Chapter 16: Memories of the Past
It was snowing.
Ranma shivered, looked around blearily, feeling strangely weak.
Snow covered the ground as far as he could see; light flakes drifted lazily from the clouded night sky. The tiny, shimmering crystals stung the skin of his face and hands with pricks of biting cold.
Jeeze... I can barely move... What's wrong with me..?
A wave of exhaustion swept over him, and his legs threatened to buckle beneath him. He stumbled forward a step, leaving a deep dragging track in snow that almost came up to his knees, but he remained standing.
He was so cold...
"Where am I?" he asked no one, his voice small and lost in the vast snowy wasteland. The wind answered, soft, wailing...
He turned at the voiceless sound of his name to see the Snow Woman, tall and white, a cruel smile on her bloodless face. And standing in front of her was Akane, wearing her school uniform, looking at him blankly.
"Akane!" He tried to move, but his legs felt so heavy that he couldn't lift them... and he was so cold...
Akane's brow furrowed in puzzlement. "Do I know you?"
"Akane!" His voice was thick with despair. He reached out to her with shaking arms. "It's me... please, you have to remember. It's just the Kami Plane making you forget!" He glanced between her and the Snow Woman. "You don't belong with her, Akane, she's a demon! Please, come back to me..."
Akane shrank away from him, clinging to the Snow Woman's frost blue robes.
"Your... love... is not the binding link you thought it was," said the Snow Woman softly, smiling at him. And, as she reached out with a slender white finger to touch him in the center of his forehead, he found he could not move to stop her...
A cold, watery chill rippled over the surface of his skin. And he felt himself change. He looked down at himself, at his woman's body, in horror. "What..!"
His head snapped up fearfully to see Akane's own brown eyes widening at the sight of his transformed body, only to narrow a moment later, her nose wrinkling in aversion. "Ughh," she said. "A pervert."
Ranma's heart shriveled within his chest. "No... Akane," he pleaded, his mezzo-soprano voice grating in his ears. "I'm not..."
"Jerk. Insensitive pervert," she said.
The Snow Woman laughed. "Take it slow," she said, soft and sultry. "We don't want to put him out of his misery too soon."
A soft, purring chuckle echoed in his head, and Ranma jerked, his throat going dry, his eyes wide and staring.
No, oh no, please, not again, anything but...
Ranma pressed himself into the corner of his room, next to the dresser. The stinging snowflakes were shivering pieces of glass, a shattering light bulb plunging him into darkness...
The demon's huge cat eyes were opaque yellow orbs glinting in the dark as it slunk closer. **Ah, you remember me. I'm flattered. You're my favorite, you know...**
Ranma whimpered. Something inside him, something that had been there since he was ten years old, awoke and began crawling up from the blackest depths of his soul. Ranma felt himself falling, falling inside himself, as the feline thing within him rose to the surface. He was falling...
...to his hands and knees, unable to stand upright...
...Oh please, help me, somebody...
...was running, running on all fours, driven by fear, unable to stop himself...
...opened his mouth to scream, to cry for help, but all that came out was a terrified yowling...
Ranma felt warm tears well up, turning cold as they touched his skin, streaking down his girl's face as he ran...
Please... somebody, help me..!
"It's okay, Ranma."
And he turned, wrapping his paws protectively around his half-eaten fish, to see a strange bird-man, black eyes glittering above an expressionless beak. "You know me, deep down. You know I'm a friend. I've helped you before, and I'm here to help you now."
Ranma stood on four legs, looking up at the tengu through red bangs, feeling the blank animal expression on his own female face. Yes, please... please help me, I don't like this at all, I can't think...
But, as the tengu stepped towards him, five gaping, bleeding wounds opened up in the creature's feathered chest. The tengu looked down at himself for a moment, almost surprised, then collapsed lifelessly onto the forest grass...
Ranma could smell the blood, could feel the ravenous hunger it stirred within him, glazing his mind, even as he silently screamed...
A demon laughing...
"Ranma..?" Ryoga looked at him, disbelief and horror flickering across his face.
...Ryoga... Ranma turned, nose twitching as he caught the scent of food in the lost boy's pack. ...please help me, I can't think, I...
"C'mere, Ranma." Ryoga was kneeling down, beckoning to him. "C'mere, kitty kitty..."
And Ranma felt himself respond to the incomprehensible chattering, like the feline animal he was. He chewed ravenously on the strip of meat snatched from Ryoga's hand. And the smothered, nearly non-existent spark of his human consciousness knew, and felt it all. And wanted to die...
Cologne, the shriveled old ghoul, sat on a neighboring rooftop, cackling silently in the shadows, her narrowed eyes staring down at him...
...kitty kitty kitty...
**Poor Ranma.** The Shadowcat's voice, in his head, condescendingly mocking. **You're a good kitty, aren't you? Yes you are...**
Akane..! Ranma opened his mouth to call her, but he was meowing, the words wouldn't come, he couldn't remember... Just meowing over and over... Oh, please, Akane, please come back, I need you... I've lost myself, I can't think...
A whispering, scratching away in the deep recesses of his mind. Growing louder. *You'll never see her again, you're doomed to fail, you already have, you should give up you'll never see her again you're doomed to fail you already haveyoushould giveupyou'llneverseeheragainyou'redoomedtofailyoualreadyhave...*
Ranma gasped as his eyes snapped open, his heart thudding hard in his chest, the spell voices echoing loudly in his mind...
Ceiling. He was looking at the ceiling of his room.
Oh jeeze... Ranma squeezed his eyes shut and slowly, painfully pushed the spell voices from the forefront of his mind. His mouth was dry, he was shaking, drenched in cold sweat... no, more than cold... Icy...
Turning his head slightly, he opened his eyes and blinked, trying to focus on the reality around him, to shake off the nightmare. Dim, early-morning light seeped through the drawn shades over the window. He could see boards and plywood covering the hole that he blasted in the wall of his room while trying to take out the Snow Woman last night...
Not last night. Days ago. Ages ago. I remember...
Ranma startled slightly, only then realizing that someone was in the room with him. Ukyo leaned over him, her weary expression twisting with a mixture of relief, concern, and... fear. "Are... you okay?"
Ranma groaned and, as he carefully pushed himself into a sitting position, he realized with dismay that he was not a "he" at all.
But then, I already knew that, he thought dismally.
He rubbed his face with his delicate, bandaged hands, wiping away the icy sweat that clung to his skin. Ukyo watched him in silence.
"What... what happened?" he asked finally. The last thing he remembered was regaining consciousness... Ukyo sweeping him up in a crushing hug... the overwhelming desire to stand up... to walk on two legs like a m... like a human being... to leave immediately for China to break the blood spell and save Akane...
"Doctor Tofu hit your sleep points." Ukyo's voice was soft, and strangely thick. "You've been asleep for nearly ten hours. You..." You nearly died, Ranchan, I was so afraid, I thought I'd lost you...
Ukyo swallowed, fighting back wetness building in her eyes. She couldn't think of that now. Ranma needed her. "You... were so drained of ki, you needed time to recover, but you kept trying to stand up..." ...and you were going on and on about breaking the blood spell and saving Akane... "...and I... we... were afraid that you would hurt yourself because we weren't sure..."
She trailed off as Ranma turned to look at her, his red bangs sticking to his damp forehead, his haunted blue eyes looking at her from his girl's face...
His eyes were haunted, yes. But... at least she could see him in those eyes, and not the vacuously innocent feline that had peered at her from those same eyes for the past eight days...
Ranma was back. It didn't even matter to her that he was a girl at the moment, that his eyes were framed by a sweetly delicate female face, so similar to, yet so different from Ranma's handsome, strong male features that made her heart flutter inside her chest. She looked into his blue eyes, the windows to his soul, the only part of him that didn't change with his transformation, and knew that Ranma's mind was finally restored, even if his body wasn't...
As if thinking the same thing, Ranma looked down at himself, at his female body. He blinked in numb horror, as if noticing his curse for the first time. Soft, well-proportioned curves and petite frame under his tank top and boxers... creamy, flawless skin... His cursed form was voluptuously female in every sense of the word. Not a trace of masculinity to be found in it.
Except in the eyes. The haunted flickering in his blue eyes would tell anyone who cared to look deep enough, as Ukyo did, that Ranma's cursed form was as alien to him as it might have been had he fallen into the Spring of Drowned Panda, the Spring of Drowned Duck... or the Spring of Drowned Cat...
A tremor passed through Ranma's slender, shivering body. "Oh man," he whispered, almost silently. And Ukyo realized at that moment that Ranma somehow knew he was stuck in cursed form. She wanted to reach out and comfort him, tell him it didn't matter, that she knew he was a guy, no matter what...
"Are you... okay?" she asked again.
"Ucchan," he replied hoarsely, and his eyes lost focus as he seemed to stare right past her. "I... remember everything."
Ukyo looked at him, uncomprehending for a moment. Then her face went white as she suddenly understood the full meaning of the tormented expression on his face. "Oh, Ranchan. I... You mean you remember being... you remember the Nekoken?"
Ranma nodded slowly, shuddering, and rubbed his face with his bandaged hands again, as if he could rub away the memories. "Oh man..." he whispered.
And Ukyo felt her heart contract in painful empathy. Ranma was so proud, so driven by honor, so fiercely protective of his masculinity... For him to remember the humiliation of his existence the past eight days, with both his mind and body so changed...
But then, that means... he must remember that I stayed with him...
Ukyo blinked, thinking of the time she spent, staying by Ranma's side, taking care of him, searching desperately for some sign of the man she loved in his feline mind, hoping against hope that she could coax his humanity back to the surface the way Genma said the old woman had done when he was a child. After all, wasn't she his fiancée?
But his feline mind had not been focused on her.
Ranma had spent almost every waking moment in Akane's room. And Ukyo had stayed with him, taking care of him, trying to comfort him, to hush his mewing even as he cried constantly for the missing girl...
A girl that, according to her memory, didn't exist. A girl she didn't want to believe in, even now with the explanation of the Kami Plane's spell of Forgetfulness altering their memories. Even with all the evidence of the youngest Tendo daughter's room that had surrounded her for over a week. A part of her still clung to the hope that it was all a result of the blood spell; that, when they went to China, faced the Ancient One and broke the spell, all traces of this Akane person would disappear, and Ranma would realize that the love he felt for the non-existent girl was nothing more than a result of the spell he was under...
