nothin'," he said, in response to the stares he was receiving. "But we're leaving for China tomorrow morning. She's going to find the dragon she got the blood from. She seems to think he's powerful enough that he could remove the spell she cast with his blood. And I'm going to make sure it gets done right."
There was a stunned silence as everyone digested what Ranma said.
"I'm coming with you, Ranma," said Ryoga.
"Me too," said Ukyo. She was in shock over all the revelations of the evening. She felt numb and heartsick over the possibility that Ranma might be in love with someone else. After all, wasn't she his fiancée? Sure, he'd never treated her as more than just his childhood buddy, but she'd been so sure that when he decided to make a decision, she'd win over Shampoo. She never thought she'd have to worry about either of the Tendo sisters, since neither of them expressed any romantic interest in Ranma.
Except Nabiki. Just that very afternoon. And, apparently, the third Tendo daughter that no one except Ranma remembered.
She looked over at Nabiki to find that the girl was watching her. Her expression was easily read. It said "Get used to it. I have." Ukyo was amazed that the normally stone-faced girl could be so expressive without words.
She needed some time to think. Her mind was whirling, and her heart felt like it was in a vise. But, in the meantime, she wasn't going to let Ranma out of her sight. "I'm coming with you too, Ranchan."
"And I'm coming as well," said Nabiki.
Ranma looked at her in surprise.
She gave him a half-lidded glare. "Honestly, Ranma, how exactly do you plan on getting to China? Were you planning on swimming again? I hate to say this, but you need my finances to rescue my... sister."
Ranma was struck speechless. Nabiki was going to pay for the trip? "Uh, thanks, Nabiki." He smiled. "I owe you."
She rolled her eyes. "Don't I know it," she muttered quietly.
"Well then," said Ranma, not hearing her and turning to the others, "those of you coming with me had better pack because we're leaving first thing in the morning."
Ranma knelt next to his dresser, stuffing clothes and supplies into his backpack with swift precision.
Finally. After a week of waiting, he was going to do something. He didn't feel so powerless now, knowing that a solution was in sight. And he would do whatever it took to make that solution come about.
Even face a dragon.
His heart thumped in his chest in anticipation, and his blue eyes were wide and anxious. Hold on, Akane. I'm coming...
...something prickled at the edge of his awareness...
Ranma tensed and looked up.
He looked around his empty room.
Something... was trying to sneak up on him?
"Pop?" His eyes narrowed, and he crouched as he felt... something intrude on his senses again. "If that's you, it ain't funny. I got no time to be playing around now."
But no. It didn't feel like Genma.
It felt evil.
Happosai, maybe? Had he returned?
Oh man, I hope not. I don't wanna deal with him right now, thought Ranma, peering through his dark bangs as he extended his senses, trying to feel what...
The spell voices whispered in the back of his mind, scratching away at his mental barriers, disrupting his concentration. He growled in annoyance. Oh, be quiet, he thought. I'm gonna be rid of you soon enough, anyway...
**How true that is.**
Ranma froze, his eyes wide.
Then the color drained from his face as the strange, yet terrifyingly familiar voice came into his mind again - a voice he recognized from his childhood nightmares.
**Although you won't be rid of them the way you want...**
Ranma found himself pressing his back against the corner between the wall and his dresser, trying to shrink inside himself as his deepest instincts shivered in primal terror.
"Take it slow," said a woman's voice, soft and sultry. "We don't want to put him out of his misery too soon. You can have him after I'm through with him."
A soft, purring chuckle.
The single naked bulb hanging from the ceiling shattered with a sudden popping noise, plunging the room into darkness.
No! I can't let this happen! I have to find Akane! Ranma forced himself to stand on trembling legs, his eyes staring wildly in the dark, waiting for his worst fear to appear before him.
Instead, another image from his nightmares appeared.
A shimmering portal appeared in the darkness before him, and through it, like liquid, came the Snow Woman, her long white hair flowing around her ice blue robes. A cruel smile was on her cold white lips.
"Well, Ranma," she said, as the shimmering disappeared behind her. "We meet again."
Ranma's eyes narrowed as he realized there was nothing in the least bit feline about the apparition before him. "You!" he said, recognition flaring in his eyes. He crouched in a battle stance. "You have Akane!"
"My dear boy," she said lightly. "You are jumping to all the wrong conclusions. Akane is not my prisoner. She has stayed with me of her own free will. Not only that, but she desires to stay with me always. You see, as you probably already know, she has forgotten all about you."
Ranma clenched his jaw. "You're lying," he said. His battle aura flared, and he began to build up his ki. He was going to blast this demon back to where she came from.
"But I'm not. Just as the Kami Plane made everyone here forget her, so has she forgotten all of you."
"Wrong!" said Ranma. "I didn't forget her. And I know she hasn't forgotten me."
