Chapter 14: Souls in the Balance, Part 2
Ranma, in his cursed female form, looked down through tangled red bangs at the lifeless shell of the tengu beside him.
A small frown creased between his wild blue eyes. Reaching out with a delicate paw-like hand, he swatted at the soft, rust-colored feathers on the tengu's arm, as if hoping to elicit some kind of responsive movement.
Nothing. The tengu's eyes stared sightlessly, the five wounds in his torso left by the Shadowcat's claws slowly trickling blood, staining the forest grass red.
Ranma meowed in consternation. Something wasn't right. Something was making his heart hurt in his chest. But he couldn't think, he couldn't tell what it was, and he couldn't fix it.
He leaned over and nudged the tengu again with his nose.
As he did, his eyes widened and glazed slightly as the scent of blood and feathers filled his head...
...and the feline soul that steered Ranma's thoughts told him, without words, This is a dead thing. And his senses, with the hunger that burned in his stomach, told him that this strange thing that bore so much resemblance to the flying things that his instinct told him to hunt, catch, devour... was food...
Food. He was so hungry. The fish had barely taken the edge off the ravenous hunger, and he ached with exhaustion from running all night with the unseen Shadowcat at his heels. His body cried to be fed...
Ranma paused a moment, blinking as a slight tremor passed through his female form.
Then, slowly, he raised his hand, his slender fingers curled into claws, knowing instinctively that a swipe of his paw would sever enough meat from the carcass to fill him...
Ranma shuddered suddenly, a strangled yowl escaping his throat, his clawed fingers digging into the earth as something deep within him... revolted. A tiny spark of something... lost and smothered... flickered quietly to life, piercing the black cloud of feline thought and instinct that held his soul in a vice grip.
No words. They escaped his mind like the wispy tufts of dandelion seeds caught in a wind.
But feelings, not altogether feline, swelled within him. Feelings that connected to the strange images that had been hovering on the edges of his consciousness for so long. Images that now came into sharper focus.
He didn't know.
But it was familiar. It had ...a cute smile...? liquid brown eyes that gazed at him in his mind, filling him with both comfort, and a strange, hollow ache completely unrecognized by his infected soul.
He wanted to find it. If he found it, the ache would go away. He knew... instinctively... the only way he was capable of knowing anything at the moment.
But how could he find something that he only knew in his head? Ranma blinked in feline confusion as his muddled mind fought to grasp concepts beyond his capacity.
Fate is often a cruel mistress. But at times, when an individual suffers her slings and arrows with perseverance that transcends the human norm, she may soften her hand slightly. She apparently decided that, after all Ranma had suffered, he deserved a break. For at that moment, a frustrated, hoarse yell sounded close by, startling Ranma as the sound rent the silence of the peaceful spring mountain air.
"AaarrghhhhHHHHHHH... WHERE ON EARTH AM I NOW?!"
Ranma's ears pricked up at the strangely familiar noise, and all thoughts of the images and feelings were pushed aside as curiosity overwhelmed him. Without a moment of hesitation, he turned and bounded off in the direction of the sound...
... not noticing as the body of the tengu behind him shimmered slightly, then faded away, sparkling into the light of the afternoon sun.
Ryoga looked at the forest that surrounded him, his face creased with frustration and despair. Where had all the buildings gone? Just a few minutes ago he'd been in the middle of a Tokyo suburb, tramping up and down the sidewalks, searching among the streets, vacant lots, and even the walled yards of various homes, trying to find Ranma.
"Damn you, Ranma," he muttered softly. He wanted to scream it out loud, but his initial outburst, when he realized that he was well and truly lost once again, had left his raw throat burning. He was hoarse from spending all night and all morning calling out his friend's name. He even tried calling out "Here, kitty kitty" every now and then, but the only response he got was from an elderly lady, out for some early morning shopping, who felt sorry for him and asked him what his lost kitty looked like.
He had flushed with embarrassment. What was he supposed to say? He wanted to find Ranma, and if she had seen him, she might be able to tell him which direction to look. "Well, uh... ma'am," he replied sheepishly, "he's... not really a cat. He's a guy. But he thinks he's a cat. Oh, and, wait a minute, I forgot, he's not... a guy at the moment. He's a girl. He... uh, she... has red hair and..." He trailed off as the lady's look of concern faded to a scowl. Without a word, she turned and walked away.
Ryoga's head drooped. Well, at least he knew she hadn't seen Ranma. He was pretty sure that the sight of a buxom, red-haired girl running through the streets on all fours would be pretty hard to forget.
He clenched his fists. "Damn you, Ranma. Why'd you have to run off like that?"
What time was it, anyway?
The sunlight filtered through the trees at a sharp angle, casting lengthening shadows on the forest floor. The air was so quiet, except for the soft chirping of birds, and the rushing, burbling sound of a nearby stream. How could he have wandered from the city to the wilderness without realizing it?
It was hopeless. He should have known he could never find Ranma. Heck, sometimes he couldn't find Ranma even when he knew exactly where he was supposed to be. And even if he did find him, who was to say that Ranma would recognize him in his current state of mind?
Or if Ranma did recognize him, would he just run away again? Or, even worse, would he attack with the deadly Cat Fist? After all, Ryoga was the one who scared him off last night, trying to ki-blast that cat demon...
Ryoga shuddered. After seeing that monster, Ranma's fear of cats didn't seem so unreasonable. He thought of Kintaro-sensei's sharp words to Genma from a week before, when the doctor's cat sent Ranma into a gibbering, mind-numbing panic.
It's nice to know that you believe winning a fight is more important than your son's sanity. If you could see what I see, your opinion of Cat-fu might change drastically. The technique wasn't banned without reason, you know.
The words had puzzled him at the time, but no longer. Ranma's cat phobia didn't seem nearly so funny now. Ryoga thought of his own curse. To have the body of an animal was a nightmare, but to have the mind of one? Sometimes, when he was feeling especially depressed after getting unexpectedly doused with cold water, he wondered what might have happened to him had the Jusenkyo curse altered his mind as well as his body. The thought frightened him enough that he usually stopped contemplating it altogether. To lose your identity so completely? It was a fate worse than death. It was being alive, but not really.
At least, as P-Chan, he could reason. He knew who he was; could think and feel as a human being in spite of his outward form. The memory of that huge cat flickering with black ki, and the thought of what it might have done as it pressed its forehead to Ranma's, made his blood run cold.
Ryoga closed his eyes and shook his head. He was getting nowhere. The chances of him finding Ranma were practically nil. He should head back to the Tendo Dojo. If he started looking for it now, he might make it back in a week or so. And maybe by then the others would have found Ranma.
His decision made, he began to walk again, hoping, with little faith, that he was headed in the right direction.
After a few steps, he stopped.
He looked around, straining his senses as he felt...
His eyes narrowed. Something's watching me...
With careful casualness, he took a few more steps. After a moment, he stopped again.
No... Something's stalking me.
He was familiar with the feeling. He'd been lost in the wilderness often enough to know how it felt when some wild animal thought he might be just the thing to drag back to the den to feed the hungry little ones. They were usually starving and desperate. Or crazed. He certainly wasn't the weak or sick type that usually attracted the attention of the resident carnivores...
With a smooth motion, his hand reached behind his head to his pack and slid his umbrella from its perch. Then he turned, his senses extended, searching...
The wild thing had come up upon him so silently, he let out a startled gasp, for it was only a few meters away from him.
"Ranma?" he whispered.
Ranma froze in mid-motion as Ryoga turned. The cursed boy stood, carefully balanced on his curled, paw-like hands and his bare feet, watching Ryoga carefully with wild blue eyes peering through matted red bangs, his female body taut and ready to sprint away at any moment. His clothes were torn and muddy, and his delicate, feminine face and arms were streaked with dirt and blood. His knuckles were worn raw from running on all fours.
Ryoga paled, forcing back the feeling of horror at seeing his friend like this. "Oh, man. Ranma..."
He recognized the look in Ranma's eyes; recognized it from other wild animals he'd come face to face with. Ranma was hungry. And Ryoga knew what kind of appetite Ranma had. Still... in spite of the look on her...his face, Ranma didn't look like he was going to attack. Because along with the hunger, Ryoga could see... a kind of inquisitiveness?
Did Ranma recognize him?
Ryoga swallowed, and forced himself to relax. He didn't want to scare him, after all. He couldn't believe it. He'd found Ranma!
Or rather, Ranma found him...
Ryoga's eyes widened slightly as he noticed a blackened mark on Ranma's chest, almost as if sh... he'd caught one of Happosai's happodaikarins just before it went off. What on earth? What happened to Ranma after he ran off last night?
Slowly, Ryoga lowered his umbrella and knelt on the ground. Ranma didn't move, just watched him warily as he removed his pack from his shoulders and carefully unzipped it, reaching in to pull out a small thermos.
He hoped the water was still warm enough to change Ranma back to normal. Not taking his eyes off his cursed friend, Ryoga unscrewed the lid and stuck the tip of his index finger into the water, careful not to spill it. If, by some chance, the water had cooled, he didn't want to risk turning into a tiny black piglet in front of Ranma's hunger-filled eyes.
He sighed in relief. Yes, it was still hot enough to do the job.
Now, all he had to do was get close enough to Ranma to splash him.
Ryoga cleared his throat nervously. "C'mere, Ranma," he said. Ranma didn't move, except to crouch a bit lower to the ground. Ryoga felt the heat of embarrassment rise to his face, and he grimaced as he said, "Here, kitty kitty. C'mon now."
Ranma's expression didn't change, but there was a subtle alteration in his body language as he crouched on the ground. Ryoga could have sworn that, if Ranma had possessed cat ears, they would have been pinned back in irritation.
Ryoga scowled. After all he'd been through to find him... "Now look, you ungrateful... I'm just trying to help you!" Ranma merely blinked at him.
Ryoga clenched his fist, but then he paused, the frustration on his face fading slightly. Reaching into his pack again, he pulled out a small packet of dried, spiced beef from his food rations. He hesitated as he withdrew his hand. Beef was very expensive. And he had been saving it for himself, for his long trips...