But another part of her, the solid, rational part, knew that she was fooling herself. This was the part of her that knew of Nabiki's similar internal struggle. She knew that the Tendo girl had feelings for Ranma. She had seen those feelings in a fleeting moment when Nabiki's usual cold mask had slipped, the very afternoon before Ranma was taken by the Shadowcat...
And yet, even so, Nabiki chose to expose the truth behind the blood spell and the Kami Plane's spell of Forgetfulness; revealing the truth of her younger sister's existence, knowing that doing so destroyed any chance she might have with Ranma.
Of course, what Nabiki did was only right. To do anything else would be selfishly inhuman, even more monstrous than what Shampoo did, casting the blood spell in the first place. But Ukyo couldn't help but envy the stone-faced girl her ability to put fierce, unblinking family loyalty above her own private passion.
Ukyo had no family. Her own passion and loyalty was completely undivided. It lay solely with Ranma.
But he loved Akane...
And her own words to Shampoo, as she rebuked the Amazon for casting the blood spell, echoed relentlessly, mercilessly in her mind...
If you ever really cared about him at all... you would have let him choose.
Ranma had chosen.
And what was she to do now?
"Ucchan..." Ranma's female voice, filled with panicky concern, calling her from the depths of her misery... "Don't... don't cry, Ucchan. I'm... okay. Really."
Ukyo looked up at him, at his pale girl's face, his haunted blue eyes... He was lying, of course; she could tell just by looking at him that he was far from okay.
And she hadn't even realized she was crying. She wasn't the weepy type, really. She had cried more this past week than she had in her entire life. Even now, she couldn't feel the tears that coursed down her face to fall lightly on her hands, folded in her lap. She just felt numb. The surface of her skin tingled. She kept waiting for the shattering sound of her heart, but it didn't come. Her heart continued to pound in her chest, almost painfully, as if forcing her to be aware that she was still alive.
Ranma was still trying to comfort her in his usual awkward way, and of course he had no real clue regarding the true source of her tears. He was so naive that way... "I mean, hey," he was saying, trying to sound cheerful and failing miserably. "I know I'm... stuck... right now..." His eyes wavered a little, as if afraid to look down at his body; the body that, by all appearances, denied him the right to use the male pronoun at all. "But at least I... I'm... back, right?" He pointed half-heartedly towards his head with one slender hand. "I mean... one out of two ain't bad, I guess..." He tried to laugh, but it sounded hollow, and the laugh didn't reach his eyes.
Ukyo felt a sad smile curling at the edges of her mouth as she wiped the tears from her face. How like him, trying to cheer her up, when he looked like he was on the verge of tears himself. But he hated to see girls cry...
"Ucchan." Ranma's voice was quiet, penetrating, demanding her attention. He dropped his gaze to his hands in his lap. "I... I'm no good at this but..."
Ukyo stopped breathing.
"... but... I remember... how you stayed with me. How you..." He winced, and heaved a deep, shaky breath, as if the effort of thinking back on the past eight days was physically painful. His cheeks flushed with remembered humiliation, but he plunged ahead. "Anyway... I just... Thanks," he finished awkwardly. He looked up at her, and smiled half-heartedly.
"Ranchan..." she said, reaching out to take his small, bandaged hand. He looked down at where her hand clasped his, as if unsure how to react. She smiled thinly, her green eyes bright and wet, and gave his hand a gentle squeeze. "You..."
You want to come with me, don't you? You want to come with me, and we'll search for a way to break the Snow Woman's cold spell so that you can be a man again, and we'll be together and then you'll see how I've loved you for so long, how I would love you forever, and we'll live happily for the rest of...
She looked at Ranma, and in his face she could see... gratitude. Unconditional friendship. The same feelings she'd seen in his face, for her, since they were children together...
And that was all.
"You want..." She swallowed. "...to leave now to break the blood spell, don't you?"
Ranma blinked at her in surprise, then nodded. "Yeah," he said hoarsely.
She could almost see him thinking about Akane. It was the one thing she recognized in his countenance from the past week.
"Well then," she said. And to her surprise, her voice did not crack. "Everyone's packed and ready to go. We're ready to leave when you are."
And the haunted look on Ranma's face faded slightly, to be replaced by eagerness, anxiousness...
"I'm ready now," he said.
Ukyo's smiled. But the smile could not reach her eyes.
"Nabiki. Nabiki, wake up."
Nabiki groaned and tried to bury her head deeper into her pillow. "G'way, Ukyo," she muttered crankily. To be shaken out of the first real rest she'd had in over a week did not put her in the best of moods.
Ukyo shook her again. "Ranma's awake," she said quietly.
Nabiki lifted her head out of her pillow and looked at Ukyo, all thoughts of sleep immediately banished from her mind. She sat up, realizing as she did that she had fallen asleep where she collapsed on her bed, still completely dressed, lying above her bed covers. "Where is he? Is he okay?"
"He's... fine." Ukyo's green eyes flickered slightly, and she reached up to absently brush her thick chestnut hair over her shoulder. "He's getting dressed. He wants to leave for China right away."
Nabiki nodded, running her fingers through her own mussed hair. "I knew he would. We'd better go downstairs, wake the others, and tell them to get ready." Then she peered closely at Ukyo, at her pale face and red, swollen eyes... "Ukyo... are you okay?" She frowned. "Don't tell me you didn't get some sleep when you had the chance."
"I'll sleep on the plane." Ukyo smiled weakly as Nabiki continued to frown reprimandingly, and sat down next to her on the bed, her shoulders sagging. "But how could I think of sleeping," she whispered, "when he was so... so..."
And tears welled up in her eyes again. She brushed at them in frustration and sighed.
Nabiki's half-lidded scowl melted away. "It's okay," she said quietly. "I understand."
Ukyo smiled gratefully. It was so strange. Before the whole blood spell crisis, she never would have thought she could be friends with someone who seemed as cold and mercenary as Nabiki Tendo. But the past week, as the two of them worked together trying to find a way to help Ranma, she had seen a completely different side to the older girl.
Well, not really a different side. Nabiki was as businesslike and no-nonsense as usual. But now, Ukyo knew that beneath Nabiki's coldly rational intellect beat a truly warm heart. The Nabiki she had come to know this past week was a person she was glad... and surprised... to call her friend. And the most surprising thing was that she knew the feeling was reciprocated. Nabiki seemed just as amazed to find a companion and ally in the okonomiyaki chef.
And in their talks, conversations that had stretched into the long hours of the night as they kept their careful vigil over Ranma, they both found comfort from their mutual grief in the first real female friendship they had ever experienced. For while Ukyo had forsaken her femininity throughout her childhood and had thus never had any real female friends, Nabiki's self-imposed isolation, her general disdain for the "giggling fools" that made up the popular cliques, and her intentional fostering of her own ruthless reputation, prevented her from forming any meaningful bonds with her peers... male or female.
In spite of all that, as well as their personal differences, they were now fast friends.
"Nabiki," Ukyo looked up at her, her expression etched with anguish. "He... remembers. He remembers everything."
Nabiki's eyes widened. "Are you serious?" she breathed. Ranma had never remembered anything about his experiences in the Nekoken after coming out of it. She chewed her lip in silent consternation as she thought of the consequences of Ukyo's revelation; of the devastating effects it could have on Ranma's ego. "I was afraid of something like this. He's never been in the Nekoken so long before."
Ukyo looked down as she twisted her hands in her lap. "You should see him, Nabiki." Her voice was low and hoarse. "You can see it in his face; all the memories... And on top of that, he's stuck as a girl, and he knows it."
Nabiki closed her eyes briefly. This was not good. "Do you think he's up to this?" she asked. "Leaving for China right away?"
Ukyo laughed; a short, sad sound, full of irony. "I don't think we could stop him if we tried. He wants... to rescue Akane. Right now, that's even more important to him than changing back into a guy. Probably more important to him than breathing."
Nabiki glanced at Ukyo, her expression carefully neutral. "Ukyo... you haven't given up on Ranma, have you," she said quietly. A statement, not a question.
Ukyo didn't raise her head, but she blinked and brushed at her wet eyes with her hand. "Dammit, I knew you were going to say that." Her voice was low, but steady. "What can I say, Nabiki? I know he loves... your sister... and I want him to be happy. Heck, I want you and your family to be happy..." She sniffed, and her voice broke. "But... I would be lying if I said I didn't think about what might happen... I mean, I can't help but think, what if the blood spell can't be broken? What if it's impossible to get Akane back? And then I think, Ranma will need someone to comfort him..."
Ukyo put her face in her hands, her long hair spilling forward around her. "And then... I feel so ashamed for thinking it... for feeling that way... because I know that's what Shampoo planned when she cast the blood spell in the first place..."
Nabiki sat quietly for a moment. "You're being too hard on yourself, Ukyo," she said at last. "I know you. You would never have cast the blood spell. And what you're thinking is only human nature. I myself have wondered... if it's too late to save Akane."
Ukyo raised her head and looked up at her in shock.
"Don't look so surprised. It's been almost three weeks since the blood spell, after all, and anything could have happened to her in the Kami Plane." In spite of the calm bluntness of her words, Nabiki's hazel eyes flickered slightly. "And I keep thinking... what if she's lost forever? How will I... feel?"
Nabiki sighed and looked around her room. "I mean, I know she's real, because of the hard evidence I've found, and that I keep finding..." She thought of the negatives of Akane she'd discovered on the same rolls of film that she'd used to take pictures of Ranma's girl form... and evidence in her ledger that she'd sold all of the photos to Kuno...
She glanced back at Ukyo. "I know she's real. But I don't remember her," she said quietly. "I mean, if she is lost forever, it won't be like when Mother died. There are no feelings, no memories, no nostalgia... Nothing for me to... to mourn for. None of us... Father, Kasumi... have any reason to feel grief over the loss of Akane, because we only have the intellectual knowledge that she exists somewhere far away. I think of my mother. It's been years since her death, and there are so many things about her I've forgotten... but at least I remember that I loved her, and that she loved me. I can still feel it..."
