Hearts of Ice

Chapter 18: Confrontations

Buzzing.

A high, constant buzzing in his mind, making his head ache, making it hard to think.

Ranma, please...

And pain. White hot spears of pain impaling his chest, immobilizing him with agony.

...can't you hear me?

And then there was that voice, of course. A woman's voice, faint, full of fear, and vaguely familiar. The voice tickled the back of his mind like a cold, clear breeze trying ineffectually to pierce through the fiery haze of pain, the high buzzing in his head that wanted to drown it out completely.

...please, Ranma, come to your senses..!

Everything was dark. He felt disconnected even in his agony, ensnared in the twilight just on the edge of consciousness. He needed to wake up. And yet he couldn't remember falling asleep...

Ranma... A despairing sob. It called to him so faintly... he wanted to answer it, but...

"Ranma."

To his surprise, the voice sounded right in his ear.

No. This voice was new, different. A real voice, full of warmth and concern, unlike the cool, indistinct cry that fluttered against the back of his consciousness...

"Ranma, are you awake?"

And Ranma realized that he knew this real voice. He was filled with sudden hope, in spite of the strange pain in his chest and the buzzing in his mind. With a surge of joy, he moved instinctively towards the new voice...

And in doing so, he left the faint, desperate, despairing whisper behind, calling after him in vain until at last it faded completely, like the last traces of some forgotten dream...

The cold, clammy darkness gradually faded. He saw the red of sunlight against his closed eyelids, felt its warmth against the skin of his face and arms.

"Ranma?"

His eyes opened slowly, groggily, and he winced against the brightness. Even so, he forced his eyes open, anxious to see her face, to make sure she was real and that he wasn't imagining things.

The sunlight streaming through the window behind her formed a perfect halo around her short dark hair. In her shadowed face, he could see her liquid brown eyes shimmering, even as her brow creased in uncharacteristic worry as she looked down at his prone form.

A weak smile crept across his face, and he inhaled slowly - a task made difficult because of the strange spikes of pain piercing his chest.

"Akane," he breathed.

Her heart-shaped face lit briefly with a smile of relief. But then, to Ranma's intense disappointment, the smile was quickly smothered by a look of mild irritation.

"Baka," she said quietly, but her tone was affectionate as she reached out to touch his forehead. His eyes followed the movement of her small, yet strong hand, and he awaited her touch against his skin with a strange anxiety, almost a painful anticipation. Instead of the light touch of her fingers, however, he felt a damp, cool cloth slide away from his forehead.

What was going on? The last thing he remembered, he was in the middle of... of...

Ranma frowned, his brow furrowing as his mind refused to yield up the memory. He was... what? Doing something important, something urgent...

The memories and images were there, just on the tip of his mind, yet maddeningly out of reach. He knew that if only he could focus enough, concentrate over the pain and the weakness, he would have it. He would understand how he had come to be here, in his room staring up at the rafters of his ceiling, incapacitated with agony...

Still, Akane was here tending to him, as she always did when he was injured. At times like this, he strongly suspected that she enjoyed seeing him flat on his back, helpless. Still, though he would never admit it in a million years, he almost kind of liked it when she took care of him... except when a surprise visit from Shampoo, Ukyo, or both aroused her anger. Under those circumstances, he knew it was better for his health to be as far from Akane's "ministering hands" as possible...

But how did he get here anyway? He remembered going to school that morning... Akane punching him into the drainage ditch just because he was wondering where Shampoo had been all week... holding buckets in the halls... going to the Nekohanten and finding it closed with Shampoo and the old ghoul gone, and Mousse left behind...

A flicker of... something... a brief image of Shampoo... flashed into his mind so quickly...

But it made no sense. It was like the memory of some long-faded dream. Shampoo was kneeling before him, crying. Her apron was stained with blood... and he had something... a cassette tape... in his hands... and he was so angry...

What the hell did that mean?

Aughh, he hated this! Why couldn't he remember what had happened to him?

Angrily, he tried to sit up. But the sharp pain in his chest surged with his slight movement, causing him to gasp at its intensity as it seared his insides and stole his breath away. Jeeze, it felt as if someone had driven a dozen thick nails into his chest...

"Ranma!" Akane cried out in alarm.

Ranma's vision glazed briefly as he struggled for focus, tears of pain pricking in the corners of his eyes. He wanted to ask Akane what had happened to him, why did he hurt so bad, and why was his head buzzing so strangely? But the pain in his chest caused the air to leak from his lungs in a wordless hiss, and he crumpled back onto the futon with a quiet moan.

Akane stared at him, her eyes wide and frightened. One hand reached out to him anxiously, yet she didn't touch him, as if afraid that by so doing, she would hurt him even more.

Ranma blinked at her, trying to focus over the pain.

"Are..." Akane swallowed. "Are you okay?"

He hated to see her so worried. He nodded, since it hurt too much to speak, and gave her a rather faded version of his cocky smirk.

Akane sighed heavily, a bit of the tension draining from her face, and dipped the wash cloth into a bowl of water next to the futon. "Idiot," she said, somewhat irritably. "What do you think you're doing, trying to sit up already?" She looked into his face briefly, her brown eyes flickering, but then she dropped her gaze to the water basin next to her. "You need to rest. You're still running a high fever, and you're in no shape to be moving around yet."

Ranma closed his eyes and focused over the white hot spears in his chest, trying to deepen his dangerously shallow breathing.

Still running a fever... Am I sick? I never get sick. Unless... Did Happosai give me that super-cold of his again?

He heard the tinkling rattle of ice in the bowl, followed by the rushing sound of falling water as Akane wrung the cloth of excess moisture. A moment later, the cold cloth was on his forehead again.

His chest hurt, and he couldn't seem to shake the buzzing in his head. But that was a minor thing. He could focus over the pain. He had to know what was going on. He had no idea how he'd come to be in this condition, and he felt anger and frustration over his helplessness building within him.

He opened his eyes and saw Akane watching him, the irritation on her face warring with obvious distress. Ranma felt his frustration fade slightly. For some reason, the sight of her made him want to just relax and allow his questions to wait. She was by his side, she would take care of him, and then when he was feeling better, she could tell him what had happened...

The buzzing in his mind droned on, gradually building in intensity.

Ranma grimaced. No. In spite of the strong temptation to just relax and sink back into unconsciousness with Akane watching over him... he couldn't shake the urgent nagging feeling that told him he needed to be awake and alert, that he needed to clarify his fuzzy memory and find out why he felt as if...

...as if...

"Akane..." It hurt to talk. It hurt to breathe. He hated this. He had to find out what was going on. "What..?"

"Quiet." Her voice was sharp, but then her expression softened, and with it, her tone. "Don't... don't talk, okay? You'll only make it worse."

Ranma was incredulous, and yet the pain prevented him from voicing his retort. Make what worse? he thought in frustration. What the hell happened to me?

He closed his eyes briefly. Focus. You've felt worse pain before... can't remember exactly when at the moment, but that doesn't matter...

Focus...

Okay. Better. The strange spikes of pain in his chest ebbed slightly with his concentration.

Now breathe. "Akane..."

Akane gave him a warning glare. "Ranma, if you don't cooperate, I'm going to call Doctor Tofu."

"But-"

"No," she said firmly. "Now be still. Otherwise, you won't get better."

"Dammit, Akane..." No way was he just gonna lay there without knowing what was going on. Especially since his urgency instinct was practically screaming at him. Carefully, he pushed himself up with his elbows. The pain lanced through him, sharper than before, and he clenched his teeth against a cry of pain that wanted to escape.

"Ranma, stop it." Akane's voice had gone from firm to hard as stone, and her tone matched her gaze.

"No way." Ranma's voice was a wheeze, the pain was almost unbearable, but still he continued to push himself into a sitting position. He could feel himself trembling, his eyes were watering uncontrollably, but he focused over it all. "Not until you tell me-"

At that moment, everything changed.

In a flash, Akane was gone, as was his warm sunlit room. He was shrouded in darkness. A cold, thick mist plucked at his skin with moist tendrils. And he found himself staring into he face of...

...of...

The face was gone. Or rather, there was almost nothing left of it. A few scraps of rotting skin and stringy clumps of long black hair clinging to an exposed, decaying skull. One watery, dissolving eye stared at him from a hollow socket.

And Ranma felt someone behind him. Someone who was pressed against his back, who had their arms wrapped tightly around his torso, almost in the attitude of a lover...

Looking down in numb horror, Ranma saw dead, gray arms holding him in a firm embrace; saw skeletal, ghostly fingers plunged through his red Chinese shirt... and into his chest...

...but before he could scream, the living corpse standing before him lashed out with a rotting hand...

Sunlight flashed in his eyes.

"Ranma!" Akane's face was pale, her eyes full of fear as she grasped his shoulders, pinning him down to his futon as he thrashed against her. "What's wrong? Please, lie still, you'll hurt yourself!"

Akane. Akane shouldn't be here. She had disappeared with the blood spell... He was trying to get her back...

He shouldn't be here, at home, in his room. He was in China. On the mountain of the Ancient One. Fighting demons.

He remembered.

And the strange high buzzing in his head slowed. Slowed until he realized that it wasn't a buzz at all, but... voices.

**Akane is alive... You'll never find her, you'll fail, you already have...**

Spell voices.

And though Akane's hands appeared healthy and human, he could feel the slime of rot and the hardness of exposed bone against the flesh of his shoulders. He snarled, fighting against the daggers of pain in his chest. "G-get your hands off me, you dead bitch..."

She held him more tightly, even as her beautiful brown eyes filled with tears and her lips trembled. "Doctor Tofu!" she called. "Come quick, Ranma's hallucinating again! Please hurry!"

Hallucinating... Was he hallucinating? It couldn't be. He knew...

"Ranma, please, listen to me! It's the poison. Kodachi slipped something into your food, but she mixed up her powders or something, 'cause you've been delirious for three days, muttering about dragons and blood spells and stuff. But it's not real!" Akane was crying. "Please, snap out of it, Ranma!"

And the feel of Akane's strong grip was once again warm and smooth and human against his shoulders.

Ranma blinked, his eyes glazed in pain and confusion. He'd been drugged? He was hallucinating?

Akane... wasn't missing? She wasn't trapped in the Kami Plane?

She was really here... with him?

Ranma paused in his struggle as a surge of uncertainty flooded through him.

Akane felt him pause, but still she held onto him, grasping his tensed shoulders. "Ranma," she whispered. "Please believe me."

He wanted to believe her. Very badly.

The blood spell, the demons... the Nekoken... all the pain and suffering... nothing more than a drug-induced hallucination?