He looked over at Ranma to see that she... he had perked up, and his nose was twitching in his direction.
Ryoga felt a strange tightness in his chest. He hated seeing Ranma like this. Not just in his cursed form, even though that discomfited him more than he would ever dare admit, because Ranma's female body was so... so... What's a safe word?! ...healthy...
But this... This was somehow worse. Ranma was, as he had always so vehemently stated, a guy. No matter what Ranma looked like on the outside, he was the same inside. Like Ryoga was the same inside, even when he was a black piglet.
Now though... Ranma's lithe feline bearing, the feral blue eyes peering curiously at him from a girl's face that had shed all traces of human expression... If anything, the Nekoken enhanced the deceptively fragile beauty of Ranma's cursed form with a disturbingly attractive, primitive wildness...
Ryoga found himself swallowing hard.
Don't think about it. Ryoga forced the unsettled feelings away from him. This is Ranma. Somewhere, beyond the face, beyond the body, beyond... the way he's acting... he's still in there. He's got to be. And I'm gonna pound him to a pulp when he gets back to normal for freaking me out like this...
Ranma meowed curiously at Ryoga, as if sensing the wrapped food he had clenched in his fist.
Ryoga's head jerked up at the inhuman sound that had just issued from Ranma's throat, the tightness in his chest squeezing a bit harder.
That settled it. He had to get Ranma back to normal that very moment, no matter what it took. Tearing open the package, he held out a thick shred of dried beef in Ranma's direction. Ranma's eyes widened with interest.
"C'mon, now," Ryoga said quietly, trying to fight down the part of him that felt ridiculous treating Ranma like a cat. "C'mere, kitty kitty. I've got some food for you."
Ranma began to hesitantly edge towards him. Ryoga held the beef out at arm's length. When Ranma was just close enough to reach it with his teeth, Ryoga pulled his arm in closer to his body.
Ranma stopped and eyed him balefully. Once again, Ryoga had the impression of cat ears flattened against his head in irritation. Ryoga grit his teeth and forced a smile. "Ungrateful son of a..." he said in that same calm, almost sweet voice. "C'mere before I break your neck."
If Ranma understood the words, he gave no sign. Instead, he edged closer to the food in Ryoga's hands until finally his petite feminine form was a mere forearm's length away from Ryoga's body. Ranma looked at Ryoga, as if trying to see if he would jerk the food away again. Then, in a quick movement, Ranma snatched the beef from Ryoga's fingers with his teeth.
Ranma immediately began chewing on the tough meat with feline fervor. Kneeling down around the food, the cursed boy began to make a contented rumbling noise deep in his slender throat as he devoured the treat.
Ryoga blinked in astonishment. Ranma was... purring? The sound was... oddly comforting. He fought the sudden, irrational urge to reach out and pet the tangled mop of red hair.
Instead, he gripped the thermos tightly, dipping his fingers in again just to be sure...
More than hot enough to do the job. He smiled. Okay, buddy. Here it comes...
Ranma jumped to his hands and feet, unchanged. Still very much female. His sopping white shirt, now clinging wetly to his feminine curves, made that very apparent. With the meat still in his mouth, Ranma bounded away a few meters, shaking his dripping red hair in feline agitation.
Ryoga stared, his mouth hanging open. "Ranma..?" Sudden panic gripped him. That should have worked. Ranma should not only be male again, but in his right mind.
His eyes widened as a wave of horror washed over him.
Ranma was stuck. Stuck in his cursed form.
And stuck in the Nekoken...
Ranma shook his head with a last wet flip, and favored the stunned Ryoga with a feline glare before bounding off into the dense growth of trees, the dried beef still clamped between his teeth.
Ryoga leaped to his feet. "Ranma! Wait!" Not again, not again! "Dammit, Ranma, come back here!" If he lost track of Ranma now, the chances of finding him again were astronomically against him.
Shouldering his pack with a quick movement and muttering a curse, Ryoga plunged into the thick foliage after his friend with a great leap...
...and plunged right up to his knees into the rushing stream.
Instantly, Ryoga's clothes collapsed around his changing, shrinking form, and then he was struggling desperately to swim out of his tunic before its soggy weight pulled him to the bottom of the river bed. His hind legs got tangled briefly in the rough cloth, but he kicked free, and then his snout was above water. Swimming hard against the downhill current, he reached the mossy bank and pulled his tiny, shivering body out of the snow-melt waters.
Ryoga turned and watched as the current swiftly pulled his tunic and pants downstream. His backpack and umbrella lay unmoving where they had dropped, half-submerged in the water.
Tears of bitterness and frustration filled Ryoga's eyes.
He'd lost Ranma. He'd lost himself. He was a pig again. His clothes were being washed away. His backpack was stuck in the middle of a river.
And it was all Ranma's fault.
Things couldn't get much worse.
He bweed angrily at the injustice of it all. Stupid Ranma. Try to help him, and what does he do? Run off and leave you in a lurch. He glared at his backpack, in lieu of Ranma, and tried to figure out how he was going to get his stove and kettle from the pack to dry ground...
A slight tingle of his battle sense was all the warning he had. The little black pig didn't even have a chance to turn before he felt himself swatted hard. Ryoga rolled and smacked against the raised root of a tree. He shook his head groggily as he tried to regain his feet, but his vision was whirling. All he saw, before another blow stole his consciousness away, was a flash of red hair, and wild, hunger-filled eyes...
In the Tendo dining room, Kasumi quietly served a very late dinner to the sullen company who knelt around the table. All was silent except for the occasional low, hiccupping sob from Ukyo as she tried unsuccessfully to hold back her tears of frustration. Nabiki, feeling none too happy herself, nevertheless kept her calm mask in place. She... felt bad for Ukyo. The okonomiyaki chef was exhausted, her emotions running high after staying out longer than any of the rest of them, searching, calling...
She came back to rest only because Nabiki, fresh from a power nap, found her and forced her to return before she collapsed. Even then, Ukyo had only relented when Nabiki threatened not to call her if anyone else found Ranma when she was out searching.
When they returned well after dark, and found Shampoo and Mousse back from their own search, Nabiki then had to hastily explain to a furious Ukyo that Shampoo wasn't responsible for the demon cat, and that they were here to help. Unfortunately, her explanation didn't come fast enough to prevent Ukyo from giving Mousse a good, solid taste of her spatula when he stepped in front of her attack on Shampoo.
Nabiki glanced over at Shampoo and Mousse, who sat at one end of the table, keeping themselves carefully separate from the others. Shampoo stared at her hands folded in her lap, seemingly oblivious to the concerned looks Mousse cast at her every now and then. Mousse's face was still red from the impact of Ukyo's spatula. He was going to have one hell of a bruise. But at least Ukyo hadn't broken his glasses.
Ryoga hadn't returned, of course. But then, she didn't expect to see him for at least another week or so.
Even Genma and her father, sitting at the other end of the table, were uncharacteristically grave. The feeling about them went far beyond their usual mock seriousness, which was usually just a lot of bluff and bluster anyway.
Genma looked especially stricken, far more so than she could ever recall seeing him. It made her wonder if the fool was actually feeling genuine remorse for what he'd inflicted upon his son, perhaps for the first time in his life. Genma's prevalent attitude in training Ranma seemed to be that any experience - whether it be swimming to China, or surviving the attentions of the numerous fiancees the man had inflicted on him throughout his life, or being thrown into a pit of starving cats - was good experience as long as you could eventually crawl away alive.
Ranma was alive, but...
Nabiki picked up a piece of shrimp with her chopsticks and munched automatically. Though Kasumi's cooking was as excellent as always, it seemed tasteless to her.
"Eat." Nabiki looked up at the sound of Kasumi's soft, but firm command, and saw her older sister kneeling across from her, but looking at Ukyo. "Please," Kasumi continued when Ukyo raised her eyes to meet her own. "You need to eat to build up your strength, dear."
Ukyo looked down, her long chestnut hair hanging over her face, hiding the deep shadows under her eyes. "I'm sorry, Kasumi-san," she said, her voice hoarse and scratchy, "but I... I'm not very hungry."
Kasumi smiled sadly. "I know you're... distracted," she replied gently. "But you can't help him if you don't have the strength or stamina to find him."
Ukyo's eyes flickered briefly with despair. Then her expression hardened with determination. "Yes," she said, and picked up her chopsticks. "I'll find him..."
Nabiki's cell phone rang in her jacket pocket, causing her, and everyone else at the table, to jump. Pulling it out quickly, she flipped the tiny device open, aware of the anxious stares she was receiving from all around. Ukyo was nearly leaning over her...
"Yes?" Nabiki said into the phone, keeping her voice remarkably steady.
Silence. The group around the table held their breath...
Nabiki frowned and closed her eyes.
The people around the table sagged back into their places with fallen expressions.
"I see," Nabiki said quietly, tightly. "Yes, well, have them keep looking. Have you checked with the police again? No reports of... Fine. Expand the parameters again, and keep moving in a grid pattern. Ask more questions. Somebody has to have seen something... Don't worry about that. Just do it."
She closed her phone, put it back in her pocket, and stared at her shrimp.
Genma muttered something unintelligible, his head bowed low.
"What was that, Saotome?" asked Soun.
Genma just shook his head. "My son," he whispered. "My only son. What have I done?"
Ukyo glared at the man with an expression of disgust reserved just for him. "Oh, sure," she said, her voice dripping with anger. "Only now you're wondering? What the hell were you thinking, throwing a child into a-"
"I think we've had this discussion before," Nabiki interrupted, holding up her hand. "And it's not going to get us anywhere. We need to eat and get some rest so we can go searching again. Any arguments, fights, maimings, or feelings of guilt can wait until after we find Ranma. Got it?" With that last, she looked directly at Ukyo.
Ukyo relaxed slightly and nodded, still glaring at Genma, who hadn't raised his head.