Nabiki trailed off for a moment and closed her eyes. "But... I don't have anything like that for Akane," she finished.
Ukyo looked at Nabiki, her eyes wide. She hadn't even considered that. And yet it made sense. After all, this past week the Tendo family had seemed much more concerned over Ranma's plight than over the plight of the daughter/sister they knew existed but couldn't remember.
Nabiki opened her eyes and raised her head, yet her calm expression quivered slightly. "Did you know, I almost didn't tell anyone of my discovery that Akane was real?" She chuckled humorlessly. "I almost didn't. I almost swept her existence under the carpet, because I knew it would be easier to live in the reality that had imposed itself on all of us, rather than try to bend all our lives to Ranma's reality. Even if his reality was the right one."
"What made you change your mind?" asked Ukyo softly.
Nabiki snorted in quiet self-derision. "Because, Ukyo, in spite of my carefully cultivated image as the woman of ice, I'm a complete softy. The truth is, I couldn't stand to see Ranma suffer because of Shampoo's lies any more."
Ukyo saw wetness form in Nabiki's hazel eyes in spite of her calm demeanor. "Besides," she continued, "whether I remember her or not... Akane's my sister. She's family. And I want to remember her. I want to know her. I look at the pictures of her with our family, and I still can't remember her. I can't feel anything for her except frustration that she's nothing but a big blank in my mind, and it makes me feel sick, and I can't bear the thought of not even being able to feel proper grief over her disappearance."
Nabiki's hands clenched at her sides. "I don't like anyone or anything messing with my mind. Or my family. And this blood spell has done both. So, even though I know it might be... too late... I hope Ranma can break the blood spell and get Akane back. But... if he can't... if worse comes to worse and something goes wrong..."
She trailed off, then turned to look into Ukyo's wide eyes. "If Ranma can't break the blood spell, you should be there for him," she said firmly. "Because Ranma does remember Akane. And if he can't get her back... Well, just as Shampoo planned, he'll need someone to comfort him. And you're more qualified than anyone else I know to do that. At least in my eyes."
Ukyo blinked, stunned. Then a small, tremulous smile lit her face. "Thanks, Nabiki. I... I really needed to hear that."
"Don't thank me. I'm just giving you the cold hard facts of the matter."
Ukyo's smile turned wry. "Precisely why I'm thanking you." She sighed heavily, almost in relief, as if a great black burden had been lifted from her, and stood from the bed. "I think Ranchan should be dressed by now," she said.
Nabiki nodded, and stood as well. "We should probably go get him and let him know what's been going on, before he goes downstairs and finds-"
"OH, MY PIGTAILED GODDESS! THOU HAST AWAKENED FROM THY SLUMBER AND COMETH TO GREET ME LIKE THE BREAKING RAYS OF DAWN DISPELLING THE DARKEST NIGHT!"
"GYAAAAA! KUNO, GET OFFA ME, YOU PERVERT!"
Ukyo and Nabiki exchanged glances as the shouts rang through the house.
Nabiki shrugged. "Too late," she sighed. Ukyo turned and ran out the door and down the stairs as Nabiki followed quickly after.
They reached the dining room just in time to see Kuno collapse to the floor unconscious. Ranma stood, trembling in fury, his favorite black pants and red Chinese shirt hanging loosely on his female body, his small fist still extended from his thrown punch.
And Nabiki couldn't help but feel elated to see him standing on two legs, human intelligence burning brightly in his narrowed blue eyes, even if those eyes were framed by a female face. It had been too long...
He turned towards her sharply as she followed Ukyo into the room. "What the hell is Kuno doing in here?" he yelled, seething.
Nabiki smiled. "Well, he felt it was beneath him to camp outside with the others, so..."
"You know what I mean, Nabiki," he growled.
She suppressed a smirk. Yes, Ranma was back. "He's paying our way to China," she answered matter-of-factly. "He's flying everyone there in a private jet. So before you go breaking any more of his teeth, you might want to remember that without him, we'd all be taking the slow boat, so to speak."
Ranma blinked, and looked down at the fallen samurai. "He's... paying? But weren't you... I thought you said..."
Nabiki's smile flickered so slightly that Ranma thought he might have imagined it. "Oh, that," she said smoothly. "Well, you know, I figured if Kuno was up for it, why not? Besides, he's more than happy to foot the bill whenever you're-oof." She was cut off as Ukyo elbowed her a little too roughly in the ribs.
"What she means to say, Ranchan," said Ukyo, ignoring Nabiki's angry scowl, "is that she can't pay for the trip because she's broke."
"Broke?" Ranma blinked in astonishment. "Nabiki?" For some reason, he was having trouble associating the two words together.
Nabiki clenched her teeth, her face flushing slightly, and looked away. She hated to acknowledge that she had depleted all her resources, without a single personal asset remaining. Knowing that she was only barely in the black made her feel naked and exposed. But everything had happened so fast, and she didn't have the time to make back the money she'd spent, between having the Nekohanten bugged, making the tape dubs, hiring people to find Ranma, searching all over trying to track down ways to break all the magic spells that had been flying thick... Hell, she was drained dry. It would take months of working in her usual circles before her finances were back to normal.
Ukyo pretended not to notice her friend's discomfort. After all, she was proud of Nabiki's sacrifice, and if Nabiki wouldn't confess to her generous acts, she would. "She spent all the rest of her money this past week trying to find a way to help you break out of the Nekoken," she said, looking meaningfully at Ranma.
Ranma's eyes widened as he looked over at Nabiki. She looked up and met his gaze, her cool expression almost defiant, as if daring him to find the spark of compassion she had tried for so long to keep hidden, lest it ruin her ruthless reputation.
But in that moment, as she looked into his eyes, behind the growing realization on his face, she saw...
... saw a flash of the haunted memories that were playing through his mind, glittering in his eyes. The shadow that crossed his face was raw and terrible, and it made her want to shudder. Oh no, she thought, all thoughts of money and reputations vanishing from her mind. Ukyo was right, he remembers everything. How can he stand it?
Ukyo must have seen it too, because she reached out. "Oh... I'm sorry Ranchan, I didn't mean..."
Ranma blinked, and the shadow faded from his countenance. He sighed. "It's okay, Ucchan," he said quietly. And he walked over to Nabiki, looking up through his red bangs into the taller girl's face. "I'll... find a way to pay you back," he said sincerely.
Nabiki stared at him. She couldn't help but think of the time when Ranma had accidentally destroyed a pair of elite concert tickets, complete with backstage passes, on which she had splurged in a rare moment of extravagance. He had humbly apologized, but she had been furious at the loss. The next day, when she and Ranma were left alone in the house while the others ran errands, she made him suffer. She pulled every dirty trick and manipulation in the book, and then some. When she was finally through with him, poor Ranma was a frazzled wreck.
Now, for the first time in her life, as she thought back on that incident of revenge, she felt... ashamed.
Ranma's not the only one who's been changed by this blood spell, she realized with a surprise that didn't reach her expression. Though I'm not quite sure if this is a good thing or not...
She decided not to think about it at the moment. Instead, she looked at Ranma and feigned indifference to his offer. "Don't worry about it," she said, not quite able to hide her discomfort. "Just promise me you'll rescue my sister, okay?"
Ranma nodded, his blue eyes grave and grateful. "I promise," he said.
Nabiki looked past him, eager to change the subject. She spotted just the thing. "Oh, and just so you know. When he wakes up," she said, gesturing to Kuno's unconscious form, "he's flying us to China so that we can rescue his beloved mystery girl - who just happens to be my long lost sister - from a dragon. Not quite the truth, but close enough." She snorted softly. "I can't believe how gaga he is over a girl he's only seen in photographs. Still, it's lucky for us that he seems to be as obsessed with her as he is with you."
Ranma frowned, but before he could respond, the screen door slid open, and Ryoga stepped through. Shampoo and Mousse followed close behind. They were holding hands... to Ranma's astonishment.
Ryoga's eyes widened as he saw his friend, still in cursed form, but standing upright for the first time in a week. "Uh... hi, Ranma," said Ryoga awkwardly. "Welcome back." He immediately wanted to kick himself as soon as the words came out of his mouth. Welcome back? he thought. Oh that's just great. I might as well have just said 'Welcome back from being a cat.' What kind of stupid thing is that to say after what he's been through?
But Ranma only smiled slightly. "Thanks, Ryoga." He paused, as the shadow of memory flickered in his eyes briefly. "For everything."
Ryoga missed Ranma's tone completely, still squirming over his imagined faux pas. "Hey," he replied, trying to cover his discomfort, acting nonchalant and failing. "It was no problem. I mean, sure, all that reading was hard on the eyes-"
Mousse pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his index finger. "You can say that again," he murmured.
"- and we may not have found a cure, but Shampoo did find a ton of wards in an old Chinese book that will help protect us when we go fight that dragon, so all that work wasn't a complete waste."
"Huh?" Ranma blinked in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
Nabiki cleared her throat. "Shampoo, Mousse, Ryoga and Doctor Tofu spent the week over at Kintaro-sensei's library, reading all of his ancient Chinese and Japanese documents, trying to find a cure for the Nekoken and the cold spell," she supplied helpfully.
Ranma's eyes widened as he looked at the weary trio, suddenly understanding why he couldn't remember seeing them all week. Ryoga and Mousse, two guys that usually acted like they were his worst enemies... trying to help him? And Shampoo...
Shampoo was looking at him, her violet eyes wide and flickering, her face ragged and exhausted...
"Wards not for dragon," she said softly, hesitantly as she looked into his girl's face. "Wards for demons."
Ranma met her gaze, and felt his expression harden as a rush of anger rose within him at the sight of her, the one who had caused him so much pain...
...and Shampoo flinched, seeing it in his face. She lowered her head in shame.
Mousse, who had been watching Ranma carefully, glanced down at Shampoo; saw her crumple under the venom of Ranma's gaze. And Ranma half expected Mousse to jerk his head up and attack him, shouting at him for making his darling Shampoo feel bad, or something along those lines...
Mousse looked up, but he didn't attack. Instead, he looked at Ranma through his thick glasses... almost pleadingly. He didn't move, and he didn't say a word, but his expression spoke for him as he looked down at Shampoo again sadly.