He looked into Akane's tear-streaked face.

She was so beautiful. And something whispered to him that if only he would trust her, if only he would relax, the drug would pass from his system and he would recover, his mind would clear, and things could be like they were before...

...before the blood spell...

As the thought flitted through his mind, he suddenly remembered another Akane, looking a little different than the one that knelt next to him now. Her hair was inexplicably a bit longer, falling to her shoulders, but he remembered thinking that it might be a side-effect of the blood spell. He saw her in his mind's eye, surrounded by glittering walls of ice, reaching out to him, calling to him...

Telling him that she loved him.

And he loved her.

Ranma blinked, fighting to clear his pain-fogged mind.

All of his realizations, his soul searching, his honesty with himself about his own feelings... nothing more than a drug-induced hallucination?

No...

It couldn't be. The thought that it might be true left him stunned with despair. And yet here he was, with Akane right next to him, kneeling over him in concern... shouldn't he be happy?

As Ranma fought through the haze of his inner confusion, the spikes of pain pierced deeper into his chest, and he cried out.

Doctor Tofu burst into the room, followed closely by Nabiki, Kasumi and Genma.

"Akane, what happened?" Tofu demanded.

"I don't know," she said tearfully, not letting go of Ranma's shoulders. "He started trying to get up and then he just went crazy."

Ranma struggled to focus. Focus over the pain, focus over the insanity... He had to know what was true!

Doctor Tofu approached him. Ranma watched him with tearing eyes, focusing desperately through his pain and confusion as the man he trusted knelt next to him...

As he focused, the sunlight flickered.

And so did his friends' humanity.

Tofu, Kasumi, Nabiki, his father... Akane... their images flickered with those of corpses, reaching out to him with decaying arms... He was being surrounded by the dead. And he could feel cold dead arms still wrapped around him, feel the ghostly fingers in his chest...

Akane's hands were slime and bone against the skin of his shoulders.

This isn't Akane!

It's the drug, something whispered to his mind. Only the drug. My, Kodachi certainly got carried away this time...

"Hold him." Tofu's kind, concerned face looked down at him as the rest of his friends pinned him down. "I'll touch his sleep points and end this."

He reached out to Ranma's throat with a hand that flickered between whole, healthy skin and grey, rotting flesh.

"No." Ranma's voice was a hoarse rasp through his pain. He strained against the hands that held him down, looked around desperately, seeing the concerned faces of his loved ones... Akane, Kasumi, Nabi-

Kasumi. He looked at her, met her calm gaze. She smiled at him gently, encouragingly, as if to say that everything would be all right.

Ranma's eyes narrowed, and he glared at Doctor Tofu.

"No," he whispered fiercely. "I'll end this."

And Ranma's battle aura flared an intense bright red around his prone form.

Tofu's outstretched hand paused. Akane and the others abruptly released him and shrank back. "W-what are you doing?" she asked, a bit fearfully.

Focus past the pain. "Gonna... release a ki blast." He couldn't look at her. He didn't dare, out of fear that the sight of her tear-streaked face would crumble his sudden resolve. "So you'd... better stand... back if you don't want... to get hurt."

Tofu was alarmed. "Ranma, don't do this. You're in no shape to-"

"Sorry, doc." Ranma clenched his teeth. Focus. Focus. "Way I see it... if you're my friends... you'll know to trust me and... get out of the way. If you're demons... I don't care if you let me go... or stay and get blasted. Either way... I'm gonna know the truth."

"This is insane. Ranma, please... There are no demons, it's just the poison in your system..."

Ranma's ki flared more brightly.

"You're sick. You don't want to hurt your friends, do you? You wouldn't hurt Akane, would you?"

"Ranma, please!" Akane's voice tugged at him, but he didn't look at her.

Instead, he looked at Tofu, focused above the pain, and grinned slightly. "Mouko..." he whispered.

The sunlight disappeared, plunging him into cold moist darkness. Doctor Tofu and the others... Akane... shimmered and changed into decaying, wraith-like corpses. They hissed and shrieked as they swiftly backed away from him, shrinking away from the power of his ki, retreating into the black mist.

He was standing. Looking down at his brightly flaring body, Ranma saw ghostly fingers withdrawing hastily from his chest. The dead arms released his torso and slid away... and the pain vanished.

Ranma blinked in surprise, his glazed eyes clearing as the last traces of the spell trance that held him faded away. Then, with a snarl of fury, he straightened and whirled to face the wraith that had just released him, his hands held palm outward before him.

"...Takabishya!" he finished.

The ki exploded from the palms of his hands, hitting the wraith dead on. The creature shrieked and disappeared in a flash of light.

Ranma stood, panting slightly as he looked around, his senses extended, tensed and ready for another attack.

The multitude of dead watched him from a safe distance in their shroud of mist.

A trickle of cold sweat ran down the side of his cheek. Damn. That had been close. They nearly had him. They had surrounded him with the people he loved and trusted the most so that he would be content to remain in the wraith-trance until he wasted away.

"Very clever, boy," a voice rasped. Ranma turned to see one of the dead leering at him from the darkness. Grim intelligence flickered in yellowed, bloodshot eyes that had not yet begun to decay. The crumbling face smirked. "But don't get too confident. We are not demons, but mere Kuei. If you were snared by us, the weakest of the guardians, you don't stand a chance against what lies ahead."

A ripple of sardonic laughter echoed around him from the other demented souls. Ranma clenched his teeth and focused his ki until his hands were glowing red with it. The dead instinctively shrank back, wary of the power he now wielded openly in his hands, knowing that he would not be caught again.

Ranma turned and began to make his way up the mountain once again, following the narrow trail that wound its way up the incline through the mist.

If you were snared by us, the weakest...

His jaw ached, his teeth were clenched so tight. Damn. How could he have been so careless?

But then, he knew how. The scene replayed itself in his mind with merciless clarity.

Upon entering the mists at the base of the Ancient One's mountain, he had found himself immediately surrounded by Kuei. He knew of them, knew what they were from stories he'd heard on his previous trip to China. They were the Vengeful Ghosts, the souls of those who had perished in some unspeakably violent manner; their single purpose: to make the living suffer as they suffered.

Ugly as they were, the stench of their rotting wraith bodies assailing his senses, they were almost unbearably easy to defeat. Ranma moved through them swiftly, fighting them back, his body aflame with his carefully controlled battle aura, adrenaline thrumming through his veins.

He fought, and felt the pleasure of the heady rush of battle, the feel of his body moving with powerful, instinctive ease through the forms of the Art that had been ingrained into his very soul... Ranma felt the flame of his confidence, that had been crushed out through the events of the past few weeks, reignite in his heart with searing heat, burning away the shadows of his doubt. He found himself smiling grimly as the Kuei fell back from the onslaught of his attack.

He was Ranma Saotome, heir to the Saotome School of Indiscriminate Grappling Martial Arts. Shampoo had been worried for nothing. He could take this mountain, and anything on it, easy!

And then, the voice.

A voice, so full of anguish, terror and despair... It called his name.

Ranma recognized the voice, would have recognized it anywhere in the world. It pulled at his soul the way nothing else could. In mid-battle, surrounded by Kuei, he paused. And turned towards the sound, her name forming on his lips...

She wasn't there, of course. There was only mist. Mist, and more Kuei, reaching out for him with cold, dead arms. And as his mind screamed Idiot! as he realized his mistake, it was already too late. His guard down for a mere split second, his defenses were breached with inhuman speed and he felt himself grabbed from behind...

Damn.

He couldn't allow himself to be deceived again. He wouldn't allow them to use her as a distraction. No matter what illusions were thrown his way, he could not... would not succumb. For, he knew, she wasn't here. There was no way she could be here. The blood spell kept them apart, separated by dimensions, and if he let himself be fooled again...

He would not be fooled again. He had to reach the Ancient One.

He had to get Akane back.

The mocking voice of the leering dead man followed behind him, echoing up out of the black mists.

"You'll see, boy," it called. "You are on your noble quest now, but you'll be joining us soon enough, one way or another. You will die, slowly, painfully, as we all did, and your soul will be trapped here, forever, at the base of this cursed mountain. You will join us. And when the next poor fool tries to climb the mountain, it shall be you who will sink your ghostly fingers into mortal flesh; it shall be you who will take pleasure in feeling their life slip away..."

Ranma shook with anger and barely suppressed fear. He wanted to turn and silence the voice with a blast of ki from his hands. But he had to conserve his energy. He could feel the evil ahead of him, much stronger than what he was leaving behind.

Damn. That had been too close...


The Snow Woman sighed heavily, the frost slowly vanishing from her mirror. As the frost melted away, so did the image of the mortal realm, of Ranma continuing up the mist-shrouded mountain of the Ancient One.

Finally. She had nearly given up hope when Ranma hadn't responded to her telepathic plea across the dimensions as she desperately called to him, fighting to free him from the Kuei trance...

But Ranma was free now. And, to her amazement, he had freed himself from the trance under his own power. Such strength of spirit, even after all he had suffered! Yuki-onna turned from her mirror, reaching up with one hand to brush a few strands of shimmering white hair from her face, her expression both relieved and troubled. He would need that strength for what lay before him.

She would not tell Akane of this new development, of course. Akane knew nothing of Ranma's progress up the mountain of the Ancient One. Akane didn't know that, for the past three weeks whenever Yuki-onna had used her mirror to scry on her fiancé's progress, the image that greeted her eyes remained unchanged.

Ranma, slumped in the deadly embrace of a Kuei, his blue eyes glassy, staring sightlessly from under heavy lids, his face slack and pale as he slowly weakened, slowly wasted away...

No. Akane didn't know about Ranma's close call. She didn't know of anything that had transpired in the mortal realm after the bleeding mists of the Ancient One's mountain swallowed Ranma whole. And it was just as well. It was a mutual agreement between the two of them, that Akane should not know how Ranma fared.

At first, Akane had been furious at her suggestion that she remain in the dark regarding Ranma's welfare. "Why won't you let me see him?" she had yelled, her expression both angry and pleading. "I have a right to know how he's doing, if he's safe or not..."

"I do not think that is wise, Akane," she replied softly, imploring her to understand. Though the girl had suffered a great deal during her time in the Kami Plane, she was still young and inexperienced in some things. She had no idea what kind of torture lay in store for her, should she choose to use her mirror to track Ranma's progress.

Her own frost-blue eyes grew clouded and distant for a moment, remembering a long forgotten memory reborn, an unwanted vision of pain bestowed upon her from her iced mirror...