Nabiki sighed. There was another factor to this whole mess that had been overlooked in the rush to find Ranma.
"And we can't forget," she said, "there's also the matter of Akane."
Shampoo winced, and her father began to get teary-eyed at the thought of the daughter he couldn't remember.
Nabiki continued calmly, yet not quite able to cover the slight strain in her voice. "None of us may recollect her at the moment, but we've already established that she does exist, and not just as a figment of Ranma's imagination or the blood spell. She's still trapped in the Kami Plane. And, as you've all been made aware, the Kami Plane is full of demons, like the Shadowcat that attacked Ranma last night. In fact, Ranma claimed that Akane was already in the hands of a demon, or an evil spirit, known as Yuki-onna, the Snow Woman."
Nabiki looked around at the others. Perhaps her words seemed blunt and callous, but they needed to be said. Even though they were now aware that Akane was real, it was still so easy to just... not worry about her. After all, none of them had any real memories of her to back up what they knew.
"We have to find Ranma," she said softly. "Not just for his own sake... but because without him, we can't rescue my sister. The fate of not just one, but two people lie in our finding Ranma, and bringing him back to himself."
Ukyo stiffened suddenly.
Nabiki noticed, and suppressed a deep, almost annoyed sigh. Ukyo was not taking the news of the reality of Akane's existence well.
"Did you hear that?" whispered Ukyo.
Mousse had his head cocked slightly. "I heard something too," he said.
Everyone froze. The silence in the dining room was almost tangible.
Then... a faint mewing...
Ukyo looked over at Nabiki. "Ranchan..?" she said, almost in disbelief.
Nabiki's eyes widened. "Can't be," she said.
They heard it again, closer.
Ukyo jumped immediately to her feet, and ran to the screen door, sliding it open and running out into the cool night air, followed closely by Nabiki and the others.
"Ranchan!" called out Ukyo.
"There!" Shampoo pointed. "Aiya, Ranma!"
Ranma was on the wall that surrounded the house, standing on all fours, his female silhouette illuminated by starlight. Ranma's feral blue eyes caught the light shining through the open dining room door, glowing impossibly from his delicate, shadowed face, and his wild red hair had somehow been torn from its pigtail fastening, flowing around his shoulders like a lion's mane in the darkness.
"Oh my," said Kasumi, coming up behind them. "Is he alright?"
"I... I don't know," said Ukyo, the relief in her voice tinged with uncertainty and a touch of fear. "Ranchan?"
Genma looked at his female son, his face carefully blank. "I'll get some hot water," he said, and went back into the house.
Nabiki frowned, staving off her own feelings of relief until she knew for sure... Ranma was back. But he just watched them, hadn't moved since they emerged from the house.
Then her eyes narrowed, and a sick feeling flooded her stomach. Oh no. "He's got something in his mouth," she said.
Ukyo swallowed hard. "Ranchan... come down. Please..." Ranma's shadowed gaze turned on her. He looked so inhuman. If Ranma had... had killed a bird or a rat...
She suppressed a shudder. It's not his fault, he doesn't know what he's doing, she thought. He's back, that's all that matters. "Ranchan..." she called, her voice a bit stronger. "Come here... kitty kitty..."
Ranma paused a moment, then leaped down from the wall and walked cautiously towards Ukyo. As the light from the house illuminated Ranma's face, Ukyo gasped, and Ranma froze. "Oh! P-Chan!"
"P-Chan?" Nabiki knelt down in front of Ranma. He turned his wild blue gaze to her curiously, and she saw that he did indeed carry the tiny black piglet in his mouth, holding it by the bandana around its neck. The pig was unconscious, or...
Nabiki exchanged a worried glance with Ukyo. Then she held out her hands. "Ranma..." she said softly. "Give me P-Chan. Give me P-Chan, okay?"
Ranma just looked at her.
"Is cat, not dog," said Shampoo softly, her gaze, hollow and haunted, flickering between Ranma's face and the creature he held in his mouth. "Ranma no give you piglet. He think it his."
"Well," said Ukyo uncertainly, "P-Chan is Ranma's pet, after all..."
Just then, the little piglet's eyes flickered open groggily. Nabiki heard soft exclamations of relief from both Mousse and Shampoo. Strange, that they would be so concerned about a pet pig...
P-Chan's eyes suddenly widened, and he bweed, wriggling frantically as he dangled precariously from Ranma's mouth.
"Mrorw!" As soon as P-Chan started moving, Ranma dropped him to the ground, his paw-like hands on either side of him. P-Chan landed with a thud and a squeal, then jumped to his feet, staring at Ranma with wide eyes. Ranma crouched down, nose to nose with the little pig, feline eyes wild and sparkling.
P-Chan began to nervously back out from between Ranma's paws, his eyes never leaving Ranma's face...
...but before he could get too far, Ranma pounced gleefully and pinned him to the ground. P-Chan bweed indignantly as Ranma began to bat at him with curled hands.
Nabiki didn't know whether to be worried... or to burst out laughing.
The whole situation was just too weird. Ranma was back, there was no sign of the Shadowcat demon, much to her relief, and Ranma was acting... well, the way he usually acted when he was in the Nekoken, instead of the panicked, maddened frenzy he was in when he ran off the night before.
"Ranchan!" Ranma froze at Ukyo's sharp tone, and looked up at okonomiyaki chef, blinking innocently. Ukyo reached out and plucked the slightly battered P-Chan from between Ranma's hands. The little black pig was shaking, its eyes narrowed in fury, but Ukyo didn't notice. She set the pig down behind her, out of Ranma's reach, and stretched her hands out to her fiance. "Come here, Ranchan..." she said softly. "Come here, kitty kitty..."
Ranma meowed indignantly at having his plaything taken away, and watched, tensed, as P-Chan made a quick break for the house. Ranma made to chase, but Ukyo called him again, with soft urgency in her voice. He stopped, and cocked his head at her. After a moment of feline indecision, he came up to her and rubbed his red hair against Ukyo's outstretched hand.
The cursed boy began to purr.
Ukyo couldn't help but smile, but it was a smile full of strain. "Where's that hot water?" she asked, her voice tight.
"Uncle Saotome is heating the water right now," said Kasumi.
Nabiki looked at Ranma intently, her mind whirling. After rubbing up against Ukyo, Ranma sat on his haunches and began to lick his delicate, curled hand, first cleaning the scrapes on the knuckles and palm where they were worn raw from running, and then swiping his hand over his red bangs in swift, precise movements.
A disturbed frown creased between Nabiki's brows, her expression a mere shadow of what she was feeling as she took note of Ranma's injuries. Kasumi would have to clean and bandage his hands so they wouldn't get infected.
"Here's the hot water," said Genma, coming up behind Ukyo. Ranma tensed suddenly, and growled low in his throat, his feral blue eyes narrowing at the man holding the kettle.
Genma's stone expression twitched slightly, and he set the kettle down. "I'd... better wait over there," he said, and walked over to stand by Soun.
Ryoga stuck his snout cautiously around the corner of the screen door. He bweed a soft sigh of relief as he saw that Ranma wasn't chasing him. The past few hours had been a nightmare. He would regain consciousness, only to find himself hanging from Ranma's mouth as Ranma stealthily ran through wilderness and suburb. After the first few times of waking up dangling in his precarious position, he finally learned his lesson: Don't struggle. The moment he would move, Ranma would stop, drop him, and "play" him into unconsciousness.
The only problem was, in spite of Ryoga's thick neck and minimal weight in his piglet body, the bandana around his neck that Ranma carried him by was uncomfortable in the extreme. If he shifted the wrong way, the bandana pressed against his esophagus and cut off his air supply, and he would struggle instinctively for air, sending Ranma into another fit of feline playfulness. And no matter what he did, he couldn't escape. Ranma was just too fast. Ryoga's head throbbed from the lumps caused by Ranma's roughhousing.
The black piglet's eyes narrowed intently as he watched the scene in the back yard from his safe position. Ukyo was getting ready to pour the steaming hot water on Ranma's head...
Ryoga sagged a bit, not really surprised. So it hadn't been a fluke. Ranma really was stuck, doubly cursed. He turned and ran quickly to look for the laundry, grateful that Kasumi had offered to wash his spare outfits for him, since all his other clothes and belongings were sitting in the middle of a stream somewhere. And he had no intention of spending another moment as a tiny pig with Ranma the way he was.
Ukyo held Ranma, her arms around her fiancé's neck, flinching slightly as he shook the water out of his red hair. "Wh-what happened?!" she asked, as everyone looked on with stunned expressions. "Why didn't he change back?"
No one answered. They just stared in shock and horror as Ranma squirmed out of Ukyo's grip, then began to groom his wet face and hair with a curled hand.
Then Ukyo's eyes widened, and she reached up with one hand to touch her face where the water from Ranma's hair had splattered her. She looked at Ranma for a moment, then reached out to touch the long, sopping hair that spilled over his shoulders, and squeezed water from the red strands. Her eyes went wide, and she turned to Nabiki.
"The water," said Ukyo. "It's cold. Like ice, almost."
Nabiki stared at Ranma. Indeed, Ranma seemed to be shivering slightly, even as he tried to clean the water from her... himself. Nabiki took the kettle away from Ukyo and stuck her hand into the remaining water. "Impossible," she said, traces of frustration and anger seeping into her level voice. This was supposed to work. Ranma was supposed to be back to normal, so that he could rescue Akane. "This water's hot, there's no way it could turn cold so..."
Nabiki trailed off suddenly, the blood falling from her face. Ukyo eyes widened. "Nabiki?"
The Snow Woman. Akane was with the Snow Woman.
And, last night, Ranma had finally discovered a possible way of breaking the blood spell, of rescuing Akane from the Kami Plane.
The Shadowcat came from in the Kami Plane.
Nabiki blinked, horror building within her as pieces of the mystery began to fall into place. Standing, she walked over to Ranma, slowly, so as not to startle him, then knelt down next to him as he continued his cleaning task. He seemed apathetic about her close proximity. For that, she was grateful, since he tended to be a bit skittish when he was a cat.