Ranma blinked, taken aback as he looked back and forth between Mousse and Shampoo. The tall Chinese boy was standing over her like a protector, and she was clasping his hand tightly, as if holding on to a lifeline.
Ranma took a deep breath and calmed himself. His anger, though it might be justified, would not accomplish anything, he realized. Shampoo was trying to help, after all. And she looked so tormented...
He winced as a memory surfaced; as he remembered Shampoo's expression from days previous, when she saw him for the first time, trapped with a girl body and a feline soul...
He remembered it all. Seeing the look on her face, the mixture of horror and anguish and guilt as she looked down at him, knowing that she was responsible for his plight... It was awful to remember that look on her face.
And even worse to remember the feeling of his own dimmed, transformed mind, which could not even comprehend the meaning of her expression.
But he understood now. And, strangely, he found that he felt better, knowing that Shampoo was sincere in her desire to fix what she had done to him... to Akane.
"What were you saying about the wards, Shampoo?" he asked. And there was no trace of anger, no hint of accusation in his mezzo-soprano voice.
Shampoo raised her head and looked at him as she heard... not forgiveness, but... a chance. A chance to redeem herself. She straightened slightly, and a spark of hope flickered in her clouded violet eyes. "Wards no good against Ancient One," she replied. "Just for demons that guard mountain. We no reach Ancient One unless we get past demons."
Ranma nodded approval. "Then I'm glad you found those wards," he said sincerely. "That will make this trip a lot easier."
Shampoo's countenance brightened slightly, but her eyes were wet. "I lead you to Ancient One. I do everything I can to... to break blood spell."
Ranma almost smiled. He looked around at the assembled group; at his friends. They looked at him, as if merely waiting for the word.
"Are you guys ready to go?" he asked.
"We just need to pack our tents," said Ryoga, indicating himself and Mousse. "Then we can leave any time."
Ranma reached down with a slender arm, grabbed Kuno by the back of his samurai uniform, hauled the unconscious young man to his feet, then slung him awkwardly over his petite shoulder.
He brushed his red hair from his eyes with his free hand. "Then let's go to China," he said.
Outside in the Tendo yard, where two tents were pitched by the koi pond, a small, blurring shadow moved silently in the gray morning fog. There was the slightest rustle as it disappeared through the open flap of the larger of the two tents... and the slightest rustle as it emerged a few moments later, cackling softly as it bounded away...
The patio door slid open a moment later, and Ryoga and Mousse stepped out. Mousse paused a moment, and cocked his head.
"What's wrong?" asked Ryoga.
Mousse frowned. "Did you... hear something just now?"
Ryoga listened a moment, then shook his head. "Nothing unusual. Why?"
The tall, bespectacled Chinese boy looked troubled for a moment, but then he shrugged it off. "I guess it was nothing," he said, then walked over to the larger tent to pack it up for the trip.
Out of the blissful oblivion of unconsciousness... came throbbing pain... the sound of voices, murmuring soft... and the feel of cool fingers touching her forehead lightly...
Akane groaned softly. Her shoulder hurt, and her thigh was shooting sharp messages of pain along her nerve endings...
I'm alive, she realized with genuine surprise. She thought for sure that when the blackness claimed her, after sustaining such serious injury from the Shadowcat demon, that she was as good as dead. Maybe she was. But surely, if she were dead, she wouldn't be feeling pain... would she?
"She's still running a slight fever..."
"Well, that's only to be expected, mistress..."
The voices sounded... familiar. Sluggishly, reluctantly, Akane opened her eyes to see where she was, to see whose hand rested on her forehead...
"Ah... Akane, you are awake at last." The Snow Woman smiled down at her, her frost blue eyes filling with icy tears.
And Akane felt her stomach clench in horror and fury as she found herself looking into the face she had hoped she would never see again. Only, the Snow Woman's white, bloodless face was not as flawless as she remembered. The unearthly white skin was riddled with tiny blackened cracks. Still, it was the face of the creature who had cast the cold spell on Ranma and then delivered him up to the Shadowcat demon; the Shadowcat demon that had gone on to kill Masakazu... and that had nearly killed her...
"You!" Akane's voice was a dry rasp; her throat felt like sandpaper. She tried to sit up, to push herself away, but searing pain tore through her shoulder and leg, making her gasp and collapse back to the white futon on which she'd been laying, tears of agony filling her eyes. "Dammit," she whispered. It hurt so bad. She had to focus over the pain, she had to get away...
"Akane, please!" The Snow Woman's voice was anxious. "Your wounds haven't healed completely, you must rest..." And she reached out a hand to gently restrain the struggling girl.
Akane's head snapped up, her brown eyes blazing in spite of the pain flaring through her body. "Don't you touch me, you witch!" she hissed through clenched teeth.
The Snow Woman's eyes widened, stunned, and her hand fell to her side. "But... Akane..."
Akane's face was filled with unbridled fury and contempt. "I don't know how I got here," she said, her voice shaking with pain as she weakly pushed herself further away from the Snow Woman, "but I'm leaving as soon as possible."
The Snow Woman's cracked, marred face went slack with shock. "But... you came back..."
"If you think for one minute that I'm staying with the demon who betrayed me," Akane snarled, "who handed Ranma over to the Shadowcat, you're crazier than I thought!"
The Snow Woman blinked. Demon? The hate in Akane's gaze was unbearable. It pierced through her just as surely and more deadly than the sharpest blade. She felt her cold heart inside her chest contract in horrified realization. She knows what I did to Ranma... How does she..?
And that realization was followed closely by another. The Snow Woman's eyes widened. She... still remembers Ranma. The Kami Plane's spell of Forgetfulness has failed...
It cannot be. I... have failed? Everything for nothing...
Trembling, the Snow Woman stood, her silken robes flowing around her slender form. "Akane." Her voice broke as she looked down at the girl; the girl she thought of as a daughter, the girl for whose return she'd waited patiently, the girl who glared up at her in disgust even as she shook from the pain of her wounds.
Akane had changed greatly in two and a half years. But then, most mortals do. As Akane struggled to push herself into an upright position, in spite of the fact that her shoulder wound was beginning to bleed through her bandages, seeping through the white of her nightgown, the Snow Woman could see that her blue-black hair fell nearly to her waist. She had grown a few centimeters. And, in the girl's brown eyes, beyond the contempt, and beyond the tears of pain... she could see new wisdom there, gained through the suffering she had experienced in her travels throughout the Kami Plane. She had suffered so much, all to break the blood spell. All for the sake of that boy Ranma...
She could not bear the hate in Akane's eyes.
"I... will not keep you here, Akane." The Snow Woman's voice was quiet, almost a whisper. "I could not if I wanted to. But... you are welcome to stay until you are fully healed. If you decide to stay, Kazuo will tend to your needs. I will not intrude upon you further." And so saying, she turned and quietly left the room.
Akane stared after her, blinking in surprise. This has got to be a trick, she thought.
She heard a heavy sigh behind her.
Focusing over the pain, and turning her head carefully, she saw Kazuo. The little blue-skinned ice sprite was kneeling next to a tray covered with clean bandages and assorted, colorful jars. He was looking at her sadly.
"You are bleeding," he said. "You had better lie down."
Akane looked down, and saw that she was indeed bleeding; that her blood had soaked through her bandage and was now staining her white nightgown. When she looked up again at Kazuo, he sighed again. "You needn't worry; she won't return. As she said, while you remain, she will not trouble you."
Akane snorted softly. "Like I have any reason to believe anything she says." She winced and gasped slightly as the pain in her shoulder became unbearable, and shifted in her tensed position. She was in pain, she was angry... and she was scared. As she focused, she understood the messages her body was sending her. A feeling of light-headedness and nausea flooded through her, and threatened to break her concentration. She knew without looking that her torn-up leg wouldn't support her weight... There was no way she could walk out of here under her own power. Not yet, at least.
But how had she even come to the Snow Woman's realm? Surely the Snow Woman hadn't ventured into the Gaki domain to rescue her. She knew that the Snow Woman never left her domain, except to cross over into the mortal realm...
The last thing she remembered was defeating the Shadowcat, crawling across the blood-slick floor in search of the missing piece of comb... feeling the cold tendrils of death seep into her body as her lifeblood spilled from her wounds...
Akane reached back with her good arm and felt at the crown of her head. The comb wasn't there. Her hair flowed loosely past her shoulders and down her back, unbound from its usual French braid...
Her eyes widened in panic. "Where-?"
"Are you looking for this?" She looked over at Kazuo. He held the comb in his hand, the two pieces still bound together with a strip of blood-stained cloth. Akane narrowed her eyes suspiciously as she held out her shaking hand, half expecting him to pull it out of reach...
Kazuo handed it to her. "Really, mistress Akane," he said with a touch of exasperation. "I have no reason to keep it from you. And you really should lie down before you fall down."
Akane wasn't listening. She took the comb and plunged it into her thick hair. **Susa-no-o!** she called mentally. **What's going on? Why am I in the Snow Woman's domain?**
There was no answer. She couldn't feel his presence at all.
**Answer me, dammit! I know you can hear me!**
But she didn't know any such thing. And, as the silence echoed in her mind, she began to realize with a terrible sinking feeling that she was stuck. Trapped in the realm of the person who had betrayed and manipulated her... and who had done the worst thing possible to Ranma, trapping him in cursed form, then delivering him as a gift to the Shadowcat demon...
A wave of dizziness swept over her, disrupting her focus, allowing the pain of her wounds to spike through her consciousness. She sank down to the futon, moaning.
"There, what did I tell you? And now I'm going to have to change that bandage again."
Akane closed her eyes briefly to regain her focus, breathing deeply, but not too deeply because of the searing pain in her shoulder. "Why are you the one taking care of me?" she asked, wheezing slightly. "I know you can't stand me. Why not one of the other servants?"
"They all left," said Kazuo shortly. He reached over to unbutton the front of her nightgown.
Akane's eyes widened, and she grabbed his wrist. "What do you think you're doing, you pervert?" she yelled.
Kazuo favored her with a half-lidded glare. "I've been changing your bandages all week," he said coldly.
Akane blinked, still clenching Kazuo's wrist. I've been in the Snow Woman's domain... for a whole week? And I only now regained consciousness? The thought alarmed her. She had been in the hands of the enemy, utterly helpless... And if they had used any of the healing salves she had used frequently during her previous stay, she should have recovered a lot sooner...