Her husband, Shin, his face twisted with grief, tears streaking his cheeks as he tried ineffectually to comfort his two young daughters. He held the girls, gently stroking their hair as they clung to him, weeping loudly, begging to know where Mother was, why she had left them, why she didn't love them any more...

That single image had haunted her mirror for months.

"Time moves so slowly in the mortal realm," Yuki-onna whispered hoarsely. "A moment there lasts hours, days, even weeks here. What if something happened to Ranma? What if, while fighting demons, he were injured? Could you bear it, seeing him frozen in pain day after day, unable to do anything but watch helplessly?"

And Akane's anger had drained away as she realized, with something akin to horror, that the Snow Woman was right. Seeing Ranma suffer in real-time was hard enough, but to watch a single brief moment of agony, stretched out over weeks? Seeing whatever danger that Ranma might be in, and yet being completely powerless to do anything at all to help him? Even though she felt sure that he would eventually triumph, the doubt she would feel during that infinitely long moment would be there, gnawing at her heart - the fear that something might go terribly wrong...

"Will you... watch over him then?" Akane asked. Her voice trembled, in spite of her effort to sound casual. "You don't have to tell me what's happening... but I would feel better, knowing that... that..." Her throat closed off, and she bowed her head, unable to continue.

"I will watch over him, Akane. And I will do what I can to keep him safe."

Akane nodded once, not raising her head, and she brushed at her eyes with the back of one hand. Her fingers came away wet.

"One request," she finally whispered. "If he... if anything..." Akane paused, took a deep breath. "If the worst happens..." She lifted her head and met Yuki-onna's frost blue gaze, her own eyes wet, but determined. "I want you to tell me. I don't want that kept from me."

Yuki-onna smiled sadly and placed her hand on Akane's shoulder. "Agreed."

So, in spite of almost unbearable curiosity about Ranma's welfare and progress up the mountain, Akane stayed far away from Yuki-onna's mirror. She kept herself busy doing other things; exactly what, Yuki-onna wasn't sure. She knew that a portion of Akane's time went to defending her realm from demonic invasion. But the demons had been coming less and less, it seemed, cowed by both the knowledge that Akane had returned, stronger than ever, and some demented spark of self-preservation that pierced their dim intellects.

Yuki-onna didn't mind anything Akane did, as long as it kept her from dwelling on Ranma. As long as it kept her sane until the blood spell could be broken and she could return to him-

**Snow Woman.**

Yuki-onna jerked, her eyes widening at the unexpected telepathic intrusion. The mental voice was powerful, deep and raw, tinged with dark amusement... and vaguely familiar. She frowned. **Who-**

**An old friend.** She could hear the cruel smile in the voice. **Don't tell me you've forgotten our time together already. I'm hurt.**

The Snow Woman felt her heart tighten with sudden unspeakable dread. No... It couldn't be...

And then she felt it.

A prickling at the edges of her realm, a sudden dark smothering sensation in her chest...


"What... is that?" Kazuo raised a bristly white eyebrow, his nose wrinkling slightly as Akane cheerfully placed a heaping plate of... something... in front of him.

Akane smiled smugly, ignoring the blue-skinned ice sprite's sudden grayish pallor. "It's rice, octopus balls, and shrimp tempura. Don't worry, everything's completely cooled. It won't burn you at all."

Kazuo pushed the plate away with one finger. "That's not what I'm worried about."

Akane frowned, but managed to squelch the spark of her anger that wanted desperately to flare up in response to the Ranma-like insult. Two and a half years of being on her own, during which she had been forced to eat her own cooking, however, had dulled the razor edge of her righteous indignation. Necessity had been an unmerciful sensei, and during that time of isolation, she had managed to master rice... more or less.

Okay, so her attempts at creating more exotic food were still miserable failures. She had finally gained a small appreciation of why Ranma had always been so reluctant to eat her more enthusiastic creations. Still, now that she once again had access to the Snow Woman's food-laden pantry, and had a chance to practice a bit more...

"You haven't even tried it yet," she said with remarkable calmness.

Kazuo didn't blink. "Have you tasted it?"

"Well, no, but-"

"Akane-san." Kazuo eyed her with level seriousness. "I have already informed you on several occasions that I refuse to sample your dubious culinary experiments until after you have tasted them yourself, and only then after I am sure there are no lingering side effects."

Akane exhaled a sigh that was almost a huff. "Fine then." She knelt across from Kazuo, tossed her thick braid over her shoulder, and pulled the plate towards her. "I'll prove it to you, if you insist on being that way." Picking up her chopsticks, she scooped up a blob of rice and stuck it in her mouth.

She chewed.

Swallowed.

Kazuo watched her face carefully.

Akane smiled brightly and pushed the plate back over to Kazuo. "See? It tasted fine. Now eat it."

"So the rice is passable. You didn't try the octopus balls. Or the shrimp."

Akane's smile became a bit strained, and she pulled the plate back over with slightly more force than she intended. Some of the rice spilled over onto the table. "You're being a pain, you know," she said, annoyance creeping into her tone as she picked up her chopsticks.

"I'd much rather be a pain than be in pain."

Akane's strained smile melted into an outright scowl, and she picked up a rather dribbly-looking octopus ball. She stared at Kazuo defiantly as she popped it into her mouth whole.

Her eyes immediately began to water uncontrollably as every instinct in her body screamed to disgorge the alien object attempting hostile invasion. Conscious of Kazuo's gaze, however, she summoned all of her will power, fought the instinct back... and chewed.

Kazuo watched her face in open fascination, and a little concern, as sweat began to streak down her forehead. Her skin had turned the faint color of pistachio pudding. "Akane-san..."

She began to tremble as, with supreme effort, she continued chewing, her jaw working up and down frenetically. Finally, with a deep, primal shudder, she swallowed.

A sickly smile made its way across her face, even as tears streamed from her bleary eyes. "See?" she croaked triumphantly. "No prob- hurk -lem." With a shaky hand, she pushed the plate back across the table.

Kazuo looked at her mournfully. "Do you really hate me that much, Akane-san?"

Akane didn't immediately respond, focused, as she was, on controlling the roiling in her stomach. She swallowed hard once, twice... and briefly shook her head "no" since she didn't dare open her mouth to speak.

Kazuo sighed. "Would you... like me to get something to settle your stomach?"

Akane looked at him, her pistachio-tinged face suddenly etched with undisguised misery as she continued to swallow, her hands white knuckled as she clenched the edge of the table with both fists, and nodded.

A short while and a few of Kazuo's special herbs later, Akane knelt at the table and stared at the heaping plate with dismay and disgust. "I don't get it. It should have turned out okay!" She sighed heavily. "Looks like I'll just have to try again."

Kazuo closed his eyes, his chiseled expression slightly pained. "Akane-san, I beg of you. Stick to fighting demons. It's not as dangerous."

Akane glared at the ice sprite. "Thanks so much for the encouragement," she said dryly, still feeling a bit too queasy to work up any real anger.

Kazuo merely nodded in reply, either not noticing, or simply ignoring her sarcasm as he stood and gingerly picked up the plate, holding it carefully at arm's length. "I'll dispose of this now, unless you have any objections."

Akane sighed, and made a half-hearted dismissive gesture. After Kazuo left the dining room, she groaned, sagging over the table with her head in her hands.

It wasn't working. She was trying so hard to keep occupied, to keep her mind off of Ranma, and what might be happening to him on the Ancient One's mountain. But nothing seemed to help. Not fighting demons, not practicing her martial arts... And during this, her latest cooking attempt, all she could think about was that she had to learn to make something edible so that she could cook something wonderful for Ranma when she finally returned to the mortal plane...

When. Not if. She knew Ranma would break the blood spell, no matter what the odds were against him. And Yuki-onna was watching over him. The Snow Woman never told her how he fared, but then no news was good news.

It didn't matter that, whenever Yuki-onna emerged from her chambers after scrying through her mirror, her frost-blue eyes were dark and clouded with unspoken worry. Akane didn't need to see Ranma through the mirror, for she saw the look in Yuki-onna's eyes, she saw the fear for Ranma that lay there, and her heart would twist painfully with the dreadful certainty that Ranma was in grave danger, that he was probably hurt or wounded in some way...

But she knew he was alive. The Snow Woman's continued silence on the matter ensured that small comfort. And as long as Ranma was alive, she knew he would come for her-

Akane froze. Slowly, she lifted her head from her hands, her brown eyes wide and alert.

The faint stirrings of an instinctive dread tickled the back of her consciousness, and she felt the tiny hairs at the nape of her neck rise with the shiver of gooseflesh that ran down her back.

In moments, she was on her feet and running for the main hall, her katana unsheathed and ready.

Another demon, just barely emerging from the mists that surrounded the realm. And a strong one, from the feel of it; not at all like the wimpy, mindless creatures of lust and evil that usually invaded.

Akane smiled grimly as she ran down the corridor towards the entry way. Good. It had been a few days since the last attack, and she needed something on which to vent her bottled frustration. This demon felt like it might actually be a challenge.

With growing enthusiasm, she turned the final corner to the crystalline doors that led outside... and skidded to a halt in surprise.

The Snow Woman stood in the open doorway, looking out across the glittering white landscape of her domain as the strange, sunless twilight settled across the land with the onset of evening.

"Yuki-san," Akane gasped in surprise. She had thought the Snow Woman would be in her quarters, where she usually stayed for protection whenever demons strayed into her realm.

Yuki-onna turned slowly to face her, and Akane blinked in surprise. The Snow Woman's face, smooth and white, yet still lined with the traces of old ki burns, was haggard with fear.

"Akane," she said. "You do not need to face this demon. My barrier is in place; it will keep the demon out."

Akane stared in disbelief, as if waiting for the punch line. But there was not even a flicker of humor in the Snow Woman's steady, frightened gaze.

After a long moment, Akane slowly reached back and sheathed her katana. "What's going on?" Her voice was calm and serious, effectively hiding the dread building within her at this change in procedure, at the terrible expression on Yuki-onna's face. "Do you know what's out there?"

Yuki-onna glanced over her shoulder at the expanse of her domain. "I never knew..." she whispered. "I... didn't realize it was so powerful." The sky was turning dark, the first stars began to glitter in the cold sky. "It's toying with us."

Akane's flaring impatience at her friend's cryptic response overwhelmed her growing dread. "What is?" she snapped in exasperation. "Yuki-san, I'm supposed to protect this place. How can I do that, when you won't tell me what's going on? What is it out there, that you don't think I can fight?"

Yuki-onna looked back at her. Her expression was tentative and fearful; her eyes shimmered with icy tears. "Akane," she whispered. "I'm sorry. This is my fault..."