She put her hand on his shoulder. Ranma paused, and looked at her briefly before resuming his task.
Carefully, Nabiki poured a small stream of hot water from the spout of the kettle over Ranma's shoulder, where her hand rested. The steaming hot water ran over the tops of her fingers, turning them slightly red, then trickled down, pooling between her fingers to touch Ranma's dirtied, white sleeveless shirt and the skin underneath...
... and turned icy cold.
Ukyo felt fear clutch her stomach as she watched Nabiki's pale face blanch even more as she poured the water over her hand. "The water turned cold, didn't it," she said. "Why? What's going on?"
Nabiki just looked at her reddened hand, her expression grim and silent, her mind churning...
"Is it the Chiisuiton?" asked Mousse softly, not taking his eyes off Ranma. "Do you think Herb is behind this?"
Nabiki blinked, then turned her icy countenance towards the Chinese pair, her eyes meeting Shampoo's, rather than moving up to meet Mousse's myopic gaze. "No," she said, slowly, deliberately. "Offhand... I'd say the Snow Woman and the Shadowcat are behind this."
Shampoo paled as Nabiki's meaning sank in.
"The Snow Woman?" Ukyo blinked, and a flurry of emotions crossed over her face as the meaning of the reference penetrated her mind. "What are you saying? Are you saying that..."
She trailed off, not wanting to voice the fear that filled her with Nabiki's serious expression; her confident, yet grave words...
And yet... She had to know. She had to help Ranma.
Ukyo inhaled deeply. "You're saying that the Snow Woman did this to Ranma so that he couldn't break the blood spell and rescue... Akane." She said it, not as a question. Because, as the words came out of her mouth, she knew. It was the only explanation that made sense of the confusion of the past 24 hours. She didn't even see Nabiki's slight nod in response.
Ukyo sank back on her heels, looking at her fiance, her eyes wide with fear and dismay brought on by desires both altruistic and... not so. Her mind whirled with the implications, and her heart tightened in her chest to the point of physical pain. Tears welled in her eyes. "Oh Ranchan..."
Nabiki stared at Shampoo, watching as the Amazon began to tremble slightly.
That's right, Nabiki thought, staring into Shampoo's wide violet eyes. This is all your fault.
Shampoo stared at the ground, unable to meet the accusation in Nabiki's gaze any longer. But Nabiki was right. The Kami Plane... None of this would have happened if she had never cast the blood spell.
And Ranma... This creature in front of her, with the mind of a cat and the body of a girl, was a gross distortion of the man she loved; a twisted mockery of the man who had stood before her just the night before, so strong and handsome and noble even in his anger towards her. The man she no longer had the right to claim as her husband.
All her fault...
Mousse was right. She had to fix it. No matter what the cost.
But how? Even if she went all the way back to China and somehow convinced the Ancient One to break the blood spell, it wouldn't change Ranma's present predicament. And right now, her main concern was getting Ranma back to normal, not rescuing her would-be rival from the Kami Plane.
Shampoo's eyes lit with realization. "Aiya," she whispered. "Great-grandmother."
"What was that, Shampoo?" asked Mousse.
She looked up at him. "Great-grandmother maybe know way to help Ranma. She know all about Nekoken."
"No way." Shampoo turned at the cold statement to see Ukyo standing protectively in front of Ranma, her bright eyes, still shimmering with unshed tears, narrowed in anger. Her hand reached instinctively behind her to grasp the handle of her battle spatula. "Out of the question, sister. There's no way I'm letting that old witch near Ranchan. Heck, I'm not too happy about letting you near him, after what you've done to him!"
Shampoo met Ukyo's gaze solemnly. "Shampoo already say I sorry," she said quietly.
Ukyo clenched her teeth against the fury that was building inside her. "Not good enough!" Her battle aura began to flicker around her. "Look at him! This is all your fault! If you ever really cared about him at all, you would never have cast that blood spell!" Ukyo's voice caught in her throat as tears welled with her anger. "You would have... let him choose..."
Shampoo's flinched. But then, looking at Ranma, who was looking up at Ukyo with feline inquisitiveness, her expression firmed, and she stood straighter despite the ache of guilt that welled within her.
"Shampoo know it," she said quietly. "And Shampoo vow to make up for what I do. I no care what you think, spatula girl. I already lose everything, and I get nothing for help. Ranma angry at me for what I do. He... never love me. And now he no like me. Maybe never like me again."
Shampoo's expression was calm, even though wetness began to build behind her violet eyes. Still, she looked up and met Ukyo's surprised gaze. "You lucky," she said hoarsely, gesturing at Ranma. "Ranma always like you. Even now, as cat, he like you. Shampoo no even have that. All Shampoo have left is small chance to restore fallen honor. Only if Shampoo fix what I do to Ranma, then... even if Ranma no... like me..."
Shampoo closed her eyes, and a tear slid down her cheek. "Maybe then... I have... peace," she said quietly. "Maybe..."
Ukyo's battle aura faded. She looked at Shampoo, the anger in her eyes softening slightly, even as the wetness remained. The naked sincerity in the Amazon girl's countenance was undeniable. "Shampoo..."
And Ranma, who was at that moment examining a small insect crawling through the grass, froze suddenly. He looked up and past the people gathered around him, his wide eyes narrowing to sparking slits of blue fire. Ranma arched his back and hissed.
Shampoo paled. Ukyo whirled, and Nabiki and the others took an instinctive step back. "Ranchan! What's wrong?"
Ranma wasn't listening. His red hair was spiking, and he was growling low in his throat, staring at something hidden in the darkness, above and beyond the wall that surrounded the yard.
"He sense something," said Shampoo worriedly.
"Maybe the demon has come back," said Mousse.
Nabiki looked at Ranma, alarmed, the same thought running through her mind. "Quickly, we've got to calm him down," she said sharply. "We can't have him running off again."
Ukyo immediately knelt down next to Ranma and wrapped her arms around her fiancé's tense body, linking her hands around his neck so that he couldn't run.
"Are you sure that's wise?" asked Nabiki, as Ranma continued to growl at the darkness beyond the wall. "If he tries to run, he could rip your arms off."
"Ranma won't hurt me," Ukyo said softly. And she began to talk to him soothingly. "It's okay, Ranma. It's okay, I'm here..."
Nabiki's eyes widened, and she raised an eyebrow as she saw Ranma's tense form relax slightly as Ukyo whispered to him. Still, he growled in his throat...
Shampoo peered into the darkness, straining her senses to the limit...
She turned to the others. "Shampoo no think it demon," she said. "It no feel like it. But... think it good to get Ranma inside house. Then it harder for him if he try to run away."
Nabiki nodded, peering into the deep shadows and seeing nothing, feeling nothing that might be a threat. That in itself confirmed what she suspected, and she raised an eyebrow at Shampoo. "Agreed," she said. "Let's get him into the house. Ukyo, do you think you can... pick him up? I don't know if he'll come willingly." Ranma's narrowed feline gaze was practically blazing with desire to run off into the darkness after the threat he sensed. But he didn't move against Ukyo's firm, yet gentle hold on him.
Ukyo didn't reply, she just kept whispering calming words to Ranma as she shifted her grip, wrapping her arms around Ranma's tense, petite female body. He continued to growl in that eerie feline way, but he didn't struggle against her, much to her relief. She was almost glad that he was in his cursed form as she carefully lifted him into her arms. He was so light this way.
Shampoo glanced over her shoulder into the darkness. "We go into house now," she said nervously.
Ukyo quickly carried an unresisting Ranma carefully, if a bit awkwardly, into the house, followed closely by Nabiki and the others. Shampoo was the last through the screen door, and Mousse peered at her intently through his glasses as she glanced out into the darkness briefly one last time before sliding the door shut.
Cologne watched from the shadows of a neighboring rooftop as Shampoo seemed to look directly at her before disappearing behind the closed screen door of the Tendo dining room.
A severe, yet troubled frown creased her ancient face as she carefully fingered a tiny opaque bottle in one hand.
Closing her eyes, she shook off the feeling without moving a muscle. She hadn't lived for three centuries without knowing how to adapt to unexpected happenings.
And this was certainly unexpected. She had suspected something unusual after returning from China to find the Nekohanten closed and Shampoo and Mousse nowhere to be found.
But this... She snorted softly. That fool of a great-granddaughter had apparently told all. And after all her warnings before the blood spell! Shampoo knew that once the blood spell was cast, there could be no turning back from their course.
Cologne shook her head with weary disgust. Shampoo had gone soft, abandoning her Amazon pride and honor, all for the sake of... what? Son-in-law's friendship? His love? Shampoo didn't realize what a useless, self-defeating gesture she had made. Their original plan to snare Son-in-law now lay in tatters, without a hope of salvage.
Not only that, but to complicate matters, it seemed certain entities in the Kami Plane were as averse to allowing Ranma to break the blood spell as she was, and had taken drastic measures to ensure he was no longer capable of even thinking about taking action, let alone doing anything about it.
Ironically, not too far off from what she originally planned, she thought. Cologne tucked the now-useless bottle carefully away in her robes. Nekoken or no, there was no point in using the mind-numbing potion on Ranma as long as he was stuck in female form; he would be of no use to Shampoo that way. A cure to unfreeze Ranma from his cursed form would have to be found first. And once a cure was found, that would take care of the nasty little Cat-fist problem as well.
But she wouldn't be the one to find it, for two reasons. First of all, to see if a cure was even possible, she would have to get close enough to Ranma to examine him properly - something she had no desire to do in his current state. Second of all, she had already experienced more than her share of frustration over the whole mess. If Shampoo was fool enough to throw her lot in with those outsiders for the time being, so be it. Let them suffer, all of them. Let Ranma remain a girl in body and a beast in mind for a while, and let the others agonize over him. Perhaps, when they were sufficiently humbled, she might see what she could do about helping Ranma.