The Snow Woman smirked. "How typically egotistical of you. Of course you haven't forgotten her. You have those spell voices in your mind telling you that she's alive. Otherwise, you would have forgotten her, like all the rest."
Ranma's eyes widened, and his battle aura flickered with uncertainty. "No," he said through clenched teeth. "That's not true. I remember her because I... love her."
"Her father loved her," the Snow Woman said softly, her eyes narrowed. "Her sisters loved her. Your friend, Ryoga, loved her..."
Ranma blinked, stunned as he realized... He felt tears build behind his eyes, and his chest felt tight. He clenched his fists. "No..."
"It hurts, doesn't it? Yes, I'm afraid it's true. Your love is not the binding link you thought it was. But I'm not here to torture you, Ranma," she said with a half smile. "I'm actually here on a mission of mercy." She glided towards him, her ice blue eyes sparkling, her white arms outstretched. "I've come to silence those voices in your head. I've come to put you out of your misery. I've come to help you forget her..."
Ranma stared at the Snow Woman, horrified. She was lying. She had to be. Akane hadn't forgotten him...
"Akane has no desire to return to you. In fact, she's happier now than she ever was with you. She's stronger, more confident..." She tossed her shimmering hair. "You needn't worry about her. She is quite content. After all, you only made her miserable."
"No..." Ranma glared at her, trembling, fighting back tears as she drew closer. But deep in the part of his soul where his darkest fears lay, he felt she was right...
"Yes. Can you honestly think of a time when you've made Akane truly happy? Without shattering her pleasure with some unthinking remark?" The Snow Woman smiled at the look on Ranma's face. "You are nothing to her, Ranma," she said. "She does not love you."
Ranma's ki burned the blue-green of despair. "D-damn you."
The Snow Woman stretched out her arms, her long white fingers mere inches from his face. "Ah, such pain," she said softly, her breath an icy whisper. "Come to me. I can help make it all go away." And she went to touch him.
Ranma blinked. Then he moved so swiftly, he was a blur, leaping and flipping over the pale apparition to land behind her. "No way!" he shouted. She gasped and turned, her eyes blazing with fury, to see the blur of his fist moving towards her face...
Ranma intended to use his ki-fueled punch to send the white demon back to the Kami Plane...
But she wasn't there. Or rather, his fist moved through her, as if it were passing through a cold mist. He blinked, and she smiled at him as he pulled his arm from her ethereal form. And then, a stunned moment later, he felt her very solid, icy fingers on his throat.
"Foolish boy," she said, amused. "You think I wouldn't prepare for your mortal tricks? I became intimately acquainted with your ki on my last visit. You can do nothing to me that I cannot avoid. In fact, you've made it so much easier."
Ranma felt a flash of bitter cold emanate from the Snow Woman's hand and spread over his entire body the instant before he pried her fingers from his throat. He cried out, then slumped to the floor, shivering. He was surprised when, after a moment, the cold feeling passed.
"What did you do?" he asked, glaring fiercely at her as he pushed himself to his feet.
"Nothing much. I just added a little something to your ki. Something that will make whatever liquid that touches you, no matter how hot, turn cold before it touches your skin."
The Snow Woman smirked at the horrified, angry expression spreading across Ranma's face. Yes, he understood what she had done. That was just how he looked after he discovered the power of the Chiisuiton...
And, my, he certainly could throw off a bright battle aura. The blue-greens that swirled in the glowing ball of energy he was forming in his hands were blinding...
"Shishi Houkodan!" The cry tore itself from Ranma's throat, and the blast hit the Snow Woman dead on.
The sheer strength and fury of it caught her by surprise. She was burning. Ranma's ki blast tore at her being. She could feel herself breaking apart, and barely had time to reinforce the protective barriers around her before she lost herself...
Ranma sank to his knees, shaking, and looked out the smoldering hole he had created in the side of the house. The Snow Woman lay, somewhat blackened, on the grass against the wall of the yard. She wasn't moving, and he wondered if he'd killed her...
But no, she was moving. He could see waves of energy flowing into her from the ground and the air, as if she was pulling the cold of the chilly spring night into her body. Sitting up, she tilted at odd angles, like a broken doll. Then slowly, as the energy flowed to her, she began straightening...
He could hear the shouts of alarm from the Tendos as they raced up the stairs to see what was going on.
Nabiki tried to open his door, but it wouldn't budge. She pounded. "Ranma! Are you okay? What's going on in there?!"
Ranma wearily turned to answer..
... and found himself female, and spluttering from the cold water that just drenched him.
**Well, what do you know. She did it. That water was hot enough for tea.**
More pounding. "Ranma, answer me!"
But he couldn't. Because his mouth was dry, his limbs were frozen, and his mind was shrieking with terror as the Shadowcat, who had just appeared in the room, padded up to him, its yellow eyes narrowed to glowing slits, its dark ki flickering about its form like black flames.