Akane blinked. Her fault? What could she possibly have to do with this demon that was out-?

And then she froze. Akane's eyes widened as abrupt understanding pierced her mind with painful clarity. The blood drained from her face, leaving her nearly as pale as the Snow Woman herself.

She knew.

And the scars on her shoulder and leg throbbed in remembered pain...

"Oh..." she gasped, "no..."

The voice that penetrated her mind at that moment was a dark and mocking sing-song, as if just waiting for her to realize-

**Akaaaan-eeeeeeee...**

Akane's mouth was dry, her mind numb, unwilling to acknowledge the communication that sent her skin crawling, as if a million insects were creeping, scuttling all over her body.

**Akaaaneeee... where are you? Hiding behind this barrier? Cringing behind walls of ice? What a cowardly little girl you are.**

How long had it been? Two, three months? More than enough time for a beheaded demon to pull itself together...

**Dear Akane, I can't tell you how disappointed I was to come back to life and find that your decaying corpse was nowhere to be found, to find that your trail of blood vanished without a trace...**

Yuki-onna felt cold anger stir along side the fear in her breast at the Shadowcat's words. Her white fists clenched as she turned to look out at her darkening domain, and saw nothing but the expanse of snow. The barrier was kilometers away; even if the demon was in her line of sight, it would be too far away to see with normal vision.

**Shadowcat,** she snarled mentally, reaching out with her mind openly, knowing the dark beast would hear. **You will leave my domain at once. You cannot penetrate my barrier, and I will not let you near Akane.**

Akane shot a surprised glance at Yuki-onna as the Snow Woman's mental voice touched her mind. I didn't know she could do that...

The Shadowcat's chuckle echoed in both their minds. **Such rudeness from an old friend. Ah, well, I'd hate to overstay my welcome. I just wanted to stop by before I went on my way, to let you know that I won't be bothering you further.**

Akane's eyes, wide in her pale face, narrowed in suspicion. It was just going to leave? What was the Shadowcat up to? She could feel the dark hatred bleeding from the demon's mental voice, she could feel the black desire for vengeance seeping from every saccharine-sweet word...

**Yes,** continued the Shadowcat, **much as I'd love to see dear Akane face to face once again... I happen to have other more important business to attend to.**

Akane felt her insides clench, felt cold sweat break out in tiny beads along the surface of her skin. There was only one possible thing that the Shadowcat might desire more than exacting vengeance on her... but that was impossible. There was no way the Shadowcat could return to the mortal realm... not without being summoned, or without the Snow Woman's help, right?

**You see,** said the demon, **there is a certain fixed place in the Kami realm, where the veil between the planes is very thin, and easily torn. Through this weakness in the veil, demons may come and go to the mortal plane as they please.**

"No." Akane spoke aloud, not knowing or caring if the Shadowcat could hear her physical voice. "That's not possible. If you could go to the mortal realm any time you wanted, you would have done it a long time ago." That was it. The demon was bluffing, trying to bait her. It was sending these horrible words into her mind, knowing that it could not hear her reply, just to goad her, to draw her out...

The demon seemed to know what she was thinking, even if it couldn't hear her words. **Ah, but you're probably wondering, if there was a way for me to reach the mortal realm without being summoned or sent, why I haven't done so before now. The answer is simple. I've never had the desire to use this unique portal to the mortal realm until now... because it is a dead end.**

Akane blinked. A dead end? She looked at Yuki-onna in confusion, but the Snow Woman just shook her head in bafflement, her brow creased with worry.

**You see, on the other side of this fixed portal in the mortal realm, is a mountain. And on this mountain lives a very ancient, very powerful creature who imprisons the demons that stray from the Kami realm. He imprisons them so that they are unable to leave the mountain and wreak havoc on the mortal world. Thus, the demons are frustrated captives on this mountain. Needless to say, they kill any unfortunate mortal who dares set foot within the boundaries of their confinement.**

Akane felt the strength trickle from her legs, and fought the urge to sink to her knees. Oh no...

It couldn't be. And yet it did explain the presence of so many demons on the Ancient One's mountain...

**If it makes you feel any better, Akane dear, you should know that I have the utmost confidence in Ranma's ability to survive those demons. Most of them are nothing more than the general mindless rabble you face on almost a daily basis... and Ranma is so deliciously strong, after all.** Akane could almost hear the Shadowcat licking its chops in anticipation. **And, just think, he'll be so much stronger when he's lost in the power of the Nekoken once again. Why, those demons won't stand a chance.**

Akane's vision blurred; her eyes stung, even as they sparked in sudden anger. "You..!" she snarled. She couldn't think of a name vile enough - and the Shadowcat couldn't hear her anyway.

A situation easily rectified. Unsheathing her katana with swift grace, she took a determined step towards the open door.

Yuki-onna faced her, unmoving, blocking the way, her face creasing in alarm as she saw the intent in Akane's expression. "Akane, no, you can't..."

"Like hell I can't-"

**Akane.**

Akane broke off as the demon's voice abruptly lost the saccharine edge, and grew deadly quiet and serious.

**I was very upset to discover that you had severed the link between myself and my little pet, Akane,** the Shadowcat whispered in her mind. **But it is only a minor inconvenience, actually. For I know where he is.** The demon chuckled softly. **I know where he was planning to go the night I took him - did you know he was in the middle of packing? And of course, there was all that time I spent, linked with his transformed soul, feeling his anguished longing for you, even when he couldn't comprehend the reason for that feeling... Yes, I knew exactly where he would go, were he ever to break free of the Nekoken.**

Akane choked in tearful fury. "That's it." Her ki blazed a fiery blue-green, licking along the gleaming steel of her blade. "That demon is dead!"

But Yuki-onna didn't move. "Akane, listen to me," she pleaded. "The Shadowcat is lying! Even if it returns to the mortal realm, even if it confronts Ranma on the Ancient One's mountain, it can't trap him in the Nekoken again!"

Akane glanced at her sharply. "What do you mean?"

Yuki-onna didn't answer. Instead, she spoke to the demon, allowing Akane to hear the communication. **It is useless, Shadowcat. I am calling your bluff. For even if you do re-capture Ranma and restore the Nekoken link, I have removed my cold spell from him. The first time his curse activates, your link with him will disintegrate.**

Akane listened, and a flicker of hope lit in her wet eyes.

But the Shadowcat laughed.

**We'll see.** The demon was frighteningly unperturbed by this piece of knowledge, and continued with unruffled confidence. **Anyway, it is no longer your concern now. Akane, by all means, stay here, safe behind this barrier where my claws cannot rend the flesh from your bones, where my teeth cannot tear out your throat and my tongue lap up the spreading pool of your blood. Stay here. Grow old here. And when you have a spare moment, be sure to look in on your young fiance in the mortal realm through Yuki-onna's mirror. His humanity will be lost, his mind will be gone, but rest assured, he will be longing for you just the same.**

Akane looked up into the Snow Woman's face, her expression one of terribly controlled fury, even as tears streaked down her face. "Yuki-san." Her breathing was heavy, her voice hoarse with emotion. "Step aside. Please."

The Snow Woman shook her head. "I can't. Akane, please... The Shadowcat will kill you."

Akane's eyes flashed. "Better that than allowing it to steal Ranma's soul again!"

"You don't know what you're saying."

"I know exactly what I'm saying. I'm going to kill that demon, once and for all, no matter what it takes."

"No!" Yuki-onna stretched out her arms as Akane took another step forward. "You barely escaped with your life the last time! And you even had the protection of Susa-no-o's magic!"

**Farewell, Akane.** The Shadowcat's mental voice was once again saccharine sweet. **Enjoy the rest of your life, cowering behind this barrier, like the weak girl you are.**

The Shadowcat's presence slowly faded from her mind.

Akane's eyes lit in panic. "It's leaving. Let me pass, Yuki-san! I have to stop it!"

Yuki-onna looked at her miserably. "Even if I let you pass, you wouldn't be able to penetrate the barrier."

"So drop the barrier!"

"I can't."

"You have to!" Akane's face contorted in grief and rage. "Don't you see?! This is all YOUR FAULT!"

The Snow Woman reacted as if she'd been slapped. She raised a shaky hand to her cheek as icy tears slipped down her face.

"I know," she whispered. "And I'm sorry."

Akane blinked, and a flash of guilt crossed her features, only to drown a moment later in the fury and grief in her expression. A thousand hurtful, scathing replies came to her mind, along the lines of how just being sorry wouldn't save Ranma, and, a little late for that now, isn't it?

The Shadowcat was leaving. She could feel it. It was leaving, and it was going after Ranma just when he was so close to breaking the blood spell, and it would use Ranma's only weakness to destroy his soul, his humanity, and she would lose him forever, and she would be trapped in the Kami Plane forever without a hope of rescue, and she would never see her family again, and she would grow old and die here alone while Ranma suffered a fate worse than death...

Akane's fists clenched around the hilt of her katana, her aura flaring a terrible blue-green. With an incoherent cry of anguish, she reached out with one hand, and forcefully pushed Yuki-onna aside.

The Snow Woman staggered and leaned against the doorway, looking after her with despair. "Akane!"

But Akane was gone, out into the snow, and she ran, heedless of Yuki-onna's voice calling after her.

Long blue shadows crept across the pristine white landscape as the sky darkened, but Akane didn't notice. Her vision swam with tears. Her legs pushed through the heavy snow with swift automation, leaving deep, dragging tracks behind her. The cold wind numbed her wet face and whipped her long hair from its loose braid, but still she ran, stumbling, falling, pushing herself back up time and again...

And then the barrier rose before her, shimmering with translucent iridescence. The rainbow colors that rippled across its surface were visible even in the growing darkness. And beyond the barrier, the black Mists of Kami were visible, swirling and writhing in a dance of chaos.

Akane stood before the barrier, her breath, coming in heaving gasps, puffing before her in white clouds of moisture as her lungs burned from the cold. Her hair and clothes were matted with wet snow. Gulping a lung-full of crisp air, she swiped angrily at the tears stinging her eyes with one hand and hefted her sword with the other. Melting snow slid down the gleaming metal blade.

Her attack was silent and swift... and utterly ineffective. The glowing edge of her katana struck the barrier with a clang, painfully jarring Akane's arm, and slid harmlessly across the surface. "No," she whispered. She stared through the barrier at the black mists, her body tensed, her brown eyes wet and flat. "Let me out..." She struck again. And again. "No! Let me out, dammit! I have to save him!" She began to attack it in a frenzy, snarling in a blind rage as her blade raked across the barrier without causing the least bit of damage.