Cologne narrowed her eyes slightly, annoyed that Ranma had been able to detect her presence. She had been using all of her vast abilities to erase all sense of her presence, and yet, when she had moved the slightest bit closer to gain a better vantage to watch and eavesdrop on the proceedings in the Tendo yard, Ranma had known she was there, had known exactly where she was. He might have attacked as well, had it not been for the intervention of the okonomiyaki girl.
Just as well. Ancient and experienced as she was, she had no desire to go up against the power of the Cat Fist.
At least, not yet.
Cologne turned, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, leaving the Tendo household behind.
She was patient. She could watch and wait, for now. There was no danger of the blood spell being broken, no danger of Akane being rescued. As for her great-granddaughter... She would deal with her later. Perhaps, under the circumstances, her show of weakness was forgivable. Shampoo may be feeling unnecessary guilt for the chaos resulting from the blood spell at the moment, but once they were back home in China, with Ranma at her side, she would feel better.
Yes. There was still a chance. Even with this setback, Shampoo's honor could yet be salvaged.
And, with an ease borne of almost three centuries of practice, Cologne ignored the perpetual hard knot of fear and guilt in the center of her being that told her it was all wrong, and kept running.
"Oh my," said Kasumi as Ranma snatched another shrimp from her outstretched fingers with his teeth. "That's the last one. His appetite doesn't seem to have changed much."
Mousse's eyes were wide as he watched Ranma devour the last scrap of food on the table. "He must have been starving," he muttered.
"Actually, this is about normal for him," responded Ukyo with a half-smile, grateful to recognize a bit of the old Ranma in her cursed fiance.
Ranma began to carefully wash his face with his paw, cleaning the smears of food from around his delicate mouth. The tall ones sitting around him continued to make quiet, incomprehensible chattering sounds, which he found easy to ignore.
He felt better. The hunger pains in his stomach were gone. The bad thing outside was gone, having run off after he'd been carried into the house by one of the familiar tall ones. He was home. He was warm and comfortable... and sleepy. Yawning hugely, he arched his back and stretched, extending his claws and scratching idly at the floor rug under the dining room table, inadvertently shredding it.
Somewhere in the house, he could hear that small, familiar creature that he'd brought home to play with. It seemed to be wandering around aimlessly, from the sound of it. His ears pricked up, and he momentarily entertained the idea of hunting it down to play with again.
But he was tired and he ached, and at the moment, sleep seemed to be the best idea. He walked over to a soft cushion and curled up on it, tucking his paws and hind legs under his petite form, and closed his eyes. The soft, incessant chattering of the tall ones continued to flow around him, but it meant nothing, and was almost comforting in a way.
Comforting... Now that his belly was full, and all threats and distractions gone - even the tall stocky hairless one was keeping its distance, much to his relief - he felt that same strange ache in his chest. It wasn't really a physical pain. It was different; a hollowness connected to the images still floating on the edges of his consciousness. Images of... a tall one. A tall one who wasn't there with the others in the room.
Ranma stirred on the cushion in discontentment. All was not right. He needed to find this tall one with the shining brown eyes that would make the ache go away. This need, this desire, overwhelmed his body's desire to rest. Opening his eyes, he stood from the cushion and began to pace restlessly. The chattering sounds of the tall ones grew slightly in volume and changed in cadence, becoming more intense, almost curious. He felt their gaze on him, but he ignored them.
He sniffed the floor carefully. So many scents of so many things, the most recent scents overwhelming the faint traces of the older ones. And yet... There it was. A scent separate and distinct from the others. So old, with many new layers of scent over it, but it was there. And it fit with the images in his mind.
The ache in his heart swelled and surged at this discovery, and he meowed, lifting his head and looking around as if hoping the tall one that he needed would appear. Then another tall one, the one who carried him into the house, was in front of him, making soft chattering noises, reaching out to him with its long limbs. But though this one was nice, and made him feel good, this one wasn't the one he was looking for.
He turned and, with his head close to the ground, began to follow the old scent. Sometimes it faded away to nothing, sometimes it broke off in different directions. He followed where it was strongest. The other tall ones followed closely behind him, chattering, chattering...
He followed the scent up the stairs and into the long hallway. The familiar little black creature that he carried home was wandering around at the end of the hall. It saw him and froze, its eyes wide with apprehension. But he ignored it. The scent was strong, the feeling strong, the ache inside him growing with each step...
The scent stopped abruptly at the base of a strange barricade. He had seen barricades like this before, and knew that the tall ones had ways of moving them to get through by touching the shiny round thing. He reached up with a paw and touched it, but nothing happened. He looked behind him and the group of tall ones who had followed him. Oddly enough, they were staring at him, their chattering silent for once.
He looked at them and meowed, scratching at the door and sending curled wood shavings fluttering to the floor.
One of the tall ones, the one with short, light brown fur on its head, blinked at him, then reached out to touch the shiny round thing, and the barricade opened for him.
The scent was there, old and faded with time, yet still overwhelming. Ranma blinked as a sound flitted through his mind, connecting with the scent and the images...
The tall one he needed so badly should be here. Its scent was here, almost untainted by other scents. He looked around, sniffing. It should be here. But it wasn't. The ache hurt.
He called out to it, crying, meowing, over and over again, hoping it would come.
The other tall ones stood crowded in the barricade opening, watching him silently. The nice tall one, with the long dark brown fur tied in a white ribbon, had strange wet streaks running down its face...
The one he needed wasn't there.
But it would come back... wouldn't it?
He would wait.
Ranma curled up in the middle of Akane's bedroom floor and closed his eyes.
Everyone, even Ryoga, crowded in the doorway and gazed at Ranma's curled female form, the significance of their cursed friend's actions weighing heavily in their hearts and minds.
"Oh my," said Kasumi at last, breaking the silence. "I wish I could remember Akane. Ranma really seems to care about her."
Ukyo flinched and turned away, wiping her face with her fingertips. "Excuse me," she said, her voice barely audible. "There's... something I need to... do. I've got to go now."
Nabiki looked after her retreating form as she walked down the stairs. "Ukyo."
Ukyo stopped, but didn't turn around.
Nabiki didn't know what to say. What could she say, after that? She was good... no, excellent at reading people, right down to the center of their pocketbooks. But actual human relations were definitely not her forte. And Ukyo was hurting after witnessing...
"Will... you be back?" she asked lamely.
Ukyo paused, still not turning. Then, a barely perceptible nod of her head. "Ranchan needs my help. Our help. He can't stay like this forever. We have to find a cure." And then she was gone, out the front door.
"Well," said Soun, awkwardly breaking the silence that followed, while looking at Ranma. "Now what do we do?"
No one seemed to have an answer. Not even Nabiki.
Akane limped wearily and blindly through the thick mists. She really hated this part of traveling through the Kami Plane. Even after all the hundreds of times she'd traversed the mists, she still couldn't get used to it. It was creepy and cold and utterly disorienting. She never could tell if she was traveling in a straight line, or wandering around in circles. Then again, she supposed it didn't really matter since, for all the times she'd ventured into the mists, she'd never emerged in the same place twice.
A constant roulette wheel. She never knew where she was going, or who or what she was going to run into when she got there.
Akane heaved a great sigh, stirring the dark mist in front of her face. At least it was never boring. The Kami Plane was definitely not boring. Anything but. There was always something new. Always some new demon who wanted to drag her away as a bride or a slave, always some new demi-god or goddess that thought she might be an entertaining mortal plaything until she convinced them otherwise with the ki-infused edge of her katana.
Oh gods, she wished life was a bit more boring.
Or at least, what passed for boring in her previous life. Getting mobbed by the male population of Furinkan High School didn't seem nearly so bad now. Heck, she even missed Kuno's bad poetry...
Her stomach growled.
Food. A nice, normal bowl of steaming ramen. That sounded good. It didn't even have to be deluxe ramen. Good old, plain, regular ramen. No exotic or enchanted food that could put you to sleep or bind you permanently to a domain (she had to be so careful about that), no mystical springs or rivers where you had to bargain for two hours with a cucumber-craving kappa before you could get a drink...
Of course, she didn't really have to worry about food ever since she wandered into Inari's realm. The Goddess of Rice didn't have the power to lift the blood spell, which was too bad, because she was friendly enough. Instead, she gave Akane a magical, inexhaustible bag of rice. While Akane had been extremely grateful to the goddess for saving her from starvation, she was now so sick of rice she knew could be happy if she lived the rest of her life without seeing another white grain of the stuff.
On top of that, she still had to make the laborious, painstaking effort of finding other safe foods so she didn't suffer malnutrition as a result of a one-sided diet...
Oh, for a little variety. Safe variety...
Kasumi's cooking... mmmm...
A scowl crept across Akane's face. Not that she didn't wish for a taste of Kasumi's cooking. Quite the contrary. But not even a month had passed since her encounter with Kojin, the God of Kitchens, and she was still a little upset. She hadn't taken five steps into his realm before he showed up in a rage and physically threw her back into the mists with a threat not to come back. Then he stomped away, muttering something along the lines of "Why couldn't Kasumi get sucked into the Kami Plane?"
Of all the nerve. And she'd bet anything that he'd never even tried her cooking. For him to insult her like that...
Akane sighed. On the other hand... Oh, what she wouldn't give to hear Ranma insult her cooking.
She wondered what Ranma was doing right at that moment. If he was okay.
If he missed her, like she...
Ah, there it is. You've come full circle again. Let's see, that was... what? Wow, a good 25 minutes without missing Ranma. Still trying to beat that 47 minute record, though...
Akane sighed. She sighed a lot these days...
I am so pathetic. Why do I do this to myself?
So you'll stay sane, stupid.
Oh yeah. Thanks.
The mists began to thin, and Akane saw light up ahead. Could be a good sign. Not necessarily, though. She had learned that even evil beings liked to hang out in broad daylight sometimes. Still, seeing light was preferable to those times when she stumbled out of the mists and it was so dark she couldn't even tell where the mists ended and the domain began.