She felt the weakness throughout her body, the searing pain that, even now ate away at her concentration... Just how close to death had she come?
When she still didn't let go of his wrist, Kazuo reached down with his free hand and grabbed the blanket, which she had kicked away in her earlier struggles, and pulled it up over her chest. "You can cover yourself with this, if you insist on propagating an overblown sense of modesty," he said. "But if you do not allow me to change your bandages, you will slow down your recovery, and then you'll be stuck here even longer."
Akane glared at the little ice sprite, but she let go of his wrist. She clutched the blanket to her chest with her good hand as Kazuo reached over, undid the top buttons of her nightgown and pulled the cloth back, leaving the left shoulder and its bloody bandages exposed. He then carefully removed the bandages from her shoulder. Akane gasped in pain, as the bandage stuck to the wound in places.
She turned her head and looked down at the wound. She could clearly see four parallel gashes where the power of the Shadowcat's Nekoken had grazed her. She realized that Kazuo must have been using the healing salve that she and Masakazu had often used, because the edges of the wound were almost completely healed, the edges of skin melding together leaving no sign that the wounds had extended as far as they had except for the thin, pink ribbon of scar tissue that would be hers forever. Even so, in spite of the rapid healing, the widest, deepest parts of the wounds were still scabbing. Her exertions had reopened three of the four gashes.
As she turned her head, looking back up at the crystalline ceiling, Kazuo's statement penetrated her pain-fogged mind. "They all left? All of the other servants?" she asked. "What do you mean?"
"Exactly what you think I mean." Kazuo carefully applied the healing salve to the wounds. Akane felt the numbing agents seep immediately into her flesh, easing the pain, and she relaxed slightly.
"Why?" she asked. "Why did everyone leave?"
"I would think that you of all people would know," Kazuo replied. "You obviously are aware of what Mistress Yuki-onna did right after you left. How she summoned that... dreadful Shadowcat demon."
Akane blinked in realization, even as she felt a thick drowsiness fog her mind. Kazuo must have used the strong stuff. But then that was only natural, considering the nature of her injuries. "They left because she summoned the demon? You mean... she's been alone for the past two and a half years?"
"Well, I stayed with her, of course." Kazuo placed a fresh, clean bandage over Akane's bare shoulder.
"Why did you stay? I mean, it sounds like you weren't too thrilled about her summoning the Shadowcat either."
"Of course not. Consorting with demons is..." Kazuo frowned. "It was... beneath her."
"Beneath her?" Akane was incredulous, even as she felt sleep tugging at her consciousness. "It was evil!"
"Then why did you stay?"
Kazuo blinked, and his hard expression turned sad once again. "Because... even though her actions were evil, I understood... I understand her. I've been with her longer than any of the others. I knew she did it out of love... for you."
"Love?" Akane laughed, short and derisive, yet tired as she fought the heaviness suddenly weighing down her eyelids. "She doesn't know the meaning of the word 'love.' If she did, she would never have summoned the Shadowcat in the first place. She would never have laughed, watching through her mirror as Ranma suffered. She... never would have betrayed me..." Her voice trailed off, and, in spite of herself, her eyes slipped shut. "She wouldn't... have betrayed me..."
Kazuo watched as Akane fell into the healing sleep. His hard expression softened to one of sadness.
"No," he whispered. "I suppose not."
...doesn't know the meaning of the word 'love'...
Yuki-onna stood in front of her mirror. It was still covered by the thick cloth she had thrown over it in a violent fit of grief and guilt over two and a half years ago, after peering into the mortal plane to see what was causing the horrible feeling of loss that touched her, that penetrated her to the bone...
And, as she peered into her mirror, she had watched in horror as Masakazu, her dear, ancient friend, was murdered by the very demon she had loosed on the mortal plane. The demon she had sent through that very mirror; the demon she had granted access to the mortal realm it never would have had otherwise, all so that she could see the boy Ranma vanquished, so that Akane would return to her...
She had covered her mirror then, weeping and shuddering, vowing that she would never look into it again...
But a covered mirror couldn't hide the terrible images that were now permanently engraved into her mind's eye.
Yuki-onna closed her eyes. What a farce. As if covering her mirror could change the truth.
How could she have deceived herself so completely? And Masakazu had even tried to warn her.
...doesn't know the meaning...
Yuki-onna trembled. Opening her eyes, she reached out with one hand and slowly pulled the cloth from the mirror.
Her eyes widened as she saw herself, her own reflection. One slender white hand stole up to her cheek. Ah, will these cracks never heal?
Almost of their own volition, her hands went out to the mirror, her fingers tracing patterns of frost onto its cold silver surface.
Then, she breathed.
The frost of her breath swirled on the mirror's surface, clearing moments later to form an image...
Wilderness. Mountains. A small group of people, each bearing a large backpack, hiking up a strenuous mountain pass, their dark silhouettes outlined by a fiery sunset. She focused on them, on the leader...
It was Ranma, of course. Still in his cursed female form, because of her cold spell. But he was no longer in the Nekoken. He had escaped the Shadowcat's influence somehow, and was now on his way to try and break the blood spell.
She suspected she knew how he had escaped. After all, the source of the terrible, perfectly parallel wounds on Akane's shoulder and thigh was not too hard to imagine.
Ah, it gets worse and worse. Akane, I never wanted to hurt you... I loved you like a daughter.
Akane's voice echoed in her mind.
...doesn't know the meaning of the word...
A low sob escaped Yuki-onna's throat, and she pressed her forehead against the mirror, closing her eyes. The frost on the surface swirled, and the image of Ranma hiking through the Chinese wilderness was lost.
The frost continued to move, almost with a life of its own, and when a new image finally formed, it was one quite different from any that had ever appeared on the mirror's surface before...
Yuki-onna stood in quiet distress outside the small cottage, the slight winter wind caressing her smooth face; thick, fluffy flakes of snow falling gently from the night sky in the muffled silence of her storm. The wind entwined her long mane of shimmering white hair around her slender form as she pressed herself against the trunk of a leafless cherry tree, seeking comfort from the strange feelings that filled her, that drew her, trembling, to this mortal abode.
The snow and the bright, sharp icicles that hung from the bare branches of the cherry tree created a different foliage; alien, yet beautiful and sparkling in the moonlight. Yuki-onna peered around the tree, her frost-blue eyes filled with a mingling of caution and longing as she gazed at the candle-light flickering through the rice-paper window of the one-room house; at the smoke curling from the chimney, reaching up into the night.
After an eternity of waiting, the single door opened, and warm yellow light spilled out into the cool blues of shadowed snow. Yuki-onna felt her breath catch in her throat, and she shrank against the concealing trunk of the cherry tree as a figure emerged from the doorway.
The young man didn't pause, didn't notice her at all. He tromped out into the fresh snow towards a sturdy wood shed, whistling an off-key tune, oblivious to the eyes that once again peeked cautiously, almost timidly from around the cherry tree. He loaded his strong arms with firewood, stacking it up to his chin, enough to keep him warm throughout the night, and walked back towards the cottage.
Yuki-onna watched him silently from her hiding place, her gaze tracing over the strong lines of his face, the rakish crop of dark, unruly hair hanging over eyes that were the deep warm blue of the summer sea...
Her heart ached strangely when the young man disappeared inside his house, closing the door behind him against the winter night.
**So he is the one you spared. I must say, he is a handsome fellow, for a mortal.**
Yuki-onna startled at the mental voice inside her head, and turned to see...
**Masakazu!** Her own mental response was filled more with embarrassment than anger. **How dare you follow me here?!**
The tengu's black eyes glittered with silent laughter. **With the way you've been moping about your domain the past few weeks, how could I resist? I had to see for myself the mortal man who has managed to melt your heart of ice, Yuki-chan.**
She turned away from him, trying to conceal the flustered expression on her face, knowing that it did no good to hide it from the tengu. **You are a snoop, Masakazu,** she replied testily. **You should keep that pointed beak of yours out of other people's business.**
**But, my dear friend, your business is my business. Especially when it concerns something as serious as the course of action you are considering.**
Yuki-onna glanced at him and frowned slightly. **I do wish you would stop plucking my thoughts from my head like so many grapes from a vine. Have you no sense of privacy?**
**None at all, my dear.** Masakazu blinked mischievously. **You should know that by now. Besides, your thoughts make such excellent wine.**
Yuki-onna turned from the tengu and sighed, leaning against the trunk of the cherry tree, the frost of her breath spreading a crystal pattern over the smooth bark as she looked towards the candle-lit window. **Then tell me, oh wise one.** Her mental voice was almost wistful, even in its wryness. **What should I do about... this young man? In all my existence, I have never encountered one such as he, whose face and soul could move me to mercy and cause me to forsake my duties as Death's handmaiden. Why should these hands, that have frozen the blood of so many, hesitate to touch this one mortal?**
The tengu cocked his head at her in silence for a moment, his piercing eyes seeming to gaze right through her as he carefully considered his response. **It seems to me,** he said at last, **that your time among mortals has not left you untouched by their ways.** His mental voice was a soft touch in her mind, almost as if he were speaking more to himself than to her. **Could it be that you actually... love this young man?**
Yuki-onna laughed lightly, a sound like chiming crystal, yet her delicate white hands fluttered nervously at her sides. **Love?** she responded, raising a slender white eyebrow at the tengu. **I know nothing of it. These mortals, they are so full of life, and love is at the root of it all. What am I to them? Bringer of cold, wintery death. I kill the land, bury it in a sepulcher of white, and those who linger unprotected in my domain are buried as well.**
A faint tinge of anxiety flickered across her smooth features, belying the nonchalance of her tone. **I kill love.** Her smile faltered, crumbled as her gaze wandered over to the tiny cottage. **And I know nothing of it.**
**But you want to know.**
"Yes," she whispered.
Tengu and Snow Woman stood in the gently falling snow, gazing at the warm little house, built solid and firm against the elements.