But then a small part of her that was still rational realized that this barrier kept out the Shadowcat, with its razor claws and the power of the Nekoken...

Her katana slid from limp fingers. A moment later, Akane sank to her knees, shaking, her cries of fury dissolving into shuddering sobs.

Why was this happening? She had tried so hard to be strong, to be brave... but she just couldn't do it any more. Almost five years in the Kami Plane, constantly clinging to one hope after another, only to have it wrenched forcefully from her heart again and again...

Minutes passed. Gradually, her sobs trailed off into numb silence. The tears slipped down her face and fell into her lap like the quiet, light rain after a thunder storm. The snow against her legs was melting, seeping into her leggings as she knelt, unmoving.

"Akane..."

Akane tensed at the Snow Woman's voice behind her. She wanted to jump up and run away, but knew there was nowhere to run. She wanted to turn and scream at her, to curse her for ruining her life. But she was too tired. She felt so drained, sapped of both energy and will... She wished the cold could seep through her skin, past bone and muscle and vitals, to numb her soul, to numb the horrible pain that throbbed there without hope of relief.

"Akane..." Yuki-onna's voice was small and weary. "I am truly sorry. But... I couldn't let you face the Shadowcat."

Akane absorbed her words in silence. She didn't raise her head. She just sat there facing the barrier and the mists beyond.

"It would have killed you."

Akane snorted softly.

Yuki-onna sighed. "You know I'm right, Akane. You are skilled, but this demon is too powerful. You told me once yourself that the Shadowcat would have killed you in its lair, had it not been for its overconfidence allowing you to penetrate its defenses, not to mention that you would have died anyway if Susa-no-o had not transported you here. Do you think the Shadowcat will make that same mistake again? We both know it is too clever for that. If I had allowed you to face the Shadowcat, it would have killed you, and then it would have gone to the Ancient One's mountain and taken Ranma, with no one to stop it."

"It will anyway." Akane stared into her lap. Her voice was lifeless, and hoarse from weeping. "You've made sure of that now, haven't you."

The Snow Woman fell silent. But the pain that flared in the space between them was palpable and deafening under the cold night sky.

A small part of Akane's heart, that wasn't hardened and numbed from pain, felt guilty for saying such hateful things. And as the silence lengthened, Akane began to wonder if Yuki-onna would respond to her harsh words at all, or if she would just leave without saying a word.

Yuki-onna took a shaky breath. The sting of Akane's words burned in her heart, because...

...because somewhere, deep in her soul, beyond the altruistic desire to protect Akane, to save her life... the accusation rang true. Could it be that, even in her attempt to save Akane from the Shadowcat, and in spite of her good intentions to reunite her with Ranma... she was merely finding another excuse to keep Akane here in her domain, where it was safe?

Where... she would not have to be alone?

Please, Akane, don't leave me here alone...

Tears of ice slipped down the Snow Woman's face as she looked at Akane's form, hunched in the snow, shuddering with both the cold and the force of her silent weeping. The girl's long loose braid fell down her back, and clumps of melting snow clung to its length.

No. She could not leave it at this. Even if Akane hated her for the rest of her life, she had to do whatever she could to make things right. Her actions had taken the priceless life of an ancient friend, had nearly cost the soul of an innocent boy, and had driven the one she thought of as her own daughter to the edge of sanity.

She was sorry, so terribly sorry for all of it.

But just being sorry was not enough.

A slow, sad smile lit her white, lined features as the familiar, hollow ache of loneliness filled her chest. A mere whisper of what she knew was in store for her in the days, weeks and years to come in the endless stretch of eternity...

The Snow Woman closed her eyes, and sighed.

Akane, staring numbly into her lap, noticed a strange flicker at the edge of her sight. Slowly, she looked up in surprise. The Mists of Kami swirled before her, unobscured by the rainbow translucence of the barrier.

"Go save him, Akane." Yuki-onna's voice was soft and thick. "But please... don't chase after the Shadowcat rashly. Remember what Masakazu taught you. You can't help Ranma if you're dead, after all."

Akane raised her head and turn to look over her shoulder at the Snow Woman, her numbed expression flickering with both genuine confusion and cynical disbelief. "You're... letting me go?"

Yuki-onna laughed. The sound was full of pain. "Of course. You are not my prisoner, after all. I merely wanted to keep you from getting killed so that you could live to fight another day. A day, perhaps, when you were better prepared to face this persistent demon."

Akane blinked as the Snow Woman's words filtered through the throbbing ache in her heart, thawing the awful numbness and soothing the pain...

She could leave. Sure, she didn't know where the Shadowcat was, or where the thin, easily torn veil between the planes lay, but if she left now, there was a chance she could find it and stop the Shadowcat before it reached Ranma, before it once again stole his mind and humanity and shredded the remainders of her existence asunder...

And yet, Akane found that she was... scared. Terrified. Afraid to grasp hold of the hope that Yuki-onna was dangling in front of her. Why bother even trying, the bitter, numbed part of her soul whispered. Just wait and see, no matter what you do, it never makes any difference anyway. You've been in the Kami Plane for nearly five years now, and what have you accomplished, other than learning how to quarter a mindless demon in three seconds?

I saved Ranma from the Shadowcat, a smothered spark of Akane's living fire whispered desperately.

Yes, but the Shadowcat is alive again, isn't it? And it's going after him again. All that for nothing.

No. Not for nothing. The spark flared; seared through the numbness with determined fierceness. Akane trembled with the force of it; tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. Not for nothing! Ranma is himself again! And he's coming to save me!

Masakazu's words, advice from countless sparring sessions where she ended up flat on her back, tired and bruised and thoroughly discouraged at her seemingly infinitely slow progress, suddenly resurfaced in her mind. It's only when you fail to rise after you have fallen, that you have truly lost.

She knew that. Of course she knew that. Oh... what would Masakazu think of her, losing control like that?

The excuses came tumbling from her mind in a torrent. The pressure was getting to her. Not knowing how Ranma fared on the Ancient One's mountain, just waiting and waiting and waiting in a constant state of suspense... it was wearing away at her frayed emotions. And the Shadowcat's taunts had pushed her over the edge. The demon actually convinced her that it was all or nothing, that it was now undefeatable, and she had been ready to rush into its waiting claws in a futile, suicidal attempt to stop it...

Yuki-onna had wisely stopped her.

And Akane had repaid the favor with cruel words, spoken in the heat of anger.

Is this what I have become? she thought remorsefully. Am I so childish and petty that I have to inflict pain because of my own misery?

All this, after her months of training with Masakazu to learn how to control her tongue and her temper and remain calm in the face of crisis... and she couldn't even control herself when it mattered most...

You lose your focus, you lose the battle.

Akane's eyes burned once again, but this time with tears of shame, blurring the dark Mists of Kami before her.

"Yuki-san..." Akane slowly turned, feeling too drained to stand, to face the Snow Woman. She felt the tightness build up in her throat at the sight of the intense sadness on her friend's face, and couldn't suppress a hiccupping sob. Her vision swam with tears, blinding her. Her eyes were useless, and she brushed at them with shaking hands. "Yuki-san, I'm suh-sorry..."

For a moment, there was nothing but those words hanging in the air between them.

Then Akane felt the Snow Woman's arms around her shoulders, holding her in a desperate embrace of comfort. "It's all right," Yuki-onna whispered brokenly. "It's all right, everything will be all right..."

Akane stiffened instinctively as the Snow Woman enfolded her in the hug. Strange panic surged within her chest. She didn't know how to react. The Snow Woman had never hugged her before. And the last time anyone had touched her with such kindness was...

...was...

She couldn't remember. Oh, she had been glomped a lot, but that didn't count. Even thinking back to before the blood spell, before she was torn from the mortal plane, she couldn't remember her last hug. Not even from her family. Kasumi was always kind, and smiled a lot, but she had never hugged her, not like this. Nabiki? Of course not... And her father cried a lot, but she couldn't remember him hugging her, at least not since...

...since she told him not to. It was embarrassing, she said, she wasn't a little girl any more, she didn't need to be hugged, she didn't need anybody, she was fine just by herself, thank you very much, she could handle it alone, she didn't need anybody...

The Snow Woman held her.

And, for Akane, it was as if all the tiny cracks that had been eating away at her own inner barriers for the past five years, and even longer, gave way at last under this final touch of compassion.

No! she thought, in a vain attempt to keep the barrier, her last defense, from crumbling.

But instead of the flood of agony that she expected to engulf her with her defenses of anger and stubbornness finally swept away, there was instead, to her surprise, a curious sensation of... comfort. Comfort so exquisite, that it was almost pain itself.

With a great heaving shudder of relief, Akane threw her arms around the Snow Woman's waist, and wept.

They held each other, mortal and immortal, mother and daughter, though neither could say who was mother and who was daughter. And in that strange, defenseless moment, Yuki-onna and Akane understood each other perfectly. The deep hollowness in their souls of guilt, regret of past actions and foolish words, and a seeming eternity of loneliness... All were filled as they clung to each other, both knowing, with the clarity that comes only from being true kindred spirits, what now needed to be done. Both knowing that this would be the last time, perhaps, that they would see each other again.

Yuki-onna knew that Akane would leave her now to save Ranma, to stop the demon Shadowcat. But that was all right. And as she held Akane close, feeling the girl's relief and love for her, and feeling the emotion reciprocated from her own heart, the icy tears that streaked her face seemed strangely warm. If she had cared, she might have noticed the last trace of cracked, blackened skin fading, washing away forever under those tears...

They wept together, neither speaking, just holding each other tightly as they knelt in the clean white snow under a clear, sparkling night sky.


"Bakusai Tenketsu!"

Ukyo and Nabiki winced slightly as the explosion of rock and dirt showered them with tiny bits of debris.

Ukyo sighed, shook the dirt out of her long hair with a flip of her head, and pushed herself to her feet, unable to sit still any longer. She was trying very, very hard to keep the fear and anxiety that she felt building within her under a semblance of control, and Ryoga's tunneling blasts weren't helping her focus.

Nabiki turned from where she knelt by her pack, and frowned in mild irritation, watching as Shampoo and Mousse leaned over the edge of the increasingly deep crater.

Mousse adjusted his glasses, trying in vain to peer down into the darkness of the pit. "Well?" he called. "Any luck?"

"It's no good!" Ryoga called up, frustration evident in his voice. "The barrier just keeps going. I don't think the Ancient One is going to let us tunnel underneath it."

"I could have told him that," Nabiki muttered quietly as she began to carefully load her .357 Magnum. "Honestly, they're just wasting their energy. If a dragon, who's been around for a few millennia, placed a magical barrier to keep us from climbing his mountain, I don't think he'd be so stupid as to equip it with such an obvious weakness."