She blinked, her eyes adjusting to the light as she left the mists behind. The sky was a perfect bright azure blue. A grassy field stretched in front of her, and beyond the field were forested foothills rising up into majestic jagged mountains. A light, warm breeze brushed the bottom of the valley, causing the long grass to sway in graceful, chaotic ripples. The wind caught at her hair, tied in a loose braid that fell midway down her back, and whipped a few silken strands free, playing them about her face. She brushed them behind her ear with one hand.
It was beautiful. She took it all in with wide, appreciative eyes. In some ways, it almost felt like the mortal realm. Except the grass was too green. The sky too blue. And, of course, there was no sun in the sky. Weird, and a bit unsettling at times, but it was a constant in the Kami Plane. No sun, and no moon. Stars, but no moon. Weird. Like everything else.
She could hear the gurgle of a nearby brook. Her mouth felt suddenly dry. Grimacing, she unhooked her water skin from her pack, unscrewed the lid and took a few careful swallows. Her thirst was immediately sated, and she breathed a sigh of relief. At least that meant that her thirst was brought on by real need rather than a water sprite summons. She hated when that happened. One of the first things Masakazu taught her when the two of them left the Snow Woman's realm was that water was not to be trusted until tested.
She smiled. Too bad Ranma was never given that advice...
Akane began to wade through the tall grass towards the sound of the stream. If the water was, by some chance, regular water, she wanted to fill up her skin.
The water was crystal clear, but it wasn't glowing. That was always a good sign...
Reaching into the side of her pack, she pulled out a small leather pouch, one of the many things Masakazu had given her before he left so long ago. She took a small pinch of dusty gray powder and let it drop in the water.
Nothing. No reaction, no bright warning flare. It was safe. She plunged her water skin into the calm waters of the stream and filled it.
She looked at her reflection, distorted and moving with the ripples caused by her disruption of the water's surface. After a moment, the water smoothed, and she saw herself.
Unconsciously, she began cataloging the noticeable changes one by one. The face, still heart-shaped, but narrower, with sharper cheekbones. The thick, blue-black hair, almost as long as it was when Ryoga accidentally chopped it off, but less... girlish, and a bit untamed... The eyes, deep brown... yet flickering with unwanted knowledge...
Akane clenched her teeth, and pulled her water skin out of the stream with a yank, destroying the smooth reflection. She turned away, not wanting to see anymore, unable to stop the tears rising to the surface as she sealed her water skin with trembling fingers...
"Yo, Akane." An oh-so-familiar voice, coming up behind her.
Akane froze and blinked, the wetness in her eyes evaporating almost instantly.
Oh no. Not now...
Akane checked inside herself. The hollow feeling, the feeling of emptiness that appeared in her so long ago, was still there. Still a gaping hole in her soul.
Anger boiled up inside her. With careful practice, she pushed the irrationality that came with the rage back down into her gut. In a single, swift movement, she unsheathed her katana and whirled to face the intruder.
Ranma held up his hands and jumped back in surprise as the blade swung towards him. Akane gazed at him, taking in his red Chinese shirt, black pants, pigtail, and indignant expression with a sweep of her anger-filled eyes. She held her katana ready.
"Hey!" yelled Ranma. "What do you think you're doing, you psycho tomboy?! I'm here to rescue you! Jeeze, I finally make it to the Kami Plane and all you can do is attack me?"
"Shut up." Akane's voice was calm and cold in spite of the fury on her face. "I know you're not Ranma. Drop the disguise now, or I'll carve you up into pieces so small it'll take you a full ten cycles to pull yourself back together."
Ranma blinked at her, stunned. Then his expression fell and his shoulders sagged. "Aw. How'd you know?"
Akane snorted softly, not taking her eyes off him. "Oh please. You get a zero for originality. If I had a yen for every time someone's tried to pull that one on me-"
"Sheesh." Ranma held up his hands, cutting her off. "Okay, I get the point." Then he looked up and grinned at her precociously. "Get it? Point?" He gestured at her sword. "I get the point?"
Akane stifled a groan. "You are really pushing your luck, buddy. Now drop the disguise, or else."
The pseudo-Ranma danced lightly out of range of her blade. "Well, you're no fun," he said, and stuck his tongue out at her.
Akane sighed. Yes, it was a day for sighing, it seemed. She leaned over, shouldered her pack and her water skin while keeping her blade unsheathed. Glancing contemptuously at the pseudo-Ranma, she began to walk back towards the mists.
"Hey! Where are you going?" Ranma's voice.
Akane clenched her teeth without looking back. "Where does it look like, stupid? I'm leaving. I'm looking for help, not harassment, and it's obvious that I'm not going to get the help I need here."
"Jeeze, can't you take a joke? Besides, I was only trying to cheer you up." The pseudo-Ranma vaulted over the top of her, flipping to land on his feet a few meters in front of her, blocking her way to the mists.
"Cheer me up? Yeah, right." Akane glared at him, and her blade flashed with blue ki. "Get out of my way."
"What do you see in this guy anyway?" The pseudo-Ranma looked down at himself. "I mean, look at him. He's just a kid. You're much too old for him."
Then, with an expression like stone, she turned, and began to walk around him.
The pseudo-Ranma kept pace with her, just out of striking range. "Just how old are you now, anyway? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? This guy's only seventeen. Talk about robbing the cradle..."
Akane bristled in spite of her self. "For your information, I'm only twenty-one," she said without looking at him.
"And a half."
"Shut up. If you already knew, why did you ask me?"
"I was curious as to what you would say."
"Wrong. You did it just to get your supernatural jollies over bugging some mere mortal."
"If you already knew, why did you ask me?"
She whirled on him. "Will you just leave me alone? I'm leaving, okay?"
The pseudo-Ranma frowned petulantly. "Aw, come on, don't go. You don't even know who I am yet."
"I don't know, and I don't care."
"If you knew, you would care."
"Why? It's not like you're all that impressive. Like I said, zero for originality."
The pseudo-Ranma's eyebrows shot up. "Not impressive? Me?"
Akane stepped up to the tendrils of the mists and glanced back at him. "You got it," she said, then turned to go.
The pseudo-Ranma stared at her retreating form a moment. "Hmm," he said gravely, as she began to disappear into the mists. "Well, I suppose the appropriate thing for me to do now is to fly into a rage and show you just how powerful I am by leveling this beautiful landscape to a wasteland and putting a wall of flame between you and those mists."
Akane stopped and looked back at him, her eyes narrowing. Was he serious? It was hard to tell with these self-absorbed demi-gods. Just in case, she began to focus her ki...
He grinned at her. "But then that would be the total cliché of the wrath of a slighted god. Zero for originality."
Akane closed her eyes. "I don't have time for this," she muttered, and started walking again.
"Wait! You didn't even ask me if I could break the blood spell!"
Akane kept walking. The mists thickened around her.
"I can, you know. Break the blood spell, that is."
Stupid, she thought. He's just pulling your strings. He said can, not will.
"And if you come back, you can see Ranma for real."
Akane felt herself tremble slightly.
The last time she had seen him... really seen him... was over two and a half years ago through Yuki-onna's mirror as he wept over her severed hair. It was this tormented image of him that she carried around inside of her, as a badge of her own loneliness, her own grief... and her hope that Ranma still...
"Are..." Her voice cracked. "Are you serious?"
Akane fought to keep her heart from racing. Even if this guy didn't remove the blood spell... Just to see Ranma again, for real...
This was a bad idea. She was lonely and homesick enough as it was. Peeking in on the mortal world, seeing what she had lost... It would only rub salt in the open wound of her soul.
Still... when would she get another chance like this?
She struggled to keep her voice cool. "I'll come back," she said. "But first you have to drop the disguise."
"Deal!" The voice was no longer Ranma's baritone, but a rich resonant tenor.
Akane took a deep breath, turned, and walked back out of the edge of the mists.
He stood where she left him, looking nothing at all like Ranma. He was much taller, for one thing, by about half a meter. He was broad in the chest the way only a demi-god could be, but his face was surprisingly narrow. Then again, the narrowness could have been an illusion caused by the sharpness of the precise moustache and goatee that adorned his pale features. His black hair fell around his shoulders, and his large, piercing eyes were the color of obsidian. His age, of course, was indeterminable - physically, he appeared to be anywhere from late 20's to mid 40's.
He was also wearing jeans, sneakers, and an over-sized dark olive-green T-shirt that read "North Shore Surfers" in black lettering across the chest.
Akane blinked. The clothing was so incongruous with the rest of him, not to mention their surroundings, that she couldn't help but stare. She hadn't seen clothing like that since...
His mouth twisted in a wry grin at her reaction and he glanced down at himself. "What?" he asked, his tone defensive, but his demeanor slightly impish. "Don't you like it? Or is it too 'mortal realm-ish?' I just figured something casual would set you more at ease."
Akane smothered the perplexed expression she could feel on her face. "Uhh... It's fine," she said. Great. Just what she needed. A show-off deity who not only could read her mind with the ease of flipping through an old paperback novel, but also thought he had a sense of humor.
The man arched an eyebrow at her. "Well. Aren't you the jaded mortal. Actually, I've never been one to do the tunic, flowing robe and ornament thing. You know, the standard deity attire. It's so... archaic."
"Look," said Akane, trying to hold her temper in check. "You said you could show me Ranma in the mortal plane. Are you going to or not? Because if you're not, I'm going to leave."
"First things first," said the man. "Don't you even want to know who I am?"
Akane sighed. "Who are you?" she asked.
Akane fought down the urge to walk for the mists again. "I really have no idea," she said through clenched teeth.
"You know, that expression really isn't becoming on a face so lovely. Come on, just guess."
Akane rolled her eyes, but decided to humor him. "Hoso-no-Kami," she said off the top of her head, even though she knew it wasn't him since she'd already met the forenamed deity.
The man's playful expression crumbled, and he managed to look supremely offended. "Hoso-no Kami? The God of Smallpox? Do I look like the God of Smallpox? Why, that whiny little weasel-faced runt has been completely useless, ever since that mortal vaccine almost completely eradicated his handiwork. Disgraceful."