**Ah, you remember me. I'm flattered.** It extended its claws and reached out towards Ranma's pale, trembling form. **You're my favorite, you know. I've never had one as strong as you. And now, thanks to the lovely Yuki-onna sending me here through her magic mirror, I can be with you always.** The demon bared its needle-sharp teeth in a parody of a smile.
In the past five minutes, Ranma had experienced the full spectrum of fear. On one end of the spectrum, the esoteric, yet very real fears of losing Akane, of losing his manhood. Of losing his reasons for existing. Now, on the other side of the spectrum, he felt the deep primal terror that had plagued man from the beginning of time. Terror of things that dwelled in the dark; of pain, sharp and sweet.
Terror of losing himself to the darkness.
He felt the now-familiar feeling of his mind fleeing unwillingly before his fear, leaving behind something... less. Different. Him, but not.
A small, strangled cry was the only noise he made as the Shadowcat came up to his twitching form, and pressed its forehead against his.
Ryoga shattered the door down with a smashing, splintering of wood. He burst into Ranma's room, calling his name, followed closely by Nabiki, Ukyo, Soun and Genma. They gaped at the sight of the huge demon cat pressing its forehead against onna-Ranma's as she knelt, frozen, her eyes wide, her pupils and irises seeming to shrink in the wild whiteness that filled them, her hands curling into paws.
The Shadowcat was right, thought Ranma as he felt words leaving him. Language was slipping away... I can't hear the spell voices anymore...
And Ranma yowled.
"Get away from him!" Ryoga formed a ball of ki energy in his hands and blasted it at the Shadowcat.
The Shadowcat simply faded away before the blast could reach it. The blast passed in front of Ranma, and she turned, arching her back and hissing at the astonished group, her eyes wild and empty. Then she turned and fled with inhuman speed on all fours out the hole in the wall just enlarged by Ryoga's blast.
"Ranma! Come back!"
But she was gone. Over the wall and into the night in a few graceful leaps.
Ranma's friends stared after him in dismay. None of them noticed the woman, the color of bleached bone, who faded away in the yard below, her cold laughter echoing through the wind.
The mists parted reluctantly, but, as Akane emerged from the clinging wisps, she was grateful to see that the realm she was entering wasn't as dark as the last few she'd visited. Chances were, that meant this wasn't a demon's abode.
She turned to Masakazu. "Well? Do you recognize this place? Do you think whoever lives here will help me?"
The tengu shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't know this place. But it feels like the dwelling of an upper-level spirit, who might have power enough to break the blood spell. We can try."
Akane sighed and brushed her dark bangs from her eyes wearily. "We've been trying for over two weeks now," she said irritably. "So far, all we've encountered are beings who either want to kill me, marry me, or are just too snobbish to bother with a 'mere mortal' like me." She grimaced. "This is gonna take forever."
Masakazu chuckled. "Don't worry, Akane-chan. The Kami Plane is a vast realm, much larger than the mortal world. I'm sure we'll find someone who will help-"
Akane gasped suddenly, and pressed her hand to her heart, her eyes wide.
"What's wrong?" the tengu asked, concerned.
Akane's brown eyes were tearing. She looked at her sensei, her face pale. "I... I don't know. I felt something just now... Like... like I lost something." She swallowed. "I feel... hollow..."
A small, scared feeling was building in her stomach as she slowly recognized the hollow feeling. It was the same feeling she'd felt when she first became trapped in the Kami Plane. It was the same feeling she felt as she watched Ranma fade away from her sight as the blood spell separated them not once, but twice...
Her eyes filled with terror. "Sensei! Something's happened to Ranma!"
But the tengu wasn't listening. His black eyes were narrowed as he peered at her ki. The blood spell seemed normal, except...
...except the tiny wisp of dragon blood that served as the transdimensional connection between Ranma and Akane was dissolving...
Yuki-onna... he thought sadly. What have you done?
"We have to help him, sensei!" Akane was frantic.
The tengu closed his eyes. Akane's time in the Kami Realm had made her perceptive. But then, maybe her instinctive knowledge of what happened to Ranma had nothing to do with the powers of the Kami realm...
Akane took him by the shoulders, taking his silence for reluctance. "Please," she begged, tears streaming down her face. "I can't go to him! But you can, I know it! You can go to the mortal plane and help Ranma!"
"Akane." He sighed. "I am forbidden..."
"I don't care! You have to!" She began to break down into sobs. "P-please... If you don't... I'll lose him. I can feel it."
The tengu turned away from her. He hated to see her cry. But for him to go against the significant powers that were against him... To venture back into the mortal realm...
"All right, Akane-chan. I'll try." He turned to see the hopeful smile break through Akane's tears.
And may Kami-sama have mercy on us both.