"Well at least they're doing something," Ukyo responded glumly. "I hate all this waiting around."

Nabiki snorted mildly. "Well, if it will make you feel any better, by all means, go whack the barrier a few times with your spatula."

Ukyo turned and scowled, her ire rising at her friend's flippancy, but found that Nabiki wasn't even looking at her. The Tendo girl was seemingly absorbed in the task of slowly, methodically sliding cartridges into the chambers of her gun. Annoyed, Ukyo looked over at where Mousse and Shampoo were helping Ryoga climb out of his crater, and felt her teeth clench involuntarily. She would have taken on that barrier if she thought it would do any good. But after watching Ryoga's Shishi Houkodan dissipate against the invisible surface without even causing a flicker, she knew it would be a waste of energy. Just as Nabiki said.

Ukyo rubbed a hand over her face, trying to calm her irrational anger. She knew Nabiki wasn't trying to offend her, but sometimes she found her new friend's method of dealing with things hard to understand.

It wasn't that she didn't understand what it was like to wear a mask over her emotions. After all, during the ten years she'd masqueraded as a guy, she got plenty of practice hiding her true feelings. She could count on one hand the times in her life that she'd cried...

If she didn't include the past two weeks, that is.

Ukyo's eyes glistened, the now-familiar ache of loss welling within her...

She swallowed, forcing the feeling back.

No time to think about loss right now. Barrier or no barrier, she had to figure out a way to help Ranma. It was just too infuriating that, after everything she had gone through, here she was, stuck helplessly at the base of the mountain in the oppressive silence, wondering what Ranma was doing, wondering if he was fighting demons, if he was hurt, if he was still alive...

Ukyo shook her head forcibly. He was alive. He had to be. Ranma was the best fighter among them. Nothing, not even a horde of demons, could stop him when he was determined.

Yet even as she grasped for comfort with that thought, the memories of just a few days previous rose unbidden. Memories of kneeling by Ranma's side as the Shadowcat drained away his ki until he lay, pale and weak, at the brink of death. She had wept then, in grief and fear, clinging to his limp hand, feeling the faint, erratic flutter of his slowing pulse beneath her fingers...

"Hey. You okay?"

Ukyo blinked and looked up to find Nabiki looking at her. Nabiki's face was calm, like the smooth surface of a pond untouched by wind. The piercing clearness of her gaze as she looked into Ukyo's eyes was the only indicator that she had spoken at all.

"I'm fine," she replied automatically, but she could feel the worry playing across her own features, feel the tension in her body, belying her words.

Nabiki's eyes flickered slightly, as if analyzing Ukyo's state of mind for herself. Then, after a brief moment during which Ukyo felt as if Nabiki would stare right through her, she nodded slightly, and snapped the cylinder of the loaded Magnum back into place. Placing the gun carefully on the crumpled cloth she'd wrapped it in, she then turned and began to nonchalantly dig through her pack, pulling out various supplies as if getting ready to set up camp.

It was only then that Ukyo realized that Nabiki believed they were going to be waiting at the foot of this accursed mountain for quite some time.

Ukyo watched, and as she did, felt a disturbed knot form in the pit of her stomach. Whether it was the slow calm of Nabiki's preparation, or the absolute apathy that seemed to permeate her friend's countenance that bothered her, Ukyo couldn't tell. She knew, of course, that Nabiki was not the heartless mercenary that she had perceived her to be not so long ago. During the week they spent together taking care of Ranma, she had caught several glimpses of the compassion and tenderness that lay underneath Nabiki's cold mask. She knew Nabiki cared for Ranma, and that her loyalty and love for her family seemed to know no bounds.

But... it seemed that whenever crisis threatened, whenever the situation became desperate and hopeless... the more Nabiki turned cold and hard; the more her iron countenance of emotionless calm deepened to the point of being unnerving.

Right now, Nabiki's face seemed almost inhuman in its utter lack of expression.

Ukyo sighed heavily and rubbed her eyes with her fingertips. She wasn't the only one suffering. Looking over at Ryoga, Shampoo and Mousse, she saw that even they were beginning to despair. Shampoo sat slumped against the invisible barrier, her arms wrapped around her knees, her eyes dull and wet. Mousse and Ryoga were once again debating, with voices carefully lowered in the quiet that surrounded the mountain, whether they should try to find another way around the barrier, or if they should try again to force their way through with brute strength.

They were all on edge. Ranchan was up on that cursed mountain alone, facing who-knows-what. And ever since he had disappeared into the mists beyond the barrier a little over an hour ago, the mountain had refused to show any sign of what battles might be taking place on its slopes. Which either meant that nothing was actually happening, or that their little company was somehow being kept from hearing or seeing any evidence of Ranma's struggle against the demon guardians.

For some reason, she strongly suspected the latter. The deadly quiet lay heavily on the landscape like a shroud, and the unnatural absence of any outdoor background noise was seriously grating on her.

"I hate this," she muttered, but her voice carried, and Nabiki looked up at her again. She grimaced. "This stupid silence is getting on my nerves," she explained.

"Ungghhhh..." A soft moan issued from the crumpled form of Kuno, lying on the ground a few meters away. A moment later, he lifted his head and looked around blearily.

Nabiki raised an eyebrow at Ukyo that was almost accusing, as if blaming her words for somehow reviving their garrulous companion. "Well, I don't think you'll have to worry about the silence any more," she said dryly. She glanced over at the stirring kendoist. "Welcome back to the land of consciousness, Kuno-chan."

"Oh great," Ukyo mumbled, immediately regretting her complaint. She was not in the mood to deal with Kuno babbling on about his 'pigtailed goddess.' Not when Ranma's life was in such great danger. Not when there was no way for her to find out what was happening to him, or if he was even still...

"Nnnn... Wherefore..." Kuno groaned, trailing off and blinking unsteadily as he pushed himself into a sitting position. Reaching back with one hand, he gingerly probed the back of his head, wincing as his fingers encountered swollen lumps, evidence of the numerous blows he'd sustained.

"Ow," he said, almost absently. He was almost used to this method of waking up, but that didn't make it any more pleasant. He blinked again and looked around.

And looked up.

Kuno's eyes widened slightly at the sight of the mist-shrouded mountain that towered over them.

"What is this?" he demanded as he pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. His eyes widened a bit further as the sound of his loud voice pierced through the heavy silence.

"This, Kuno-chan," Nabiki answered without looking at him, "is the mountain of the Ancient One."

Kuno turned and favored Nabiki with an imperious glare, which she blithely ignored. He loathed the presumptuous familiarity with which the Tendo girl consistently addressed him, and knew that she did it merely to anger him. He refused to rise to the bait, however, having long ago learned that neither threat nor bribe could make her cease that particular annoyance.

"If this indeed is the dwelling place of that most vile serpent who holds my love captive," he said, lowering his voice slightly in the unnerving stillness, "how is it that I have come to be here? Truly, I can recall naught of the journey."

"Ranma carried you," Nabiki replied shortly.

Kuno's brow furrowed. "Ranma..?" Then he recalled that his poor, enchanted pigtailed goddess was calling herself by that name, and the scowl on his face dissolved into a knowing smile. "Ah, what devotion," he said reverently. "Truly, she must love me well."

He turned and began looking around for his fire-haired beauty, feeling a slight twinge of disappointment when he did not immediately find her radiant face among the frowns that greeted him from the Chinese barbarians, and the jealous scowl that adorned the face of that vile Hibiki...

Kuno's train of thought was abruptly cut off as he found himself jerked around by the front of his tunic.

"Okay, that does it." Ukyo's face was hard and angry as she released his shirt and stared into Kuno's surprised face. "Look, you pompous moron," she said, her voice low and intense. "I'm gonna tell you this once, and that's it. Your 'pigtailed goddess' does not exist, okay? Ranma is a guy. He's always been a guy, but he's got this stupid Jusenkyo curse that changes him into a girl whenever he's hit with cold water, and even then, he's still a guy. Why can't you get that through your thick head?!"

Kuno gazed at her coolly, seemingly unfazed by her words, and smoothed the front of his tunic. "Under other circumstances," he said, "I would be forced to avenge my goddess' honor from such unholy slander. But given your own androgynous nature, and your obvious lack of familiarity with your own femininity, it is easy to comprehend how you could be so easily misled in terms of the pigtailed girl's true gender. For truly, she exemplifies all that is bright and beautiful in womanhoo-"

crack

The force of Ukyo's slap rocked him back on his feet. As Kuno regained his bearings, raising a hand to his reddening cheek, he was surprised to see that Ukyo's narrowed eyes were wet and glistening.

"You shallow, self-absorbed, blind bastard." Her voice was full of quiet venom. "You wouldn't know a real woman if she was standing right in front of you."

Kuno blinked. The force of her words struck him more powerfully than her slap. His mind was numb, he couldn't think of a reply.

"He's not worth the trouble, Ukyo," Nabiki said flatly. "We've tried explaining Jusenkyo to him a million times, and he's still too thick-headed to get it."

"Damn straight," Ukyo agreed vehemently. She had been so tempted to flatten Kuno with her spatula, but then had relented at the last moment. The guy obviously needed all the undamaged brain cells he could muster. And so, giving Kuno a glare that made him, the noble-blooded descendent of samurai, shrivel slightly where he stood, she turned with a flip of her long chestnut ponytail and stalked off towards the others.

Kuno stared after her a moment, feeling a sense of strange unease flit through him, like a sudden chill, as if his usual equilibrium had been tilted askew. Shaking his head, trying to rid himself of the feeling, he turned to Nabiki, anxious to reestablish the status quo. His upper lip curled into an approximation of a sneer.

"This Jusenkyo again," he said disdainfully. "I thought better of you, Nabiki Tendo. I am not the fool you take me for, eager to swallow this most preposterous fairy tale you've concocted to keep me from my goddess. Your story that Saotome..." Kuno's face crinkled in distaste. "...and my beloved goddess are one and the same, is an obvious fabrication, a fairy tale the likes of which has no place in reality."

Nabiki blinked, then raised her head and looked him in the eyes, her face betraying nothing. "And I suppose your fairy tale is so much more believable?"

Kuno blinked again. "My..?"

"Yes. You know, the fairy tale where Ranma is a 'foul sorcerer' who has enslaved your pigtailed goddess? Sorcery or Cursed Springs." Nabiki shrugged. "You're free to choose your own fantasy, Kuno. I'm a strong believer in individuality. But if I were you, I'd be worried if my own narrow perception of the world went against what everyone else claims to be true."