Akane shrugged, a veil of apathy covering her growing nervousness. The man/deity before her was entirely too childish for her liking. And childish gods were the most dangerous kind. Maybe she should have left after all. "You wanted me to guess," she said calmly. "I guessed."
The man frowned. "Fine, if you're going to be that way..." In spite of the words, his tone was surprisingly adult, his gaze serious. Akane blinked in surprise.
"You certainly are an ungrateful creature," he said mildly. "I've offered to help you, and yet you are so intent on not trusting me, on proving your mortal bravery in the face of the supernatural, you can't even be civil to your host."
Akane felt a brief flash of shame as she looked at him. But then she remembered how he had worn Ranma's face and form so brazenly... how he had mocked her... And the anger grew within her.
"Why should I be civil," she snapped, "when all you've done since I set foot in this place is toy with me?! I know you can read my mind! You knew when I came that I was hoping for help, but instead of helping me, you show up and try to convince me that you're..."
She trailed off as her throat closed off with the unexpected onset of tears. Damn. She did not want to cry in front of this buffoon. She tried desperately to shove back the feelings of loneliness and despair that constantly skirted the edges of her awareness, always seeking an opportunity to overwhelm her...
A tear escaped her eye in spite of her efforts to hold it back, and trickled down her face. She brushed it away angrily and glared at the man with wet eyes. "You're all the same," she said, her voice catching. "You think that just because I'm mortal, because I'm human, you can have fun at my expense. Well, thanks, but no thanks. I'm not going to compromise my dignity just so you can feel powerful."
Akane turned away to walk back into the mists.
And came to a screeching halt as she found herself nose to nose with the obsidian-eyed man.
"You," he said, leaning into her face and grinning at her startled expression, "have no sense of humor."
Akane didn't even blink. It didn't matter that he could be a deity who might have enough power to reduce her to a pile of ash with a twitch of his eyelid. He had pushed her to the limit. He was in her face, and he was in her way. Her martial arts instinct took over rational thought, and she instantly punched him with a ki-infused fist to the solar plexus, followed by a powerfully swift side kick to the jaw that sent the god flying into the edge of the mists. The man landed on his rear with an undignified "oof!"
Akane stared at the fallen man as rationality returned, her anger draining away under a wave of shock at what she had done - and the thought of who she might have done it to. Her offending fist relaxed and flew to her open mouth as her eyes went incredibly wide.
"Ohhhh..." she said, swallowing and reaching out her hand as the man grunted and pushed himself to his feet. "Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to hit you, it was just... you were there, and I was trying to leave, and you were making fun of me, and you startled me, and I'm just so used to defending myself when something like that happens, it was just, I didn't stop to think, I just..."
The man looked up at her with his piercing black eyes, and she trailed off, uncertain whether she should get ready for a fight, or just run for the mists.
The man held her gaze for a long moment. She looked back at him, tense and ready.
Then, his serious expression cracked... and he burst out laughing.
Akane stared at him, utterly flummoxed.
"You're the one, alright," the man said, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. "What a little spitfire you are. Ready to tear my head off one moment, and then begging my forgiveness the next." He grinned widely at her as he rubbed his jaw. "But I guess I'm glad you only used your fist and your foot rather than that live blade you're wielding. Although I could repair any damage you might have inflicted on me, I'm not too partial to dismemberment." He chuckled.
"I..." Akane hated being confused. A spark of her anger flared again. "I was not begging for forgiveness! I was just worried if I hurt you, that's all."
The man ignored her protests and just grinned at her. "Well, at least I understand now why Masakazu was so fond of you. You are entertaining, to say the least."
Akane blinked as she felt the world grind to a halt around her. "You... you know Masakazu?"
The man walked up to her and held out his hand. "Hi. I'm Susa-no-o. Welcome to my humble little corner of the Kami Plane, Tendo Akane."
Akane stared at his hand as her mind tried to deal with the information being thrown at her. She knew he was doing it on purpose to keep her off balance. Still...
"Susa..." The blood fell from her face as she found his name among her memories of legend, rumor and fairy tale, and she looked up to meet his amused gaze. "Not... The Impetuous Male?" The words felt strange and full of irony in her mouth.
The confirmed deity threw his hands wide and rolled his eyes. "Oh, now you're impressed, after you've already knocked me on my butt." He sighed theatrically. "Yes, it is I, 'The Impetuous Male,' third and most maligned offspring of the creators, Izanagi and Izanami. My eldest sister is the sun, and my elder brother is the moon. Too bad they ran out of interesting celestial bodies by the time I was born. Maybe orbiting the mortal plane would have kept me out of trouble, neh?"
Akane was speechless.
Susa-no-o winked at her. "Now don't go all awe-struck on me. That's what I liked about you in the first place - your refusal to be intimidated. And no doubt that's what Masakazu liked in you as well."
The name of her sensei shook Akane out of her stupor of amazement. "You... you really know Masakazu?"
"Oh yeah. We were old drinking buddies, him and me, back in the old days. In fact..." Susa-no-o frowned thoughtfully. "I think he was with me when I threw that party in Ama-terasu's rice field." He snorted. "Now there is a woman with no sense of humor. Imagine, going off to sulk in a cave and depriving the mortal world of sunlight just because my friends and I trampled on a little bit of rice."
Akane looked at him with both astonishment and skepticism. "I heard that she went into the cave because you made a hole in her roof and threw a flayed horse into the room while she was weaving."
Susa-no-o shrugged noncommittally. "Rice, horse, whatever. It was just a harmless practical joke."
Akane's eyes were wide. "Not for the horse, it wasn't," she snapped.
The deity cocked an eyebrow at her. "It was still a stupid reason for the Sun Goddess to sulk in a cave for a few weeks. Besides, I was banished to hell for a few centuries just because big sis doesn't appreciate my humor."
Akane looked at him through lowered lids. "Why don't I feel sorry for you?"
Susa-no-o stuck his tongue out at her. "Ungrateful wench," he said.
Akane's eyes widened. There was a dangerous pause. The tall grasses around her ankles suddenly looked bluish from the light of her battle aura.
"What did you call me?"
Akane hefted her blazing sword. If this guy was the Susa-no-o she was familiar with from legend, he probably didn't have much fighting skill. After all, Susa-no-o was the one who had to get an Orochi totally passed-out drunk before he would approach it to cut its heads off.
"Hey, now, let's not get personal..." Susa-no-o was eyeing her sword with the slightest hint of worry in his black eyes.
"After you call me a wench?"
"Jeeze, sorry!" Susa-no-o waved his hands and looked at her, his expression suddenly serious. "I'm sorry. Really."
Akane blinked, surprised, and her battle aura faded.
"You can put your sword away, Akane," he said. "I'm not going to do anything to you. I'm actually not such a bad guy. After all, I did kill that Orochi to rescue a girl, with absolutely no thought of personal gain. And just because that's my only recorded good deed, doesn't mean I haven't done others."
Akane lowered her katana and looked at him piercingly. "Like you breaking the blood spell?" she asked, trying to keep the hope out of her voice.
Susa-no-o smiled. "Maybe. I can't break it directly, for the same reason Masakazu couldn't help you more. The Council would throw a fit if I did, and I really don't want to go back to Yomi Land." He grimaced. "I mean, this place isn't heaven, but at least its not hell, right? You'd think they'd give me a little leeway, considering I have seniority in the ranks of deity and all that, but no way." His grimace turned into a genuine scowl. "Doesn't help that mom and pops gave them instructions to keep me on a tight leash. I mean, come on. How many millennia have to pass before they get over a couple of practical jokes?"
Susa-no-o glanced over at Akane, who was staring at him wide-eyed. "That's why Masakazu and I got along so well," he said, grinning slightly. "That tengu liked to buck the system almost as much as I do."
Akane looked at the black-haired, obsidian-eyed god as her turbulent thoughts caught up with what the deity was saying. Most of his talk of inter-dimensional politics was going way over her head. But she did catch all the references to her tengu sensei. And some part of how this man kept referring to Masakazu was disturbing her greatly, but she couldn't put her finger on it...
"Do you... know where Masakazu is?" she asked tentatively. "I mean, you can look into the mortal plane, right? Do you know why he hasn't come back? Can you see if he was able to help Ranma, or if he's still working on it? He said it would be a while before he got back because of the time dilation and all, but it's been..."
Akane trailed off as Susa-no-o blinked at her, startled out of his reverie. Then his face filled with a strange, uncharacteristic expression that was almost... compassion?
And Akane felt the old, old fear fill her heart, felt the ache of tears behind her eyes, in spite of the small, hopeful smile that was frozen on her face, frozen so hard it felt like it would crack, but she kept smiling, because if she did, maybe the words wouldn't come, maybe she wouldn't have to hear...
"Akane," said Susa-no-o. "Masakazu is dead. You already know that. He died over two years ago. Only about a week ago, in the mortal realm, taking into account the time dilation."
Akane's smile cracked.
She closed her eyes and saw darkness as her heart shattered.
But... he was right.
She had known.
She had felt it, the moment he died, over two years ago.
It was the worst feeling she'd ever felt. Worse even than when mother died. Because when mother died, she at least had father and Kasumi and Nabiki, and they were there to surround her with love, to share the burden of grief, of loss...
Here, she was alone.
And the thought of Masakazu, her only friend in the Kami Plane, dying because she sent him to save Ranma...
And the thought that he might have failed in saving Ranma from whatever it was that had filled her with such terror...
And the thought that she had lost both of them, forever...
Since that moment, there had been nothing but hollowness. The terrifying feeling of danger had passed, at least. But Masakazu did not come back. And Ranma had not come for her. And she was growing older and older in the Kami Plane as time almost stood still in the mortal realm. And she was leaving them all behind, her friends, her family... Ranma... all without taking a single step. And her chances of returning to them faded with each passing second, with each new rejection of her constant plea... And she could not admit to herself that she had sent her sensei, her friend, on a fool's errand to die without purpose, without being able to help Ranma, for if she did, her already-frayed sanity would unravel, would fall to the cold ground in thin, dissolving strands of light, leaving her a mindless, unmoving shell without will or desire, having lost everything, everything...