**Then the decision is made.** Masakazu's voice in her head was quiet and resigned. **I know that, even now, the first part of your spell is in place, sealed from the time you bound the mortal with an oath that he never speak a word of how you came to him in the storm...**
Yuki-onna turned to look at her ancient friend. The tengu gazed up at her, his bird-like expression unreadable. "All that remains is your willingness to embrace the suffering," he said aloud softly. "For you will suffer if you become mortal. And suffering, like joy, is intertwined with love. It seems, from my observation, that you cannot have one without the other."
Embrace the suffering...
She knew all too well that mortals suffered. Was it worth it? To sacrifice everything that she was just to know what they knew, to finally understand the light of knowledge that flickered in their eyes even as their breath ceased and their souls slipped out from under her icy fingers...
To be mortal... and to know love. To see love in the summer sea-blue eyes of the man who had looked upon her supernatural countenance in terror as she froze his sleeping elderly companion... terror that turned to amazement and relief and wonder in his young, handsome face as she looked into his eyes and found herself unwilling to inflict him with the cold of her touch...
Her voice shook, and she immediately wished she could take back the simple words, wished she could fade into the spring forest and never return to this place until the snow buried it once again, wished she could rewind time and erase her clumsy entrance. What was she thinking? What made her so sure she could just walk up to him and introduce herself out of the blue? She knew nothing of mortal ways! What was she even doing here? He probably wouldn't want anything to do with her. Oh, why hadn't she stayed in her domain where she belonged? Her fingers entwined nervously around the rough cloth of her peasant dress, and she felt heat rise in her face; an unsettling, unfamiliar sensation that seemed connected with the fluttering feeling in her stomach...
The young man finished his swing, the ax splitting the log neatly in two, and looked up at her, surprised. Of course he was surprised. Here he was in the middle of a forest, a good five miles from the village, and this strange woman appears out of nowhere while he's chopping wood...
His blue eyes widened as he looked at her, and she noticed that his startled gaze traveled from her face down to her feet and back up again, pausing noticeably in between. A pink flush rose to his cheeks as he suddenly swallowed hard and looked directly into her face. He lowered the ax and brushed his dark, damp bangs from his forehead with one hand, then reached down to smooth his rough tunic. "Uhh... H-hello," he stuttered.
He seemed nervous. Could it be that he recognized her? Her eyes were the same frost blue, but her skin, though pale, was no longer white due to the blood that now coursed through her veins. She was shorter by a few hand-spans, and her long thick hair was lustrous black instead of shimmering white. The simple rough peasant dress she wore bore no resemblance to the flowing silk robes of her former office.
If he recognized her... what would she do? The very foundation of the spell of her mortality was completely dependent on the power of the oath this young man took when she spared his life. But... if he suspected who she was, surely he would fear her, not love her... and if he didn't love her, the spell would be incomplete. It would deteriorate, and she would become as she once was, no closer to understanding the strange, compelling beauty of humanity and the unfamiliar feelings this young man evoked in her...
"Who are you?" he asked suddenly. "I... I mean what are you doing out here, so far from the village? That is, if you're from the village... Are you lost?" The young man looked slightly panicky as the words tumbled out of his mouth.
Yuki-onna looked up at him, relief flooding through her. He didn't recognize her. He thought she was lost, and that was just as good as thinking she was human. Then why had her appearance sent him into stuttering fear?
"I was out walking," she said, smiling, trying to set him at ease, though she didn't understand his apprehension. "I heard the sound of your ax ringing through the wood, and I followed it."
"Oh." The young man relaxed only slightly, and he returned her smile hesitantly. He ran his fingers nervously through his unruly mop of dark hair.
"You must be the village wood cutter."
"Y-yes, I am." He stared at her.
Moments passed in uncomfortable silence, and Yuki-onna felt her heart sink. She was doing this all wrong, she had no idea what to do or say next. And the young man didn't seem to want to talk to her. She had interrupted his work, and now he was waiting for her to go away so he could return to it. Her expression saddened as she felt her dreams slipping away...
"You must be very busy. I'm sorry I bothered you," she said quietly. And she turned to leave.
"No, wait!" His voice, still slightly panicked, made her turn around. A look of dismay was etched across his features. "I... I'm sorry for being rude, it's just that I don't get many visitors out here... especially... girls... and I've never seen you in the village, because I'm sure I'd remember you..." He trailed off and swallowed hard. Then, to her surprise, he straightened and bowed deeply. "I'm sorry... Please... you're not bothering me. You don't have to go... unless you want to..."
Yuki-onna felt a warm smile spreading across her face, and she felt a light, tingly sensation building in her chest. "If you don't mind..."
"I don't! I mean..." The young man flushed pink again, and, to her astonishment, Yuki-onna found herself laughing; an unfamiliar, happy sound. It was unlike anything she had ever done, ever felt.
And it was wonderful.
The young man looked at her a moment in amazement. Then a sheepish smile crept onto his face, and he began to chuckle softly, joining in with her buoyant laughter. "Forgive me," he said, "for not introducing myself properly. My name is Shin."
"And my name," said the Snow Woman, smiling happily, "is Yuki."
Shin looked into her face with his summer sea-blue eyes. "What a beautiful name..."
"Masakazu, my dear friend, you came." Yuki walked carefully from the doorway of the little house towards the edge of the clearing, holding a tiny bundle to her breast.
The tengu stepped out of the shadows of the blossoming cherry tree, his black eyes gleaming in the sunlight. **And how could I stay away, when I could feel your joy all the way to the Kami Plane?** He leaned over and Yuki held the bundle out for him to see. **Ah, she is a beautiful child. She has your eyes.**
Yuki smiled radiantly. "The day I married Shin, I thought I could not be happier, and yet when she was born, I felt... I don't know how to describe it. Like I wanted to weep all the tears in the world, only without grief. I felt my heart would burst with the feeling."
Masakazu nodded. **I understand.**
She looked down into the sleepy face of her infant daughter, her eyes wet and shimmering. "How can you understand, Masakazu, when I cannot comprehend it myself? Shin... and now my... my daughter..."
Warm tears began to slip down her face, and even as she smiled, something akin to pain flickered in her eyes. "Is this how mortals feel with love?" she said softly. "How can they bear it? It's such a... powerful, terrible emotion. And yet I... I feel as if I would rather die than not have this feeling." She glanced briefly at the tengu in sincere confusion. "How did I ever exist without it?"
The tengu didn't answer. But a troubled expression glimmered in his eyes as he watched the former Eternal cradling her child.
**Your husband returns,** he said after a moment. **I must leave.**
Yuki nodded distractedly, but smiled.
Masakazu tilted his head, as if listening, and a spark lit in his eyes. **He seems very excited,** he said, amused. **He is bringing you a gift.**
Yuki looked up at the tengu in mock dismay. "And now you've spoiled the surprise," she said teasingly. "Be off with you."
Masakazu chuckled and bowed. **Until next time, my friend.** And he disappeared in a blur of movement.
Shin emerged from the forest edge into the little clearing a few moments later, carrying a large, awkward bundle wrapped in rough cloth in his arms. He saw Yuki standing under the cherry tree, the sun casting a dappling pattern of light and shadow across her face, and his expression lit up with a smile tinged with anxiousness.
"Yuki, you shouldn't be out walking so soon, it's only been two days! You should be resting."
Yuki smiled as her husband quickly set his bundle down and came to her, wrapping his arms protectively around her slender form, his gaze torn between his wife and the infant she carried in her arms.
"I'm fine, Shin," she said gently, leaning her head on his chest. "Besides, the sun was so warm today, and the cherry blossoms so fragrant, I wanted bring the baby outside to enjoy it."
Shin nodded acceptance, enjoying the feel of his beautiful, sweet wife and daughter, his family, in his arms. Then, he released them and stepped back, grinning like an child on his birthday. "I made something for you," he said, "for the baby."
"What is it?" asked Yuki, smiling at his excitement.
He knelt down and carefully unwrapped his large bundle. Inside was a cradle, hewn carefully from a single piece of wood, intricately carved with flowers and birds. A long-tailed phoenix adorned the headboard.
"Oh," said Yuki, unable to say anything else, amazed again at the wondrous ache that filled her.
"Do you like it?" Shin ran one hand through his dark tousled hair and looked at her, his blue eyes anxious. "I finished it this morning. I've been working on it since we found out. The designs took the longest, I've never really done much carving work..."
"It's beautiful, Shin," she whispered. "It's perfect."
The anxiety melted from Shin's face, and he beamed. He stood and held her, kissing her gently on the forehead and smoothing her silky black hair from her face softly with his calloused fingers.
"Then I am happy," he said simply. And she knew that his statement meant more than just the cradle, and her heart swelled.
"I love you, Shin."
The snow fell softly outside, blanketing the twilight forest in white, tinged orange from the setting sun. Yuki sat next to the fire, watching the stew bubbling in the pot as she busily, almost unconsciously hand sewed a lining of soft white rabbit fur onto smooth tanned leather. The needle seemed to fly in her slender hands, a single strong thread trailing behind the tiny silver dagger as it pierced leather and fur, binding the two together with perfect precision.
The door flew open, and two giggling, snow-covered bundles of cloth and fur came tumbling through the doorway. The smaller one stood and, without prelude, ran straight for Yuki, who barely had enough time to set her sewing aside to catch the little girl in her arms.
"Mommy, you should see what we made!"
"Haru, you're getting snow all over Mother. You'll get her sewing wet." The older girl glared at her younger sister as she carefully dusted the snow from her own clothing.
"It's all right, Natsu-chan, no harm done." Yuki smiled and stood, holding the little girl in her arms. "What did you make, Haru-chan?"
The little girl laughed as Yuki set her down by the door and patiently began to unbundle her winter clothing. "Me an' Natsu made a snow woman," she said.
Yuki froze a moment, her eyes widening slightly, before continuing to unwrap her youngest daughter. "Did you really," she said hesitantly.
"You should see it, Mother," said Natsu excitedly, forgetting for a moment that she was the mature older sister. "We packed the snow tight and solid, just like you showed us, and she's bigger than me!" She held her hand above her head to show how tall her creation was. "Will you come see?"
"It's getting dark out," said Yuki distractedly. "Perhaps tomorrow."
Natsu looked crestfallen, and Yuki smiled, reaching out to smooth her elder daughter's dark hair. "It won't melt overnight," she said soothingly. "I'll look at your snow sculpture in the morning."