Nabiki's eyes flickered slightly as the thought of Ranma and his "imaginary blood spell girl" flitted through her mind. The whole reason they were here in the first place was because of a reality only Ranma remembered. They had come here based on his story and the evidence of a tape recording and a few pictures, and nothing more. Even now, her own memory told her that Akane didn't exist.

They had placed all their trust in Ranma's mind, something that she had usually considered a risky venture under the best of circumstances. And now he was gone, up the mountain to face demons, leaving them alone. Leaving her alone, with all her little niggling doubts and fears...

The corner of her mouth quirked up in the tiniest ghost of a smile. "Then again, Kuno-chan, you never know. You just might be the sane one after all. And wouldn't that be a kicker."

Kuno glowered down at Nabiki, trying to cover his growing disconcertion over the turn this conversation had taken as he struggled to come up with an appropriately condescending reply.

He never got the chance to speak.

For at that moment, the Amazon girl behind him gasped. "Great-grandmother!"

Kuno turned at the cry to see Shampoo on her feet, staring with wide, horrified eyes at the elder Amazon, who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. The others were staring at her with equal amounts of shock and fear, yet they immediately fell into battle stances. Ryoga's umbrella was in hand, and Ukyo's battle spatula rested in her white-knuckled grip. Mousse came immediately to Shampoo's side, his hands disappearing into the drape of his long sleeves.

The old woman stood a mere meter away from Shampoo, and was seemingly unconcerned that she was out-numbered and weaponless as she glared at great-granddaughter.

Kuno noticed that her Chinese robes and long white hair hung heavy and damp against her diminutive form, as if she had been caught in a rainstorm a short while ago...

"Where is Ranma?" Cologne looked directly at Shampoo, ignoring the others.

"Give it up, old ghoul," snarled Ukyo, her battle aura already flaring around her body as she clutched her giant spatula. "Can't you see you've lost? There's no way in hell that Ranma's going to go with you, no matter what you do."

Ryoga glared at Ukyo, but she didn't notice. What was she trying to do, get Cologne angry? Didn't she realize how powerful the old woman was? He knew. He had trained under her to learn the Bakusai Tenketsu. He had seen her power as a martial artist. And if it came down to a fight, even if they all took Cologne on together, he still didn't like the odds.

Cologne didn't take her piercing gaze from Shampoo's face, but she laughed. "So sure, are you?" she replied. "We'll see about that."

Shampoo met her great-grandmother's gaze and swallowed the growing fear she felt thickening her throat.

She should have known Cologne would not give up; that mere ice and snow would not be enough to stop her for long. For she knew what motivated her great-grandmother, knew that admitting defeat to Ranma and letting him go free rather than adding his strength to the tribe were no longer concessions she was prepared to make.

Not since Shampoo cast the blood spell, at least.

Cologne had warned her. She had told her again and again that casting the blood spell was the point of no return, and that using the forbidden magic would irrevocably commit them to their course.

And yet, in spite of her great-grandmother's reservations, Shampoo had insisted that they go ahead and cast the spell.

Since then, Cologne could no longer sit by passively and allow Shampoo to handle her own life, her own mistakes. For if the Tribal Council discovered that they had stooped to casting a blood spell to obtain Ranma as Shampoo's husband, and yet still failed, the punishment they would receive for the terrible dishonor would be death... or worse.

And now Shampoo could feel the Amazon matriarch's determination, radiating from her with the power of her battle aura. And she knew that, no matter what, Cologne intended to take Ranma back to the Village and keep him there. How she intended to accomplish this, though, Shampoo couldn't guess.

There was a part of her that wanted to plead with Cologne to forget about the blood spell; that wanted to beg her to forget about Ranma and help make things right. They didn't have to tell the Council what had happened! And so the Council would never have to know about her terrible mistake, and they could go on with their lives...

And yet another part of her... the part that still longed for Ranma, still lusted after his beauty and his strength and power... wanted Cologne to succeed.

But none of her desires really mattered anyway. Because, at the moment, Ranma was completely out of reach.

"Shampoo." Cologne stood calmly in front of Shampoo, her hands tucked inside the folds of her robes. "Where is he?"

"You too late, great-grandmother." Shampoo forced a smile, in spite of her conflicting emotions. "Ranma already go up mountain."

Cologne's eyes widened, then narrowed in disbelief.

Kuno reacted as well, blinking in surprise at Shampoo's words. He couldn't believe it. The pig-tailed girl was already on the accursed mountain, without him by her side to protect her? And the others had let her go alone? His countenance darkened, and he stepped forward, opening his mouth to deliver a fierce rebuke to the others, when, from behind him, Nabiki suddenly grabbed his arm and pinched it hard.

"Quiet, you fool!" she whispered into his ear with a fierce intensity. "Don't you dare say a word. The situation is bad enough as it is, and I swear to you on my mother's grave that if you open your mouth right now, you will regret it."

Perhaps it was the power of Nabiki's words. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of the Ancient One's mountain, saturated with enchantment and heavy with dread. Perhaps it was his stinging cheek, still smarting from Ukyo's slap. Perhaps it was the terror of this mysterious old woman that was so evident on his companions' faces. Or perhaps it was the uneasiness that had been building in him since he awoke under the shadow of this accursed mountain, that finally broke through his insipid exterior and penetrated him to his core.

Whatever the reason... Kuno remained silent.

After a moment, he felt Nabiki's grip slide silently from his arm as he continued to stare at the strange scene unfolding before him.

Cologne seemed oblivious to Kuno, or any of the others. Her bulbous eyes narrowed as she stared at Shampoo. "Do not lie to me, child," she said tightly. "Ranma is not on the mountain. You have no wards. And we both know that to climb the mountain without wards is death."

"She's not lying," said Mousse, with a calm that belied the anger and apprehension in his face. "Ranma left to climb the mountain over an hour ago. We would have gone with him, but there is a barrier around the mountain that won't let us through."

Cologne glanced over at Mousse sharply, knowing that if he did not speak the truth, she'd be able to see it in his face. Though his robes could conceal a multitude of various weapons, the boy could never hide anything in his expression.

She frowned severely as she saw that he spoke the truth, and turned back to Shampoo in anger. "How could you let him go up the mountain without wards, girl? Ranma is of no use to us if he's dead!"

Shampoo's eyes widened in disbelief at what she was hearing. "What you saying?! You steal wards so we have to face demons with no protection!"

"I took the wards to keep you from climbing the mountain," Cologne snapped back furiously. "I had no idea any of you would be foolish enough to go without them!" She sighed heavily, almost a groan. "Then again, I should have known better than to underestimate Son-in-law's foolishness. Well, there's nothing for it now. We'll just have to hope he comes back safely."

Mousse's eyes narrowed behind his glasses. "And then what?"

"That is none of your concern, boy." Cologne looked at him levelly.

"It is my concern," he replied coldly, ignoring the frantic, silencing look Shampoo was giving him. "For your information, Shampoo has given up her claim on Ranma, and has chosen to marry me."

There was a long moment of penetrating silence. Cologne's expression didn't change, but her battle aura flared around her diminutive form.

"Absolutely not," she said, her voice deadly serious. "I forbid it."

Mousse clenched his fists. "You can't forbid it! As an Amazon male, my claim to Shampoo's hand is greater than Ranma's!"

"So." Cologne smiled slowly, grimly. "You defeated Shampoo in combat, is that what you're saying?"

Mousse's anger faltered, and he glanced over at Shampoo. Seeing the distressed look on her face, he knew that he had made a mistake. Shampoo said that he had defeated her... but really, all he did was hold her arms to keep her from striking him when he had confronted her with her crime of casting the blood spell. And, if he was to be perfectly honest, he didn't know if he could actually defeat Shampoo in real combat. He'd never had the desire to find out. The thought of fighting Shampoo... of hurting her...

Cologne read his expression easily, and nodded with satisfaction. "It is as I thought," she said calmly. "You have no claim, Mousse. Shampoo is a warrior, and she will be joined with a man who is worthy of being her husband, who can produce strong heirs to strengthen the tribe. You are not, and never have been that man. You are a weak, blind, sentimental fool, and a disgrace to our Amazon tribe."

Shampoo gasped, her heart constricting within her chest as she saw Mousse crumple under the sting of the harsh words. Cologne had often been strict with him in the past, but, until now, she had always treated him with some measure of... fondness. For her to say such a thing, denouncing him as an Amazon...

Mousse cast a glance at Shampoo, then straightened, his eyes flashing under his glasses as he looked down at the matriarch. "Fine," he said. "If being an Amazon means betraying my friends through treachery and lies and dark magic, all for the sake of some outdated code of ethics, count me out. I want nothing more to do with you, or your stupid laws."

Cologne's eyes narrowed, and her battle aura flared a fiery red, but Mousse stood his ground. "Ungrateful wretch," she spat. She turned on Shampoo angrily. "What do you have to say for yourself, girl? Surely you don't expect me to believe that you intend to seal this farcical marriage to this pathetic coward? Not when Ranma is nearly yours to keep?"

Silence settled on the group as all eyes turned to Shampoo. She stood, her face expressionless and pale as she stared at her great-grandmother.

Sudden fear, that had nothing to do with Cologne, creased Mousse's face as he looked at Shampoo.

"Is he?" Shampoo whispered at last. "Ranma is on mountain of Ancient One, surrounded by demons, with no wards. If he return at all, he will return with Akane." She trembled slightly. "How can you say Ranma is mine to keep?"

She tried to ignore how, as he heard the longing in her voice, Mousse's face settled into a solemn, quietly hurt expression.

Cologne smiled, seeing the desire on her great-granddaughter's face. "Trust me, Shampoo," she said softly. "Ranma will come with us back to the Village, and he will come willingly."

"No way!" shouted Ukyo.

"More tricks? More of your black magic, is that it?!" added Ryoga.

Shampoo didn't hear them. For she now knew for certain that Cologne had a way to ensnare Ranma once and for all.

And she wanted him... so badly...

Almost against her will, she turned her head and met Mousse's hurt gaze. And as he looked into her eyes and saw what lay there, his expression crumbled to one of despair.

"Shampoo..."

Poor Mousse. He was such an idiot, sometimes. Overly emotional, almost always overreacting to everything, too outspoken for his own good... Great-grandmother was right. Mousse was a weak, blind, sentimental fool.

Poor, stupid, foolish Mousse, to love her the way he did, in spite of the things she had done, in spite of the stains on her soul.

Poor, sweet, dear, foolish Mousse... with the beautiful, pleading, compassionate eyes...