Akane trembled as all the feelings she had pushed from her for so long filled her with quiet despair. No, she mouthed silently. No no no nonononono...
Akane shook her head, her eyes clenched shut, her hands flying up to cover her ears, fingers entwining and pulling at her hair. She didn't want to hear...
"It's not your fault Masakazu died, Akane. And he didn't die in vain. He died with honor, having fought well against a powerful enemy. Listen to me, Akane..."
Akane wasn't listening. She just wanted to die, to reach inside her chest and tear out the unbearable ache inside as the spark of hope that had kept her going for over two years was cruelly extinguished...
Pain lanced through the side of Akane's face, her head jerked back, and her eyes flew open to see the azure sky tilt strangely just before she landed on her back on the ground, her fall cushioned by the tall grass.
"Stupid wench. Why do I even bother?"
Akane reached up with the tips of her fingers and felt her throbbing cheek where Susa-no-o's hand connected with his slap. A sharp burst of anger jolted through her. She looked up at the sneering face of the deity. "You-!"
"Well, whaddya know, it worked." Susa-no-o's eyes narrowed. "Look, little girl, I want your help, and, at the moment, I would much rather have you ready to rip my head off than have you weeping and wailing over something that's over and done with, okay? The fact that I was just able to penetrate your defenses and slap you off your feet is an insult to the training Masakazu gave you. So pull yourself together."
Akane blinked up at him, the surprising force of his words and the sharp, bitter taste of her own anger in her mouth penetrating the thick fog of despair that had engulfed her.
"Now, listen to me, Akane." The deity gave her a hard look as she pushed herself up to her feet. "Are you listening?"
Akane nodded, glaring at him with wet eyes.
"Good, 'cause I don't want to have to repeat myself. Masakazu saved Ranma, but only for the moment. It will be up to you to finish what he began."
Akane blinked in astonishment. "Wh-what are you talking about?" Masakazu... saved Ranma? But she had to finish it?
Susa-no-o's hard look dissolved with alarming speed to a carefree smirk. He leaned back and stuck his thumbs into the front pockets of his jeans. "Okay, my secrets out. It's true. I've been waiting for you."
"W-waiting for me?" There was an echo. She was repeating him. Too many things, too fast. In spite of everything she had been through the past few years, Akane was having a hard time absorbing the emotional twists and turns of the past few minutes. Part of her was still aching with grief, while another part of her was anxious to run after the tiny carrots of hope the deity was dangling in front of her. While yet another part did indeed want to rip his head off.
Susa-no-o smirked, probably reading her thoughts. "That's right," he said. "Masakazu was my friend too, and, ancient as he was, he deserved to live a lot longer." He leaned over and smiled sweetly at Akane. "You see, I want to stick it to the demon who killed him, the one who still holds your fiance in thrall, but I can't do it without your help."
"Holds my..." She was repeating him again. She couldn't help it. Her mind was trying desperately to absorb the information the deity was so casually flinging out, even as a part of her cringed away, not wanting to know...
Susa-no-o rolled his eyes. "Come here," he said, turning and walking towards the stream. "It'll be easier to just show you."
Akane followed obediently, too stunned to do anything else.
They reached the stream, a wide flowing area where the water was still and calm, not too far from where she'd filled her water skin. Susa-no-o nodded. "Yeah, this'll do." He glanced at Akane who came to stand next to him, looking down into the clear water. "I told you I'd show you Ranma. But I'm going to warn you right now. Things have not gone well for him, and it's not a pretty sight. So prepare yourself. Don't go all catatonic on me again, okay?"
Akane looked up at him, unable to hide the fear in her eyes. "Wait!" She wasn't ready, she didn't want to see... "Ranma... He's alive, isn't he?"
Susa-no-o raised an eyebrow at her. "In a manner of speaking."
Akane felt herself wither inside at his cryptic response.
The deity folded his arms over the "North Shore Surfers" lettering across his chest. "Are you ready? I'm not going to show you until you're ready. And you have to promise not to freak out or anything, but to remain calm so we can discuss this afterwards in a rational manner."
Akane averted her gaze from him and looked down at the water. It had to be bad... He wasn't telling her... Would she be able to handle it? Looking in on the mortal world, seeing a life left behind over four and a half years ago? Seeing her friends and family, virtually frozen in time...
Seeing Ranma suffer...
Akane closed her eyes and forcibly steadied herself, drawing on the training given her by her tengu sensei to focus her mind, her soul. She would handle it. She had faced and defeated demons before. She could face the ones inside herself. She had to. If she didn't... what was there to live for? It was this, or spend the rest of her life hiding from her own pain, letting it eat at her like a cancer until she was nothing...
She opened her eyes. "I'm ready," she said.
Susa-no-o nodded soberly. "Then look," he said, and passed his hands over the water's surface.
The water turned smooth as glass and shone with a soft light as images began to form on its surface...
"The past first, I think," said Susa-no-o quietly. "Then the present will make more sense."
And Akane saw Ranma talking with her family in the dining room, with Ukyo, Ryoga and Doctor Tofu. Her heart leaped within her at the sight, and tears sprang to her eyes. There they were, all of her loved ones. Ranma; strong, confident, determined as he announced that he was leaving for China in the morning to break the blood spell... He looked just like she remembered.
Akane reached deep within herself for her center of calm. She wouldn't cry. She would watch.
Ranma, in his room, quickly packing for the trip, his face set with determination. He looks up suddenly as if he senses something. Fear flickers across his face...
The light bulb explodes, plunging him into darkness, showering him with tiny fragments of glass, but he doesn't notice as he presses himself into the corner...
And the Snow Woman appears...
Akane choked back a gasp. Just watch.
She watches. And though the tears run unnoticed down her face as she sees and hears the Snow Woman, her former friend, torment Ranma with lies and then cast her cold spell on him, she remains silent and still.
And watches as the Shadowcat comes to steal away Ranma's humanity...
The images swirl and speed up, only to slow down a moment later...
And Masakazu is there, in a mountain glade, coaxing a wild-eyed Ranma towards him so that he can remove the Snow Woman's cold spell. But the Shadowcat returns, and a battle, a battle over Ranma's soul, ensues...
Masakazu stuns Ranma with a small, yet powerful ki-blast... and then freezes, staring at Ranma, his black, inhuman eyes wide with amazement and wonder...
Akane felt her heart contract with fatalistic fear. What is he doing?! Can't he sense the demon coming up behind him?!
Akane wanted to scream, to shout at him, to warn him... but it was the past and she couldn't do anything. Except watch silently...
Masakazu blinks, then turns suddenly, fast, but not fast enough to avoid the flash of the Shadowcat's huge paw that pins him to the ground...
"Stop..." whispered Akane hoarsely, the tears running freely down her face. "I understand already, but please... I don't want to see this..."
Susa-no-o glanced sideways at her, his hands still stretched out. Then the image swirled and sped up...
Akane crumpled inside, whether with relief or sadness, she couldn't tell...
"Eight mortal days have passed since then," said Susa-no-o quietly. "This is the now, the present of the mortal realm."
Ranma, in female form, curled up sleeping on the floor of Akane's bedroom. The dirt and blood has been long since cleaned from his face and arms, and his red hair has been combed and tied into his usual braided pigtail. Her father, Nabiki, Ukyo and Doctor Tofu are gathered around him. They look drained and worried...
"I'm sorry..." Doctor Tofu's voice floats up ethereally from the surface of the water. "But I've tried everything I know. And if even Kintaro-sensei can't find a way around this cold spell..." He trails off helplessly.
The look on Nabiki's and Ukyo's faces mirrors Akane's own expression.
"You can be sure we'll keep trying, though..." Doctor Tofu continues.
Ranma blinks awake abruptly. He stands on all fours, looks up and around the room, his eyes wide and alert, his feline gaze turning...
...until it appears that he's looking right at them...
He stops and stares, his wild blue eyes peering up at them from the water's surface, from the two-dimensional image of her room.
He meows anxiously. Over and over again.
Susa-no-o's eyes widened. Akane's hands were fists, up to her mouth, pressing back the sobs that wanted to burst out. "C-can he see us?" she choked.
"Impossible." The deity's eyes narrowed. "Still... he obviously senses something. It could be his connection to the Kami Plane through the Shadowcat, though..." He trailed off, focusing as the image began to waver slightly.
Ukyo goes over to Ranma, tries to sooth him as he continues to mew anxiously at nothing. But he ignores her. Just stares up blindly out of the water, crying, crying... Tears begin to streak down Ukyo's face...
"Dammit, Ranchan..." she whispers, a sound between grief and anger. "She's not coming back. Why can't you accept that? Why can't you come back to me?" She begins to sob quietly as Soun, Nabiki and Doctor Tofu look on wearily, sadly. "Please... come back to me..."
But Ranma's eyes continue to gaze beyond what he can see...
"Enough." Akane's voice was barely audible. "I've seen enough."
Susa-no-o lowered his hands. The image faded from the water as it began to flow quietly once again.
"If I were there..." she said, unable to tear her eyes away from the water. "I could always bring him out of it... the Nekoken..."
Susa-no-o turned to her. "Which is precisely why the Shadowcat took advantage of this opportunity. Because you're not there. Akane."
Akane looked up at him. Her face was wet, her brown eyes glistened with tears, but her expression was remarkably calm.
Susa-no-o smiled grimly at her. "The Shadowcat is here, Akane. In the Kami Plane. Masakazu was able to send him back before he died. But the link between Ranma and the demon is still very much alive."
Akane understood immediately.
"Where?" she asked.
"In the Gaki domain. The realm of evil gods. I can show you how to get there. I'd go myself, but if I take a single step out of my own domain, the Council jumps on my back faster than you can blink."
"Show me." Akane lifted her blade, which was pulsing with bright blue ki.
Susa-no-o's grim smile widened. "Atta girl, Akane.
"I knew I could count on you."