"All right, Mother." Natsu draped her wet clothing over a railing by the fire and sniffed at the boiling pot. "Mmmm. It smells good, Mother."
"We'll have supper as soon as your Father gets home." Yuki draped Haru's wet clothing next to Natsu's, and bustled the little girl over to her older sister. "In the meantime, change into your nightclothes, girls."
Shin returned home shortly, his cheeks flushed red from the cold. As he stepped through the doorway, shaking snow from his hair, Yuki greeted him in her special customary manner. Shin flushed deeper from the pleasure of his wife's not-so-discreet welcome, noting briefly that the girls were safely behind the door of the larger room he had added to their small house. Their muffled giggles as they prepared for bed seeped through the wooden walls.
"If only I had known that this small measure of privacy would allow you to greet me this way each day," he said, a mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes as he wrapped his arms around her, "I would have built that extra room long ago."
Yuki laughed, and 'welcomed' her husband again.
Later, when the girls were asleep, the couple sat in warm silence by the fading embers of the fire. Yuki sat, humming softly as she sewed, occasionally glancing up to find Shin paused in his own whittling work, looking at her with a soft smile on his face.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked when she looked up to find him staring at her again.
"You," he said.
Yuki smiled and looked back at her sewing to hide the blush that came so easily to her pale cheeks.
Shin smiled gently at her response. "It's strange," he said, his gaze growing distant and thoughtful. "Sometimes, when the firelight is low, and I look at you, I am reminded..."
He trailed off, and Yuki raised her head. "Of what?" she asked.
Shin's blue eyes remained unfocused for a moment, but then he blinked, shook his head, and looked down at the doll he was carving. "Nothing," he said. "A dream I had long ago."
"Tell me of it," said Yuki as she resumed her careful sewing. "You know how I enjoy hearing you tell of your dreams."
Shin sighed, and laughed a little. "Oh, it was so long ago, years before I met you. Sometimes I think it fades from my memory completely." He looked up at her contemplatively. "Yet it's strange how clearly I remember it, especially on nights like this, when the snow is falling... and I see you in the firelight..."
"Mm?" Yuki tied a knot in the thread she was sewing with and bit it off carefully with her teeth, holding up the little coat a moment later to admire her handiwork. "What was it? Now I'm curious."
His gaze became distant as he stared into the dying fire. "Well, it was back when I was apprenticed to the old woodcutter, Mitaga. It was a bitter cold winter, and firewood was scarce. Mitaga and I had to go searching for a new cutting ground." Shin's smile faded, and a troubled expression clouded his eyes. "We were caught in a terrible storm. The snow was so heavy and thick that we lost our way. After wandering for what seemed like hours, with the cold seeping through our coverings and into our skin and joints, we finally found an old abandoned hovel, and we took shelter inside to wait out the blizzard. It kept out the storm, but it couldn't keep out the cold..."
Yuki's hands went still. She looked up from her sewing slowly, a hint of horror flickering in her frost-blue eyes as she realized...
"It was cold... so cold..." Shin's voice was soft and low, his gaze turned inward as he relived the memory. "We took turns telling each other stories to try and keep ourselves awake, afraid of falling asleep... It was no use. Mitaga was an old man, and he closed his eyes in spite of my efforts to keep him awake. But then, I think I must have fallen asleep too... for I dreamed..."
No, said Yuki, but the pleading, terrified word was voiceless, and Shin did not see her. Her hands felt numb, and her vision darkened at the edges as her heart throbbed painfully in her ears... She wanted to jump up and run to him, to tell him to cease and not speak the words, but she couldn't move, couldn't cry out... It had already begun...
"In my dream, the storm raging outside quieted. The door to the hovel opened, and... a woman stood in the doorway. Her skin and hair were white as the snow around her, and she was tall and beautiful in a way that I knew immediately she could not be human..."
No... Helpless tears filled Yuki's eyes, slipping down her cheeks, her face contorting in grief as she felt the warm rivulets turn suddenly cold against her skin...
"...She glided towards us without moving her feet. She didn't spare me a glance, but knelt down next to Mitaga and spread her white hands against the old man's chest. Soon, his skin was the blue of frozen death."
Yuki felt light-headed as the blood fell from her face. But no, it wasn't falling. It was leaving her all together, disappearing and leaving her hollow. The cold tears were freezing against her white face...
"Then she turned to me..." Shin took a deep breath, still staring at the fading embers of fire. "I wish I could describe the look on her face. I thought for a moment that she would... would kill me as well, but she just knelt there and stared at me. Even if I wanted to run, I couldn't have... My joints were too frozen, I could already see the frost on my eyelashes, on the skin of my cheeks... All that remained was her touch. I was terrified, and I prepared myself to die..."
The freezing tears turned to ice, falling from Yuki's chin in shining shards...
"And then..." A flicker of wonder worked its way across Shin's face. "...her cold expression softened, and she almost smiled. She reached out and touched my face with the tips of her fingers, but instead of freezing me, I felt the cold being drawn out of me, I felt my limbs thawing, the life flooding back into them... Then she stood and spoke in a voice like wind on crystal..."
Shin's clouded blue eyes lit with belated realization as he gazed into the burning coals. "She... made me promise that I would tell no one of how she came to me, and yet spared my life." Shin closed his eyes against the heat emanating from the fireplace.
"Ah..." he said quietly. "I had forgotten."
Yuki trembled in despair as her husband's unthinking words shattered the last carefully crafted piece of her spell of mortality. She felt herself shift and change, her humanity sloughing from her like an old skin.
"And then she was gone, as silently as she came..." Shin opened his eyes. "I think I woke up then, for it was suddenly morning. The old man had frozen to death during the night, and I was left with nothing but the strange dream..."
Now, the damage done, she was free to whisper his name with her icy breath. Shin tore his gaze away from the embers, from the memory, and turned to her, shivering.
His eyes widened as he saw her, tall and shimmering white, standing where only moments before, a petite mortal woman with flushed cheeks and thick black hair sat patiently sewing winter clothing for her precious daughters.
"Not a dream," she whispered hoarsely, tears of ice brimming in her frost-blue eyes and slipping down her face. "Not a dream."
The doll and carving knife fell from Shin's limp hands. "Yuki..?" His face filled with horrified realization.
Yuki-onna clenched her white fists in grief and anger as a cry of despair escaped her throat. "You promised..." she said softly. "You promised you would never tell... You swore an oath... The power of your oath bound me here, allowed me to be with you, to be your wife..."
Shin paled and reached out a trembling hand. "Yuki..."
Yuki-onna turned from him sharply, and found herself facing the wall behind which her daughters slept. She shuddered suddenly, and a thin, keening wail rose from her throat. "Oh, my little ones..." she sobbed. "I've lost you..!" She turned back to Shin, her smooth white face twisted in a rictus of grief. "I've lost you all."
Shin's mind was numb, his senses reeling. He longed to speak, to take back the words spoken in forgetfulness that had undone his world, but it was too late, and a fear and grief entirely unrelated to his wife's true supernatural nature filled his soul with her words.
"You betrayed me," she said brokenly, looking up to see his stricken face. "You betrayed your solemn oath. And now I am forced to leave."
Leave... Shin desperately tried to stand, but found himself frozen, unable to move his limbs. "No..." he said.
A shimmering portal opened up behind the Snow Woman, and she backed towards it slowly, feeling the pull of the Kami Plane on the other side. "Raise my children well, Shin." Her face was frighteningly serene, in spite of the bright, crystalline tears that continued to fall from her eyes unabated. "I swear to you that if harm comes to them throughout their lives, I will come to you in the storm. And I will not hesitate to complete what I could not finish so long ago."
And as the portal swallowed her up, she saw him wrench himself from his chair in a supreme effort of will against her fading spell and stumble towards her, his arms outstretched, his summer-sea blue eyes filled with unspeakable grief...
She heard his voice even as the mortal world faded from her.
"Don't leave me..."
Don't leave me...
As the image faded from the mirror's surface, Yuki-onna felt tears of ice slipping down her face once again.
Though her voice was a whisper, it was penetrating, as if trying to reach back across the centuries, across the planes, to reach the ears and heart of a long-dead mortal man.
"Shin, my beloved husband. Forgive me..."
Ranma sat on a rock next to the blazing campfire and threw another heavy log into the flames, sending sparks and ash floating up into the night sky. He held his hands, palms outward, toward the fire.
Nothing. The fire's warmth couldn't reach him.
He sighed, and glanced at the small tents that were pitched around him, where his friends lay sleeping soundly. Too bad they weren't sleeping soundlessly. He could hear Kuno's snores, almost unmuffled by the heavy material of his tent.
He almost smiled. At least Kuno's snores were better than listening to him rant on and on, bewailing the melancholy attitude of his 'beloved pigtailed goddess.' Ranma had been forced to put up with Kuno's constant lame and unwanted attempts to comfort him, thinking that he was jealous, bewitched, etc. The kendoist rambled non stop, saying that, though they were going to rescue the beautiful, mysterious Akane Tendo from the clutches of an evil dragon, 'she' should not fear that his love and devotion for 'her' were any less.
Ranma snorted softly. If only, he thought. And if that weren't enough, Kuno had somehow gotten it into his fool head that he and Ryoga...
Ranma shuddered, not wanting to think about that. Every time Kuno opened his mouth, Ranma ached to silence him with a swift kick to the face. But if Kuno was unconscious, that meant that someone would have to carry him, and that was a chore Ranma didn't want to inflict either on himself or anyone else.
Well, at least Kuno's snores didn't seem to bother the others. Less than two days into their journey, and they were completely worn out from exhaustion, having hiked through primitive virgin forests and over mountains that most of the world didn't even know existed.
Ranma stood, dusting off his hands, and slowly walked up the side of the steep hill next to the camp site. When he was far outside the ring of warmth and light cast by the campfire, he looked up into the clear night sky. His arms were straight at his sides, in spite of the cold mountain wind that tugged at the loose material of his shirt and pants, that whipped silken strands of red hair about his face and rose goose bumps on the skin of his slender arms. He didn't like the feel of folding his arms across his chest, even for the sake of generating his own warmth, since it only reminded him that he was stuck in his cursed female body.