She wanted Ranma, yes. She wanted to be a great Amazon warrior, the greatest, a woman who had overcome all obstacles between her and her lawful husband, no matter what the cost...

But she also wanted to be... happy.

Yes. Happy. Had she ever been truly happy before? She'd always gotten a thrill out of chasing Ranma, out of competing with her rivals, out of being strong and fierce and beautiful and desirable... but the exhilaration had always faded, leaving her feeling hollow.

But she was used to the hollowness. She had accepted it as a part of her, so much so that for the longest time, she didn't recognize the emptiness for what it was.

Even now, she wouldn't have recognized the hollowness for what it was... if it hadn't been filled the past week.

Shampoo blinked as her eyes filled with unexpected wetness.

The past week, with Mousse by her side. The hollowness was gone, she realized with surprise, when he was with her. She felt warm, and safe and...

...and happy?

It wasn't possible. Could it be that stupid, weak, blind, foolish Mousse... made her happy?

Shampoo's wet eyes widened with realization, and she felt her skin begin tingle with a strange, enveloping warmth that went on to penetrate far deeper into her soul than anything else she had ever experienced.

Mousse had dropped his gaze, unwilling, unable to see the betrayal he felt sure was coming.

"Great-grandmother." Shampoo spoke without tearing her gaze away from Mousse. Her voice was quiet, but strong. "I sorry I cast the blood spell. I... will not marry Ranma. Mousse is my husband. And..." She reached out, a tremulous smile lighting her face, and gently took his hand. He blinked, looking at their entwined hands in confusion.

"And I love him."

Silence. It seemed as if everyone had stopped breathing. Shampoo could almost hear their eyes widening, even as her own heart pounded in her chest.

Mousse's hand trembled in hers. Slowly, incredulously, he raised his head. He saw Shampoo, saw her wet, shimmering violet eyes, and the genuine, hopeful smile on her face that was for him...

For him.

Ranma's image no longer haunted the depths of her eyes.

Words could not describe the joy that Mousse felt in that moment. His heart, which only moments before had been so heavy, flared with brilliant light that filled his body, his mind.

He opened his mouth, but was too overwhelmed to speak. His throat had closed off, even as tears filled his eyes.

Shampoo's smile grew, and the tears slipped down her own cheeks. She brought Mousse's hand up to her chest, caressing his fingers with both her hands, feeling the warmth, the strength in him that she had never noticed before. "Wo ai ni, Mousse," she whispered to him, and his hand tightened around hers.

It was strange, she realized, how easy it was... how much more natural and glorious were those words now, at this moment, than all the times she had flung them so carelessly at Ranma.

"Shampoo..." Mousse's blue-gray eyes glistened behind his glasses, and he reached up with his free hand to touch her face, to wipe the tears from her face with his fingers...

"No." Cologne's voice was hard as stone. "I... will not allow this... travesty..."

Shampoo turned...

...and paled at the raw fury she saw in her great-grandmother's face as their eyes locked. In her whole life, she had never seen Cologne so angry.

Still, she stood her ground, releasing Mousse's hands as she turned, instinctively slipping into a battle stance, her own gaze hardening with determination.

"Great-grandmother. I make my decision. Is final."

Cologne's entire countenance darkened. "I think not," she said quietly.

Shampoo tensed. In a one-on-one fight, she knew she didn't stand a chance against the elder Amazon. But she wasn't alone, for the others were standing with her. She could feel Mousse beside her, and behind her, Ryoga and Ukyo stood, both tensed and ready to fight. All together, they just might be able to win this battle...

The sight of Cologne's cold fury as she stood a mere meter or so away forcibly shook Mousse out of his euphoria. Immediately, the weapons in the dimensionally deceiving confines of his sleeves slid down towards his hands as he looked at the old crone. Four against one; five if the idiot Kuno decided to catch a clue and realize the seriousness of the situation. They could win...

"*Shampoo.*" Cologne spoke in Mandarin. Her words were soft and sudden as she gazed unwaveringly at her great-granddaughter who stood so defiantly before her. "*You are young and easily misled. You fail to realize the seriousness of the choice you have made. This is my fault. I should have taught you better. And so I forgive you of your folly.*"

Shampoo blinked in surprise at her great-grandmother's words. They were not at all what she expected. If anything, she had been prepared for a scathing reprimand, a denouncement, even disownment and banishment for her open defiance. But this? Forgiveness? What was she-?

There was a flash of movement; a mere flick of Cologne's wrist as her hand flashed out from under her robe, and Shampoo and Mousse felt the splash of icy water against their faces.

No! Shampoo tried to shout, but it was too late as the curse took her body and her voice from her. Her wet clothes collapsed on top of her, and she meowed loudly as she desperately clawed her way out of the material. She could hear Mousse squawking and fluttering in anger, and she cried out wordlessly, a terrible yowling sound, not for herself, but for Mousse. A warning. Get away, get away quickly, before-!

Too late, for as she scrambled out of her clothing, she heard the squawks cease, and as she emerged, she saw that Cologne held Mousse by his fragile, slender neck. He held perfectly still, knowing that death could be a mere clench of the fist away. His eyes were wide behind the glasses that somehow still remained on his face, hanging lopsided across his duck bill.

Shampoo froze, fighting the instinct to shake her wet fur. Her tiny heart pounded painfully within her rib cage. Great-grandmother wouldn't kill Mousse, she thought wildly. She wouldn't, she wouldn't, it's just a bluff, she's just taking control of the situation, that's all, she's just showing us that we can't fight her...

Ukyo stood, trembling in impotent fury. She and Ryoga couldn't attack with her holding Mousse like that! That old ghoul!

But Ryoga wasn't looking at the duck, though he was painfully aware of the danger Mousse was in. Instead, he was staring nervously at what Cologne held in her other hand: a long, thin, makeshift container made from a hollowed stalk of bamboo, the diameter of his fist, that had been carefully hidden in the folds of her robes until a moment ago. And within the bamboo container, water, melting from shards of shattered ice, sloshed menacingly.

A part of Ryoga that wasn't furious and fearful of getting changed into a helpless piglet, marveled that the old woman had the skill to carry the container up the mountain without spilling a drop... and that she'd managed to splash Shampoo and Mousse, and yet still save just enough water for him...

Cologne glanced over at him with a smirk, as if daring him to come closer.

Shampoo saw Cologne's smug glance at Ryoga, and didn't hesitate. She leaped from her crumpled pile of clothing, and with feline swiftness, sank her tiny, needle-sharp claws into the hand that held the bucket. Cologne jerked and hissed in pain, but held on to both Mousse and the bucket of icy water. "Let go of me, you stupid child!" she snapped.

Shampoo sank her sharp teeth into the withered flesh of Cologne's hand, and the thin, coppery taste of ancient blood filled her mouth.

Grimacing in pain, Cologne purposefully threw Mousse to the ground. He landed hard with a strangled squawk, then lay stunned and unmoving. Then she tore Shampoo from her arm with her free hand and held her by the scuff of the neck in front of her face. "Enough of this," she hissed. "We will discuss this later, Shampoo."

With that, she tapped the struggling lavender cat on the head with one finger, and Shampoo felt her consciousness slip away.

As Ukyo saw Cologne drop the limp cat to the ground, she knew this would be her only chance to attack, while the old woman was distracted. "Now, Ryoga," she whispered, and charged.

Cologne turned to meet her attack calmly, dodging the slashing swipe of her battle spatula. Ukyo saw her hand flash out and tried to twist out of the way, but couldn't fully dodge as her momentum carried her forward. She felt Cologne's finger like a spear in her chest, and she flew backward, striking the invisible barrier with tremendous force. Lights flashed behind her eyes, darkness surged at the edges of her vision... and with her fading sight, she saw that Ryoga was standing where she left him, and that he was looking at her slumping form with horror.

"Ryoga," she wheezed painfully, "you idiot... Why didn't you... back me up?"

But if he replied, she didn't hear him, for the darkness swelling at the edges of her vision chose that moment to smother her dimming spark of consciousness.

Cologne turned to Ryoga and smiled. "Do you want to go next, boy? Or are you too frightened of a little water?"

As Ryoga looked at Ukyo's crumpled, unconscious body, her accusing words ringing in his head... his fear dissolved into raw fury. Fury over everything this old woman had done. Fury over the blood spell, and everything that had happened because of it. Fury over how she had threatened his friends, how she had hurt them.

Fury at how she was now able to hold him at bay, and keep him from helping his friends, with a mere bucket of liquid.

He crouched as his battle aura blazed a furious blue-green. "You..!" he snarled, his ki crackling around his body as it grew in strength. "How dare you?!" Throwing his hands up, palms outward, he shouted, "Shishi Houkodan!"

With incredible swiftness, Cologne nimbly leaped out of the way of the blast, up and over... and flung the last of the icy water down onto Ryoga.

The tiny black piglet that emerged from the crumpled, sopping remnants of Ryoga's clothes was even more furious than the boy had been. With a squeal of rage, it attacked Cologne, its sharp fangs bared furiously.

The Amazon caught the piglet in one hand, and, with a mighty thrust, bashed it against the stony ground.

The piglet lay, its eyes half-closed and unseeing, and didn't move. Didn't even twitch.

Cologne straightened with satisfaction. Now that those obstacles were out of the way-

There was a sound, loud and sharp, like a short thunderclap, and Cologne felt razor hot fire explode through her right shoulder, flinging her backwards to land hard on the ground.

Pain filled her head with a red haze. She could feel the torn, splattered flesh surrounding the gaping hole in her shoulder, could feel the shards of her shattered collar bone biting into the muscle tissue, could feel the blood already soaking her robes.

But none of that stopped her from getting immediately to her feet, looking around to see...

"Don't move, or next time it's your heart." Nabiki's expression was as hard as stone as she cocked back the hammer of her magnum with a solid click.

Kuno stood a few feet away from her, unresponding, staring blankly at the unconscious animals lying on the ground where, only moments before, his human companions had stood.

Cologne focused over the pain - not a hard thing to do, since her shoulder and arm were already growing numb from systemic shock - and glared hard at the girl that, to her chagrin, she had underestimated once again. How could she have known that this girl, with absolutely no skill in the Art, would be a threat? "You think you can shoot me before I can reach you to break your neck, girl?" she asked quietly.

"I think you're fast," Nabiki replied, unblinking. A grim, half-smile quirked the edge of her mouth. "But you're wounded. And whether it's with a gun or a camera, I'm a very fast shot."

Cologne pulled herself straighter, in spite of the bleeding hole in her shoulder. Her battle aura flared a brilliant scarlet around her diminutive form.

And she grinned.

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