It had been a while since he'd seen so many stars. He'd nearly forgotten how beautiful the sight was. How bright and cold... and how small it made him feel. Back home, the lights from Tokyo drowned out all but the brightest stars. But here, in the pristine Chinese wilderness, the Milky Way stretched above him, reaching out with glittering tendrils across the vast blackness of space.
He felt the presence of someone silently climbing the hill, coming up behind him.
"Ryoga." Ranma didn't tear his gaze away from the sky.
Ryoga walked up to him, his arms wrapped around his chest, shivering. "What're you doing, you idiot? Aren't you cold? You're gonna freeze if you don't come over by the fire."
Ranma snorted softly. "Doesn't matter. I can't feel the heat anyway. This weird cold spell won't allow anything warm to penetrate my aura."
"Oh." Ryoga lapsed into uncomfortable silence. "So... are you cold all the time?"
"Not all the time. Just when I'm not moving around enough to generate my own heat."
They both stared up at the stars.
"So... I've been meaning to ask you..." Ryoga cleared his throat uneasily, and glanced over at Ranma with a touch of apprehension. "Do... do you remember-"
"Yeah. I do."
Ryoga's teeth clicked shut on the question. "Oh."
Silence, except for the mournful wailing of the wind, the crackling of the fire. The dark, rounded silhouettes of the Chinese mountains surrounded them on all sides.
Ranma sighed, and glanced over at Ryoga. "So what are you buggin' me for, huh? Aren't you freezing out here, away from the fire? Why aren't you getting some sleep like the others? We've got a long way to go tomorrow."
"Maybe I don't feel like sleeping," Ryoga said defensively. "Unlike the rest of you, I'm used to traveling long distances over rough terrain by foot. I'm not tired at all."
Ranma shrugged and looked back up at the sky. "Good for you."
Ryoga clenched his teeth in frustration. "Come on, Ranma, knock it off. Moping about like this... It isn't like you."
"Yeah, well, I guess you could say I haven't been myself lately."
Ryoga scowled. "That's not funny, Ranma."
"Don't I know it."
Ryoga looked at Ranma. His friend's cursed female body looked so pale and fragile in the starlight, in spite of the hard look on his girl face... If he didn't know Ranma, or know of his curse, he wouldn't have been able to tell the difference between him and a real girl. The thought freaked him out. He couldn't help but think of when Herb splashed Ranma with the Chiisuiton... Then, like now, he couldn't stand the thought of Ranma trapped forever as a girl. To lose his favorite sparring partner, the only guy around who could give him a decent fight, to the depression and despair that would inevitably follow such a disaster...
Ryoga couldn't allow that to happen. Back when they fought Herb, he had risked his own life, jumping into the collapsing crevasse to retrieve the Kaisuifuu, the magical kettle that was the only thing that could nullify the effects of the Chiisuiton. The crevasse had closed on top of him, and he would have died, were it not for his breaking point technique that allowed him to blast his way out of the earth. But the danger was worth it, just to see Ranma back to himself.
He couldn't do anything to help Ranma now. He hadn't been able to help him when he was trapped in the Nekoken, and he couldn't help him now with the cold spell. Not that he hadn't tried. His head still swam with images of kanji, from reading all those documents in Kintaro-sensei's library, trying to find a cure...
"I can still feel it," Ranma said, his voice low, interrupting Ryoga's train of thought.
Ryoga blinked, surprised that Ranma had spoken, unprompted by a question. "What?"
Ranma's fists were clenched at his sides. "It's still inside me, Ryoga. The... Nekoken. The cat soul. Whatever it is that the Shadowcat put in me when I was just a kid. It's been there inside me all this time, just waiting for me to... to freak out..."
Ranma lowered his gaze from the sky and closed his eyes. The knuckles of his delicate clenched hands were turning white. "It's been inside me the whole time, Ryoga, and I never knew it. But I know now. And I can recognize it now, because I remember... I remember how I felt, how I... thought in the Nekoken, and I can feel it inside me now. I know it for what it is. And... it scares the hell out of me."
Ryoga stared at his friend, not knowing what to say in response to such a... horrible revelation. "Ranma..."
"What if it rains? What if Shampoo turns into a cat, and I..." Ranma trailed off and shuddered, unwilling to follow that thought further. His hard expression saddened. "Akane," he said softly, wistfully. "She could bring me out of it. She could call me back, break the demon's link. Either her, or the shock of changing with the curse. But Akane's not here, and I... I'm stuck."
This was bad. Ranma was afraid of falling into the Nekoken again. And Ryoga couldn't blame him, since it seemed like a total fluke that Ranma ever escaped from it in the first place, but not without the cost of nearly dying from the severe ki drain exacted from him by the demon. But still...
"You worry too much, Ranma," he snapped. "So what if it rains? If Shampoo turns into a cat, I'm sure she'll stay away from you until she can turn back. And we're on our way to rescue Akane, so she'll be back soon, right? Then everything will be fine."
Except, you'll still be a girl, he didn't add.
He didn't have to say anything. He could see, by the way Ranma glanced down at himself, that his friend was thinking the same thing.
Ranma was silent a moment. "Yeah," he said. "I guess you're right. Shampoo wouldn't come around me as a cat now, would she."
Ryoga nodded. "That's right. I know. I was with her and Mousse all week. She really wants to make up for casting the blood spell."
Ranma turned and looked down the hill towards the camp, lit by the flickering light of the campfire. There were four tents pitched; one for Kuno, one shared by Nabiki and Ukyo, one shared by him and Ryoga... and one shared by Shampoo and Mousse. "I still can barely believe that they're actually engaged," he muttered. "But I guess it means I'm really off the hook. It's kind of strange, with her not jumping on me and calling me 'husband' all the time. Not that I'm complaining or anything..."
Ryoga grunted agreement, following Ranma's gaze. "Yeah... Those Amazon laws are pretty weird. It didn't look like Shampoo was too happy about it to begin with, but the past week, when we were all going through those manuscripts, she really seemed to soften up towards him. I think it's because she feels so bad about the blood spell, and Mousse doesn't condemn her for it. He just encourages her to make things right."
"Good." Ranma looked out across the uneven valley, scanning the dark forest that they'd crossed earlier that evening. His eyes narrowed suddenly, and he reached out and pointed into the darkness beyond the campsite. "Look at that, Ryoga. Do you see that?"
Ryoga glanced over at Ranma, puzzled, then followed the direction of his finger out into the darkness. At first he didn't see anything. But then, as he squinted, he saw it: a thin, gray tendril of smoke threading up through the trees further down in the valley. "Yeah," he said. "So?"
"So who's building a fire all the way out here in the middle of nowhere?"
Ryoga raised an eyebrow. During the past two days, he had noticed that, every now and then, Ranma would cast worried glances over his shoulder; that sometimes he would freeze for no reason and look piercingly around at the trees... but he figured it was just a bit of eccentricity left over from the Nekoken. "Jeeze, Ranma," he said, "you're acting paranoid. It could be anyone. Somebody from a local village is probably just out camping or something."
Ranma shook his head. "Nope. Shampoo said that there are no human inhabitants in these mountains, and that the villagers stay away because they're afraid of the demons that are supposed to live here," he said matter-of-factly.
Ryoga felt an uneasy sensation building in his stomach. "Which means?"
"Which means we're being followed."
Ryoga looked sharply over at Ranma. "What? Are you serious?"
Ranma glared out into the darkness. "Yup. That's her, I'm sure of it. I've only sensed the occasional presence here and there, and sometimes I'll catch a glimpse of movement, but now I'm pretty sure it's Cologne. She's followed us here from Japan."
Ryoga paled. "Cologne? No way! Are you sure?" When Ranma nodded, Ryoga's eyes widened. "What do you think she's up to?"
Ranma continued to look at the thin, almost invisible line of smoke. "I have no idea. I mean, what can she do, now that I know about her whole plan? And we've even got Shampoo on our side. But right now, she's either being careless, or she doesn't care that we know about her. She didn't dare show her face when I was in the Nekoken, 'cause I could sense her then, and she knew I wanted to tear her to pieces. My guess is that now that I'm... back... she's gonna try something to keep us from rescuing Akane."
A burst of cold wind whipped down the canyon, making them both shiver. "So what are we gonna do?" asked Ryoga, trying not to chatter as a few tiny, stinging snowflakes touched the skin of his face.
Ryoga looked up at the clear sky. Strange... Where had that come from?
"We need to keep our eyes open," said Ranma. "Don't let down your guard. We'll talk to Shampoo in the morning, and see if she can help us prepare for anything the old ghoul might throw at us. Even then, we've got to be ready for anything, since the old ghoul probably won't attack us with anything that Shampoo knows how to counter."
"Sounds like... a good... idea..." Ryoga blinked slowly, and looked down at his tent, feeling suddenly drowsy. Perhaps it was time he got some sleep. After all, they did have a long way to go tomorrow, and with Cologne lurking around, he needed to be alert. He tried to stifle a huge yawn, but couldn't... quite... manage... it. He found himself swaying slightly. He was so tired all of a sudden...
"Ryoga?" Ranma was looking at him curiously. "Are you okay?"
Ryoga's eyelids felt like leaden weights. "I'm fine, Ranma," he said, as he sagged abruptly to his knees. "I'm just a little sleepy..."
Ranma knelt down next to him, his blue eyes in his girl face wide with alarm as he grabbed Ryoga's shoulders to keep him from falling over. "Hey, what's wrong with you? Don't fall asleep here, you idiot!"
Ryoga responded by slumping forward onto Ranma's chest. "Hey... Hey!" Ranma shoved him back, but Ryoga's head just lolled as his eyes rolled to the back of his head. A moment later, his eyelids slipped shut.
"Ryoga!" Ranma's angry voice held a touch of fear. "Wake up, idiot! What's going on, what's wrong with you? Wake up!" Ranma slapped him hard across the face once, then twice, leaving his small, bright red hand print on each of the Lost Boy's cheeks.
Ryoga began to snore softly.
"Ryoga..." Ranma looked at his slumbering friend in dismay and anger. Was Cologne behind this?
And he felt a familiar warning tingle...
He turned, dropping the unconscious Ryoga to the ground, crouching into a fighting stance...
The Snow Woman looked down at him, her cold, cracked white face expressionless.
"Hello Ranma," she said softly. "We meet again."